Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

May 5, 2012

May is the month of resolution

Filed under: wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:47 am

There’s a piece of common wisdom held amongst writers that (paraphrasing so that I don’t have to do any research for correct attribution) you’re not a writer unless and until you finish something.

I could quibble with the sentiment, denouncing it as elitist bullshit designed to exclude. Dismissing someone’s wordcraft on the basis of a tendency to move on to the next idea before the last one is fully baked, or stuffing boxes full of unread manuscripts into a shed away from the eyes of the world, or just never bothering to flesh out an ending? That seems mean and unnecessary.

Or perhaps I’m just hypersensitive to that criticism because it hits me square between the eyes. I am a lifelong procrastinator, attention-wanderer and abandoner of first drafts, good ideas and plots that exceed a certain degree of complexity. I have pretty much always been able to get away with a churned-out first pass followed by a light (at best) copy edit. Second drafts are a vanishing rarity in my experience. The idea of a third draft is something I can conceive only as an intellectual exercise, best left to academics and those with compulsions beyond their control.

To be frank, I’m just pretty lazy.

I’m coming to appreciate the point of the entry qualification. Writing for pleasure – getting the story out of your head in raw form, with whatever warts may come – is easy. Fun, even. The product may even be reasonably readable. But it probably isn’t as good as it could be.

Crafting a smooth, polished story from the first-pass dross isn’t just a case of spell-checking and making sure the tense is consistent. Dialogue will need tightening, descriptions will need honing and, depending on the length, scenes and characters may need to be moved, added or removed. There might need to be an editing pass that considers tone and theme, screwing down or sawing off anything that doesn’t contribute to one or both. In short stories, the setup to a punchline will usually need tightening [1]. In longer works, needless repetition must be hunted down and executed, pace and escalation of tension should be assessed and the overall structure needs checking over to make sure that there’s a beginning, middle and ending (though not necessarily in that order). And a million other things that may only become apparent with a series of increasingly tedious read-throughs. And after that, it’s probably good enouigh to go out for criticism by peers, followed by more revision, and then maybe editing by someone who knows how editing is really done. Then more revisions. And then *maybe* the story will be as good as it can be.

It’s hard work, in other words. Maybe not back breaking labour, but effort all the same and sustained effort at that. Being a lazy person as we have established, I’ve usually been content to let my attachment to a piece of writing go at that stage. Get it done, show it to a couple of mates (and a big hello to the ten or so lovely people who read Lexifab on a regular basis) and then move on.

That’s all very well, but it’s not likely to result in professional sales. I have a couple of goals for this year and the next. One of them is to finish the current work-in-progress novel. The other is to write some short stories, hone them to what I can get at least a couple of people other than myself to agree is a professional standard and then try to sell them. Or at least embark on the joys of shopping them around to publishers to see what happens.

So with all that in mind, I have some specific goals for May, which I am posting here to try to keep myself honest:

  1. Finish the outline of the novel. I finished the first draft in April. It was an incoherent mess, but the rough idea of a good story is there. So the goal here is to turn that dross into the skeleton of a good novel. That may take several passes (I’m expecting it to be something like three or four but it might be more). Only when I have a structure that I am happy with do I intend to start on the second draft. What I hope is that working from a solid outline will minimise the number of subsequent drafts I have to tackle, but that’s just a theory at this stage. I won’t know until I’ve tried it.
  2. I have two short stories in progress. An unnamed story set during a cyclone and an unnamed story told entirely in tweet-length passages. I plan to finish both of those.
  3. I am rewriting ‘The Rutherford Expedition’ as a comic script. That’s only in outline form at the moment. Since I have done very little scripting (and not for ages) I have no idea how much work that’s going to take. In fact the main reason I’m doing it [2] is to see what it takes to write a script.

Above and beyond all that I will also be resuming my book reviews, ‘Lost’ recaps and occasional flirtations with flash fiction. Over the past two months I’ve lost a lot of momentum. This month I intend to claw that back.

