Last week, we began our craft-focused exploration of rhythm and how it operates at various scales in the text, from the larger paragraphs right down to the smallest punctuation. To continue that discussion, today I’d like to talk about rhythm on the level of the sentence, specifically sentence length.
You may be familiar with this famous quote from Gary Provost:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
In this passage, the sentences have five words each, creating what Provost calls a “monotonous” rhythm. It feels, I think, the same way it would feel if each paragraph was the same length, or if we had a series of spondees (metrical feet with two stressed syllables one after the other) without interruption. Have you read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle? This type of beat reminds me of IT’s inexorable, inescapable pulsing. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. On and on without respite. Take this paragraph from Chapter 8, wherein IT is “speaking” to Meg through the man with the red eyes about her brother, Charles Wallace, who has only just been possessed by IT:
“But my dear child, you are hysterical,” the man thought at her. “He is right there, before you, well and happy. Completely well and happy for the first time in his life. And he is finishing his dinner, which you also would be wise to do.”
Breaking it down, the sentence lengths go like this:
Although these sentences, unlike in Provost’s example, aren’t all exactly the same length, they are similar enough that they feel almost unnaturally even, unnaturally the same, which is IT’s ultimate goal, to flatten everything in the universe into sameness. When it comes to storytelling, then, using the same sentence lengths could be useful in underscoring situations where your characters are facing down an IT-like entity, or have stumbled upon a martial parade, or are hearing the drums of war, or are dealing in some way with dogma, indoctrination, brainwashing.
Provost’s quote continues thus:
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Here, varying sentence length makes the writing more interesting. These sentences are of different lengths, creating a more lively rhythm. Rather than the relentless drumming of the five-word sentences, we have rests (in the form of punctuation, which I’ll discuss in a few weeks), emphases (like “Music.”), riffs (like the list “a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony”), crescendoes (in which a sentence rolls on so long it feels like it’s running out of breath, and so it almost feels more rushed as it barrels toward the end). These elements, or perhaps techniques, all create rhythm at the sentence level.
I’d go even further to say that not only does playing with sentence length create interest in the writing, it can also contribute to the storytelling. This is something I consider when writing fight sequences, for example, and I want the rhythm of the sentences to mirror the exchange of blows, so it’s as if the reader can feel the pace of the battle. For example, we can examine this passage from The Reader, pg. 243-244, where Archer, a boy who has been forced to fight and kill for the past two years of his life, is facing an assassin in the cargo hold of a ship:
Across the hold, Archer slashed at the woman’s face, his knife flickering in the lantern light. The woman deftly stepped aside and cut him across the back of the arm. He retreated. His arm stung. His head was buzzing with the hot smell of metal. The lowest deck was packed with cargo, forming narrow walkways in the hold. Not much room to maneuver. Easy to get trapped.
After last week’s discussion on paragraphs and rhythm, I’d like to point out how the first paragraph is chunkier--it drops us right into the middle of the fight, and the action, description, and Archer’s assessment of the situation are all kind of mushed together, emphasizing how chaotic Archer’s thoughts are as he faces someone who might be a better fighter than him. In the first two paragraphs, there’s this closeness, almost claustrophobia, to the fight, as the woman is on the offense, and the characters are forced together in battle, but then at the third paragraph, “They parted,” there’s this breath, this white space, like (I hope) dance partners going separate ways on a stage.
Although when writing this passage, I didn’t count every word of every sentence, but I did want to be mindful of how long and short each sentence was. The sentence lengths break down like so:
It’s interesting, now that I look at it this way, because I can clearly see a pattern: long, long, short, short, long, long, short, short… then: long, short, short, long. When the characters are actually engaged, the sentences are longer, cramming more action (like “attacking, slashing, stabbing”) into each sentence, which underscores how quickly this fight is going. Then, there are these moments of relief, almost, like panting breaths (“He retreated. His arm stung.”), as the fighters prepare to clash again.
Although this pattern is subtle when the sentences are broken up into regular paragraphs, it’s actually pretty regular, which makes sense, because I wanted Archer’s fights to feel like a dance, like he knows the steps as if they’ve been choreographed for him, and even pattern to the sentence lengths underscores the rhythm of it, like the beats to a piece of music. Operating at these two levels (paragraph, sentence), the rhythm here tells us two different stories: 1) the rhythm of the paragraphs shows how quick and frenzied the fight is compared to the almost graceful rest they get when they separate, and 2) the rhythm of the sentences shows how, even though it feels chaotic and fast, it’s also all part of a pattern of blows and exhanges, and Archer inherently understands this rhythm, feels it, I suppose, in a way that doesn’t need logical explanation.
