No Such Thing as “Good Enough”

This post has given me a lot of trouble. Like the previous two, every time I revised and edited it until I thought it was good enough, then left it for a while to cool down, when I came back to it again, I found that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough at all.

Many times, in the course of revising and editing and polishing a story of any length — usually long — I come to a passage which seems to be not quite right, so I try to fix it, and move on, knowing I can come back to it later. It may be a word, a phrase, a sentence or two, a paragraph or two, a page or more. When I come back for another read-through, I’ll be able to see my fix more objectively. Some of the problems have been fixed, but sometimes I find more rough spots, and try to fix them. Each read-through, for text silently and aloud, for story, and for performance, reveals different problems. Each time through it gets better, and fewer problems have to be left for later. But when I get to my final polish, when I read aloud for performance, if there are any rough spots left, anything which makes me unsatisfied or uncomfortable, I have to take whatever time is necessary to fix it right then. I can’t let it be just “good enough,” but as close to truly right as I can make it. After each fix I still have to let it cool down again, but I don’t have to read the whole story, just those trouble spots. And try again if they’re still a problem.

If I don’t fix these problems, if I don’t enjoy reading it again this time, despite however many times I’ve read it before, anyone else reading my story will feel the roughness, though they may not know what is causing it, and they won’t enjoy the story as much as they should.

I’ve read passages that just weren’t right in other books, fiction and non-fiction. One time it seemed to me that the final page, which was supposed to have hammered in the point of the whole book, was actually a nonsequiter. I went back a few pages and read it again, to see if I had missed something crucial. But I hadn’t, the last page made no sense, spoiling an otherwise good book and argument. Why was it left that way?

Possibly because the writer — and almost certainly the copy editor, who should have caught it — felt that, at the moment, it was “pretty much okay.” It would take a lot of work to fix, and maybe the author thought he’d come back to it, but he never did, and it had to get out the door. There was nothing wrong with it when I read it just as text. The words, the grammar, the punctuation, the phrasing, the syntax, all were fine. But when I read it for meaning within the context of the rest of the book, it was totally wrong. I could not figure out the point he was trying to make. And I don’t remember what the book was about, all I remember is that bad last page.

So, when I come on a “good enough” passage in my own work, if it persists into my reading aloud for performance, where it really sticks out, I have to try to figure out why it is only “good enough.” I can’t just pass it over. I must make it as good as I possibly can. Maybe my standards are too high.

One time I spent over two hours working on one short paragraph, because no matter how many times I read it, and revised it, and corrected it, it made me feel uncomfortable, and made me want to stop reading. It took rephrasing, reordering, different words and punctuation, tightening, expanding, and on and on. And a lot of time pacing the floor. But at last I made it right, or at least as right as I was able. And then it was a pleasure to read, instead of a chore. All that time spent was worth it. And my readers will never know which paragraph that was.

For me at least, when I’m writing a story — or a blog post — there is no such thing as “good enough.” Not any more. There’s only “the best I can do.” Only the best is good enough, according to the company motto of a certain toy manufacturer. And as time goes by, my standards get higher, and I get better.

Reading Aloud as Performance

I didn’t do many readings at SF conventions, because I wasn’t going over well, and I didn’t know why. I had done good readings before. One time, at Disneyland, I read the captions for my daughter on a Cinderella’s Palace walk-through, and I was applauded by several young women following behind who had overheard. But a friend told me that my readings at conventions sounded just like everybody else’s — my voice was flat, I was reading too fast, and there was no feeling. Especially no feeling.

I wanted to do better, so I began to practice, and I discovered that a dramatic reading revealed clumsy phrases, problems in paragraphing, passages or paragraphs that read like non-fiction, and other problems, all of which my readers would notice, but none of which I had found while reading for the story. So I decided to use “reading as a performance,” not only as a practice for a live reading, but as a final draft as well. Here’s how I do it.

First, I must always have, in the back of my head, the idea of giving my (imaginary) audience, all of them SF readers, a reading that they will enjoy. I have to keep them entertained, and hold their attention, so that they will want more.

I have to read what I actually see on the page, not what I “know” is there, or think is there. That means I have to read slowly, word for word, as if I were proof-reading; I have to articulate carefully, so that I will be understood; and I have to put enough feeling into the words, carefully not overdoing it, so that my audience can share it.

