Underwriting Versus Overwriting: Just Write

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Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Today we’re thrilled to have Sarah McCoy join us. She’s the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the novels The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee; The Time It Snowed in Puerto RicoGrand Central (Penguin, July 2014); and The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown, May 2015). Her work has been featured in Real SimpleThe MillionsYour Healthy MoneyHuffington Post, and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas El Paso. She currently lives with her husband and dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas.

Tatiana de Rosnay, international bestselling author of Sarah’s Key, has this to say about The Baker’s Daughter:

A beautiful, heart-breaking gem of a novel written just the way I like them, with the past coming back to haunt the present, endearing heroines and a sunny, hopeful ending. You’ll wolf it up in one delicious gulp.

 

Connect with Sarah on Facebook, Twitter, and check out her book’s trailer.

Underwriting Versus Overwriting: Just Write.

“Most writing is done between the mind and the hand, not between the hand and the page,” says Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.

Yes, yes, of course we all agree, but between the mind and hand on the journey to the page, it’s been my experience that the writing can decide to take the long road or the shortcut: overwritten or underwritten. Is one better than the other, and if so, which?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering in my first drafts over the last many years. Since Janet Burroway is one of my most trusted writing guides, I often pull out my old graduate school copy of Writing Fiction and search the chapters for gospel answers. Sometimes you simply want someone to say, this is the right (a.k.a. easy, efficient, most masterful) way; this is the wrong (a.k.a. hard, bungling, numbskull) way. So that we, authors in the swamplands of drafting a story, can easily recognize the path of righteousness. Unfortunately, as with a majority of life’s lessons, there is no absolute. Oy.

I’m here to give my testimony of trying it both ways. We’ll use my most recent two books as our guinea pigs:

The Case for UNDER

For my 2012 release, The Baker’s Daughter, I underwrote. In my journal, I sketched out the bare bones of the novel. The major plot events or character information discoveries were the chapter breaks. Sometimes these weren’t even fully formed narrative actions—just a dialogue line or two spoken by the character. A jumping off point for the chapter. I mapped it out beginning, middle, end, then sat down at my laptop, fingers ready to dance apace. A good seventy-five percent of that journal outline didn’t go as planned. I didn’t force it. The book took on a life of its own. I let it. Novel’s prerogative. I’m just the author. The hand in Burroway’s mind-hand-page quote. It took me nine months to get the story on the page.

Then, in the revision process, my editor asked me to go through the entire manuscript and fill it out with more lush details, like in my first novel The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico. She was referencing all the dripping descriptions I’d garnished on that. She said she’d rather have too much to begin with versus too little.

I was flummoxed at her request. It was a writing workshop whipping post I’d often been strapped to: overwriting is bad; overwriting will make your prose read infantile. Do the Hemingway— iceberg, iceberg, iceberg. I’d spent years picking adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphors out of my stories like ticks from a monkey’s head. Then suddenly told to fill ‘er up?

I am a notorious rule follower. During childhood, you gave me a rule, and I considered it added to the bottom of the Ten Commandments. Moses carried. Etched in stone. I’m coming out of blind obedience as I grow older ,but the inkling to stick to what I was taught is hard to dispel. It’s like the first time I realized the elementary rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction was bunk. It turned my world topsy-turvy. (Yes, I am a word nerd.)

So I went back into The Baker’s Daughter and allowed myself to gush, basically. I loved every hedonistic minute, but it took time… months and months of reworking and revising. My editor’s words reverberating: better too much than too little. Better overwritten than under.

The Case for OVER

Jump to my next novel: The Mapmaker’s Children (forthcoming from Crown, May 2015).  After years of historical research, it took me fifteen months of daily mind-hand-page typing to finish the first draft. I used the “everything I got plus the kitchen sink” overwriting approach. A massive 200,000-word result.

To keep myself laughing and not sobbing, I called it my Holy Moby Whale book around the house. My husband couldn’t even look at the document pagination without his eyes bulging. I sent it to my literary agent and team who loved it but all agreed: too long. Far, far, way, way, much, much, too long.

