Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Entries in book 1 (24)



Merciful Zeus, I have finally cracked that damned 200k barrier. I have been flirting with that benchmark for excruciating months, once coming within a few hundred words before realizing that I needed to write a transition scene to accomodate the change I’d just made by removing a different scene (and with it, about 2,000 words), and I may have thrown a temper tantrum at that point. But no matter what revisions I made, I couldn’t seem to get below about 202,000.

So late Friday night, after I bid my dear husband The Prince good night and settled myself at the computer for a marathon writing session, I gave myself a stern talking-to. “Tonight, Self,” I said, “you are not allowed to go to bed until this word counter right here in the lower left-“, tapping the screen firmly for emphasis, “says 199,999. Sooner or later or not at all, it’s entirely up to you, but head does not meet pillow until there’s no longer a two in that far left digit, understood?”

More than two thousand hard-fought words later, (and a few times of waking myself up when my head tapped the keyboard) at 5:30 in the morning, I watched that counter finally, finally drop to 199,999. I waited just long enough for the file to save, then closed the laptop lid and hied myself to bed.

This is pretty much akin to running a marathon in 12 hours: it was slow, ugly, and painful, but at least I can say I did it. There’s still much revising left, and that word count is going to fluctuate the entire way. I may have to break out smelling salts if (when????) it creeps back over the 200k mark again. But chances are now better than ever that this book isn’t going to kill me.


How to disassemble a book in 29,341 easy steps

While I can’t say that the last four months of blog silence is due to non-stop Book 1 revision and/or Book 2 writing, I can say that I have made a crapton amount of progress on Book 1 revisions since my post-birthday(!!) writing retreat.

Which is to say that the word count issue that’s been hanging over my head like Damocles’ Sword is no longer an issue.

No, I haven’t gotten below 200,000 words. Yet. But I have steadily gnawed at that count for months now, and got down past 210k earlier this month. The night I reached that milestone, I refrained from running down the street at 4 AM in my Killer Rabbit Bunny Slippers screaming “TWO HUNDRED NINE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED THIRTY ONE!” at the top of my lungs in order to maintain my cover as a mild-mannered nerd. I did, however, indulge in a blackberry Hot Lips soda and a celebratory dance that would make Elaine Benes look like Michael Jackson.

Success tied to the elimination of words by the dozens is a death by a thousand papercuts, let me tell you. For almost two full months, I thought I was going to be stuck at 214k forever despite steady work. Down by 211 words, up by 218, down by 129, by 16, up by 10, down by 24, up by 113. I was cutting things, but changing so much that I needed to write all new material, as well. Overall, I cut out several thousand words during that time, but it always netted out at the end of each writing day to some ridiculous number of only two digits. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

One of the realizations that hit me while I was on my self-imposed writing retreat earlier this year is that I was going to have to rewrite the book. Again. It took some weeks for that to sink in, but as I took the plunge with the first couple of chapters, it became impossible to ignore. Revisions to the first few chapters necessitated bigger changes to the next few, and the next few, and rethinking some plotting and characterization and key details, and somewhere in there, denial turned to acceptance.

The good news is that I’m only a quarter of the way through and I’m already below 210k. That number includes many earlier revisions to later chapters, so it’s not strictly true that the count is going to continue to drop linearly as I keep going. But at this point, I feel confident not only that I’ll get below that all-important 2k, but that I’ll be well below it. This is A Very Good Thing.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that these newly revised chapters? They’re better. They’re making the book better, tighter, faster. That’s what revision is supposed to be, making the book better, and it is, and it’s making it easier to cut things that seemed impossible to cut before. I knew it as I worked on them, and preliminary feedback from a few people confirms that I’m right.

Not everything is magically better yet. There’s a whole book left to rewrite. And I still have a notebook full of plot problems and character issues to address, fixes to make, and timeline changes to correct. The kind of knotty problems that trigger my instinct to curl into a fetal position and mumble incoherently to myself. But thanks to my dear and delightful writing coach, Jen, I have a detailed and ambitious writing plan for the entirety of my vacation to address some of the biggest items in my notebook of problems. Said plan involves not just writing goals and agendas, but menu recommendations, art project suggestions, and costuming ideas. It is seriously amazing.

So, I’m off to write things down on index cards with different colored sharpies and affix them to fluorescent colored posterboards. I’ll keep you posted as I progress through the plan. Wish me luck.


Creative Retreat

view from a hotel room in a seaside townWith so many demands on my time, it’s become increasingly difficult to carve out large blocks of it for working on my book. So difficult, in fact, that I started to nurse a dream of holing up in a hotel room somewhere with my laptop and my story notes and work non-stop of my book. I could keep odd hours and stay in my comfy clothes and live off of cheese and crackers while I puzzled out how to pull apart my complicated story and put it back together again.

When real life kept intruding on my efforts to work on the big revision ideas that resulted from Jen’s feedback, pulling me away for days or even a week at a time, I decided the only way I was going to make the progress I’m determined to make was to turn that little hermit-y dream into a reality. So I booked a reservation at a mid-price hotel in a seaside town for three nights. On my reservation special requests, I wrote, “I’ll be on a self-imposed writing retreat. A great view for inspiration would be much appreciated.” The hotel very kindly obliged with a third floor corner room with views both south and west across water. At check-in, the clerk asked me if I was writing a book about their town. Sadly no, but I suspect their town will find its way into the story nonetheless.