[1] For an obvious example, look at my flash fiction piece ‘The Rutherford Expedition‘ where, for reasons of keeping to the thousand word limit, the big reveal of the killer’s identity comes from absolutely nowhere. That’s because I didn’t know who the killer was when I started writing it, and I only thought of the ending a couple of paragraphs before I got there. On a rewrite I would need some way to establish the prior animosity of the underworld dwellers, to flesh out more of the characters and to make it less obvious that the murder suspect is a red herring. I doubt I could keep that to a thousand words.

[2] …apart from a general sense of dissatisfaction that I told it completely right the first time. Because I didn’t (refer to [1] above).


  1. I will never pass up the chance to quibble with the idea that there is one correct way to write. Elitist bullshit it is. Why should someone be condemned for continually throwing off glittering ideas and not finding the time to tediously tidy them (Shellshear), hiding their work from the world (Kafka), or being unable to write an ending that keeps Dr Clam’s attention (Wynne Jones)? Why *not* leave a mess of first drafts on the interwebz for future literary executors to make sense of?

    “In longer works, needless repetition must be hunted down and executed, pace and escalation of tension should be assessed and the overall structure needs checking over to make sure that thereโ€™s a beginning, middle and ending”

    This is really Western-centric. How would the Mahabharata or the 1001 Arabian Nights fare under this imperialist vision? The imagery “hunted down and executed’ perfectly encapsulates the derogatory Western attitude to other literary traditions.

    Comment finished. I’s a writer!

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — May 5, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  2. Er, I guess what I *really* mean to say is: “Why waste time with blog posts? Hurry up and get that novel into a form you’re willing to show me, and for God’s sake keep standards low so I don’t have to wait too much longer.”

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — May 5, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  3. Well, to get what I suspect is your serious point out of the way first, it is only elitist bullshit if I leave it as unqualified as I have in the post. As you conclude, anyone can call themselves a writer having tossed together any collection of thoughts into a reasonably coherent form but in doing so it becomes a basically meaningless distinction (not a term of condemnation, though it has undoubtedly been used as such by more than one professional writer). So pretend that what I really mean is “paid published author”, since that’s essentially what I was getting at. I have a desire to be that now which that I have not had for some time. Having recognised the desire, the next step is to figure out how to do it.

    As usual, the blog posts are only inicidentally about starting a conversation with an audience (or in most cases, you). The main purpose is for me to think through what I’m doing, out loud and in public, where I – and in theory others of my close acquaintance – can hold myself at least somewhat to account. (Which of course is what you are doing here, since I probably said something about being done with the novel by now, right? Estimated timeline should be regarded as non-core promises…)

    You make a good point on the Shellshears, Kafkas and Wynns Jones. I’ve been all of those at one time or another and for various reasons, and been satisfied enough not to stretch myself any further. Various impulses, borne no doubt of middle aged anxiety and dissatisfaction at history of underwhelming career choices, now urge me towards the more personally challenging goal of seeing if I can find an audience of people who don’t know me from years of personal acquaintance.

    As for the Western-centrism – um, guilty? I don’t come from another literary tradition and my reading is narrow even within my own. I certainly don’t have ambitions outside that scope. Why might you imagine that I would?

    (And I have more to say in response, but your point about just getting on with it is well taken. Back to the word slinging)

    Comment by lexifab — May 6, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

  4. Curses, sorry to distract you into replying at length with my incoherent ranting. ๐Ÿ™ *promises to behave*

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — May 6, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  5. Not to worry – I am getting through my list. The real concern is when I am going to fit a viewing of ‘The Avengers’ in all of this. ‘Right this very minute’ is tempting, but I am striving to maintain my perfect run of never watching anything in 3D.

    Comment by lexifab — May 6, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  6. Goodness know how much more of a mess I could have made of that first comment if I had tried to stick to 140 characters. Please don’t let this distract you – but my serious point had to do with my kneejerk animosity to authority. Basically: if all this ‘advice to writers’ does not aid you in realising *your* particular creative vision for what you want *your* work to look like, throw it away.

    My new serious point is to do with ‘professional, published’. Is this really the best way to get your work to a wider audience? See how well Andrea is doing using a non-traditional model. Think outside the hollow rectangular prism. For example, I think your short stories would get the biggest audience if you put on a Batman costume and read them out loud on Youtube. If you want to be ‘professional and published’ to validate your writerliness, rather than to reach a wider audience, do you really think the publishers and consumers of “Derivative Vampire Teenfic #137” are qualified to pass judgment on you as an artist? I think, no.