My amazing publishing editor said the same, but I wasn’t too worried—wasn’t this what had been requested of me for the last book—too much? So in a twisted, bizarre way, I patted myself on the back. This quickly turned into self-scourging as we began revisions, painstakingly carving the story from the mountain I’d birthed forth.

It took longer than filling out. It was harder than fluffing up. It was insomniac hours of sweat, tears and muscle.  Not the fairy-peppering of scrumptious details as I’d done to The Baker’s Daughter. It hurt—to cut material. To cut whole chapters. To cut characters. To rewrite hundreds of pages for brevity and narrative crispness.

Even now, this very hour, my mind-hand feels every molecular life beat in that book. I know every curve of its narrative face, every sharp edge of chapter, every fluctuation of pigment in its story spectrum. I know the characters like I know my own family. They are blood—my blood now.

Of course, authors feel a similar connection to all our books. We give a part of ourselves to them. We toil and create, curse and give thanks then toil to create again and again. We mind-hand across the page in similar fashion and yet, each time involves a different expedition with distinctive challenges.

Which did I prefer? Which is better? I can’t say either. They were what the writing needed them to be to produce the best book.  What I’ve learned is to stop trying to press my writing into a formulaic recipe. It’s never going to be “just right” that way. The answer is as varied as life, as varied as the stories we tell, and that’s exactly what makes our business exciting. It’s what compels our minds and hands back to the page no matter how weary we think they may be.

Seeking encouragement, I asked a handful of author friends and found that they echoed my suspicions. While the paths might vary, the message is pretty clear: underwrite or overwrite, right or wrong, for better or worse, just write.

✍✍✍✍

I unintentionally TRY to overwrite, followed by endless tweaking to eliminate superfluous words and passages and upgrade language. I also try at that point to deepen content, so succeeding drafts rarely wind up shorter. My first drafts are painful to write, but once a draft is “complete,” I begin to have fun with writing. Not until a chapter is fairly well nailed down do I move on to the next one. ~Sally Koslow, author of The Widow Waltz (@sallykoslow) 

I am a chronic underwriter.  I tend to have minimalist sentences anyway, and as a short story writer I’ve been taught to be economical and trust my reader to the maximum degree—so with my novel I’m learning to dwell more, expand, and for me this has resulted in going back and adding more detail and connective tissue. ~Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise (@mayhewbergman)

I start with a full first draft, praying I won’t need to do much editing. I read through and edit myself once when it’s done, and then my editor usually makes me rewrite at least half the book, plus go through three to five big edits. With Family Pictures I had to throw half the book away which was terrifying, and I didn’t know what I was going to write instead. Now that I have a truly wonderful editor, it has taught me how rewarding the collaborative experience can be, and my writing is the best it has been in years as a result. ~Jane Green, author of Tempting Fate (@JaneGreen)

Although I suspect and fear that many passages of my first drafts are likely overwritten, I do try to get the bare bones of the story on paper first. Once there is something to work with, I return to focus on the prose and play with language. I typically don’t share a draft with anyone until I’ve gone through at least three drafts and have had a chance to sketch out the skeletal, focus on the prose, and then pare down that language. For me, the overwriting probably comes in draft two.  ~Elizabeth Silver, author of The Execution of Noah P. Singleton. (@ElizLSilver)

I tried the bare bones approach for a brief time, but it doesn’t work for me. Diving in deep (even if half of it will be sent to the home-for-unread-chapters) is my comfort zone. The more I emotionally drill down in the first few drafts, the more I can concentrate on polishing and getting rid of the awful parts in subsequent drafts. ~Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Comfort of Lies (@randysusanmeyer).

