Revision Process: An interview with author Shelly Campbell

Cover for the book Under the Lesser Moon by Shelly Campbell

Last week I really enjoyed the TBRcon21 writing conference. The editing panel was fun and informative and the moderator even asked my question–Did you ever receive a piece of advice that made revision easier or more enjoyable for you?– near the end. If you missed the panel, you can watch it on Youtube.

After the panel, I asked one of the panelists, Shelly Campbell, if she would be interested in sharing more about her revision process here on Experience Writing and she so kindly agreed to answer some more questions I have about revision. So today, we are in for a treat!

My Interview with Shelly Campbell

After you finish your first draft and you are letting it rest, what are you up to? 

When I’m letting a manuscript rest—three weeks usually does the trick for me—I tend to take a total break from similar writing. Right now, I’m working on a fiction manuscript and, when I eventually reach the final pages of that first draft, I have a non-fiction project waiting in the wings. 

I also enjoy drawing and painting and find that I am usually inspired to create art when I’m taking a break from authoring. Visual art provides an almost instant gratification compared to the slow-burn fulfillment of novel writing, because I get the satisfaction of a finished project after a few hours, days or week, as opposed to the months or years of effort leading up to a completed book. There’s the added benefit that, if I’m really wound up in a draft I’ve just put down, I can always tackle character art, letting me revisit the story while still giving my brain time to switch gears into a more objective editing mode.

After (or during) your first read, how do you go back in? Do you summarize, outline, scene card? What are your tools?

I was very much a discovery writer when I wrote my first two novels, and I hadn’t done a lot of research into structure and form. While it was fun to just build a world with no restrictions and then play in it, it resulted in some long-winded, slack-paced manuscripts that needed significant developmental edits. I knew the books needed work, but in my inexperience, couldn’t pin down what they needed. 

My first reads for those books consisted of a lot of line-edit polishing, make-every-word-shine sort of thing. I didn’t know any better. But I would learn later that, without the bones of good structure and pacing, eloquent prose that doesn’t go anywhere won’t hold a reader’s interest! Much of those painstaking line edits were wasted when I trashed or changed large chunks of the manuscript later on.

With some resources under my belt, and having learned some of my own fallibility, I now have an editing bullet list that I run through on first reads. I’ve moved from pantsing to more of a three-act screenwriting structure, so the first thing I like to do is compare my manuscript with my initial outline. I chart out my chapters and their word counts and look at the big picture items first. Have I started the book too soon? Do I need to chop initial chapters and dive in closer to the inciting incident? Are all my major beats falling where they should? Is my midpoint a big enough pivot point—and is it actually occurring midway through the manuscript! 

When I’m comfortable that the draft is hanging properly on its structural skeleton, I dive into my first read with nothing on my mind other than, does this hold my attention? Anything that I’m tempted to skip over or skim needs work, because if it doesn’t hold my interest, it certainly can’t be expected to hold anyone else’s, right? After I’ve tweaked my tension, I read through again. My first drafts are skimpy on conveying internal emotion, need trimming when describing physical actions, and benefit greatly from tighter dialogue, so I’ll have a read through focusing on all of those things. Then I’ll go through my list of crutch words (words I overuse) and trim those out. After that, it is off to my beta readers to see what they think of the project! 

How do you approach your characters once you know them? Are they like friends that you talk to and hang out with, or is it more like sculpting, chipping the rock away for the fine details? Or something else?

Initially, it’s very much a chipping away process as I get to know the character. Often, by the time I’m ready to read through a first draft again, I can pick out things early on that I now know is out-of-character for this person, because I know them better. Many times, when I get stuck, I realize it’s because I’m trying to push my character in a direction they just wouldn’t take. Usually a re-examination of their goals, biases, fears and misbeliefs will point me in the right direction. So, yeah, my characters let me explore dead-end roads a lot, while patiently waiting for me to turn around and follow them onto the proper path.

What was the most challenging part of revising your novel? How did you come to a solution?

