When the Pendulum Swings…

Back in 2013, one of my mentors told me my writing was sometimes “thin.” (I had requested his assessment.)

What he meant was that I didn’t include enough character opinion when I described a scene’s setting or when I touched on what my character was seeing and hearing and smelling. He urged me to go all out in this respect, explaining that writers at my skill level—able to tell a compelling story, but lacking the expertise of bestsellers—could not include too much.

At the beginning of his career, my mentor had been at that stage himself. His mentor said that if he felt like he’d gone too far with setting and opinion, then he’d probably hit it just right. 😉

I took his point to heart, and worked hard to filter as much as possible of my settings through my protagonists’ opinions.

Given that the reviews for my books now usually mention that the story world is vivid, the characters lifelike and appealing, and the sequence of events compelling, I think I’ve succeeded in including lots of character opinion in my narrative.

But I suspect I may have gone too far!

in 2013, it may not have been possible to include too much setting. Now, in 2018, I’ve written another dozen titles, studying my craft the whole time. I’m a different writer than I was then.

And, for the first time ever, my revision has required significant deleting!

Yep, you heard that right. I’ve been taking things out, and taking out more than I added in. Up to now, the balance has been the other way: I’ve added in far more than I took out.

The total word count on my current WIP was 77,697 for the first draft.

Then I received some truly stellar feedback from my first reader. (Have I said that my first and second readers are marvelous? They are! I’d be sunk without them.) And my response to the feedback was to cut about 4,000 words.

Oh, I added in a few paragraphs here and there. I replaced some entirely—taking out what was there, and writing new for that spot instead. But mostly I pruned and then pruned some more.

I’ve now sent the manuscript off to my second reader, and it clocks in at a mere 73,633 words. I can’t wait to hear what she says about it!

In the meantime, I’m getting ready to start writing my next novel, a sequel to The Tally Master, and I’m hoping to swing the pendulum back from “too much” to “just right,” because I’ve discovered that cutting snippets here and paragraphs there is very challenging for me when there’s a lot to cut. Writing a new scene to insert at the critical moment is much more fun!

For those of you waiting on To Thread the Labyrinth (which might get a different title—I’m thinking about it), take note: Labyrinth is moving through its revision cycles fairly steadily! I hope to get feedback from my second reader in October, make those revisions swiftly, and then send the manuscript to my proofreader in November. I’ll keep you posted as the process moves forward. 😀



What is the Worst Thing?

One of the writers I respect most – and whose stories I love the most – asks herself this question: what is the worst thing I can do to my protagonist?

She poses that question, answers it, and then does that very thing in her story.

Shark by Umair Mohsin

She’s not the only writer who uses that question to guide her stories. Many do.

But it never worked for me. When I asked myself, “What is the worst thing that might happen to my heroine?” the answers were distinctly not helpful.

Answer the first: kill her off. In which case, there is no story.

Answer the second: take away the thing that makes life worth living, with no hope of replacement or redemption. In which case, I’m writing a tragedy, and I don’t want to write a tragedy.

Many of my stories are born from a setting that has inherent problems.

For example, Livli’s Gift was sparked from an incident that happens in Troll-magic.

When Lorelin travels north on skis, she encounters a Hammarleeding woman in the woodland edging the tundra. We learn that the woman is returning from a journey to visit her new grandchild, and that her daughter had left the Hammarleeding enclaves entirely, because she wouldn’t be allowed to keep her young son if she stayed. Hammarleeding boy children go to live in the father-lodge, apart from their mothers, when they are two-and-a-half years old.

My story question was: how would a woman who couldn’t bear to follow that societal norm manage when she gave birth to a boy?

Livli’s Gift explored that question, starting with pregnant Livli worrying that her baby might be a boy.

Knife-weilding ElfI’ve generally relied on the inherent dangers and risks in my story setting to drive the story forward.

But, in one of my recently written novels, that method wasn’t working. At least, it seemed not to be working. Both of my first readers told me that the first third of my story wasn’t holding their interest. Both loved the middle and the end. But not the beginning.

So I had some thinking to do. Where exactly had I gone wrong?

The situation my protagonist found herself in was dangerous and scary. If I were in that situation – utterly alone, trapped in a deserted castle with no food or water and no way to get out – I’d be pretty scared.

So why were my readers not gripped by it?

The answer, when I discovered it, was quite obvious. (Although it took me two hours of discussion before I stumbled on it. 😉 )

My protagonist dove into solving her problems too quickly. No sooner did we realize that there was no water than she scrounged up water. Same with the food. That took all the tension out of the story.

I needed to let her encounter the full dangers of her situation before I allowed her to devise solutions.


Tiger Face Portrait by Gavin BellUnconsciously, I’d followed that guideline – show the dangers fully – in most of my stories.

In Livli’s Gift, Livli arrives on the scene worrying about being forced to give up her baby, if he is a boy.

In Perilous Chance, young Clary immediately must cope with her wailing baby brother, because her father is absent and her mother incapacitated.

In Troll-magic, Kellor struggles with the throes of troll-disease: its physical discomfort and its mental confusion.

In the novel where I failed to follow that excellent precept – allow your protagonist to wrestle with the difficulties inherent in the situation – why had I failed?

It was because I, the writer, was too scared!

I was writing my personal nightmare, and I couldn’t bear to experience it in all its horror. I needed those solutions. With the result that I let my heroine have it too easy.

But don’t worry, she now has a perfectly dreadful time!

That’s why most writers have trusted first readers: to find the places where the story isn’t working so that the writer can fix any writing mistakes and make the story work.

Not only have I fixed the mistake in this particular story, but I now have my own question to ensure I don’t make the same mistake in future stories.

Colorado National Monument

“What is dangerous and risky about this situation? How can I present those dangers most powerfully to the reader?”

It was exciting to develop my own twist on, “What is the worst that can happen?”

I was in the middle of writing a novel at the time, but I can’t wait to see how my touchstone question guides me at the start of my next story. 😀

More writing tips:
The First Lines
Where Should a Paragraph End?