I am definitely an underwriter. I tend to plan the story out before I begin the draft. I don’t usually call that phase an outline because it is not at all rigid. It’s more like a map for the story with pieces that can move around, stretch to expand, or contract if they become less important. So as I am writing the draft, I know sort of where I’m headed. I like to move quickly to get down the framework, then come back and develop the prose, the level of detail, the gesture and tone. ~Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Island of Doves

For a book, since it’s such a massive project, it’s more of a Pollack approach—hence the overwriting. I know basically where I’m going, thanks to my outline. But I stand back and look at the damned thing and try to decide where to start—i.e., what scene to plug into first. Inevitably, as I write my way into the book in kind of a mosaic way, the outline shifts and changes … The good news is, when writing is gratifying, it is GRATIFYING, however you get there. ~Jenna Blum, author of The Stormchasers (@Jenna_Blum)

I guess I do both. When I write a first draft, I throw in every character, scene, idea, magical entity, preposterous rule, and voice I can think of, however I do not bother with explaining anything or filling in the scenes with “connective tissue” to use the skeleton metaphor. I do write bare bones, but I use way too many bones for any functional skeleton. In the next pass I generally get rid of some extra bones, but it’s not until I’ve had a reader look at the manuscript and give me a “What the hell, Netzer?” that I ever seem to see the sense in filling in the “flesh.” ~Lydia Netzer, author of Shine, Shine, Shine (@lostcheerio)

I feel like I do both simultaneously, if that’s possible. I say what I want to say, and if I go on a bender with an idea, I let it run out because I can always scale it back later, but the important thing is the thought, the spark, the inspiration. You can always fix writing later, but you can’t fix lack of that core energy, lack of heart. It feels sometimes like I move through a first draft like a dust storm, cycling forward and back, fixing somewhat as I go, and sometimes stopping altogether to clean up the mess I’ve made before the next storm cycles up. ~Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (@NicholeBernier).

Your turn.

Have something to add? The floor is yours.

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About Sarah McCoy

SARAH McCOY is author of the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee. Her first novel is The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. Sarah’s work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an Army physician, and dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Her novella “The Branch of Hazel,” featured in the anthology Grand Central (Penguin), releases July 1, 2014. Her third novel The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown) releases May 5, 2015. Connect with Sarah on Twitter, her website or ‘Like' her Facebook page to stay up-to-date on all her upcoming events and news.

Comments

  1. says

    I tend to underwrite now, though my first couple of attempts at novel writing produced the behemoths of which you spoke. And I’m in agreement–it’s easier to add than to subtract. If I keep it sparse, I’ll get the story down, the stuff the reader needs. After that I can add the stuff the reader would like. If I need yet more, I can add the stuff the reader would like but wouldn’t hate me for leaving out. But at least I’ve got the story down. The problem with cutting is that you risk lopping off some important appendage, what you thought was a minor detail but proves a gaping hole at the end of the book. Yes, addition is easier than subtraction.

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    • says

      Ron, thank you so much for this thoughtful response! I agree. Personally, I find it easier to add the icing and rainbow jimmies once the foundation of the book cake is baked solid (to use a cooking metaphor). Just as you wrote, when “lopping” off parts, you must be careful that you don’t permanently handicap the narrative plot while also removing all minor information related to your no-longer-existing scene/chapter/character/action. Oy vey. In essence, rewriting the entire book! Which I did basically for THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN. That being said, I must admit that the story is 150% more than I ever envisioned it could be on page 1– because and due to this extraneous process. So who’s to say had I taken the sparser road, it might never have come to be the book it was destined to be. The best book it could be for readers and the literary community. And that is our ultimate goal as authors, right!

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      • says

        Another comparison between musical composition and creative writing jumped out of the screen when I was reading an earlier post. It happens so stinking often that I wrote a thirty minute piece for a time slot that was 40 min. Since my compositional process is so linear (Sometimes I wake up, go to the manuscript, and stand slack-jawed at this great idea that tied three themes together for a final fugue), it beats the hell out of me to cut, cut, cut, and hope that I have not hit a crucial vein. I wind up with my head in my hands and say, “It’s born. I hope it does not backstab its maker over the pieces I left out.”

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  2. says

    Sarah–
    I know of only one way to deal with the problem you describe: gaining distance from what I’ve written. And I know of only two ways to achieve distance: by getting lucky in hiring a competent editor who can show me what I can’t see for myself, and/or putting my work in a drawer for as long as possible. A really good editor knows when material is what Donald Maass calls anorexic, or when it’s morbidly obese. And with the passage of time, I am better able to gain objectivity, better able to see what’s missing, or should be missing.