I pay attention to the punctuation, to find where there is too much, or too little, or it is serving  the wrong purpose. I have to think of punctuation as a guide for delivery, not just as markers for grammar. After all, the original purpose of punctuation was so that people reading aloud would know when to pause and for how long.

When I do it right, the pitch of my voice drops. If my voice gets too high, then I’m reading too fast, and I’m not paying enough attention. I have to back up a paragraph or two, and try again. If I find anything that makes me hesitate, even for a second, or that just feels rough, or wrong, I take whatever time is necessary to fix it, whether it’s ten seconds, or ten minutes, or two hours, until it feels right. When it is right, it’s a pleasure to read it, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. And when it’s a pleasure for me, then it will be a pleasure for my readers too.


I didn’t make this up. I just had to apply some proofreading techniques, as told to me by an editor, and adapt some of what I learned in Toastmasters to what I am doing now.

I was a member of Toastmasters International ( for twenty nine years. It is an oraganization devoted to helping people learn how to speak in public, in as professional a way as possible, and techniques have been developed and perfected ever since Toastmasters was founded, in 1924. I also did theater in college, and use some of what I learned there.

Public speaking of any kind, for entertainment, for giving information, for persuasion, or for playing a role, requires certain skills. Which I used to have, but forgot about. Listen to recordings of Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, for some examples. Listen to live conversations when you’re among people at conventions, and compare them to conversations as performed in a movie, or on a stage, or on TV. You can easily tell the difference. Clergy who give sermons know that they have to acquire these skills, if they want their congregation to stay awake. Actors who don’t acquire these skills never get to perform.

Most of us may never read as performance, but we do want our readers to keep on reading. And by reading aloud, as if for a performance, we can discover all those little roughnesses that make our readers pause, and perhaps stop, and put the story down. And then we can fix them.

And storytelling, whether by page or picture or voice, really is theater after all.

Reading Aloud for Story

I have been struggling with this post ever since I uploaded “Learning to Edit.” I’ve written maybe a couple dozen first paragraphs, as many first lines, and none of them went anywhere. I had a couple thousand words that seemed to be right, or okay, or would do in a pinch, and then, when I started editing before posting, I discovered that they were all wrong.

The original quote, “I know it when I see it,” was about obscenity, but I’ve heard it used about science fiction too, meaning they can’t define it precisely but they know what it is when they read it. It’s like that, I know what I’m doing when I read aloud for story, but putting it into words has been difficult. And once again, I’m learning more about how I do something by trying to explain it than by actually doing it, even though as I do it I get better.

I’ve attended only a few readings at SF conventions. Most people read too fast, and their voices are rather flat. It’s as if they were trying to read aloud at the same speed as when they read to themselves. I feel rushed, I can’t get into the story, it’s just a text. So when I read for story, instead of for text, I deliberately read more slowly, and articulate more carefully, because we can’t hear as quickly or as accurately as we see. I have known people who talk so fast that I can’t understand what they’re saying.

(This is an issue in my Writers’ Workshops, when the writers read their exercises aloud. We on the panel sometimes have to ask them to slow down so we can follow. Anybody who does readings should slow down. You read better, and your audience enjoys it more.)

When I read aloud for text, reading at a normal speaking pace is okay, because I pay little attention to content, mostly to technical style (as in Strunk and White, or the Chicago Manual), and only to those aspects which are meaningful to me. But when I read aloud for story, I have to slow down, because it is the content, not the style I pay attention to. The pitch of my voice drops, which tells me I’m doing it right. If I’m reading, and find my voice rising in pitch, I know I’m going too fast, and I’m not reading carefully enough. I back up a paragraph or so, and make myself slow down again.

I don’t worry about copy-editing when I’m reading for story. I’ve done that in the previous read-aloud, and I’ve fixed everything (almost everything). But I do pay attention to personal style, as in Hemingway or Lovecraft (two extremes between which there is a fairly broad range — to misquote Dickens). I’m not looking for things this time through, I’m listening for them. Listening to my own words. Anything that doesn’t sound right has to be fixed. I am always surprised by the weaknesses, flaws, and errors that I become aware of while I’m doing this. (And somewhat disheartened by not having found them through however many drafts I did before.)

