How Much Background Is Too Much in a Novel?

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I’m happily working away at the new novel these days. When I wrote the original concept back in 2006, I provided lots of background research on Florida and the Everglades. That’s the way I’ve always written, even when I was a reporter. I regurgitated all the new and old knowledge onto the page in a very rough first draft or outline of a new piece. Then I set about slicing more than half of what I’ve spewed onto the page.

Successful writing in any field or genre contains three essential elements. I call it the 3 C’s of writing. The elements are correctness, clarity, and conciseness.

Correctness – In journalism, accuracy is a key element (we hope). However, even in fiction, correctness is important. I read a book once where the author was describing a scene where the newly in love couple went kayaking – in a single kayak. He helped her in the seat and then the author wrote that the man jumped in the same seat behind his gal. Also, the couple – both experienced kayakers – were said to use “oars” rather than the “paddles” used in kayaking. I lost interest in the book at this point. Try jumping into a one-person kayak alone, let alone with another person, and remain unharmed, upright and dry, and I’ll eat an oar immediately. Correctness is essential in the details of a novel. If you chose a famous place for the setting, make sure you know that place and the names of streets and intersections. You can make up the name of hotels and restaurants, but be sure you know distances between places. Also, make sure that if you’ve set your novel in 1984 you haven’t created any anachronisms by having a character pick up a cell phone to make a call. I’m reading a book right now that I thought was set twenty years, ago but the author just mentioned Wikipedia and Craig’s List. I don’t think either of those were around then.

Clarity – Clarity goes along with conciseness in some ways. Make sure nothing in the novel confuses the reader’s understanding of the story. I don’t mean the confusion that might come from unraveling a mystery. The reader shouldn’t have to read a word, a sentence, or a paragraph repeatedly to make sense of what you’ve put on the page. I ask my Beta readers to point out any confusing areas by simply putting a question mark. Sometimes it’s as simple as a misplaced modifier, such as “Credit cards shall not be given to customers unless the manager has punched them first.” I misplace my modifiers often in the first draft, and just as often, I’m not the one to catch them.

Conciseness – Finally, I get to the reason I started writing this post. I’m struggling now with all that background information culled from reading, interviewing, or living. It’s sometimes difficult to realize that the reader doesn’t need and probably doesn’t care to know all I’ve learned before writing the novel. The reader simply wants a story to be told. I’m struggling right now as I turn that original draft/outline into a real first draft ready for Beta readers. That background information or exposition as it’s called by literary folks doesn’t all need to come at once or at all. The author decides where, when, and how much to tell. Some of it can come out in plot situations throughout the book. It’s one of the beautiful things about being an author. It’s also one of the most difficult. Beginning writers can sometimes be spotted immediately because they haven’t yet realized the importance of conciseness. I’m still learning after nearly two decades in this business. You don’t need to tell the reader everything you know. Not even close.

Here’s something I try to remember every time I write: Just because I put it down on paper, doesn’t mean I’ve carved the words in stone. That delete button is a one-finger press away. (But just to be sure I create a file for deleted passages.)

What do you think? Are these important elements in storytelling?

wood stork (Everglades)

wood stork (Everglades)

A Writing Gift to Myself

Suwanee River - Florida's only whitewater

Suwanee River – Florida’s only whitewater

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

In the past few weeks, I resurrected the first draft of a novel I began in 2006 and then left when I accepted a job with the state in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2007. It’s tentatively titled Safe Harbor. The protagonist, Emily Booth, and the antagonist, Julia Curry, are names from another novel I started thirteen years ago, but forgot about until I started working on Safe Harbor. I thought I’d taken most of the stuff from the older work, The Learning Curve, and melded into Safe Harbor.

But all last week, scenes kept popping into my mind about a house on the Suwannee River where an artist comes to live and soon enough is embroiled in the town politics when he starts teaching art at the local high school. I remember spending many lovely afternoons sitting on the banks of the Suwannee River writing scenes for the novel. Then as happens, life intervened and the novel was put aside . . .until this week. I wasn’t even certain if a manuscript existed from that first draft or if I had a word processing program that could read it. I wrote most of it in 2000 on an old Mac computer. Yesterday, I begin searching and on the external hard drive, attached to a newer but still old Mac that I keep around for its graphic capabilities, I found twenty chapters and 27,000 words in a file titled The Learning Curve. My new PC with Word 2010 opened the file with lots of silly little marks, but in between those funny squiggles lay the text.