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    • says

      Barry, I agree wholeheartedly with your reply. Gaining distance is ESSENTIAL to any book– Red Skeletal or Moby Dickins. I have to put my first drafts away for 8 weeks at a time between each rewrite/revision. I come back with renewed energy and greater shrewdness toward my work. I believe it’s a learned skill: to be able to disconnect your emotions from your writing and be ruthless with your prose. But in the end, the book will always be better for it! Good luck to you, new friend, in all your endeavors, and thanks so much for this kind message!

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  3. says

    I tend to be an overwriter probably because I go a little crazy in the first few drafts of a novel, expanding and expanding until I have a huge mass of stuff. With every thing there, it’s easier for me to pair down. With my eternal novel-in-progress, I think I’m learning to value underwriting and writing down a very soft outline to abide by. My process itself is in flux, so I can’t say what works absolutely best for me. Lately… it’s been a matter of chopping the novel up into its chapters and working chapter by chapter instead of massive chunk by massive chunk, a no-brainer, really but it made a big difference in how I see and approach my novel and all the “bones”, as Lydia Netzer said, that make it work.

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    • says

      Kind Jillian, thanks for reading and replying! I am absolutely with you in the ‘flux’– ’tis the writing way! Each story dictates its own pace and path. I’ve learned *that* will always be the best for the book. I’m the hand to the character ‘minds’, however they decide to make themselves apparent on the page. My battle cry for us all is JUST WRITE.

      Yours truly, Sarah

      P.S. That Lydia is divine– her words of wisdom are stars!

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  4. says

    Overwriter here. And I think for the genre I’m exploring (epic fantasy) there is another benefit. In the process of overwriting, I’m exploring the world of my stories. By the time I get a manuscript pared down to a reasonable length, I really know my world as well as my characters. You’re right, though, Sarah: the paring process can be painful.

    Thanks for an interesting post, and best of luck with your new novel!

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    • says

      Thanks so much for the good wishes, Vaughn. You hit the nail on the head re: overwriting when you said, “By the time I get a manuscript pared down to a reasonable length, I really know my world as well as my characters.” Amen, brother! Good luck with all your epic fantasy fiction writing. I’ll have my eye for it… I’m a secret fantasy fan and Trekkie. Daughter of a sci-fi aficionado. I knew what Tribbles were before I knew about Smurfs. ;)

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  5. says

    Everything that could possibly matter to the story goes into the massive pre-write file – only the absolute minimum gets out of there into the actual scene. So I guess I do both.

    A quick check of the latest ‘finished’ (for now) scene has 9250 words pre-write to 1700 finished. The real ratio is worse, as there are other files that get input bits (this doesn’t include the structure parts).

    I can’t keep things organized IN my brain, so everything has to come out into one place so I can select only what I want to keep – other people have much better filters!

    But this method allows me to write – and that’s the only things that matters. Not how, but that something works for the writer making all the choices.

    Thanks for the thoughtful question – it’s good to stop and think about methodology occasionally – and I have no idea how the next one will go. The previous finished (trunk) novel went very differently.

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    • says

      Lovely Alicia, thank you so much for this thoughtful reply and I’m glad my essay sparked new thoughts on methodology. I, too, am not usually one who naturally likes to focus on the process– I just want to write the darn story out. But taking an objective look at how I do what I do (what worked and what didn’t) has proved extremely useful in helping me streamline my own efficiency. I loved what you wrote: “this method allows me to write – and that’s the only things that matters. Not how, but that something works for the writer making all the choices.” Absolutely! It’s about finding your working method, embracing it and developing the best stories possible! You got it, lady.

      Good luck to you in all your writing and do please keep in touch!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  6. says

    Thanks, Sarah. A relevant topic for any writer, and a tough balancing act that lingers throughout the revision process.

    My goal when I write is to make myself invisible. All I want the reader to see only the story, and the moment the clumsy writer appears, sporting gimmicks, the story starts to slip away. It isn’t a simple act to accomplish. There is no formula, so I usually print each draft out and use colored highlighters to mark where the story slips away and the manuscript needs attention.