Some words which are correct in non-fiction are inappropriate in fiction. For example: “There was a dark aperture in the wall.” It’s technically correct, but it just sounds strange in a story, unless a character who talks that way is saying it. More natural, whether in dialogue or narrative, would be “a dark opening.” This kind of mis-use of words — and I discover that I’ve done that much more often than I like — is more apparent when reading aloud for story.

I don’t consciously think about what I’m listening for. I just read, and if I’m doing it right, I find patches that need to be smoothed over, holes that need to be filled, breaks that need to be mended, and so on. So what kinds of thing may need fixing?

Mood. Atmosphere. Voice. Personal style. Pacing. Movement or flow of plot. Development of setting or characters. Continuity with what came before. Can I see it in my mind’s eye? Is the beginning a grabber, and is it strong enough. Is the ending inevitable, and is it satisfying. Descriptions according th a character’s experience rather than what I know. Weather. Environment. Passage of time. Distinctive personalities. Character dialogue that matches the speaker’s personality. Character feelings, and emotion in the reader. Character motivation. Physical senses other than just sight. Growth of characters. Anticipation. Exploration. Tension. Conflict (and resolution). The strange and unknown. Friendship. Loss. Evil. Writerly language. And on and on.

I do not consciously listen for these things, but when I’m thinking “story, story,” I become aware of them in a way I could not when I’m thinking of text.

There is, or there was, a school of literary criticism, which declared that the most important part of a text, by which they meant fiction, was surface, that is, the words themselves. Content of any sort was secondary. I’ve read “stories” that were written that way. I found them boring, full of writerly language (words and phrases chosen to show off the writer’s skill or something), and with no story at all. Such critics, if they still exist, or ever existed (I sort of studied literary criticism decades ago) would find this essay, for example, utter nonsense. I can reassure them that I feel the same way about them. I am not writing text, I am writing story.

Learning to Edit

I’ve been writing stories for maybe sixty years, since my early teens anyway. I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I am continuing to learn and grow.

I have come to demand more of myself during the last few years. I am no longer satisfied with my earlier published novels, though I have done better on some than on others. For one thing, my style, and my voice have evolved. I would not write those novels that way today.

One of the things I have learned is that, when I have done with what feels like the last draft, it is not really finished. The text is as good as I can make it, at that moment, so it’s time to publish. But now I know that I have to put a story aside for a while — weeks or months or maybe years — and then do at least three more drafts, sometimes four.

There is only so much that a writer can see about his or her own work. Which is why we almost always need the objective view of an editor to help us achieve our potential. The problem is finding that editor. If you haven’t sold the story yet, there is no editor. If you let friends and family read it, they don’t really know how to edit, and you’ll get bad advice, or useless advice at best. My daughter, Darcy, is an exception. If you ask another writer to edit your work, they probably won’t be willing to give up the time needed to do a good job, and would rather work their own stories, or do their day-time jobs. There are free-lance editors, but can you afford them? I used one once, someone I knew and trusted, and she did a fantastic job. But she doesn’t do that any more.

I have found that, instead of waiting three years for a rejection, without any explanation or editorial comment, I have to learn how to edit myself. Shall I say that it’s not easy?

I can improve my story a lot just by reading it aloud. When I read to myself, what I see is a text with which I am all to familiar. If I haven’t looked at it in a long time, maybe more than a year, a silent reading is essential, to re-familiarize myself with the text before reading it aloud. I find many things that can be improved at the same time.

But reading it aloud gives me a certain objectivity, especially if I read it each time in a different way, with a different objective. Text, just as text, can be technically correct, but it may not be right as a story.

Brain scans have shown that the verbal area of the brain has several different sub-areas. I saw the scans in one of my science magazines years ago, but I don’t remember where, and a brief search roughly confirmed what I read back then. Basically, there’s a speaking part, a hearing part, a writing part (or thinking part), and a reading part, more or less. So when writers read silently, they use only the reading part of their verbal brain. Reading aloud uses the speaking, and hearing parts as well. Just reading aloud gives you a lot more perspective on what you have written.

