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Both Sides Now

I’ve decided that writing a novel is a lot like knitting a fair-isle sweater.

How so? Well, sweaters are complicated. There are the design decisions: colours, type of yarn, size of needles, stitch patterns. There’s the painstaking work of actual knitting: stitch by stitch, sleeves and hems and panels, all eventually sewn together to make a finished garment. Then there’s the super complicated knitting pattern to follow (which I would never attempt to create myself! These are the domain of professional designers.)

Writing a novel is just as complicated. There are so many decisions that build on each other, a structure that needs figuring out, the long process of putting words and sentences and scenes and chapters together. Not to mention writing multiple drafts, which feels like ripping back knitting work and redoing everything differently.

Let me push the metaphor a little further. If you’ve ever knit (or owned) a fair-isle sweater, you’ve probably noticed the ugly, messy reverse to the neat colourwork design. While you’re knitting, you carry strands of different-coloured yarn along the back, carefully maintaining an even tension so the stitches won’t be distorted on the front of the sweater.

This process of carrying yarn (technically called “floats”) feels like my writing these days, as I work through the final revisions of my novel. I have two main characters, lots of secondary characters and various subplots… there are lots of details to track though each chapter!

I’ve heard that it’s a good idea to focus each round of revisions on a different aspect of the novel: settings, maybe. Or psychological realism for a specific character. Then, as these major elements get worked out, you can go through the draft and cut unnecessary scenes, polish the language, and build up imagery and symbolism.

I’m going for a more immersive approach, working chapter by chapter, revising all of the above. I’ve just finished chapter 20 (out of 28), carefully balancing plots and characters and emotions to keep the tension steadily rising through the book. I’m trying to keep the threads taut so that the story’s got momentum, so that none of my messy edits show through on the final draft.

The colourwork baby sweater I knit for my nephew James this winter.

Less is more

Today, I cracked 100 000 words on my novel manuscript. Not written, but unwritten. This is a milestone!

Novels are generally in the 80 000 – 100 000 word range. Less than 50 000 is a novella; over 100 000 is perfectly acceptable for genres like Fantasy and Sci Fi, but not so much for literary fiction.

I tend to write long. There’s a gleeful pleasure in losing myself in long imaginary scenes. Dialogue between characters goes on for page after self-indulgent page. Descriptions unspool over paragraphs as I decorate nouns with multiple adjectives, embroider verbs with unnecessary adverbs.

My first decent draft of this novel ran over 130 000 words. The draft I finished last year was 115 000 words. Still way too long. I’ve promised myself I’d get it under 100 000 before I sent it out to prospective agents and/or publishing houses. I’ve been trimming for months, shortening sentences and cutting out extra words. I do actually enjoy this editing process: I can feel the prose getting sharper, more allusive and interesting.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Scrivener word count, celebrating every time I jettisoned another hundred words. Today, while I was revising an early chapter, it finally happened; the number dipped below 100 000 for the first time in years. 99 584 words, to be precise.

I’ve still got another few weeks of revision before I can send out my queries, but oh, the happiness of achieving a milestone. Five figures! Achievement unlocked!

Happier New Year?

Happy New Year! Well, it’ll be happier eventually. So far 2021 looks a lot like 2020: My three teenagers are all home, “attending” school online. My husband is conducting therapy from our basement. Montreal is already in the Red Zone, with rumours circulating of an even more draconian lockdown to come.

I’m struggling to stay positive, to keep the momentum going on my writing. It’s especially frustrating because I’m SO CLOSE to being finished with this novel! After so many years, so many hundreds of hours and thousands of words written and edited and deleted, I’m almost at the finish line.

These days, I’m working through the final edits of my manuscript. I’m nearly done with chapter 24, which is the climactic chapter for one of my characters… I’m almost at the end of this book. I know exactly what needs to be fixed and how to make those revisions. I know which new scenes need to be written and where they need to go. I’ve got all the information, all the tools, and certainly all the motivation to complete this project.

But… it’s such a slog. I’m so desperate for time and space to think, to imagine my way into this fictional world. From October to December, I was able to write at Eric’s office, a few blocks away from our house. Now that’s closed. My own little home office isn’t available either, since my sons need that room for school. I keep trying to be flexible, to find new pockets of writing time: early in the morning, before kids wake up; mid-afternoon, when everyone’s relatively busy and quiet. Still, I’m always braced for interruptions, for a new emotional or tech emergency with my kids. Parenting during a pandemic is hard enough without trying to finish a novel!