In sum, rhythm at the scale of the sentence can add layers to your storytelling, felt more than consciously understood, and reveal layers to your scenes and characters without you having to make them explicit. As with paragraphs, longer sentences mean we linger on an idea or a detail, whereas shorter ones mean we skip over things more quickly, although they also feel more important because they stand on their own. Unvarying sentence lengths can alert your readers to the fact that something is wrong with the situation, for perfectly even rhythms are unnatural, perhaps unnerving. Patterns (or lack thereof) in the sentence lengths can emphasize the way characters feel or engage with a situation on an instinctive level. Up next: rhythm and diction!
It’s here! The Nerd Daily is revealing the cover of my new novel, WE ARE NOT FREE, a YA novel-in-stories that follows fourteen Japanese-American teenagers through the mass incarcerations of World War II. Loosely inspired by some of my own family’s experiences, this story is so close to my heart, and I am so honored I get to share it with you now. Check out the link to find out more about my personal connection to the novel!
BONUS: You can also read the first chapter! 😱
Many many thanks to the brilliant people who put this cover together: designer Jessica Handelman, photo-illustration artist David Field of Caterpillar Media, and illustrator John Lee, who brought six of these characters to life with such vivid detail, and of course to the beautiful team at HMH Teen for making it all happen!
Last week, I wrapped up copy edits on my secret project (which I can announce next Tuesday--check in with me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to see my behind-the-scenes #bookfacts countdown!), which means that I’ve just come off reading my entire book aloud for the first (and also last) time. I always do this during copy edits, read each word from beginning to end. It’s more time-consuming, to be sure, but it’s also a necessary step for me. First, reading aloud makes it easier for me to catch technical issues like typos and repeated words. Second, it allows me to hear (and feel) the rhythm of a story, from the plot beats, to the dialogue, to the way sentences flow in and out of one another, to the meter of a phrase or even a single word.
Rhythm, according to literarydevices.net, is all about stressed and unstressed syllables, which is a rather simple way of looking at this very interesting writing tool. Rhythm, for me, is like pacing. Does the story feel fast or slow? Do the sentences feel frenetic or leisurely? Is the energy of a scene high energy or low? Are the sentences getting the breathing room they need, the room for a thought to ring out before the reader moves on? Or, conversely, are they running together, jostling for space, when the story needs to be urgent and breathless? All of these questions for me are answered with rhythm, which I think operates at various levels of the writing:
For this week, let’s take rhythm at the level of the paragraph. I think there are two main considerations here: length and white space. With regards to length, in general, longer paragraphs will feel slower. Since, also in general, each paragraph focuses on one topic/character/idea/action, the more words that we devote to that topic/character/idea/action, the more time we spend lingering on it. Shorter paragraphs, then, will feel faster, like our attention flits briefly to something and then away again just as quickly. When it comes to white space, the amount of the blank page we see around a paragraph will also affect how much we focus on it and therefore how weighty or important it feels. For example, if a single word is its own paragraph, surrounded by emptiness, it feels more important, like if it deserves its own line, then it deserves to be given more thought/attention/respect/consideration. In contrast, if a single word is buried in a much larger paragraph, well, then, that single word just kind of blends in with everything else, it’s importance tied more to the words around it than to the word itself.
As a case study, I’d like to take a look at passages from the first two chapters of Renée Ahdieh’s YA fantasy, Flame in the Mist, where she varies her paragraph length to create the rhythm of a scene. Here, the main character, Mariko, is in a carriage with a contingent of soldiers to guard her from the dangers of the road and the forest they’re passing through.
The gathering of shadows shifted outside, growing closer and tighter. Mariko’s convoy was now deep beneath a canopy of trees. Deep beneath their cloak of sighing branches and whispering leaves. Strange that she heard no signs of life outside—not the caw of a raven nor the cry of an owl nor the chirr of an insect.
The first paragraph is longer, four complete sentences, and it lingers on the details of the forest: the encroaching shadows, the darkness and density of the woods, the eerie absence of the sounds of nature. The length of the paragraph here emphasizes the looming feeling of the forest they’re entering, and the amount of space it takes up means that it literally dwarfs the next two paragraphs, which are half as short and centered on Mariko’s convoy. There, the emphasis is on the action (the norimono halting; the horses panting and stamping), and because the paragraphs are so short, these things feel more important, more powerful, and more tense, like there’s a lot more riding on them than the longer description of the forest above.