I read aloud the first time as text. My objective is to find those typos, punctuation errors, faults in tense or number, incomplete images, duplicate or missing words — everything a copy-editor would find. But to do this, I have to read it literally word for word, not read just what I know is there, but read what is really there. It takes a lot of focus, and a lot more time to read this way than to read it silently. If I can maintain that focus, which is easy to loose, I can find much more that can be improved, parts that are wrong, or too verbose, or too terse, and parts which need adjustment for style and voice.

I am no longer surprised by how many problems I find in a text, which felt done when I last read it to myself. In other words, I am learning how to objectively edit my own work. Learning, not have learned. It is an acquired skill, and takes constant practice.

But I am getting better.

Is It Ever Really Done?

At last the story is done. It may be five thousand words, or a hundred thousand, but it’s done. It started with a vague idea; or several story elements such as a character, a situation, an event, a setting, which have all come together; or a beginning from which I can see the whole story, or most of it, or enough of it to encourage me to start writing; or an ending, the goal toward which the story drives, and which might change by the time I get there. But somehow, out of this chaos of images and ideas and words, out of nothing, really, a whole and complete story has been created and written.

There are some stories which seem to come complete on the first draft. All that is needed now is some revision, editing, corrections, and a bit of polish. But that first draft is ninety five percent of the story or more. Planet Masters was like that.

More frequently, a story takes some time to grow and develop. Some research, a set of plot points, maps, a time chart, a sketch of several pages, a collection of unordered notes, maybe an outline. Some of my rough drafts were only a quarter the length of the finished novel.

For me, a rough draft is a text which has everything I wanted my story to have, in some form or another. A first draft is when everything has been put into a rough kind of prose, everything has been developed, and everything is in the right place. But it is nowhere near done, there will be a second, or a third draft.

Every story is different. Some are easy to write, some are painfully difficult. Some require only one or two or three drafts. Others may go through eight or fifteen drafts, and parts may be rewritten may more times than that. But because every story is different, there can be no one way to write it. I have had to learn not just how to write a story, but how a particular story must be written.

I know there are writers who have figured it out, and who have a method, or a routine, or a system that always seems to work. This is not a formula for a story, but a procedure for writing it. They can write a book a year, or two a year, and it works. But for me, every story is another challenge, another experiment, and it has taken me a long time to learn how to let each story come out on its own. I am still learning.

But eventually the story, long or short, is done, whether after one draft and a polish, or many drafts and revisions and changes in plot or character or setting or whatever. It is done, a narrative that goes from a beginning through a middle to an end. It feels done. And I’m happy with it. At last it is ready to be published.

At least it seems that way.

Writing These Posts Is a Reward in Itself

One of the consequences of writing these posts, is that they are helping me to understand my own writing better. Not every writer needs to know how they do it. They don’t question it, they just write a story, do better the next time, and keep on. I have great respect for those who can do that without a lot of introspection and questioning.

Some writers I know believe that writing cannot be taught, that writers have a natural talent which others do not. But their stories get better over the years, so they are learning something with every story they write, and anything that can be learned can be taught. If you can find the right teacher.

My only real talent is being able to have my characters come alive in my head, each one a real person different from all the others. Everything else is an acquired skill. And though I took writing classes in college, I have learned nothing about writing from them. There are a few teachers, such as James Gunn, John Gardner, Joyce Carol Oates, who are writers as well as teachers, and are praised, by those who have taken their courses, for their ability to teach. Finding teachers like that is a trick.

Sone of what I have learned has been from books. I have — or used to have — something like 125 books on writing. I gave away — in one case threw away — those that were useless, or wrong, bringing me down to well under 100. A few of those remaining still have something of value, a very few are really helpful and have taught me a lot. But just reading these few books is not enough. It takes a lot of thought and time to understand what they are offering, and how make it a part of my work.

Everything else I learned the hard way, by just doing it, mostly badly at first, though there have been exceptions, and frequently doing it wrong. Slowly, over time, I became better, and I continue to learn even today.

It has been said that there are only two ways to learn how to write. Write a lot, and read a lot, especially the kinds of stories you enjoy, as well as other kinds of fiction, and any nonfiction that interests you. Pay attention to what you are reading, and see if you can do as well.