    Comment by Chris Fellows — May 7, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  7. Point 1: Don’t worry, I parsed the comment through the standard Clam anti-authoritarianism filters ๐Ÿ™‚ And I completely agree with you on this and every other piece of writing advice – it’s only useful if it happens to apply to you. Me. Whomever. I read a fair amount of writing advice and know that much of it is (a) rubbish or (b) relevant only to people approaching writing from a perspective I don’t share or (c) at best partly true. And some of it is golden.

    Point 2: I agree with this too, actually. Andrea’s example is an outstanding one, to be admired and emulated in many respects. But where I think I differ with her (at this point anyway) is on the subject of exclusivity. Being well aware of her particular experience with so-called professionals, I completely understand and endorse her go-it-alone approach. She’s worked very hard to make it work for her and she deserves her success.

    But where I depart from her for the moment is in agreeing that it has to be an all-or-nothing proposition. I see no particular reason why I would restrict myself to just self-publishing work, any more than I would in theory cede all ownership of my writing career to some faceless publishing edifice. Hard to see the advantage in not going for both.

    (Case in point, the current novel for which you are so patiently salivating is *probably not* going to have wide appeal. When I get it done and critted and edited to my satisfaction, I plan to attempt to shop it to various publishers large and small. However I have a reasonable expectation that it will not meet their needs. C’est la vie. If I think it’s good enough, there are any number of self-publishing avenues I could look at, and I’ll do that then. First thing’s first, though – gotta get it done)

    I guess it’s fair but incomplete to suppose that I want to sell writing for validation. In a sense it’s true in that I know there are publishers and publications whose standards I respect, based on the material they have handled in the past. I know that if I can con them into buying my stuff – probably more than once, and preferably on as regular a basis I can manage – then I will have achieved a milestone I could not have set for myself. But, on the other hand, if I don’t, then at least I will have had practical experience in skin-toughening exercises. And I know that I have other options, including self-publication.

    What I don’t plan to get so desperate and pathetic as to do is to change what I write to appeal to the post-Twilight crowd. Partly because I don’t think I could, but mostly because I don’t want to. Finding the time and will to write is hard enough without writing shit that I wouldn’t want to read. So, don’t worry about that part.

    Also, my cyclone story is coming along nicely. I’ll send you that soon to keep you going while the novel outline continues to take shape.

    Or I might just send you a link to Youtube…

    Comment by lexifab — May 7, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

  8. I don’t hold an all-or-nothing position. I would happily work with a traditional publisher for distribution of paper books, and for foreign language editions. (Admittedly, that’s a bit unlikely.) I just have no intention of submitting my books for publication.

    And for, uh, ‘starting’ writers I still recommend spending a year or two submitting. There are many, many people who will only read self-published novels if they’re from a previously traditionally published author. Traditional publishers are great for getting a start in building an audience and stamping yourself with credibility. To many people I will never be a “real author”, and it would certainly be simpler to get that “real author” stamp before taking control of your own books.

    Good luck with the polishing and submitting. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Comment by Andrea — May 7, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  9. Ah, thanks for pointing out the distinction. As with all things, the nuances are important. (A local author just had her small-press anthology translated into Italian, so that sort of thing certainly does happen).

    Yes to all the rest of it too. Except the bit about you not being a real author, obvs.

    I can point out that I am not looking forward to the potentially (probably) disappointing-nay-crushing despair of the submission-rejection-polish-resubmission cycle.

    Comment by lexifab — May 8, 2012 @ 1:44 am

  10. On the flip side, while I think going with trad publishing can still be worthwhile, be _damn_ careful about the contract you sign:


    Comment by Andrea — May 10, 2012 @ 12:09 am

  11. Yeah, there’s no shortage of cautionary tales. Some of the ones that have come out of the woodwork in the last few days have been appalling.

    Comment by lexifab — May 10, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

  12. […] started May with an air of grim determination, declaring it the Month of Getting Things Finished, or some such pomposity. So how did I fare? Letโ€™s go through the checklist and see how I […]

    Pingback by May in review « Lexifabricographer — June 1, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

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