Honestly, my first novel was a mess. It was discovery writing. It wasn’t even one novel, it was two rambling manuscripts full of dead-end roads, but it had potential. My beta readers enjoyed it. Editors liked parts of it. I was fortunate enough to find a small publisher willing to take a chance on it with the caveat that I needed to do some significant developmental edits. I heartily agreed. My editor there, suggested a new outline for the combined manuscripts, and once I saw it summarized step-by-step, it didn’t seem so overwhelming to cut out a novel’s worth of words because I could see that the same story was still being told, just far more effectively and entertainingly than I had originally written it. I had a road map. And that’s when I realized, I really am a writer that needs a map! I need to outline or I end up exploring all those dead-end roads and lose my destination. 

When you get bogged down with the work, what do you do to get out?

I listen to my characters, or I revisit my outline. If my characters are responding in a believable manner, I have a look at my outline and see if I need to tweak tension. I normally get bogged down when I can’t pin down the intention of a scene. Is this supposed to further character growth? Provide a quiet moment to contrast with coming mayhem? Ratchet up tension by showing our reader something our main character doesn’t know? Ideally, each scene can multitask and, if I’m stuck, I often find I’m at a spot where this particular scene doesn’t need to be here at all, or what I’m trying to accomplish can be done by merging it into another scene. I’ll often enlist the help of my critique group because sometimes you just need a different lens on the problem to see the way out!

To what degree and at what point do you use beta readers or outside feedback during the revision process?

I rely heavily on beta readers because I’m lucky enough to have found a wonderful online group of writers and readers in my genre who offer great constructive advice. It’s hard finding good beta readers. You need someone who reads a lot in the genre you write in because they all do follow certain structures and rules that readers may not be able to list, but they certainly sense when you get them wrong! You need someone who is not your friend or family—in most instances they are just going to tell you your work is great because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. And you need beta readers who you just jive with. If you can’t take harsh criticism, a heavy-handed reader who only leaves you scathing comments is probably not a good fit for you. Unfortunately, this means a lot of trial and error finding the right beta readers for you, the ones who are able to help you lift up your work to a level you could not get it to on your own while still keeping your individual voice in there. I have been exceedingly lucky to find a crew of people who are honest in their comments and who each look at my work from a different angle, giving me the confidence to send my manuscripts out into the world.

I also want to point out that more beta readers is not necessarily better. Every person will have a different opinion and the more people who comment on your work, the more conflicting the advice will be. I use the rule that if multiple people comment on the same issue with the same feelings on it, it is likely something that needs to be fixed. If the correction would go against my character’s grain or cause my work to totally lose my voice, I tend to stand firm in my initial choices.

Where do you find your motivation to finish?

Initially, I didn’t! What eventually became Under the Lesser Moon rattled around in my brain and on my computer for decades. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough, but I had a story in my head that wanted out and, damn it, if I wasn’t going to finish it! So, I suppose, at first, what motivated me to finish—very slowly—was the fact that I’d put so much work into this one story and I felt I owed it to myself to at least finish it. 

Now, since the first book in the series is out, I’m motivated by deadlines (as well as readers who contact me to let me know how much they loved the first book and are looking forward to the second. Readers, have you any idea how very much that boosts a tired author?)

How do you know when you are finished?

I have to stop after I’ve addressed all my beta readers’ comments to the best of my abilities and have run through my own editing list. If I can write a good query letter that sparks interest when it is sent out, then I know I’m finished…for now.

Any other advice for writers new to or struggling with the revision process? 

What works for me may not work for you, but you do have this in you, revising. You learned how to write and revising is a skill you can learn too, one that you can hone with a bit of practice. Find a book on writing craft that resonates with you. Find a writers group. This is a lonely journey, but there are other people who are struggling just like you, and writers are some of the most helpful people I know! Don’t forget to feed your imagination. Often when you can’t write, you just need time to fill that creative well elsewhere. Read, garden. Do you! The well will fill. It always does 🙂


A headshot of Shelly Campbell.

At a young age, Shelly Campbell wanted to be an air show pilot or a pirate, possibly a dragon and definitely a writer and artist. She’s piloted a Cessna 172 through spins and stalls, and sailed up the east coast on a tall ship barque—mostly without projectile vomiting. In the end, Shelly found writing fantasy and drawing dragons to be so much easier on the stomach.