It has been said that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. That has happened to me with my Writers’ Workshop, where I and my panelists try to help beginners learn what they have done well, and where they can improve. I have learned a lot, over the past thirty years and more, about how to analyze a story, how to see it’s strengths and weaknesses, and about how to edit even my own work.

I am not trying to teach anybody anything, by posting to this blog. Except maybe myself. My posts are an effort to understand some small facet of the art and craft (they cannot be separated) of writing which I have learned. Writing long notes to myself leaves me with a huge jumble of notes, which I can never find again, or understand when I do. Writing for publication, even in a blog, helps me to clarify my thoughts, to understand better what I have learned, and so I continue to learn from everything I post.

I started this blog because it is universally acknowledged (as some writer once said) that a blog is the best way to promote my books (which is not what she was talking about). I still have to learn more about how to promote my blog. I chose to write about writing, rather than about my books, for which I have another website, as noted in the links above. But even better than self-promotion is growth and improvement and learning about how I do what I do, what works best for me, and why I do it. That reward alone is worth the effort. If my readers learn anything from this, then that is reward multiplied.

The Difference Fifty Years Makes

Observing people is an important part of creating characters. I do it constantly, but not deliberately, it’s just part of my nature. Every stranger I watch for more than a few minutes, everybody I know and spend time with, even people in audiences, contribute to my stock of character traits. Characters are not the way they cut their hair, the way they dress, or even their position in life, their history, or their backgrounds, though those can greatly influence who they are. Readers aren’t interested in most of that anyway.

What’s important when portraying characters is how people talk, how they move, how they stand or sit or walk. These traits can remain constant for most of their lives, from mid teens till nearly when they die. Disease, accidents, and senility, of course, make radical changes. We all know people who are “not themselves.”

It isn’t often that we get to observe people after a great span of years, to see how they still are who they are, and how they have changed. But it is those whom we see infrequently who are able to give the insights the writer needs for characters. That which remains unchanged after years, or decades, is the core of the person, the most important part.


We got up at four in the morning Thursday (April 27) so we could catch a plane to Dallas/Fort Worth, and from there to Ontario, California, for college reunions — my 50th, Diane’s 45th, and Darcy’s 10th. We got there about two in the afternoon. The weather was perfect, there were lots of memories, lots of classmates to talk to, some decent food, and despite the changes to the campus, it was still Pomona College.

One time, several years ago, someone told me, “You can’t really go back, it’s not the same as it was.” He was both right and wrong. There were new buildings and faculty and landscaping, but it was still Pomona. I think of my father when I was a kid, and I think of him toward the end of his life. The differences are profound, and extreme. But he was still my father.

Everybody seemed to have accomplished a lot in the last fifty years. Law, medicine, real estate, astronomy, physics and chem and bio, and government, and many had received recognition for their contributions in one area or another.

And then there was me. I was the only one, I believe, who had a full-time career in writing fiction. Not serious fiction, like one of the faculty, but science fiction, fantasy, and weird stuff. When people asked me, I told them about some of the books I had written, the projects I’m working on now, and I had to admit that I was not famous or successful, and that writing was only half my job. The other half was household management, that is, doing the things my mother did when I was a kid, while Diane does what my father did, which is to make a living for us.

We left Pomona about eleven Sunday morning, and because of terrible weather in Dallas, we didn’t get home until after supper on Monday, and I’m still recovering.


The whole experience was valuable to me as a writer, as it has been, every five years since my 25th. People grow older — the lucky ones do — and change, sometimes a lot. But they are still the people I knew. Some aged well, others not so well, but who they were as people remained more or less the same. I could recognize them from a distance by the way they moved. I could look at a face and see, behind a mask of fifty years, the face I once knew.

The Perfessor, in the comic strip Shoe, said one time, “My body may be seventy three, but it’s still me in there.”

This is very useful to me, as a writer of fiction. I need to be able to create, or discover, characters who have the full fourth dimension of time, whether it be just a few weeks or fifty years. Seeing both the change and the continuity at the same time adds dimension. I don’t portray older characters as stereotypically older. I strive to portray them as they are, at their core, carrying the weight of their experience.