The next chapter, too, begins with short paragraphs, as Mariko wakes from being knocked unconscious in her litter.
Mariko woke to the smell of smoke. To a dull roar in her ears.
There’s this quick, almost disorienting rhythm to the paragraphs here, as Mariko regains consciousness. I think perhaps her body understands the danger before she herself can grasp it, because there’s no time for processing in these paragraphs, just: smoke, roar, pain. Because of the length of the paragraphs, these sensations hit us quickly, and because they stand on their own, they also hit us hard.
It isn’t until paragraph four that Mariko, I think, realizes what’s happened, and she focuses on the body of her maidservant, Chiyo. Mariko takes the time (and page space) to both acknowledge the dead body and to remember the person Chiyo was in life (“loved to eat iced persimmons and arrange moonflowers in her hair”). The length of this paragraph slows down the scene, here, giving both Mariko and us, the readers, time process what’s happened.
But also note the last paragraph: “The same eyes that were now frozen in Death’s final mask.” This technically could have been a part of the longer paragraph because it’s still technically about Chiyo, but here, Ahdieh is giving more weight, in the form of white space, to this single thought: Chiyo is dead. Chiyo is dead forever. Here, we’re no longer lingering over fond memories. We are literally being stomped back into reality. Chiyo is dead. Mariko is in danger. And in the next two paragraphs, the scene picks up the pace again as Mariko begins to assess her surroundings with more clarity.
I’d also like to note that paragraph lengths can also act like meter. Two paragraphs of similar length, for example, will feel more even, or balanced, or solid, or plodding, like a spondee (two stressed beats). In our second passage above, “The same eyes that were now frozen in Death’s final mask.” and “Mariko’s throat burned. Her sight blurred with tears.” are of similar lengths, so it feels like they have the same weight: the single image of Chiyo’s dead eyes and Mariko’s grief for her. These things, the paragraph lengths tell us, feel the same in importance. Short-short-long paragraphs can feel like anapests, that kind of driving/galloping/rollicking rhythm, the short paragraphs propelling the reader into the longer ones. Again and again, I think we’ll end up seeing rhythm operating like this across all these different levels of text--come back in the following weeks as we explore sentences, diction, and punctuation, too!
I mentioned in Week 4 that one of my only universal pieces of writing advice is always keep learning, which is also, I suppose, a goal I try to live up to. I’m always in search of new ways to approach a story or better ways to plot or develop character. I’ve realized, however, that I don’t end up reading a lot of books on craft. The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler and Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maas, for example, are the only ones I return to again and again, and the only ones I always recommend. I think this is because I tend to find long, complicated writing tools difficult to actually use. Take character sheets, for example, where you answer dozens of questions about your character. These questions can be helpful and some writers swear by them, but for me, having so many of them to answer completely stymies my creative process. I get so hung up on feeling like I have to have every answer--How tall is this character? What’s their astrological sign/MBTI type? What do they eat for breakfast?--that I just stop writing entirely. Or, for plotting, take beat sheets, where the main points or “beats” of a story are broken down not only by how they function in the narrative but also by what page number you should be at when you hit them. A lot of people use beat sheets religiously, but I’ve tried them and ultimately just find them constricting and overwhelming.
For me, it’s the simple things that work best for my own writing practice. This is why I like that 10 Things exercise from Week 11, or Writing 21st Century Fiction, which is organized by craft issue (like “The Inner Journey,” “The Outer Journey,” and “Standout Characters”) and has a bunch of exercises at the end of each chapter, so you can just flip to the issue you’re working on and pick one or two prompts that work for you.
With twelve steps, the Hero’s Journey might be the most complicated tool I regularly use, but after years of studying it in books and other media, it’s almost become second-nature to me, particularly in terms of energy and tension, rather than plot points. More often, however, I use Dan Wells’ Seven-Point Plot Structure (only seven points! for a whole story!). My friend Jessica Cluess, author of the Kingdom on Fire trilogy and the forthcoming House of Dragons, uses a technique called “fortunately/unfortunately” to get the action moving. I took a workshop called “Plot Like a Film” with Tiffany Jackson (author of Allegedly and Monday’s Not Coming) at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp, and, after later going to her office hours, found that I can think of plot points in terms of how “strong” they are. Can they hold the weight of the rest of the story? If not, they’re not strong enough! Simple.