Shelly’s tales are speculative fiction, tending toward literary with dollops of oddity. She enjoys the challenge of exploring new techniques and subject matter, and strives to embed inspiring stories in her writing and art.

Her debut grim dark fantasy novel Under the Lesser Moon released with Mythos and Ink Publishing in November 2020.

https://www.mythosink.com/books/utlm/

She has a horror novel releasing with Silver Shamrock Publishing on April 2021.
You can find her here:

www.shellycampbellauthorandart.com 

https://twitter.com/ShellyCFineArt

https://www.instagram.com/shellycampbellfineart/

https://www.facebook.com/shellycampbellauthorandart

The Planner Experiment: The Third Week of June

ordeal-for-the-tiny.jpg

How was your week? I hope you got some good writing done, enjoyed a good book, poems and stories and sent out some submissions. I had a pretty good week. I typed up my poems, worked on a story and read a lot.

This summer has already shaped up to be the summer of a house full of water and tiny black ants. It seems like this house is desperate to fill itself with water. Every hose that can bursts, the water tank got a hole in it, and this week I had mystery water creating a damp spot in the carpet that I have no idea where it came from. The ants, usually a creature that hangs out in a line, so you can see where they are coming from, seem to just drop down from the ceiling to appear, one at a time, on this computer, a table top, or my arm.

The Pages

This week, I finally experimented with printing the pages as a booklet. I had to add an extra page at the front for everything to line up. I used the blank page to break down my goals for the week into achievable tasks. I like the idea of leaving the page blank, so I can use it in different ways each week.

I also tried out the writing prompts in my morning pages. I ended up with a good story idea and about a half of a story draft. I’m excited that the prompts I made up inspired my writing. I’ll continue to try them out in my morning pages.

2019 Planner June week three

Happy Reading and Writing!

The Planner Experiment: First Week of June

Deadly Again This Summer(3)

Looking for some fun summer reading? I hope you’ll check out this new anthology of twelve fresh, fantasy stories from Pacific Northwest authors, including me!

The Planner Experiment

Quick recap: I started the Planner Experiment at the beginning of the year with the intention to find homes for all my stories by learning more about literary magazines and increasing my submissions. I set a goal of 100 rejections this year in an attempt to change my feelings about each rejection and continue submitting through rejection after rejection. Toward this end, I designed a daily planner that organizes the year by quarter and month.

I post these pages as weekly experiments, making little changes as I come up with new ideas to see what works best to motivate me to write and submit my stories. My hope is that you will also try out the pages and share your experience, so that by the end of the year, I can compile the best planner to help writers get their stories into the world in 2020 and beyond. I hope you will join me in this experiment. You can hop in at any time. I look forward to hearing your experiences.

The pages

2019 Planner June week one

This week’s pages have writing prompts that can build on each other. I’m enjoying this idea. Did anyone try them out last month? Did it help you write a draft?

What do you think of the colors, background, fonts? Are you finding that you use all the different sections, or are only a few of the boxes getting filled in? Which ones are you finding most useful? Which ones would you get rid of/replace? With what?

This week’s pages start with a couple of heavy hitters that I highly recommend submitting to: Ploughshares is one of the top literary journals and it is open for fiction and poetry; and Granta is open for poetry for the next four days. Send them some poetry!

I hope you are feeling motivated.

Have a great week!

 

Exciting News!! Deadly Again This Summer is out today!

Deadly Again This Summer is a story I wrote as an exploration of why young, athletic people drown in the lake each summer. It is a modern-day fairy tale in that it’s a cautionary tale of magical realism. This story is very close to my heart and I’m so excited that Z Publishing chose it for their first Fantasy anthology series. I want to thank Diana Rose Wilson  and Andrick Schall for their thoughtful critiques and suggestions.

I could not be more excited that this story found a home and is now available in this great anthology of fantasy. I hope you’ll order your copy today!!

Happy Reading and Writing

Exploring the Senses – Finale: Using sensory information in your writing

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

Through this series on exploring the senses we (you and I) have explored all the major senses and more. We’ve experimented with how sensual stimuli trigger memories that can inspire writing and played with different ways to add sensory detail to our writing. Now, I want to talk about when and how to use this lush sensory information we’ve discovered.