Someone once asked me if I ever wanted to be twenty five again. I said that I wouldn’t mind having the strength and vigor and flexibility, but I would never want to give up the experience and growth. I can see the college students in my classmates, but fifty years have made them wiser, stronger, more interesting, and a lot more fun to be with. My characters will benefit from what I have learned.

I don’t always have an answer

Writing a book, for me, takes a while, is a multi-stage process. Planet Masters and Pursuit of Diana were exceptions. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes more, in some cases much more. I’ve been working on The Black Ring, based on an idea I had sixty five years ago. Not writing all the time…

Typically, given a workable idea, there are notes, sketches, maps, sometimes research, sometimes outlines (to which I do not have to adhere), or scene lists, or plot points, all before the first rough draft. The rough draft is to just get everything down on paper (or on screen). It’s kind of a jumble, and needs everything, like dialogue, and description, and clean text. It’s a kind of skeleton rather than an outline, needing flesh, innards, ligaments, nerves, integument, skin, clothes. When that’s all done, I have my first draft. Sometimes I get rough and first at the same time.

With that draft I have everything, and I said it all the (nearly) right way. I almost always did a second draft (it’s many more drafts than that now), just to make sure of consistency, that I’ve not left any thing out, or any loose ends. Then maybe a polish. Back in those days, my stories were a lot simpler, the plots were a lot more direct, the characters, while realistic, weren’t all that deep.

The last book I wrote that way was The Eye In the Stone.

There are varous reasons (not excuses) for a publishing career to suffer an extended interruption. I may write about those another time. But I didn’t stop being a writer, despite the demands made on my time, such as managing the family while we were in England, or being the full-time father when Darcy was born. I was always a writer, and I always will be.

But the effect has been, when I was able to devote myself full time to writing novels, not just to collecting ideas and sketches and drafts, that a lot of time had passed. And I was working differently, and had learned a lot (some of which had to be unlearned). My next book (not counting Cat Tales, Closet for a Dragon, and Freefoot), was Stroad’s Cross. It had been in development for years, not months. It was not a simple plot, it had several sub-plots. It wasn’t easily categorized, as mystery or horror or supernatural. There were complex characters with a lot more depth. And it was big.

Sturgis was a short novel, written over only about two years, but it too had a complex plot, a detailed setting and context, rather complex characters, and was either mystery or horror or supernatural.

Dead Hand, in development for a very long time, was much the same, a big book with 92 scenes, 52 viewpoint characters, and I haven’t counted how many sub-plots. It was complex and uncategorizable. That last being why I went to self-publication.

Slaves of war was a major reworking of an old space opera plot, quite simple by comparison.

Then There’s the Black Ring.

Stroad’s Cross, Dead Hand, and Black Ring have all gone through many drafts, some parts more than others. The point being, that I have read each of those texts many times. Lots of many times. Over and over again many times. And in each case I thought I was done.

I put them away for a while, so I could come back and read them again, objectively, as if reading for the first time, and could fix whatever showed up after the break. And I discovered that a paragraph, or a page, or several pages are garbage. And I have no idea how I missed that, considering all the times I have read that paragraph, or page, or pages. See my previous post.

I can fix those problems now, but how did they get past me, when I have been so careful, have re-read so often, have applied all my hard-earned editorial skills? Over and over again.

It isn’t just a matter of editorial objectivity. My three-stage polish uses techniques which I have developed to ensure my objectivity, even when reading my own text. Which is how I found these problems eventually. And even outside editors miss things, as I learned while correcting scans of Pursuit of Diana for my Books site.

Well, I can tell you this, if I knew how I had missed those problems for so long, I would have caught them when I made them, and I wouldn’t be writing this post.

The Distressing Consequences of Growth

I have been struggling once again with revising the first page of a chapter, a page which has been written, rewritten, revised and corrected, then revised again, and corrected again many times over the years, then put through a two-stage polish, at which time I thought it was done. That was was a couple years ago.

I decided to go through the book one more time, just before publishing it. I’ve been doing a three-stage “final” polish one chapter at a time, and as I read through chapter 109 this morning, I found that the first page or so was a complete mess. I could not visualize what was happening. There were passages where the author was explaining to the readers what they already knew. There were other passages where the author was reminding the readers of what they had just read in the previous chapter. It was garbage, and the bad part was ,that the author was me. It was almost as if that page was really just a rough draft instead of a final one. After all that work, how could I have ended up with something so bad?