Today I glanced through the pages, and there were the scenes I’d been thinking of this week. My writing is a little immature – particularly with the dialogue – but it’s a still a workable manuscript waiting for my return.

I consider it a wonderful gift. It’s ironic that now I write in Pittsburgh, the home of Stephen Foster who penned the song that made the Suwannee River a known quantity in the world. Stephen Foster never saw the river he made famous, but I’ve visited many times and crossed it even more times in my travels throughout north Florida. I’ve swam in its waters and paddled down its flow that leads to the Gulf of Mexico and I’ve sat on its high banks and breathed in the beauty of my beloved north Florida.shoals1

Here’s an excerpt, I particularly like, and which I discovered needed very little editing before I felt it ready to share. It’s also an excerpt without dialogue. How wonderful to see how much I’ve learned as a writer throughout the years.

I present to you the readers of my blog, the first ever reveal of The Learning Curve:

Most folks imagine the Atlantic Ocean when they think about Florida’s sandy beaches. However, except for a song by Stephen Foster, very few know that the Suwannee River, which flows from the Okefenokkee Swamp in Georgia down to the Gulf of Mexico in north Florida, boasts some of the sandiest beaches anywhere. From the high sloping hills down to the beaches caressing the wide expanse of river, the shores of the Suwannee contain some of the finest sand in the state.

Paul looked out at the sparkling river and the bare branches of the cypress trees hugging the shore. The house sat on a bend in the river, so in either direction he looked, the river disappeared around a bend. To the south lay the Gulf of Mexico and to the north lay much of the same as the river traversed through secluded rural Florida, an undiscovered jewel in this sunshine state. He sat on the porch and remembered all the times he tried to paint this scene from memory. He hadn’t been able to do it, not even from a photograph.

He moved to his truck as if propelled by some outside force. He pulled out his case of paints, canvas, and easel. Without stopping, he moved to the yard that sat on a high bluff above the river and began to set up his equipment. He thought of nothing but capturing the essence of what lay before him. He wanted to preserve the sparkles of the winter sun as it began its slow descent over the river. He wanted to capture the dullness of trees, which in a few short months would overpower everything around it, even the river. He felt the current of life flowing through his veins and the power of nature attacking his hands. This moment was why he had come, and he knew he couldn’t leave it for so long ever again. He painted until the sun began to dip behind the trees on the western bank of the Suwannee and gave its last gasps on the water.

P.C. Zick books set in Florida

Florida's sea turtles saved from oil spill in Trails in the Sand

Florida’s sea turtles saved from oil spill in Trails in the Sand

wild and crazy world of Florida politics in Tortoise Stew

wild and crazy world of Florida politics in Tortoise Stew

Editing – Smoothing the Cement

Trails in the Sand

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

This past week, I finished the edits on my third or fourth draft of my new novel Trails in the Sand. I sent it off to my editor, Kathleen Heady, so she can weave her magic on the manuscript. When she returns it, I’ll go through her suggestions and then ready it for publication. I want to thank Jae over at Lit and scribbles blog for suggesting I write this post. Check out her site – she’s always very clever and inspiring.

Most people who are not writers do not realize how little time is actually spent on the “writing” part of this gig. When I tell someone, “I’m writing today,” I could mean several things, but only about twenty percent of the time do I actually mean writing as they envision it.

However, when I’m editing my work, I’m still writing, and I love it. When I do a first draft of a novel, I liken it to pouring cement into a frame. When it’s first poured it does not resemble the finished product – it’s not smooth; it can’t be used; and it probably shouldn’t be seen by anyone.

It’s the next steps that bring it closer to a finished product – the smoothing of the cement, back and forth until it’s uniform, cohesive, and strong. That’s what editing is for me. Now as it goes through its final reviews, it’s curing and setting up. Soon enough I’ll know if it’s ready for public use.

During the process of editing, the book can change tremendously. I’ve changed point of view several times in this novel and now have alternating points of view between chapters. I’ve deepened the characters as I’ve gotten to know them better over the almost two years I’ve been creating this novel. They’ve changed and grown as the plot has also changed and developed. It’s all a process, which starts with the basic foundation of pouring the first load of “cement” upon the paper.