    I am an overwriter, though I tend to delete my extra material during the writing process – still, there’s many parts that need trimming, even short, underwritten passages that need to be replaced because they don’t quite fit. And still, there’s those parts that are brief, but need to be expanded because they feel rushed (a tough call when I’m trying to keep the word count down below the 120,000 word no-fly zone).

    No hard fast rule, only: write and rewrite until the only thing that’s left is pure, diamond story.

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    • says

      “… write and rewrite until the only thing that’s left is pure, diamond story.”

      Waving my southern-lady church fan at you, John: Amen, amen! And highlighters/colored pens/colored sticky notes are my best friends. I have a collection and use liberally during the revision process.

      I’ve just been introduced (by friends on Writer Unboxed, actually!) to the Scrivener software. I haven’t purchased it or tried it yet but am looking into it seriously. I hear they have “online” colored highlighters plus a bevy of technical writer options to help organize material — cut stuff, research, new bits, etc. Could be very helpful. If you’ve used it, please share your thoughts! I’d love to hear and I’m sure other would too.

      Thanks again for reading and the thoughtful reply. Good luck in your writing!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  7. says

    UNDERWRITER, here. I joke that in the beginning of all my novels, my characters are naked and talking in a void. I ALWAYS have to go back and fill in many, many blanks. That’s just who I am.

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    • says

      “Naked and talking in a void” characters reminds me of the beginning of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (one of my favorite stories/films of all time) so I think you are *on* to something spectacular there, Marcy. Thanks so much for reading and replying. And good luck with your writing!

      Yours truly,
      Sarah

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  8. says

    I wouldn’t wish underwriting on anyone. I always leave out the setting nearly entirely, and it’s a pain to get in after the scenes are constructed. I end up having to pull apart the scenes and revise them just to get the setting in. I haven’t to constantly go back to my scenes to add the setting because if I waited until the end, the entire story would be so locked in I would end up with years of revision — just to get the setting in.

    On the other hand, if someone told me that I needed to cut 10K, I could probably do it a day or two. Just not that hard for me to trim down a story.

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    • says

      Aw, you have a blessed gift, Linda. The ability to see the form and cut without remorse! I need to rub up against you and get some of that mojo. I love the idea of purging/pruning information, scenes, words, etc.– prose ‘fat’ but somehow still mourn the loss. I copy and paste whatever I cut onto another word document. It’s completely neurotic because I never have looked at those “cut material” documents again. They sit in my novels’ folders as psychological comfort. If I ever wanted to use the pretty, littered with dripping adjectives description of the tip-toe-through-the-tulips summer day, the paragraph exists but doesn’t slow down the novel’s action propulsion. ;)

      Thanks for reading my essay and contributing your thoughts, my dear, and good luck with your writing!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  9. says

    Groan & double-groan. Just write is right! I”m going to silence the ‘inner critic’ and just get the words down. There are so many issues of character development and plot that get easier once you’ve moved other elements into play. It’s like data analysis (sorry, the day job is in high tech). You need to HAVE enough data to analyze before coming up with any useful insights. More words. Just write. Thank you, Sarah and WU for (yet another) enlightening and comforting blog.

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    • says

      Ha! I hear and echo your double-groaning. So glad this essay was encouraging, Janie. We, writers, are a crazy kettle of fish but at least we’re swimming in the same waters. Best of luck to you, lady.

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  10. Poeticus says

    Both overwrite and underwrite and other and as well for planning and intuitive writing: organic is my forte. No “rules” for this writer, even grammar is a set of principles based on rhetoric as a social science. Grammar and writing generally are social sciences in my perspective, too, like any social science, writing is an art and science and other.

    Stages of writing for me begin with inspiration intuitions, become preplanning and evaluation for ingredients and preparation and preparing resources, prep work in food service vernacular. Draft writing follows, sometimes disciplined, sometimes freewheeling, more often both. Once the raw draft is in shape, next on to reworking, rewriting, revising. Discipline takes over, empahisized, anway, hard scrutiny for needed ingredients in best practice order, missing or unecessary or out of proportion: prospecting for the Goldilocks proportion — Not too big and not too small; not too hot and not too cold; not too stiff and not too soft.