Part of the answer is that I have been growing a lot during the last few years, learning new skills and sensibilities, and at what appears to be an accellerated rate. What had seemed to be okay then just isn’t okay any more.

For one thing, I have made certain decisions about sentence structure, word usage, punctuation, vocabulary, and phrase order, which I am using to develop a personal writing style — not for the sake of style, which is an authorly thing, but for clarity, narrative flow, readability, and sense of story, which is a storyteller thing. And I am learning more about what that style should be. Sometimes it takes several readings to make the style consistent. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits.

For another thing, I am developing my narrative voice. I discovered, while working on Dead Hand, that my voice was very different from what I had been used to. I started to “correct” it, but decided to develop it, and make it consistent instead. And I learned that I should not use the same voice for different stories, but should use an appropriate narrative voice for each. Dead Hand, Stroad’s Cross, SturgisThe Black Ring, and Slaves of War each have different voices, though the voices are all mine. And they all written in my developing style.

It’s true that the last time I worked on chapter 109, I had something like thirty five years writing experience. But my expectations and standards have risen a lot. And my stories are now more complex. And I’m making greater demands on myself. So I’m seeing faults and problems which are real, (and which could sometimes cause editors to reject a book,) but which I just could not see even two years ago.

When I run into a difficult passage, such as the first page of chapter 109, which requires massive revisions, and takes over two hours, the fact that I can now see these problems should be reassuring instead of distressing. It simply means that I have grown. Instead of being upset that I had somehow let those problems slip by, I should feel good about now being able to fix them before publication. The alternative is to not grow, and if I’m not growing as a writer, not constantly getting better even if by tiny increments, then it’s time for me to quit.

Fortunately, I don’t find problems like that in everything I write.

Thinking About Thinking

Sometimes, when writing in third person, you want the reader to know what your character is thinking. In first person you just have them (he or she) think. In third person you have to make decisions about how to do it.

You can say “he thought”, as in, “I need a boyfriend, she thought.” Or, “He thought he would go get a hamburger.” You could, but this is the narrator telling the reader what the character thought, not showing the thought, and it pulls readers away from their identification with the character.

There are times when “he thought” is best. As in, “He thought about it all morning before making up his mind.” You really don’t want to show the reader three or four hours of thought. In this case, it’s the thinking that’s important, not the thought itself.

You can use italics.  “He looked into the dealer’s window. Now that’s a car I’d like to have.” But italics is more commonly used for emphasis, “It was the red car, not the green one.” How do we represent that here, when his thought is, “Now that’s a car I’d like to have.” You can’t un-italisize for emphasis in this case. Italics does have a place, when using foreign words, representing telepathy, (with roman for emphasis), and so on.

If you really want to show, not tell, or indicate, a character’s thought, the best way is to just do it.

“She sat alone in the restaurant, watching the other customers. She needed a boyfriend. At last the waiter came to take her order.” Note that its “she needed,” not “she needs,” which is the narrator commenting. Not intruding, just present in a Dickensian way. Or “I need,” which is a verbalization of her thought, and she’s feeling a need, saying the words to herself.

Most casual thought is non-verbal, despite what some experts (or “experts”) believe, that you can’t think without words. Give yourself two seconds, and think about the taste of pineapple. Now in those two seconds, what words did you use? None, you just remembered the taste, without going into a long culinary description, taken from the pages of Bon Apetite. When I want a coffee, I just get up from my chair, go into the kitchen, and make it (or wonder, why did I come into the kitchen?). I don’t think, “I guess I’ll get up from my chair…”. (Unless I’m actually talking to myself, which I do rather frequently, and answer myself too.) This is the narrator translating the non-verbal thought, which is actually something more like, “mmm, hmm, ahh”.

Note: I put punctuation where it indicates the speaking voice, not grammatical structure.

You can can say, “He thought about the taste of pineapple,” without translating or non-verbalizing. Which is why conveying a character’s thoughts takes some, um, thought on the writer’s part. So, think about it.

Thanks to Stevens Miller for reminding me about this topic.