Tag Archives: HtRYN

Shelving Automaton

Years ago, I embarked on an ambitious quest: Make my 1920s clockwork-meets-Frankenstein novel ‘Automaton’ into something I’m not embarrassed to have people read. I planned to accomplish this via Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” (HtRYN) on-line, self-paced course, and started the manuscript’s transformation from sad lump of coal to shiny diamond. Sadly, it was a slow-motion disaster.

First, the book was fatally flawed—the MC was a passive kite, tugged to and fro by every ally and villain who entered the story. Stuff happened to him, but he never had any agency. I wrote one hundred and twenty thousand words of him bouncing from location to location, never making a decision of his own. The book is excruciatingly boring.

The second, third, fourth, and a few other lessons from HtRYN required a full read-through, most of them requiring that I take notes about people, objects, settings, plots & subplots… it was a Sisyphean undertaking. I was nearly crushed under the weight of it all.

By the time I had gone through the first fourteen or so lessons of HtRYN, I had produced more pages of notes on my novel than I had pages of my novel. One of the last lessons I finished directed me to create a “revision outline,” which was supposed to help me re-use my existing scenes, rewriting portions of them as needed. I was to color code these scenes on index cards, with each color representing how much “new” work I expected to do for each of these scenes. I ended up with eight “blue” scenes (I’d have to rewrite at least 75% of the scene to pull it into line with my desired revision), and over seventy red scenes. The red color meant I was writing entirely new material, with no previous work to base the scene on.

My revision outline was essentially a plan for an entirely new novel.

I haven’t touched the manuscript since about a week after my last blog post on the topic, so very long ago. The notes and marked-up manuscript just sit there, taunting me.book-406806_1280.jpg

I’m tempted to burn it all.

With some time away from the manuscript, I’ve learned a couple of things. First and most importantly,I have to push character motivations and conflicts to the foreground of each scene. She must want something and be working toward it. People and events have to be preventing her from accomplishing those goals, most of the time at least. Secondly, I need to stop “pushing through” as they encorage you during National Novel Writing Month. I need to be excited about each scene at some point; if I’m not—if it’s a dud and I’m bored while writing it—then I need to figure out what’s wrong then and there.

Another thing I learned was that I need to plan a thorough outline, one that I’m excited to write, one that uses character motivations to push the story forward, and personality flaws to make them stumble. Without that detailed map (aka: an outline), I’m too focused on the logistics of getting characters from a to b. And that makes for some really flat story telling.

So you’re unlikely to see much more about Automaton in the future. Sorry if you were hoping that it would come to something (I know I was). I’m going to work on some character designs, write some flash fiction to see if I can bring those characters to life on the page. I’ll be seeking out advice and lessons on how characters create and drive plot, and I will avoid fleshing out any idea that doesn’t have a compelling personality at the center of it.

I’ve wallowed in that disaster of a manuscript for long enough; it’s time to apply what I’ve learned.

It’s time to start making better art.


Lesson 2

About a week and a half ago (that long!?) I finished lesson 1 in the How to Revise Your Novel course work. I’m terribly far behind. While it’s not uncommon for lesson 1 to take a month or more, the lessons are doled out once a week. I’m now about 22 weeks in. The whole course is effectively within my reach, if I want to peek ahead, but I’m determined to keep focused on what’s in front of me, and that is Lesson 2.


Lesson 2 requires that I read through my book for the second time, but now I’m looking for “promises” that I’ve broken to my (entirely theoretical) readers. These promises take the shape of objects or minor characters, who by the way they’re introduced/described, carry far more weight than I intended them to. They look, to the reader, like something that’s going to recur in the story, or that’s going to be used in a key point later, while looking like window dressing to me. To do this, I assign points to descriptors for each character or object as they’re being introduced for the first time, and then weigh that against a scale that tells me if I’ve over done it, or sometimes even under-done it.

Also in there are examinations of how strongly or weakly I introduced the handful of truly main characters that I have. Around page 100, I introduced a main character of my story, who sticks by my real main character for the rest of the book.

I’m moving quickly through the lesson, as I don’t apparently describe that many objects or introduce a lot of main characters for ten to twenty pages at a time. Not sure if that’s a good thing.

My feelings on the quality of the lesson are mixed. There are some very specific examples of how to score each thing at first, but the further along I get in those explanation, the more muddy the scoring gets. At one of the very last categories of scoring, related to the unusualness of the number of an object, the example is so muddled with other kinds of points-earning description, that it’s unclear what the ‘number’ of that object contributed to the tallied score. Imagine that a character enters a room, and there is a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in a chair, staring at the entrance. That might score as a significant object that you’ll have to do something with later. But it’s completely unclear what I should add if there were 3 identical dummies in the same kind of arrangement. Or 10. Or 100…

This might not be a big problem if the scale by which these things is judged was more expansive as the scores increased, but it’s not. Typically, 15 is the number at which you just stop counting, as there’s little point to continuing to add numbers at that point.

I do, however, see the value in the lesson, and the scoring. It’s a potent technique for revealing what might catch a reader’s attention, so that I can evaluate if it should have caught their interest.

Progress report: The half-way mark

I haven’t done much on the writing front these last couple of months. I am planning a big post-wedding party thing that may be the death of me. I’m also finally recovered from a nasty cold that had me lying on the couch for about 4 days, and feeling generally crappy for a handful more before and after that. But last week, I re-started my stalled attempt at getting through Lesson One of Holly Lisle’s on-line novel revision course. I’ve been averaging about 12 pages a day (weekdays only), and have just reached a mile-stone: I’m 50% of the way through my manuscript. Here’s what that looks like:

281 pages down, 280 to go!


Editing Automaton

I’m just beginning to edit Automaton, but I thought I’d give you a peek at Holly Lisle’s system, and how I’m using it.

The bottom ring binder is my manuscript. You can barely make out some red squiggles in the left margin of the left page. Those are a code that tells me which page in my notes to go to in order to see what I had to say about the passage of my book at that point.

My notes are in the ring binder above my manuscript, as you have no doubt guessed. The notes are worksheets that ask particular questions regarding my story, most of them are “what went wrong here, and why?” though a couple of them are set aside for noting what when right.

At the top, stuck to my magnetic marker board, is a flow-chart, reminding me not to just look at my plot problems, but also to consider characters, world building and other aspects that I’m supposed to be taking notes on. There are five categories, so it behoves me to address them all as I go, rather than running through my story five times over. It’s quickly becoming clear to me that I just need to remember what the questions are; I don’t really need to follow the lines through the process, since most of it is: Read; find something to note; mark it in the manuscript, flip to the correct worksheet; write your thoughts down; if more pages are to be read, continue at the top. It was helpful at first to see the whole process, but it’s actually pretty simple.

My biggest issue is that I’m having to not just read, but to look for specific issues while I’m reading. I was never any good at picking out the plots of stories in my English classes in high school, and I think the focus I bring to bear on stories is partly to blame for that. I enjoyed reading, and didn’t necessarily want to pick apart a good story. Now however, I think I am enjoying seeing the structure of stories, of noting how I might have changed the particulars of someone else’s work. It’s educational, and kind of fun, like seeing back-stage at a theater production.

That’s it for now. I’m on page 18 out of 561, so I don’t know if there will be many in-depth thoughts to share while I work on Lesson 1 of How to Revise Your Novel.