Aug 30, 2010

Revision notes

I'm working on a big revision of Claire Morgane Almost Saves The World and my overall goal is to simplify the major plot through-line and tighten the action in the book.  In doing so, I'm eliminating some entire chapters where there are now only a few critical bits of material remaining.  Those critical bits must find their way into other parts of the book, preferably by replacing less-important material.

My goal is to create scenes that serve more than one purpose in the book.  If a scene advances the plot, that's not enough.  It should also reveal character development or add clues to the subplot or contribute to world-building.  Every scene must do more without becoming overly complicated.  Elegant trimming and replacement is more difficult than it looks!

So far in this revision I've used a shrunken manuscript to identify major plot points and subplot points in the book---and also to identify those sections that can be removed.  Next, I went through the entire manuscript using the tracking features in Word, making notes throughout.

When I deleted a scene, I evaluated its current purpose and used the shrunken manuscript to identify a place I might achieve the same purpose elsewhere in the book.  Before eliminating the scene, I added notes to the target chapter.

I'm now to a point where I need to make sure all these details fit where I've moved them.  I don't want to polish a scene and work on transitions into the next, only to discover I have the action in the wrong order.

I'm using large note cards for this stage.  Since I'm revising from a manuscript with lots of notes, not everything needs to be included on these cards.  The cards are my reminder of the big picture:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?

  • How does each scene work toward that purpose?
For instance, in the first chapter, I need to show what Claire wants most. By keeping that in mind, I'm able to look at every detail of a scene and run it through that filter.  I'm not looking at heavy-handed changes, but the subtle things.  How does her awareness of environmental collapse influence the way she sees the sky and the clouds?  The big note card will be my reference as I'm rewriting specific scenes.

I will also be leaving lots of blank space on the cards so I can add colored sticky notes to each.  The sticky notes will track character development as well as tracking the continuum between clues and revealed material.

Because I'm touching so much in this revision, I need to keep track of the big picture as I move forward.  I know some people are able to do this without all the structural supports, but I need the scaffolding.  When I'm in the details of a scene, I get lost in the mind of my character---the pain and the passion and the immediacy of a specific event.  I absolutely need the reminders so I'm writing to the book and not just the scene.

When I look back at the revisions of this book in the last year, I see clearly how much I've developed as a writer.  A year ago a revision of this size would have scared me.  Now, not so much.  If I can make the book better, I'm in.

Aug 29, 2010


(Note: This post originally appeared in my old blog on December 2, 2009.  As topics reappear in discussion, I'm transferring the content here.)

The cluster pictured here is one I did for this blog entry, based on #amwriting.  I ended up considering something that happens repeatedly in the chat: someone says they are not really writing because they’re editing or planning or doing research or some other writing-related activity.  My direction at the end of the cluster is leading me toward a discussion of all the things that really should be included in a definition of writing.

Clustering is one of those things I thought I understood until I really experienced it.

I’m 42 years old.  I was introduced to clustering and mind mapping in high school.  The basic idea taught to me was that you put an idea in the center of the page, circle it, and then brainstorm ideas out from there.  For me, mind mapping was a messy, graphic way of outlining.  They were interchangeable for me and linear outlining was much easier to understand later.  So for years, I was under the impression that I knew all about this method and it just didn’t work for me.

I went to the SCBWI Conference in Utah last month and took a workshop presented by Terri Farley, author of the middle grade Phantom Stallion series.  When she started talking about clustering, I admit there was an inner-me that yawned and said, “not this again.”  Being a polite conference attendee, I listened.  Politely.  Then I listened attentively.  And finally, I realized she was talking about clustering in a way I had never considered.

I also should admit Terri really spoke to me because so many of her creative thoughts resonated with my own creative process.  She talked about sitting on the floor during her planning.  She uses notecards and she does a lot of her pre-planning work by hand.  So when she told us that clustering works for her, every time, that it’s a go-to method she relies upon, I was more open to hearing what she had to say.

These are the points that changed my experience of clustering:

  • Cluster by hand.  Don’t use the pretty computer programs. There is something magical that happens between right and left brain when you physically draw circles and lines.

  • Use words for the left brain.  Use free association between words for the right brain.

  • Don’t edit the flow of ideas.

  • Cluster until you feel direction.  I know when this happens for me because I start writing in sentences or lists.  My left brain knows where to go with all the details I’ve thrown at it.