While writing your first draft, feel free to write all of the sensory details for everyone and everything. During the rewrite however, it’s important to ask yourself: Did I add this detail because it tells the reader something important about the character, because it is an important element of the story, or just because I thought it was cool? If the honest answer is the last one, take it out. Even if you came up with the greatest way to describe the color of the sky or the smell of water, if the sensory detail is not important to telling the story, take it out. Don’t let this statement turn you away from sensory detail in any way. Most sensory details add depth to your characters and dimensionality to your settings. I solely wish to remind you to be aware of your readers. When you bring sights, sounds and smells to a reader’s attention, s/he will expect them to have importance and be let down if they don’t.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Creative mismatching of sensory detail is a quick cue to readers that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A pink sky over yellow water that smells of asparagus is an instant cue that the reader is not on the earth s/he is familiar with.

Exercise: Create as many sensory mismatches as you can in 5 minutes. Use your favorite ones to imagine a place where this sensory information exists (i.e. another dimension, another planet, the center of the earth, an undiscovered land at the bottom of the ocean, under the melting ice caps, inside a future space station, etc.). Write a scene about a person experiencing this place for the first time using the sensory details you’ve created.

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I was separating into colorful cells, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still have my consciousness?

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I no longer had form. My cells now danced, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still recognize my consciousness?

I’ve enjoyed exploring the senses with you. Don’t forget to stop and smell the bad smells as well as the roses, and describe them in all their malodorous glory.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on the first rewrite of my current novel. As I work, I look forward to sharing my discoveries: what works, what doesn’t work, trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Please share your tips, tricks, suggestions, or questions along the way.

Exploring the Senses – The Sixth Sense

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost floutist or submarine?

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost flutist or submarine?

next shot no flute

The next picture zoomed in on same spot. The ghostly image is gone.

Though everyone agrees on the five major senses, neurologists and perception researchers believe there are more. Some think the main senses should be broken into  sub-genres. Others believe we have many sensory cell types leading to other senses including: balance, pain, temperature, time, body part location, and sensing internal organs. However, when we talk about the sixth sense, none of these other senses come to mind. The sixth sense is commonly understood as a blanket term for how we perceive everything that is considered paranormal (not scientifically explainable).

Writing about the sixth sense can put your story into the horror or fantasy genre, or it can add depth to a character. A character who believes she has psychic abilities can be odd, crazy, or in tune with things others cannot see depending on how the writer presents the sixth sense.

Exercise: What kind of psychic power do you wish you had? Choose one (mind reading, seeing the future, telekinesis, etc.) and write about a character who has it, or having it yourself. Is it a positive or negative experience? Are you able to use it to help others, or is it a torturous burden? How would this insight or ability change how you relate to others? Write for five or ten minutes.

Example: When we did this exercise in writing group I chose a clairvoyant who sees the future in her dreams. This is an expanded version of what I wrote in group.

Unless she passed out drunk, she always left her computer on playing reruns of television shows on repeat. The song at the end of each episode would wake her up just long enough to kick her out of REM sleep. It was the only way she knew to avoid the dreams. She had been doing it for over eight years and was sick of it. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, she thought, as she turned off the computer.

After a few vivid demonic visages that almost convinced her she wanted to watch a comedy-mystery for the 10,000th time, she slept. The nightmarish images came in full color. It was a hot sunny day made nice by a breeze. She and Miss Opal sat at a café having a pleasant catch up chat when the bomb was thrown from a moped speeding by. The scene happened in slow motion: her head turning, the white helmet with the black reflective visor moving toward them, the brown paper package coming into view just as it was thrown. She hated the ominous seconds that felt like a lifetime in which the viewer wants to do something, but cannot move. She watched as her friends and neighbors blew apart, heard their screams and smelled their burning flesh.

The room was dark and quiet. The clock read 4:10 am. She wasn’t sitting up, crying or sweating. She was more angry than sad. Just because she had been talking to her dead friend Miss Opal didn’t mean the bombing would happen in New Orleans. It didn’t mean it would happen at all. She wouldn’t tell anyone or watch the news. Knowing never helped her help anyone, not even herself.