And easy to use. These are the kinds of tools I most often incorporate into my creative process. At the Highlights Foundation last month, I spoke to another writer about world-building, and she expressed some anxiety over the fact that she didn’t have a “bible” (a long, thorough, well-organized compendium of a fantasy world’s geography, history, culture, etc.). I told her I've never used one, and, while I think it could be helpful for keeping things straight and referencing later if you’re writing a long series, I have almost zero desire to make one. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Big, complex tools like this work for some people. They do not work for me. And while I occasionally struggle with I should do this or I should do that, mostly I’ve come to a place where I adopt the tricks and tools that are helpful to me… and leave the ones that don’t.
Perhaps this all goes back to my dislike for prescriptive writing advice. Feeling like we have to write a certain way, or we have to use a certain tool, or we have to have an artistic process that conforms to somebody else’s vision of what creativity looks like… well, that’s so much pressure to take on things that may or may not actually be helpful. I think my feelings ultimately boil down to this: If simple works for you, great. If you prefer complex, also great. If you do some combination of the two, great. Use the tools that make you a better, more thoughtful writer, or a more efficient one, or open up the ways you can think about storytelling, or or or… Feel free to leave everything else.
Earlier this month, I had the great privilege of being on the faculty at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp, where I got to spend a week talking craft, sharing stories, and being surrounded by a wonderful group of writerly people. Aside from the good food and good company, it was also a pleasure learning from my fellow faculty members, like Tiffany Jackson (author of Let Me Hear a Rhyme), who gave me new ways to think about plot, or Kathy Erskine (author of The Incredible Magic of Being), who in her keynote suggested posting a one-line synopsis at the top of your monitor to remind yourself of what the core of your story is.
Of course, this got me thinking about the ways I use my own monitor space--not just the screen itself (which I often use to do side-by-side document views, one with an old draft and one with a new one, so I can re-type as I revise) but also the edge of the monitor as well. In the past, I’ve put sticky notes around the edge of my monitor to remind me of revision ideas I knew I’d lose track of if I put them in my notebook, which has been practical and helpful. But lately, I’ve also begun to use this space for affirmations.
Affirmations, the internet tells me, are statements of truth to which we aspire. I think of mine as reminders, guideposts, encouragements, ways of centering myself. They remind me of my direction, the kind of writer I want to be, and what is possible. Take this one, my affirmation for 2018:
I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a workaholic (and not always in a good way, I’ve come to realize), so this is a reminder I need. I’m not lazy if I need time to recharge. I’m not selfish if I need a moment to breathe. I’m not a failure if I need a break. Hard work and self-care are not mutually exclusive. I still struggle with this, of course. I criticize myself for not producing faster. I beat myself up for getting sick and losing days of work. But because of this affirmation, I have the words to defuse my workaholic tendencies and my feelings of guilt. Sometimes, taking time off can be an act of daring. Sometimes, self-care can be heroic.
Now, I’m starting on a brand new project, and it’s that this tender, fledgling stage, this precious moment where it can be nurtured into flourishing or snuffed out with a single careless word, and I want to be mindful of that. To that end, I’ve created new affirmations for myself:
These ones aren’t full sentences, but I don’t think they need to be. Every time I look at them, they remind me of how I want to enter this story. They remind me that, no matter what else is going on, this is what my creativity needs. This is what will get the writing done. This is how the art gets made. With courage, peace, and kindness.
To end this post, I’d like to share what each of these affirmations means to me, and if anything resonates with you, please feel free to adopt or adapt it for yourself. <3
May I write this book from a place of courage. May those voices of fear and doubt dissipate like mist burning away in sunlight. May I be brave in my choices and fearless in my craft.
May I write this book from a place of peace. May I be centered. May I be focused. May I be grounded, with my feet under me and my sights on the horizon. May I allow my distractions to fall away so that I can perceive this story with the clarity it deserves.
May I write this book from a place of kindness. May I be gentle with myself. May I be patient with my process and all of my shortcomings. May I treat myself and my creativity with empathy, understanding, and respect. May this part of my journey be suffused with love and joy, because I will never travel this part of my journey again.
I haven’t had much book news to announce this year, which means that quite a bit of my social media time (which I’ve cut back on anyway in the interests of my new year’s resolution, breathe) is spent watching other people announce new and exciting things. Which is fine. (Great, even, because some of these people I admire and respect and I adore their work.) I feel like this is just kind of the nature of the business: sometimes things are faster, sometimes things are slower, sometimes you have news, sometimes you don’t, sometimes the successes are public, sometimes they’re private.