Terri told a story about a heart-wrenching experience she had observing wild horses.  When she returned to her car, she couldn’t begin to put words to what she had witnessed, so she clustered her thoughts.  Within a few minutes, even with tears streaming down her cheeks and emotions everywhere, she had captured everything she needed to write about the experience, including the angle from which she would tell the story.

This spoke to me.

There are many times when I feel overwhelmed by my emotional response to my characters and their story--usually because I’m writing about something reflected in my own life in some way.  My standard response has been to wait for the strong emotion to pass and then find a logical approach to the topic at a later time.

Clustering allows me to get my thoughts on paper and find direction using my emotions (and not in spite of them).  This is a Big Deal.

Terri credits Gabriele Rico with opening up clustering for her.  The amazing thing to me is that I have Rico’s book, Writing The Natural Way, on my bookshelf.  I was already familiar with her ideas before I attended Terri’s workshop.  I can go to Rico’s website and read and I still see the words through old eyes.

Sometimes we need to hear the translation of an idea through another writer’s experience.  If I can do that for anyone with this blog entry, that’s a very good thing.

Remember:  cluster by hand, use circles and lines, don’t censor the connections between words.

And about the messiness of it?  Once you have the idea, it’s in your head.  You don’t ever have to look at the cluster again.  The value is in the process not the product.  How cool is that?

Aug 24, 2010

Shrunken manuscript

I thoroughly enjoy working with shrunken manuscripts.  I first heard of this method through Darcy Pattinson's website and have since used it in many different ways, from tracking characters as they appear on page to keeping track of the passage of time.  Any time I want a big picture of the entire novel, I either deal out note cards or work with a shrunken manuscript.

The manuscript is printed in tiny font, 4 pages per sheet, with removal of headers, footers, and chapter breaks. I leave in the double spacing and keep the font just barely readable and my 90,000 words fit on 50 pages.

Today I'm working on simplifying the structure of my first Claire Morgane novel. The pink lines signify the major through-line.  This is the big picture for the book.  The blue is a subplot that often overlaps with the main plot--but I have a terrible habit of getting lost in the blue and forgetting the pink.  (Big picture helps me identify those places where I need to focus, focus, focus.) Yellow marks a smaller subplot that should appear beginning, middle and end.

Green marks entire scenes I'm ready to lift.  The important details from these scenes will be worked into other sections of the book.

One thing I heard time and time again at conferences this summer:  make your scenes work double or triple duty.  It's not enough that a scene be critical to your book.  It has to be worth its page space as well.  Forget writing a long, endearing scene based around a tiny critical plot point.  If the tiny critical plot point can be dropped into another scene, the long, endearing scene goes.

The great part about having all these green sections?  I'm going to have a lot of fun outtakes for the website. (Yay!)

Aug 14, 2010

Reflections on WD Interview

Jane Friedman recently interviewed me for her Writer's Digest blog, There Are No Rules.  What an amazing and wonderful experience!  The feedback from this interview has been overwhelming.  My website hits that one day went from my average 1500 hits to over 11,000!  Um, wow.  Just wow.  My stack of #amwriting bios to add to the directory?  Well, it's bigger.  (I'm working through a couple different possibilities to get help shrinking the stack.)  Thank you so much, Jane, for this opportunity.

I look back at the interview and ask myself if I managed to say the things I wanted to say. I know I talked a lot about process and experience, but I don't think I connected this with success and dignity.

Before we're published, writers too-often associate no-answers with failure instead of progress.  I'm not sure when we learn this, but we're not born that way.  Just look at kids learning to walk.  They don't fall down once and say, "Well to hell with that. I tried."  (Or, you know, whatever the toddler version of that would be.)  No, they wail in frustration sometimes, but they always have at it again.

Yet, as writers, we often don't have the resilience of toddlers.  A single rejection is like a stumble.  "How many stumbles?" we ask.  And, of course, the answer is, "as many as it takes."  Do toddlers stop and analyze and blame the floor and the furniture and the people and the dog for their fall?  Not in my experience.  They may wail, but they also adapt with equal passion.

I know one little girl who is really expressive when she adapts. You can see in her eyes when she gets a new idea. Maybe if she grabs the dog's hair, he'll jerk forward and pull her to her feet!  Yeah!  So what if he drags her across the floor and her great idea smashes into the coffee table with her?  She adapts again. Hey!  Coffee table!  She pulls herself up. . .

So yeah, I'm not sure when we start to associate learning with failure, but I am certain it's counter-productive to everything we're trying to achieve.

What happens when we choose to treat ourselves and our writing paths with dignity?  What happens when we see each stumble as a chance to adapt and try something new?  How often do you give yourself credit for all you're learning?