    Aristotle famously said what I tell you three times is true. The epic law of threes, a magical number, also plays every which-a-way to and from a center. The Goldilocks proportion above is a triple doublet, a triplet. For me, a single narrative feature, say an inciting crisis, is a coincidence, it takes two to tango, three’s a party.

    Vladimir Propp, the Russian Formalist cum Structuralist who inspired Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Monomyth theories and the Western New Criticism movement, noted that sets of three actions overcome natural inertia, three evolving crisis steps refusals to act, for example, before the compulsion to act is irresistible: the immovable object meets the irresistible force — neither yields to the other immediately, a pendent tension moment.

    Filtering writing for reworking, the epic law of threes is a useful method, among many, to locate a Goldilocks proportion, though not a law in any sense, a principle, no more, no less. One, two, three, go; or ready, set, go; three strikes you’re out; momma called for you three times before she got mad; beginning, middle, end.

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    • says

      The organic law of threes– I think you need to copyright that and teach a fiction course on it, friend. Thanks for reading and replying such a thoughtful response!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  11. says

    Loved the balanced approach to this article, Sarah, and your honesty that each approach was “the” right approach to get to the final story at hand. I’m an overwriter, plain and simple. I wish I COULD underwrite, but I adjust and readjust sentence by sentence as I go because I just can’t seem to stop myself. Yes, I’ve convinced myself that by doing so, I have the sentences and story “just right,” even though revisions always reveal that’s not the case. I LOVED the sensory extravaganza that was THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. And even if you got there in a different way for THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN (eeks – can’t WAIT to read), I’m already salivating a little.

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    • says

      Aw, Melissa, I adore you, woman. I can’t wait to share THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN. Crown has it slated for May 5, 2015 release. ;)

      Thanks for reading my essay and contributing your own pearls of wisdom to the discussion, my dear. Also for tweeting! We’ll be in touch soon, I’m quite certain.

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  12. says

    It’s so very different for me than when I was an active composer! In that milieu (or is it metier?) I would sit down with several ideas, an not only the developing material, but even the form comes to me with the music. I almost never had to edit anything, except if I had a change or heart as to vertical coincidences (known to most as “chords,” sorry) or if I had made some kind of music processing gaffe when birthing my brainchild in Finale (music processing software).

    Now as a novelist and creative nonfiction writer, I sit there looking at my manuscripts and go “Duh?” Now, nothing comes out quite right.

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    • says

      A composer and a writer– you are a true Renaissance man, Ronald. Thanks for reading my essay and putting your musical spin on it. So fascinating to hear how the creative process works in another artistic discipline. Good luck with your *lyrical* writing!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  13. says

    Thanks for this article. Its timing is excellent as I am nearly done with my five month journey to write my first draft of my first fiction work. After years of writing succinct devotional messages and Bible commentary, I found the writing of a novel was something that nagged me until I retired in January so I could finally write this story which haunted me for nearly a year. I began writing and after about the first 100 pages I was alone, then I tagged a creative writing coach/editor. She reviewed my earlier chapters and then began to direct me to read John Grisham novels along my journey. She shared my style was similar but I needed to relax and show more in my writing and tell less. Since that suggestion, thought I know there will be many rewrites in the future, my story has grown in color and depth. Her suggestion was not to go back until I was down with the story – that was the first goal in the first draft; let it breath life and find its way to the finish line, and then we can go back and prune and graft as needed. So I would say whether over or under, just write is the best advice in the early writing. However, I hope that as I get to write more and more this will be less of a question or a concern. BTW, what I thought would be 60-80K is now over 100K and will finish at about 125K. But it is not the length but the depth that makes the story a good story, and worthy of reading by our intended audience.

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    • says

      Congrats on your first novel draft, Coach! That’s a tremendous accomplishment and an unforgettable moment in life. I’m thrilled that my essay was encouraging and a part of the cheer squad for you during this process. Yes, it’s not about length but depth, as you so aptly wrote.