Let your imagination run wild. Explore more than one idea of the sixth sense. Is psychic ability a spiritual issue for you? Does the idea of a sixth sense bring up death and afterlife philosophies, or is it pure fantasy wish fulfillment?

First Story of the Lake Spirit

When she was younger, her favorite moments were swimming toward the full moon on a dark summer night. She would follow the trail the moon reflected on the lake, revealing another small part of the golden path after each smooth, silent stroke. She focused on the light, keeping her head above the water and moved slowly, trying not to make ripples on the surface. At these moments she felt one with the lake.

Once, she imagined following the moon so far that she could not turn back, eventually becoming exhausted and dying in its golden light. She welcomed this as a happy death and moved further along the path, but the lake suddenly changed. Surrounded by cold, she no longer felt welcome. Her nakedness was uncomfortable. The shore beckoned; her romantic longing to swim to the moon replaced by a need for carnal comforts: a hot shower; soft, thick blankets; and something warm to drink. Turning, she saw she hadn’t gone as far as she had imagined. She swam as quickly as she could, no longer caring about the waves and the noise she made. It felt like something was chasing her and about to grab her feet. Her burning muscles and searing lungs did not slow her. She bolted up the ladder and across the yard to the house. As she started to slide back the door, she heard a splash on the lake like the sound of a large fish jumping, making her pause to look back at the dark surface where circles of ripples moved out from the base of her ladder. Eventually, she realized that was the first time she met the lake spirit.

Creating Fictional Worlds: Not just Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Creating Fictional Worlds: Not just Sci-Fi and Fantasy

from empmuseum.org

I recently visited the Fantasy exhibit at the EMP museum in Seattle. In addition to the fun and inspirational drawings, costumes, and interactive computer exhibits, they displayed J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand written timeline. It was kind of him to reiterate the point of my previous post (Ha. Ha!). It also spoke to a related aspect of organizing one’s writing: World Creation.

Creating a world for the characters to walk around in is not just part of fantasy writing. Every story, even if it happens in present day down the street, is within a world created by the author. Any imagined world needs history, culture, language and architecture. And don’t forget the microcosms within this world: The symbols and colors, rituals, beliefs, or antitheses of set beliefs that influence and drive the inhabitants of this novel world. An author can leave a lot up to the reader, but everyone sees the world through his or her own perception. Defining everything in a unique world including its history, music, traditions and ceremonies, even if the setting is one’s own home, can help to close the gap between the author’s intentions and the reader’s perception.  Every genre, not just fantasy, is a place for world building. Spend some time creating a world for your characters. Draw it, paint it, and build dioramas if so inclined. Write, or listen to the music, research or create the traditions and ceremonies. I recently got excited about a microcosm in my story, leading me to think, for the first time, of the possibility of a spin-off series. The exhibit inspired me not only as a writer, but as a costumer and artist as well, so if you want to read more about it you can head over to the inspiration page of my creativity website mbercreations.com.

from art nerd seattle

Creating a world for the characters to walk around in is not just part of fantasy writing. Every story, even if it happens in present day down the street, is within a world created by the author. Any imagined world needs history, culture, language and architecture. And don’t forget the microcosms within this world: The symbols and colors, rituals, beliefs, or antitheses of set beliefs that influence and drive the inhabitants of this novel world. An author can leave a lot up to the reader, but everyone sees the world through his or her own perception. Defining everything in a unique world including its history, music, traditions and ceremonies, even if the setting is one’s own home, can help to close the gap between the author’s intentions and the reader’s perception.  Every genre, not just fantasy, is a place for world building. Spend some time creating a world for your characters. Draw it, paint it, and build dioramas if so inclined. Write, or listen to the music, research or create the traditions and ceremonies. I recently got excited about a microcosm in my story, leading me to think, for the first time, of the possibility of a spin-off series.

The exhibit inspired me not only as a writer, but as a costumer and artist as well, so if you want to read more about it you can head over to the inspiration page of my creativity website mbercreations.com.