Success isn't an arrival destination.  It's a path.  It's about owning your experiences and adapting and really engaging with your dreams. It's very likely the path you're walking right now.

So on a bad day, when you're feeling a little too beat up by your falls, allow yourself that one thought:  "Maybe this is what success looks like."  Then adapt.

Aug 12, 2010

Transferring posts to grown-up blog

I'm updating my blog today, moving my old thoughts to something more fully-functional, something with (gasp!) comments.  And buttons.  And bells.  And whistles.

It had to happen sometime.

And yet I will miss my little, poorly-designed, barely-functioning, too-easy-to-break blog.

At Willamette Writers Conference, Chuck Palahniuk said, "You have to give up what you have, to have what you want."  How often do I get in my own way because I'm holding on to things that are broken?

So yeah, today I'm transferring posts and letting go.

What things are holding you back?

Aug 4, 2010

Tweeting at Willamette Writers Conference

I’ll be live tweeting from the Willamette Writers Conference this weekend.  Yay!  Although my regular twitter account is @johannaharness, I live tweet as @johannalive so I don’t irritate with my high level of chatter.

Well, for starters, I don’t want to miss being in Portland the way I missed being in Seattle for PNWA.  I don’t like being in a place and only being outside for the short jaunt from airport to hotel to airport.  I get Setting Sickness.  I could be anywhere. It’s horrible.

So I’m leaving a little early this time, heading for Powell’s first and then maybe The Chinese Garden or Voodoo Donuts or Music Millennium or. . . okay, yeah, I’m not going to see all my favorite places, but I do plan to start the conference knowing where I am.  Hopefully I’ll get some photos tweeted so you know where I am too.  I love Portland.  I think you’ll love it too.

Thursday evening is early registration and pitch practice and that’s all, so look for a ten percent chance of wordy tweeting and a high concentration of travel-related twitpics.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the fun really begins.  I’ve written to speakers ahead of time and I’m live tweeting from workshops where I’ve asked for and received permission to tweet.  There will be a smattering of descriptive tweets from panel discussions and other less-tweetable events, but workshop speakers will receive most of my attention because their workshops intrigued me and the speakers were cool with tweeting.

Be sure to visit the speaker websites, leave comments on blogs, and let them know (when appropriate) that you’re there because of live tweeting.  Speakers need this feedback to make decisions about tweeting at future events.  If you buy a book because of live tweeting, this is especially important feedback for them to have!  When you go to your next event and ask someone about live tweeting, we want the response to continue to be as positive and enthusiastic as it’s been for me this season.

That said, how much I tweet depends both on the inherent tweetability of a workshop and whether one of my agent appointments cuts into that time slot.  For those of you wanting to read tweets in real time, here’s the schedule of workshops I plan to attend.  All times are Pacific Daylight Time.  Complete workshop descriptions are available from this page of the Willamette Writers Conference site.


10:30am-12pm:  Penny Warner:  “It was a Dark and Stormy Setting”

1:30pm-3pm:  Jessica Morrell:  “Beginnings, Endings, & Turning Points”

3:30pm-5pm:  Andrea Brown:  “The Hot YA Category”


8:30am-10am:  Andrea Brown:  “Demystifying The Children’s Book Market”

10:30am-12pm:  Stephen Fraser:  “Create The Perfect Elevator Pitch”

3:30-5pm:  Melissa Hart:  “Travel Writing for Newspapers and Magazines”


8:30am-10am:  Eric Witchey:  “Levers, Ratchets, and Buttons”

10:30am-12pm:  Christine Fletcher:  “Close to the Bone:  Writing The YA Novel.”

1:15pm-2:30pm:  Jessica Morrell:  “Blood, Roses, & Mosquitos:  Writing with Details”

3pm-4:15pm:  Christina Katz:  “The Prosperous Writer: Career Strategies for Staying Flush”

Expect a high wordiness/attribution quotient with a few splashes of twitpics (probably all in florescent lighting).

Please do reply while I’m tweeting!  I know most of you don’t reply because you know I can’t really respond right then (and you’re right), but I do love knowing what you’re thinking and it influences the details I choose to report.  And hey--you can always talk amongst yourselves about the ideas being presented.  Backchannel discussion reminds me of the internet in its early days. (“You mean there’s a discussion going on underneath the reality?”  Oh yeah--and now there’s a discussion of the discussion of the reality.  Or is it a discussion of the discussion of the discussion?  We’re certainly stretching the bounds of “A life unexamined. . .” and some of us are giggling.)