      Good luck to you in your continued writing! All your WU friends will keep an eye out for your name on a beautiful book cover one day soon.

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  14. says

    I love this post. It’s always so fascinating to get a glimpse into different writing processes.

    I am a total overwriter. Never once have I written a first draft that didn’t need to be slimmed down by several thousand (or … ahem … sometimes tens of thousands) of words. In a strange way, though, I’ve actually grown to enjoy it. It helps me see the world more clearly when I’m exploring it for the first time, and then once I go back in revisions I’m able to better tell what’s not necessary. And hey, if nothing else, it’s satisfying to see the word count go down! :)

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    • says

      Shari, you are a bright writer light! Thank you for reading my essay and replying with such a positive reflection. Yes, it’s all fodder for the story and the creative process is fodder for our author realities. Sometimes we need to “write out” things that end up being cut but we are better for it– as people. We’ve dared to venture into a land with our words and “explore,” as you said. We leave happy to have visited, even if no one else does. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of that.

      Thanks again for being all that you are, m’dear, and good luck with your writing!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  15. says

    Sarah, I used to overwrite and then trim back the story to its essential core. Over the years, as I have developed as a writer, I have transformed into an underwriter. I can tell when a scene is bloated or unnecessary so I have a tendency to stop myself before going down rabbit holes. Once I have a workable first draft, then I can add and expand the story as needed. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

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    • says

      Brilliant, CG. So glad you enjoyed my essay and thanks for lending your advice and wisdom to the discussion! I consider myself a perpetual student of the craft. Always learning from my fellow writers and eager to pass on the information to friends. So again, thank you!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  16. says

    I am an underwriter. I write the thinnest, most anemic drafts you’ve ever seen. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short chapters. Each word feels like it is tweezed from my spine. I so envy writers who write lush, descriptive prose. The ironic thing is that I spend months and months researching and plotting before I write a single word. I have every single detail mapped out in advance so you would think that there would be more meat on the bones of my first draft. Sadly, no. For me, revisions are almost never about the actual story but about filling in and plumping up.

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    • says

      “…like it is tweezed from my spine.”

      I loved this description, Ariel. I felt similarly in parts of this last book– like the novel was extracting bone marrow. Oh, but isn’t that how we give readers the best of us! The very core of our beings in ink and paper. You said it brilliantly, friend. And your books show for it.

      Thanks for reading my essay and being a true writer cheerleader, m’dear. I’m sure you’re working on your next masterpiece this very hour!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  17. says

    Sally Koslow’s quote describes my process perfectly. I write 130-140K first drafts that need to be slimmed down as near to 110k as I can get them. Time away from the manuscript and reading it in hard copy are the two best ways I know to get the corset laced.

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    • says

      Lori! Lady, I may have to steal that from you: get the book “corset laced.” The perfect metaphor. Particularly apropos with THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN set half in 1860 Virginia. Bindings, petticoats and such being all the rage.

      Sally is a word wizard. Her novels are magical. So I, too, listen closely to her creative process thoughts. Thanks for reading my essay and contributing to the discussion, m’dear!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  18. says

    I always think if I want to go faster, go deeper! Yes, just write anyway and don’t worry about it, is my attitude. If I overwrite, I can always edit (which I find difficult sometimes) but if I underwrite, I can fill in later, which I prefer as new ideas turn up!
    For me when I write, thinking stops my creativity, so I sort it out later.

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    • says

      Exactly, Sherry. Just write! Thanks for reading my essay and sharing your thoughts. Good luck to you and us all– methodology thinking caps off and creative writing *capes on. Super power!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  19. says

    Note to self (trying not to underwrite or overwrite while drafting a book-length story): Theme. Return to theme, focus on theme, know what the theme of the story is as soon as possible. Oh, and then make plot happen, as long as it is in service to theme.

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    • says

      Theme and plot– I like how your mind works, Randy. Get the basics down. Sticky-note them to your desktop so you don’t forget. I think I may try that for my next novel. Thanks for contributing to the discussion and reading my essay!