But all this has gotten me thinking about advice I see often: Eyes on your own paper. Run your own race. Comparison is the thief of joy. In general, I think all of these pieces of advice are about the understanding that everyone’s writing and publishing journeys are different, and that your attention should be on your own path, not someone else’s. Which is such a great way to look at things, I think, because it means there is no comparison. It’s apples and oranges! It’s apples and teak trees! It’s apples and targeted online advertisements or stone quarried on some distant Scottish isle! My career doesn’t look like Famous McAuthor’s because our careers are as different as banana split sundaes and a bouquet of carnations! They are both things, for sure, but they are so different that it’s not even worth trying to compare the two.
Which brings me to this other thing I’ve been thinking about--perspective. I think, when I’m watching great things happen for other people, I can come at it from one of two standpoints: 1) a place of envy, or 2) a place of gratitude. When I look at things from a place of envy, I focus on what I don’t have. I think about how much I want a bouquet of carnations. I think about how pretty it would be, how chic, how good it would look in my room, etc. And I spend so much time wishing for that bouquet of carnations that I forget that I have anything else, including an awesome banana split sundae!
When I look at things from a place of gratitude, however, I focus on what I do have. I have banana. I have ice cream. I have chocolate sauce. I have sprinkles (and I love sprinkles). This is not a bunch of carnations, okay, but this is still a lot to be grateful for. And when I start to think about all the things I have to be grateful for, I stop worrying about not having carnations. In fact, it doesn’t even matter anymore that I don’t have a bouquet of carnations because I have all this other great stuff.
It’s not always easy to come at things from a place of gratitude, so I try to make it a practice to say thank you. I say thank you in emails. I send thank you notes. I bring thank you gifts. I don’t want to take any part of my banana split sundae for granted, because none of it is guaranteed, and it’s likely that none of it will last.
Which brings me to this: Thank you, readers. We’re over halfway through my year of Work and Process now, and sometimes it feels like no one is paying attention to these little posts on craft and creativity. But for whoever’s out there, checking out these posts every week (or even just once or twice this year), thank you for reading. Thank you for being part of my journey, and if anything at all I’ve written has struck you or stuck with you, thank you for allowing me to be part of yours, too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended a few festivals and conferences over the past few years, and while this has been lovely and super exciting, it’s also been super stressful for my Hobbit-y, introverted, would love to have the superpower of teleportation because I get so stressed out while packing, traveling, and coming back from traveling self. I also happen to have, as my friend and colleague Tara Sim (author of The Timekeeper Trilogy and the forthcoming Scavenge the Stars) likes to put it, the immune system of a wet tissue, so I’ve spent quite a lot of time the past few years getting sick from travel. To make things as low-stress and germ-free as possible, I’ve done a couple things and accumulated a couple coping strategies for those of you who also have to travel for work and also don’t super like the act of traveling itself.
1. Eat as regularly and as healthily as possible. Due to flight times and the high cost of bad-to-mediocre airplane foods, it’s easy to miss meals or to eat junk while traveling. Yesterday, I was boarding at noon, my regular lunch time, and in the air at dinner, and I wasn’t sure what kind of meal options were going to be available to me either on the plane or during layovers. So I bought both my lunch (a Filet of Fish, which isn’t super healthy, I know, I know, but I don’t eat a ton of fast food and I really wanted it!) and my dinner (a turkey and avocado sandwich from La Brea Bakery in the airport) at 11am. I ate lunch while waiting for my plane to board and kept the sandwich in my backpack until I was on my next flight, and didn’t have “hangry” to add to my list of travel complaints.
If possible, one can always pack meals, too. When I have early morning flights, I usually bring a small bag of cereal and buy an orange juice at the airport. I’ve also packed sandwiches for lunch, because I make a good sandwich. This is easily more cost-effective than buying meals at airports--the only issue is you have to carry it around (and sometimes juggling more stuff or cramming stuff into your already-full carry on can add to your stress) and hope it doesn’t smush.
2. Bring healthy snacks. Sometimes, there just isn’t time to grab a meal, or sometimes, you’re feeling a little peckish between lunch and dinner, and this is the time for healthy snacks! I bring mine in snack-sized Ziploc bags (although I am in search of another, more sustainable yet packable option), and they usually include the kind of delicious but energy-giving stuff I’d take on a hike: dried fruit, nuts, beef jerky, trail mix. Dark chocolate can be a good addition as well. These things are tasty, healthy, and pretty-smush proof, so they make great snacks to bring for a long day of travel.