I hope you enjoy your twitter trip to Willamette.  Almost time to go. In 3, 2, 1. . .

Aug 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, #Amwriting!

One year ago today #amwriting started. It’s a birthday. Or a hashtagversary. Or something. It’s cool; that’s what it is.

I’ve been asked since: how does one go about creating a hashtag that takes off like this one did? My answer: I have no idea. I can only tell you how this one started.

Just over a year ago I was hashtag invisible. I had a twitter bug that kept my tweets from appearing in hashtag searches and, thus, live chats. I didn’t know about the bug. I would go to chats, participate, and no one would respond to me. I thought I was just monumentally unpopular. When I found out I was really invisible, I felt a little stupid and I registered a help ticket to correct my search issues. Then I waited--a long time--for a response.

In the meantime, I found that people would respond to me when I’d do a regular shout-out, asking “who is writing right now?” Any time I was writing and felt alone in it, I could call out and ten or twelve people would respond. My only problem was that I then had a conversation going with ten or twelve people and I was no longer writing. I wanted to know other writers were writing alongside me, hear them talking to me AND each other, participate here and there, and get back to work.

So I tried something different: as more people responded to my semi-regular shout-outs, I experimented with retweeting comments, hoping writers would find each other and continue the conversation, even after I moved on to writing. It didn’t work that way. Instead, the more I retweeted, the more new people responded. Instead of talking with ten or twelve people, I was now conversing with twenty or twenty-five.

#amwriting rose out of a synchronicity of events that happened in one evening. A follower DM’d me and said, “I have to unfollow you because you tweet and retweet way too much” and an email came in telling me my hashtag invisibility was fixed.

The next morning when I did my call-out, I suggested a hashtag with morning implications--because it was morning in my part of the world. I immediately received responses from people all over the world saying, “What about me? I’m writing right now, but it’s not morning here. Can I play?”

And honestly, my immediate response was, “OMG. Someone from across the world is writing at the same time I’m writing. My sun is coming up and their sun is going down and it’s the same sun and look! There’s someone else fixing soup for lunch every afternoon when I’m barely awake here and I’m not even in the same season with half these people--and we’re still writing alongside each other and we’re caring about the same things and this is the most amazing thing EVER!”

And I responded: “Um, yeah, that’s cool.”

So for about an hour during a time that happened to be morning where I was, this hashtag was for morning writers, because I was totally provincial and short-sighted. During the second hour of existence, “AM writing” came to mean “I am writing” because it was better.

Then, about an hour after that, @inkyelbows showed up in a room full of chatter and asked how long we’d been meeting and she asked for information she could post on her website about the chat.

And I was thinking, “We have a chat?” And I looked around and there were about thirty people chatting and I realized, “oh, yeah, we have a chat.” So I wrote something up and sent it to Debbie. (Thank you, Debbie!) And then more people asked, so I created a FAQ (

Every morning I’d do the same call-out, but I encouraged people to talk to one another and not just me--and I pointed them to the FAQ. More people showed up every day. Then they started showing up before me--and staying after I’d gone. I remember discovering #amwriting discussion continuing two hours after I left the chat and I was so excited I couldn’t stand it.

My goal became something simple: I wanted #amwriting to grow big enough it wouldn’t need me anymore.

Today we’re there.

We have over 2000 active participants and you can find writers posting to #amwriting around the clock. We have published and pre-published, indie and traditional, business writers and novelists, and we cross boundaries without blinking.

The one thing that pulls us all together, always, is that we are practicing our craft. It doesn’t matter how much we have written in the past or what our intentions might be for future writing. What matters is the moment of writing: the process. It’s great to know someone will celebrate with you when you spend your day replacing passive verbs with active--or when you finally find the perfect name for your dastardly character with a sexy limp. It’s great to know that you can ask goofy writer research questions like, “what’s the circumference of a blood spatter under these conditions?” and someone probably knows. Or you can say, “I’m switching from third to first person” and others understand the mountain of work to which you’ve committed yourself. It’s great to have people like Joe “Mr. Clarity” Roy reminding us that the well-turned phrase impacts more than a novel or poetry; it impacts everything within a business or organization.

So on this day when #amwriting turns a year old, I do my regular call-out: “Who is writing right now?” and I lift my cup to writers everywhere, no matter where you are or what you write--because you people are the smartest people anywhere and I’m so incredibly lucky to know you. Thank you for opening your hearts and minds not just to me, but to each other. It’s been a great first year.