      Yours truly, Sarah

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  20. says

    While I have a marked tendency to underwrite, I believe it depends much upon the genre’ and pace of the novel. In an historical novel, there needs to be a certain amount of overwriting to set place, culture, social, and at times political exposition. However, in a cozy mystery and or a crime thriller underwriting may serve the story best due to pacing and plot simplicity.
    Having said that, I have never really received any complaints over underwriting. In fact I have had several reviewers say that they liked the underwriting because it gives them the ability to create their own images of the book’s setting and characterization.
    For me it depends upon my overall vision for the novel–how vast or compact the story and world is to be and whether I need to under or overwrite it.
    Patti

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    • says

      Perfectly put, Patti. I just had this mini-discussion on Twitter with another author/writer. I truly believe it is story dependent. However the characters come– they are the masterMINDS and we are the HANDS to get their stories on the PAGE (going back to Janet B’s quote above). So if it takes overwriting or underwriting, that’s what it *takes* for that story to develop, grown, blossom, be pruned, blossom in other areas, pruned again and finally, finally, we have a jardin à la française ready to invite friends over for a grand stroll. To say a book needs to be done one way or another might limit the possibilities of that story– and might squash the author’s organic flow. Underwrite or overwrite, the story/writing vision must be there first, foremost and ultimately.

      Thanks for reading my essay and providing such great, intuitive thoughts, my friend. Raising my pen of solidarity to you now.

      Yours truly, Sarah

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      • says

        Thanks Sarah! I do wholeheartedly agree with Janet B. regarding the characters being the minds and we the hands! I am constantly surprised by what my characters say and how they shape the plot! That also confirms (for me anyway) the power of the subconscious mind in writing–I’ll put details in that seemingly have no purpose or relation to the story and they’ll pop up later or at the end and have absolutely everything to do with the plot!
        Back to under or overwriting that I also agree with you that forcing one or the other does restrict the story but a case can be made for underwriting with the example of Tolkien’s amazing ability to create a detailed, populated world with incredibly simple writing. After seeing the magnificent job done by Peter Jackson translating the books to the screen, I decided to go back and re-read the trilogy. I was stunned by how simplistically Tolkien wrote yet managed to convey the almost exact images in both readers’ and Jackson’s minds. The same thing happened with Stephen King’s Carrie.
        There are only three movie interpretations that I have seen that adhere almost exactly to the authors’ books: LOTR trilogy, Carrie by Stephen King and Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell which cast Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable perfectly.
        To me that ability is the sign of a great author. I can only dream of being master of the written word as those three authors.
        Now I have to go and write a guest post (probably on this subject, lol) for my upcoming novel!
        Patti

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      • says

        Ooooh, so pithy – WU and his mother, finally, are the only people who understand him. Especially if you don’t have a publisher, or at least an agent, you likely will get nothing useful for the novel from these critique circles.

        I am not prone to trouble in chapter length. My chapters always weigh in at 1000-3000 words. If a chapter looks too small, I go through the five senses approach to flesh it out from the POV of that scene’s MC – Especially if the chapter will be small but pivotal.

        The keystone is invariably the smallest rock in the bridge, but it is what makes modern bridges so important. In a much different context, the Japanese call the keystone “kogi,” or cutting point. In a haiku, it is relatively easy to note the word or phrase on which the haiku turns toward the conclusion.

        For example: Grey prisons trap sun
        Roses, lettuce, melons reach
        Bound with farmer’s prayers

        I wrote this haiku in order to explain kogi just a bit better, You don’t get the impression that there is a human element in this composition until you reach the personification “reach.” The farmer in the next line is the one whose reach, albeit prayerful, brings the poem out of magical realism and into our discussion.

        Thanks for putting an article up there that was raw meat for this dawg.

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  21. says

    I think my case is complicated, as I have a terrible mix of under and over-writing. First, I struggle with a writer’s block, not knowing how to start and hesitating if my ideas are good enough. And then when I finally start writing, I can’t stop when it’s enough. And I also find it hard to edit my writing. Everything I’ve written is so dear to me – it sounds so right and important that deleting it literally hurts. Thanks for your tips, I’m going to use them in practice in the nearest future.

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