3. If you’re in the US, and you’re flying, and if it’s an option for you, get TSA Pre-check to help you get through the security lines. It takes a fingerprinting and an interview and some cash, but it’s good for five years, and that little green check mark on your boarding pass will usually get you through security lines more quickly (although not always), and you don’t have to remove your laptop and liquids from your carry-on, or remove your shoes or sweater/light jacket (which is a bonus if you’re always cold, like me).
4. Acquire a good set of luggage that works for your needs. I’ve checked soft-sided suitcases and had them tear before, so I got myself a set of hard-sided luggage with three sizes and those wheels that spin in all different directions so you can roll your suitcase without leaning/dragging it behind you (the convenience of that is great). I’ve heard great things about Away luggage, but I’ve also heard it’s pricey, so I’m probably going to use my current ones until they break before investing in new suitcases. I also have a carry-on size soft-sided luggage with a compartment for a laptop, which I sometimes need because these are work trips, after all.
5. It’s hard for me to lose a full day of work to travel, so I’ve invested in a laptop specifically for travel (it is also my regular laptop/computer because what do I need two for?). It is a small, lightweight 13” laptop with a solid state drive (for speed and for the roughness of travel). The screen is pretty small, but I have a monitor setup at home, and the small size of the keyboard means it fits on an airplane tray table and doesn’t make my bag super heavy while I’m carrying it around. This means I can work while I’m at the gate and while I’m in the air, which gives me hours of extra time to get the words down.
6. Hydrate. Public bathrooms aren’t always the cleanest and airplane bathrooms are usually super gross, so it’s tempting not to drink very much so you won’t have to use the restroom a lot, but that’s probably a mistake. Also buying bottled water sucks. But also having to wash a reusable water bottle in a hotel bathroom can be a pain (as I currently know because I dropped mine in curb water last night--yum). Whatever you choose for your convenience and conscience, drinking water throughout your travel day keeps you from getting dehydrated, which means your skin doesn’t get so dry in the airplane air conditioning, and you don’t get those headaches from not getting enough fluids, and your breath isn’t as bad!
7. Make a travel kit. This kit can have whatever emergency or daily things you might need while on the go. Mine in particular is pretty much a first aid kit (because you never know!) + my anti-get-sick arsenal. Some of this arsenal came from a post from another author that I unfortunately cannot for the life of me remember but if someone knows it, please tell me. Some of it is what works for me. I keep it all in a little complimentary beauty bag thing that I got from Air France once (see this week’s post for size comparison and contents), and because of its first-aid-ness, I also always carry it in my purse anyway. In my travel kit, you will find the following:
And those are my author travel tips! This list is by no means exhaustive, because I also try to get a good night’s sleep, and meditate in the mornings, and stretch, but I don’t always get to these things, and I ALWAYS do/bring/use the above. Traveling is stressful, but I think being prepared can make it a little easier on the nerves (and immune system).
I’m deep in the labyrinth of another revision this week, and perhaps the most important thing I’ve realized is this: I am nothing if not consistent. I may approach the writing differently for every revision, but I always progress through the same stages of my creative process, the same mindsets and emotional quagmires. I’ve been through them so many times now that I can clearly recognize them, like old friends, or maybe like old archenemies. To tell you the truth, I mostly resent them, but I guess, in the end, they are mine, my stages of revision.
1. Reading the Edit Letter
2. Last 3 Days of Freedom
3. Revision Triage
4. I Have Made a Huge Mistake Part I: Biting Off More Than I Can Chew
5. I Can Work Without Weekends!
6. I Have Made a Huge Mistake Part II: Day 4 Breakdown
7. I’m Not Mad At You I’m Thinking
8. How Is There Still ⅔ Left?
9. Permanent Brain Fog
10. Parks and Recreation Rewatch
12. Constant Neck Pain
13. No Time for Exercising (But All the Time for Naps)
14. Dark Night of the Soul
15. Hug a Dog
16. What Day Is It?
17. Cookies Please
18. Am I Laughing or Crying?
19. Every Day 3 A.M. Wake Up (Thinking About the Book)
20. Deadline Met/Anticlimactic Email Sent
21. Sick for a Week
(I’m currently in “Am I Laughing or Crying?” so please send your good thoughts my way.)
