Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

A Dream of Viable Paradise, and gushing over the instructors. Because I can.

Before I left for Viable Paradise, I had nightmares about Steve Brust burning my manuscript.  That didn’t happen, of course.   Nor did the one about Patrick Nielsen Hayden threatening to beat me to death with my own manuscript if I ever submitted it to Tor.   Contrary to my fears, I was given several nice compliments by PNH, and Brust was the soul of gracious wit–except during that Cards Against Humanity game, when he was an evil, hilarious nut.  Gotta love that guy’s sense of humor.

Anyway, last night I had a dream of VP. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it did make me a little tiny bit sad, because it was about some of the best things about VP.   I was sitting before a fire (nobody burned any fires when I was around during VP, but there were fireplaces, so ok, brain) with several students, Scott Lynch, and Elizabeth Bear.  And I turned to Lynch and asked him if knowing authors as people changed how he experienced their books at all, because I was thinking at the moment that I would never again be able to pick up one of the VP Instructors’ books without having very specific memories of them pop up in my brain.  And his reply was typical of dreams.  Sadly, I cannot remember what it was, exactly–but I’m pretty sure it was something Scott actually said in one of our conversations, that had nothing to do with the question I asked in the dream, but which was absolutely hilarious.  Sadly, within seconds of waking up, I forgot what it was.

But it got me thinking.  I made some connections with instructors there that will affect me forever.   And I wonder if they realize how powerful that is.  I suspect they do; for all the humor that flies around during VP, these are perceptive people (you can’t be a good writer, in my opinion, without being perceptive) who genuinely care not only about what they do, but about who we are.

Aside from the lessons and critiques, I will always remember:

  • Scott Lynch’s pointy ears and delightful oratory style
  • Elizabeth Bear trying to get me to sing, and saying to a group of us on the penultimate night “You’re not our students anymore. You’re our colleagues.”  I wonder if she knows how profoundly powerful that simple phrase was for those of us who heard it?
  • Steven Brust’s trancelike face, and the intricate motions of his hands, when he’s drumming.  I think I get Aibynn more now.
  • Steven Gould doing sword katas with a spatula.  Yes, you heard that right.  He also gave me an incredibly great critique of my MS, but I’ve written about that already.
  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden getting the class’ attention with a hilarious “Shut up, you assholes!”  Also compliments paid, to me and to others, that brightened all our lives.
  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden, upon seeing me a little worn-down, talked to me for some time, and gifted me with the single best compliment I got all week.  I got several compliments, from students and staff, but hers was striking for not only it’s simplicity, but for the tone of her voice when she said it, as if it was something I should already know and she was shocked I didn’t.  I’m not sure if that’s what she was going for, but it’s how it played in my ears, and I adore her for it.
  • James Macdonald, raising his glass to me and declaring “You’re a writer!”  Also his laughter when I confessed I couldn’t set a story aside, and the comment “Boy, you’ve got it bad.”  And his very simple advice, when I asked what I should do: “Finish your book, Michael.  Then write another one. And don’t stop.”  Also his estimation of my ability.  And so much more.  One of my regrets is that I didn’t get up early and walk with him; one of my aspirations is to sit and have a drink with him again.
  • Debra Doyle’s dry wit.  I spent the least amount of time with Debra; she tended to disappear to her room in the evenings, but I noticed in her a gracious soul who really, really knows her stuff.  I could not resist, however, tweaking her in my Thursday story, which I would bet she didn’t notice, by putting her words in a character’s mouth.

Later, I might post on memories of students.  Not sure; I didn’t spend time with everyone and I wouldn’t want to slight anyone.

Viable Paradise: Day 1, Sunday

Note to readers: I won’t be using student names often; mostly to preserve the privacy of my classmates.  When I do use a name, it’ll be first name only.   

So my flight took off late—at about 8:30pm.  I was supposed to have an hour and a half in SFO, which should have been enough time to get a medifast-acceptable dinner.  But it was not; I had only twenty minutes to get to my gate and board the flight to Boston.  Fortunately, I had stashed some extra medifast meals in my shoulder bag just in case this happened, so while I didn’t get the dinner I should have, I didn’t starve.  I slept ok, I think, though the engine noise was present even in my dreams, which made me feel like I hadn’t slept.  And nothing beats being jolted awake by turbulence at 3am.  I had an hour and a half until my bus arrived.  I waited.  I read.  I waited some more.  Then, just as I was getting incredibly bored, I waited even more.  

Finally it arrived, and I began the third leg of the journey.  The ride was quiet and uneventful, though packed.  I met up with one of my VP classmates when he transferred buses, and we rode the final leg of the trip together.   We were picked up in Vineyard Haven by a VP staffer and taken to the hotel, where I got my room key from my roommates and then retired to wash off 18 hours of travel grime.  Once cleaned up, socializing began, and that lasted until 6pm, when the official Viable Paradise program began.  

First was dinner, which was interesting; we tended to group according to room assignments and whomever we’d connected with via Twitter prior to arriving on the island.   The instructors seated themselves throughout the room, getting to know students.   It was a great time, and the students and support staff all did their best to reduce any nervousness we felt.

After dinner was Orientation; we were given our packets of work to critique, some handouts to read, and given the schedule.  We then played Thing, which also goes by the name Mafia and Werewolves.  I won’t go into the details here, but if you really want to know, holler and I’ll clue you in.  Suffice to say: If you’re playing with Steven Brust, don’t believe anything he says—except when he tells you he’s the Thing.  We were also given a small toy, and informed that this is our Doom.  This relates to the Horror that is Thursday, and we’ll learn more tomorrow night.   (I’ll warn you now that I won’t be saying much about the Horror; except to say that for a writer, the Horror is real; if you don’t write, you probably won’t get what was so scary.  Catch me socially and I’ll give you more, but in the spirit of preserving the mystique, I won’t say much here.)

After Thing, my roommates and I went to the staff lounge to read our stories for the first critique group on Monday.  We had just settled in when the instructors filed in with various musical instruments and began to play.  Reluctantly, we trekked back to our room (just down the hall) so we could actually concentrate.   By the time we came up for air, they’d all gone to bed, so we sat in our common room and shot the breeze for a few hours.  

My roomies and I are the California contingent; Alex hails from Berkeley, and Beth from Pasadena.   They’re both fairly younger than I am at 28, but we got along really well, so we went to bed ridiculously late.  

One thing I’d like to say about the instructors (and the staff) is that they are insanely disarming.  Within moments of meeting Steven Brust I’d realized that this is not going to be the kind of workshop where the Pros dispense wisdom to the aspiring writers from on high.  The jokes fly fast and furious, and while there is definitely an awareness that the instructors have knowledge and technique to impart, they are doing so from right beside us.  They make it very clear that they do care about us not just as students, but as prospective colleagues in the SF/F field.  They also disagree sometimes, and watching them argue teaches as much as listening to the lectures does.