Everyone does it differently, but here’s the process I use for the smoothing of my cement.

  • When I know it’s time to go back over the manuscript for editing, I set aside a block of time to do it. It’s best to go through the book with few breaks. I can do 100-150 pages per day, if there aren’t any distractions (good luck with that!). Trails in 510 pages, so I was able to complete the edits in five days. But remember this is the final draft and the third or fourth time I’ve gone through the process.
  • I set goals for each day. One hundred pages is a worthy goal, but I found as I got into the process, I wanted to do more pages in one day. For me, setting that goal helps me stay on the task.
  • I print out pages, as wasteful as that may seem, but I’m helplessly old-fashioned this way. If you can do it all electronically that’s great (and I’d like to know any tricks for getting over this hard copy obsession I have). I read through the pages and mark them up, adding copy, deleting words, sections, making notes to check on later pages. Then I go to the electronic copy and begin making the changes from the hard copy. This process also means I’m reading the pages twice in one day.
  • I cut and paste throughout the whole writing process, so doing editing in one consecutive time block helps me find places where I might have misplaced or repeated sections. I’m looking for repetition, transitions, and gaps in the story. Also, I’m looking for inconsistencies in spelling and mechanics. I use the Chicago Manual of Style (and when in doubt Associated Press style) most of the time, but what’s most important is sticking to a particular style throughout. Decide how you’re going to handle numbers, abbreviations, and dates and stick with it throughout the manuscript. I had to decide on some spellings for this book. Microsoft Word uses “coalmine” and “oilrig” as one word. I don’t think these words have yet evolved to one word, and when I checked I found they can be used either way. I chose two words for each, and that’s the way (I hope) it is throughout the whole novel.
  • Doing the marathon session meant I was dreaming about my characters – which is good. I discovered I needed to increase the tension for one of the characters so I wrote a whole new scene where her shame is expressed, adding to the motivation for her despicable behavior toward her daughter.

That’s how I do it. And now I’m a little at loose ends because it’s over. But now it’s on to writing my one-sentence blurb and back-cover copy. Once that’s done (and edited), I’ll be ready to contact  cover artist Travis Pennington at ProBook Covers for his rendering of a vision I have in my head.

Do you like editing? How do you do it?

NOTE: I’m cutting back on my blog writing starting this week. I’ve been writing four blogs a week – two for Living Lightly Upon this Earth and two for Writing, Tips, Thoughts, and Whims. While I enjoy writing the blogs and interacting with followers, I need more time for writing novels and nonfiction books. From now on, I will post two times – one for each of my blogs. Thanks for reading my posts. I’m always thrilled when I see someone has left a comment.

Here’s How I Write

manuscript for next novel

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Shannon A. Thompson, a fellow blogger, gave me the idea for this post. I liked learning about Shannon’s methods and choices during her writing day so I thought some of you might find my process interesting. I’m hoping others of you will write a post and answer these questions as well. I was surprised that even though Shannon and I write in different genres, we follow some similar practices.

Here’s my “How Do I Write?” interview (with myself):

How long do you spend writing each day?

It’s hard to say, and it depends. I work full-time as a writer, but spend a portion of my day marketing and reading blogs and writing comments. The days of writing all day long happen infrequently. My day is usually fragmented.

What time of day do you prefer to write?

I prefer writing first thing in the morning, particularly if I wake with an idea. Often, I’m pulled to the writing. When I’m in the process of revising/editing a piece, I usually get all the chores done first and then sit down for an afternoon with the manuscript. This process doesn’t always work so well because too often, I’m just hitting my stride when I look at the clock, and it’s time to start dinner or go to my dance class.

Do you set yourself a time limit or word limit? No limits?

I make lists at the end of my workday for what I want/need to accomplish the next day. Quite often, I can’t complete everything, but at least I start the day with goals. When I’m writing a novel, I always set a goal of three double-spaced typewritten pages (900-1,000 words). I usually stick to that and sometimes even write more.

Do you write with music on? If so, what music do you like to write to?

I love music, and I adore well-written lyrics. However, when I’m writing I can’t have music on with words. I listen to classical music while I’m writing. I particularly like Mozart. I have two CDs I listen to frequently with a variety of classical compositions.