Why is my brain like this? Why can’t the stages of my revision process be “The Best Sleep I Have Ever Had” or “Also Clean Everything”? It’s kind of hellish having to live through some of these things over and over again, it’s also weirdly kind of nice recognizing these waypoints for what they are: temporary. Just part of the process. In the midst of everything, it’s a comfort to know that nothing lasts forever, and however bad my current stage of revision feels, it won’t always feel that way.
I am an overwriter. I have been for as long as I can remember. I add paragraphs of description because I can’t write a scene unless I know exactly where everything is and what everything looks like. I start every scene pages before it actually has to begin. My solution to most story problems is “throw more words at it.”
Overwriting is great because it gives me a lot of material to work with when I go back to revise. It’s awful and frustrating because pretty much all of my work ends up too long.
When I first started querying The Reader in 2014, the manuscript was 121,000 words. (For reference, at the time, the conventional word count for young adult fantasy topped out at 100,000 words.) Unsurprisingly, I got a ton of rejections. So, after consulting with some lovely and generous professionals, I stopped querying and went back to revising.
By the time Pitch Wars, an online mentoring and pitch contest, rolled around, I had cut 14,000 words, so I entered the contest with a 107,000-word manuscript. That was still a little long for queries, but thank the muses, Renée Ahdieh, author of Flame in the Mist and the forthcoming, The Beautiful, was willing to take me on as a mentee. Over the next two months, I cut another 10,000 words, and by the time I signed with an agent, The Reader was sitting at a pretty 97k, 24,000 words shorter than it was when I started querying.
As might be obvious from this little anecdote, I’ve become quite familiar with cutting down my word count, and I’d like to share some suggestions in hopes that they’ll be helpful to other overwriters out there.
On the internet, I’ve seen advice like: Do a document search for every “just” or “that” and delete all of them. Or: Cut all instances of filtering.
A note: Filtering is where a description first has to go through a character’s perspective, like, “He could see the mountains rising out of the fog in the distance.” In this example, “He could see” is filtering, so you could remove it to change the sentence like so: “The mountains rose out of the fog in the distance.”
In general, this is the kind of “one size fits all” advice that I find supremely unhelpful. (Like “Show. Don’t tell.”) Every story is different. Every scene or character requires a different touch. So while I think it’s great to eliminate unnecessary words, because it keeps the sentences tight and uncluttered, I believe that some words that seem unnecessary can, in fact, be useful to the storytelling. The repetition of “just,” for example, could be part of a character’s voice, demonstrating their need to have things be simple. Or the use of “that” could be for rhythm and clarity. Descriptions that are filtered through a character’s perspective might tell us that the character is an observer, or they might be a hint that the character’s observations are too biased to be trusted.
Instead of these big search-and-deletes, when I want to cut down on word count, I look for bigger passages that don’t serve the needs of the story:
Sentences that repeat information or only serve one narrative purpose (see my Rule of Three (But Not Always Three) Things) can be cut, rephrased, or combined.
Paragraphs that, while adding interesting character details or beautiful descriptions, don’t contribute to the forward motion of the plot can often be removed.
When I was revising The Reader, I’d cut entire scenes or chunks of scenes if they didn’t get right to the point--often the beginnings or endings while I was working my way into a chapter or couldn’t figure out how to end one.
Of course, there are also the Big Changes to consider: Sometimes characters can be eliminated entirely, or at least combined with other characters. Sometimes subplots that don’t tie in to the main story can be removed or streamlined. These can feel difficult to tackle, because changing something big often creates a ripple effect of smaller changes throughout the rest of the story, but I’ve often found that the removal of an unnecessary character or plot thread doesn’t affect as much as I think it will.
Then, if I still need to lower my word count, I figure out how many words I need to cut, divide it by my page count, and try to cut that many words per page. For example, in a 300-page manuscript that I want to cut 3,000 words from, I try to cut 10 words per page. 10 words at a time often seems more doable than 3,000 total, and it forces me to be really demanding about how I’m using every word on each page. To be honest, though, it rarely works out that I cut my target amount every time. Sometimes I’ll cut more. Sometimes less. Sometimes nothing. But overall, this process, however, not only helps me closer to my target number of words but also polish each page to a shine.
In sum, when it comes to my great adversary, the word count, I try to prioritize the needs of the story, adhere to my Rule of Three (But Not Always Three) Things, and go big before I go small. I hope this helps you sharpen your editing scissors, my fellow overwriters. Let’s get to work!