Last night, I dreamed that I had another short story accepted for publication. I do have several stories out for consideration, but I’ve been getting nothing but rejections for months. In fact, I received my latest rejection yesterday: After consideration, we have decided that it is not in tune with our publishing needs. We wish you all the best with your writing. So what’s with my dream? Is my unconscious trying to offer me hope?

I don’t like to complain. I like to set goals, to make progress, to feel in control of my work and my life. I know that so many people have it so much worse than me! And yet here I am, throwing this little cri de coeur into the universe: please, let me finish this book! Give me the strength to keep going, to keep believing that I can reach this finish line. Please, let 2021 be a happier year than 2020 for all of us!

100 days

Today is the first day of summer. My kids finished their online classes yesterday, which means my daughter has officially, without fanfare, graduated from high school. My 13-year-old sons have already grown four inches this spring, their voices cracking and deepening. 

What a long, strange spring it’s been for us all.

The papers say it’s been 100 days since the beginning of our COVID-19 lockdown, and it’s true: today marks exactly 100 days since we woke up on Friday, March 13 and learned that the schools had closed.

Like everyone else, we’ve adapted. My husband has taken his therapy practice online. The kids have learned to navigate Microsoft Teams and Zoom and Schoology for their virtual classes. We’re riding emotional waves, from the highs of We can do this! to the deep despairing lows of How can we do this? We’re isolated from the world but on top of each other. We are physically healthy but worn thin with anxiety. We feel helpless in a broken world, stuck in a time loop of terrible news stories of injustice and senseless suffering.

And of course, since I’m a writer, I miss writing.

I miss solitude.

I miss sustained quiet thinking time.

I’m doing my best to continue revision work on my novel, waking up early to chip away at one chapter after another. I wrote about this in a blog post for the QWF’s Chronicling the Days project, which will be published as an anthology next year.

There are still moments when I’m immersed in a scene, happy with the work I’m doing, galvanized about being so close to the end of this novel-writing odyssey… then I close my laptop and my good feelings disappear. Is it crazy to think that I can finish my book under these conditions? Won’t my work be wildly uneven? Why am I pushing myself for a book that nobody’s waiting to read?

There aren’t answers to these questions. I keep writing. I will see this project through, damn it. Even at this pace, I’m hoping my revisions will be finished within another 100 days. Then we’ll see what comes next.

New revision plans

I’m back at it: Novel revisions are officially underway!

I reread my manuscript last week, taking four days to read all 300+ pages. I was a little bit terrified to start this process, but my goal was to keep an open mind as I read through the draft. I’d had positive feedback from the two agents who read my work, so I knew the manuscript wasn’t completely terrible. I’m definitely aware that it’s too long, and that I should be cutting around 20 000 words to get the book under 100 000 words. I also had some vague ideas about changes that might improve the pacing or develop the characters. In general, though, I’m trying to be as objective as possible.

By the end of my read-through, I’d made 20 pages of notes. (I know, I am nothing if not systematic!) The biggest surprise was how obvious some of the manuscript’s flaws were, right from the first couple of chapters: one of my secondary characters was taking up way too much space, and the draft’s pace felt breakneck, without any slower scenes to let the reader catch their breath.

I was, however, happy to find that there are whole scenes, characters and subplots that are working well! I won’t have to do much work on these sections, which is a huge relief. My last draft was nearly a complete rewrite, but I won’t have to use the same approach this time. These successful elements feel like solid pillars that I can build the rest of the book around.

Interestingly, I think the second half of my draft is much stronger than the first half, with more psychological depth to the characters, better pacing and more interesting chapter structures. The shift in quality coincides with my time at Banff, so that experience seems to have made a lasting difference to my writing!

I’m not sure yet how I’ll approach this round of revisions: a checklist? More note cards? I’m sure some kind of diagramming will be involved.

As a first step, this week I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the sections that featured that one over-inflated character, then I opened up Scrivener and deleted these from the draft. When I checked my word count again, I was astonished to see that I’d cut 16 thousand words out of the manuscript! What a great start to this round of revisions!