How often do you check the Internet? Do you fall into Internet black holes? Or do you turn it off completely?

The Internet is probably one of the biggest problems in my writing day. It’s too easy to check. Often it happens when I need to research something and then I’m checking my email or Facebook. When I really need to pound out something, I leave my laptop behind and go to my legal pad and pencil.

Are you a basher or a swooper? Kurt Vonnegut characterized writers into these two camps: “Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

I am definitely a swooper. I’d never get a story told if I “bashed” it out. I want to get it all down, and then I go back and smooth it out. I consider my first draft the outline of the story. No one ever really sees that version. In reality, the first draft I show to beta readers is probably the second draft of the story.

Do you eat when you’re writing? What snacks/drinks do you go to?

I take breaks for eating. I usually have nuts or crackers, but I leave the writing alone when I’m eating.

What’s your biggest procrastination tool? Or are you a freak who never procrastinates?

I can find all sorts of things to do instead of settling down with the writing. I unloaded the dryer and folded sheets in the middle of doing this interview. The Internet is a great procrastinator. I’ve been known to clean the refrigerator when I have an important scene to write.

How do the people (roommates/partners/children) who live with you fit into or around your writing schedule?

I’m fortunate to be able to keep an 8-5 schedule just like my husband. I get up with him in the morning. We drink a cup of coffee together. He goes off to the shower, and I head up to my office. I usually try to stop my work when he comes home at night. I don’t have any young children, but when I did, I usually rose an hour early in the morning and did my writing then. This month I’ve had three sets of visitors for a couple of days at a time, and I find that’s difficult, but I manage by working longer hours before their visit so all my blogs are scheduled.

Do you find yourself tied to the place you’ve grown accustomed to writing? Or can you just pick up and go?

I pick up and go. Sometimes I have to get out of the house. I find I can write in public at coffeehouses, libraries, and bookstores very well. I shut it all out. Now why I can’t listen to music with lyrics while I’m writing at home, I don’t know. About once a week, I go some place other than my office to write. I also have a couple of spots in my house where I go if I need a change of scenery. I keep a briefcase packed with my writing tools. Usually when I leave the house, I go with my legal pad and about a dozen sharpened pencils. I leave the laptop at home. My purpose in changing scenery is to concentrate and get away from distractions. I like starting my blogs and chapters and scenes in long hand. I might only write a page or two that way, but it gets me started. The rest comes easily.

So that’s how I write. I learned very early in my writing career to follow what works for me and not what works for other writers. However, sometimes by looking at others’ choices, I can find a better way to work.

How do you write? I would love to learn from you.

Incubating a Novel

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”

Larry L. King

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

My new novel is incubating. I finished the complete first draft in February. I gave it over to two beta readers who sent back their comments and suggestions in May. In the meantime, I read. One book that captured my attention was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad. She experimented with point of view so much that at first I didn’t think I’d enjoy this Pulitzer Prize novel. However, I found myself drawn to her experimentation with her characters and their voices and the non-linear plot line.

The comments from my first readers of Trails in the Sand made suggestions about the flashbacks and suggested lack of development of certain characters. My reading led me to revamping my second draft. Each chapter changes point of view and character. I finished this draft August 28 and sent it back to one of the betas. I await her pronouncement on the first fifty pages.

“I need to know immediately if the direction works,” I told her the other day when she called to apologize for not starting to read it yet. “It may be painful for me to hear, but I need to know if I’ve gone off my rocker with the experiment.” She agreed she would let me know as soon as she could.

In the meantime, I the novel rests on an unused desk in the living room. I walk past the manuscript in its three-ring binder, but I resist the urge to open it up. The characters, plot, and me need a break.

To keep me occupied, I read. The pile on the coffee table threatens to fall, but I am making progress. Even though I do have my Kindle and read occasionally from it, I still love the feel of the real thing in my hands. I love the smell of a new book opened for the first time. I like looking at the book cover next to my nightstand when I wake in the morning.

The rewriting will come soon enough. I already have an idea for revamping the beginning scene to bring it more in line with the theme of the novel. The idea came from a book I’m currently reading.

We writers may be the storytellers, but we are also the readers. There are no shortcuts.