Over on Instagram, my friend and colleague, Parker Peevyhouse, author of The Echo Room (2018) and Strange Exit (2020), has been posting videos about different aspects of her revision process, and I’ve found it fascinating. (I particularly love this video about the tent pole, which is an approach I’ve never considered before!) I’ve made no secret of my love for revision, and Parker’s videos have inspired me to talk about an aspect of my own revision process: revision triage.
To me, revision triage is the process of identifying the varying levels of difficulty in a revision, from the hardest, most time-consuming edits to the easiest, breeziest, just-needs-a-trim-here-or-there alterations, so that when I start revising, I can tackle the biggest and most difficult changes first and gradually move toward the smallest.
That process takes a few days to a week, and it usually looks like this:
1. If I have an editorial letter covering the larger patterns and overarching problems of the manuscript as a whole, I’ll read that first (and only once). Edit letters generally point out the biggest issues in a story, so having these on my radar early gives me a way to think about how they all relate to each other and how they might change things in the story once I start tackling them.
2. I’ll set the edit letter aside for 1-3 days, depending on a) what my deadline is and b) how much time it takes me to start having ideas for how to approach the revision. Sometimes I get ideas quickly. Sometimes I have to get ideas quickly because I’ve got to turn my edits in very shortly. But for me, that little window of time is essential for not-doing, for not thinking directly about the work that’s to come so that the ideas from the edit letter can settle and come together in a way that makes sense to my brain.
3. Once 1-3 days have passed, I’ll read the edit letter again, making notes about how to tackle the various issues. This is the beginning of the actual organization process, and it almost always concerns those big, time-consuming edits, so I try to be as clear as I can about how to implement the changes.
4. Then, I’ll read the manuscript from beginning to end, including notes and marginalia from my critique partner(s) or editor. During this read, I’ll STET advice that I already know I won’t be taking, incorporate suggested cuts I know will make the story better, and jot down potential alterations or notes for later. I try to do this quickly, on instinct, using my vision for the story and my thoughts from the edit letter as a guide. I’ll often also write notes at the beginnings or ends of each chapter, summarizing changes that affect the whole chapter instead of just a paragraph or a page, so I can keep track of them later. For me, the purpose of this read is to take in the entire narrative at once, and if I allow myself to linger on one section for too long, I start to lose track of the arc of the whole story, so I try not to take too long with it. I can’t go too quickly, though, because this read of the manuscript also gives me a sense of what the middle-level revisions are going to have to be and what sections need only minor polish.
5. Now, please allow me to introduce you to my extreme Ravenclaw tendencies. Once I have notes from my edit letter and from my review of the manuscript, I go into triage mode. I make a color-coded spreadsheet to group my revisions by the biggest to the smallest, a sort of map for my revisions to come.
Above is a revision map for The Reader that I made in 2015. It’s grouped by character (across the top), and then by severity of changes, with the most severe in red and the quickest to address in white.
I did a similar map for The Speaker in 2016. As before, I’ve grouped changes by issue and character across the top, but this time I’ve added colors down the side, starting with dark red for the most work and moving toward purple for the least. This map started out much more colorful, but as I went through, I started switching revisions that I had already accomplished to white, which made it easy to track what I’d already accomplished and also what was still to come.
This is a revision map for the project I’m currently working on. As before, there are changes by character, but this time I’m also grouping them by different types of changes along the left-hand side. My triage color-scheme is less complicated now, with only five colors: red, orange, yellow, and green, and purple for reminders or other issues. I’m continuing to white revisions I’ve already completed, but this time I’m also graying out revisions that I want to put a pin in for next time.
Every revision triage results in a slightly different revision map. People say each book teaches you how to write it, and I've found that to be true of revising as well as for drafting. Each story needs to be told in a different way. Each round of edits has different requirements. But for me, this process always boils down to the color-coded spreadsheet, the categorization of different types of changes. That's what gets me through.
Sometimes it feels like this process of revision triage takes too much time, especially when I’m on deadline, but ultimately, it’s so helpful to me to have an overall sense of where the story is headed, what it’s going to look like when all the threads are tightened and all the extra stuff is cut. It helps me to prioritize issues that will create ripple effects in the narrative, so I change things once instead of over and over again if I try to tackle a bunch of little things first. And finally, it makes me feel like I’m moving forward, breaking down even the big tasks into smaller parts, so I can cross them off like little victories in the long slog of revising a novel.
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings, examinations, meanderings, discoveries, bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.