The weather has kindly obliged, as well. The town was delightfully misty and fog-bound when I arrived and the forecast is for a satisfying winter storm coming in tomorrow. Just the thing I needed to feel all writerly.

And so here I am, story notes spread out, story files open, a cup of tea at hand. Let’s hope it’ll be a long, long night.


Wordcount update

I haven’t mentioned it here until now, but I recently contracted with Jen Violi for manuscript revision services. I met her at a workshop at Wordstock in October and I’m thanking my lucky stars that I signed up for her email list.

I’ve made no secret of how much I’ve been struggling with getting my word count down on my ms, and the frustration it’s engendered has been downright stultifying. When I began, I had at least 50,000 words to cut, which is about 20% of the book. Careful revision word by word resulted in only 20,000 words cut, which meant that something much bigger was going to have to go. And I proceeded to spend a year banging my head against that particular brick wall.

I don’t normally struggle with revisions, even when it means removing something I dearly love (but know needs to come out). The thought of removing something significant wasn’t what stopped me cold, it was trying to figure out what to remove. With such a complicated story involving multiple plots, themes, and primary characters, and everything integrated, everything I came up with seemed like it would break the story to a point that I’d basically have to rewrite the damn thing. I’ve done that once already, and although it was liberating, the thought of doing it again just made me want to pull the covers over my head and never come out.

The thing is, it couldn’t be just removing words for the sake of some magical word count. The primary focus is and always must be about making the story better. I know this. But I worried: if I remove this major character or that major plot line, and very carefully tug all of the related threads out of the story and change it all around so that it doesn’t leave a glaring hole in the story, have I chosen the right thing? Will the story be tighter? I needed to refocus, get a 30,000 foot view of the landscape, so to speak, but how to do that when I’ve been immersed in this story for years? Every direction I tried, I felt like was just sucked down further, like I’d plunged into a tar pit and was doomed to die trying to get out of it. I knew the story could be better, but I needed someone else’s input on how to do it.

That’s where Jen came in. A month alone with my book, including two read-throughs and copious notes, and she came back to me with eight glorious pages of incredibly helpful feedback: what was working, what wasn’t, what was distracting from the main plots and characters, what needed tightening and trimming. What she gave me was not a map that showed the starting point and destination and everything in between, but an aerial shot that helped me see the lay of the land and decide where and how I wanted to change the topography. (And now that metaphor is soundly beaten to the ground….)

I have some major reworking to do. I’m ridiculously excited, a wee bit daunted, and gigantically relieved. After mulling over her feedback for a few days, my first day spent working on the ms — trimming the low hanging fruit contained in her suggestions — resulted in over 4,000 words cut. As of today, I’m officially down by 10,000, from a word count of about 230,000 when Jen got the ms to just below 220,000. I feel like cracking open a bottle of champagne! (Or in my case, sparkling cider.)

Another 20,000 words to go, but I’m not so overwhelmed by that damn number any more. I’ve gotten my focus back on the story, on what needs to be done and what I want to do to make it better. I have every confidence that the word count will continue to fall as a natural result.

Putting Makeup on Dead People(Aside from her amazing powers for single-handedly keeping a desperate writer from committing ritual seppuku, Jen has also written a book called Putting Makeup on Dead People, which was just announced as a finalist for a 2012 Oregon Book Award. We have an embarrassment of riches in Oregon when it comes to writing talent so to be a finalist for these awards is a significant achievement. Huge congrats to her! Oh, and you know, you should totally read her book.)


A little pep talk before major surgery

surgical tool of the trade (image courtesy of BenFrantzDale, Przykuta [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)Dear Self:

No more procrastinating, Self. Today’s the day. I know you’re dreading pulling out that major plot thread in Book 1, but you know it has to be done. Yes, it’ll be a lot of work. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, you’re still not sure how you’re going to incorporate it in Book 2 and beyond. Yes, you still have to do it.

Focus on how much better you’ll feel when you’re finished. It’s going to put you closer to your word count goal! It solves the problem that’s had you stuck for a year, and prevented you from sending out your query letter. It may even lead to an exciting new brainstorm you can’t even imagine yet. You live for those exciting brainstorms, remember?

And as always: there’s chocolate in the cupboard if it gets painful.




Making space

If you’ve been following my adventures on my regular blog, you know that my husband and I are planning to turn our guest room into a creative room in a few weeks, and that I’ve been as giddy as an untrained puppy about it. There’s a lot wrapped up in this room for me beyond the excitement of getting to do another project — and one that’s almost completely decorating, with little of that boring “preparation” nonsense — that is complicated and too personal to go into here. But suffice to say, my wheels have been spinning for a month or so since I decided I wanted to do this project. Or perhaps more correctly, the poor little hamsters that run my wheels have been spinning their poor little hamster hearts out.

I’ve been on a creative high for weeks now but haven’t written much, nor even edited much since my big push before and immediately after my pitch critique. Previously, that would have sent me into a negative feedback loop of anxiety, frustration, desperation, and shame; when I’m “normal”, I cannot function if I go for more than a few days without writing, so to not be writing for lengths of time makes me a basketcase.

Unfortunately, this last couple of years have been a series of long stretches of not-writing, and that hasn’t been a good thing. I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t go into it again here, but suffice to say, it’s been a real struggle to deal with not writing as a regular state of affairs for myself. And to secretly fear that it was going away. A writer’s worst fear.

But no, I can feel it there, waiting. I can feel that story percolating inside me like it always has, evolving and coalescing. Plot points, character developments, scenes and narratives and setting possibilities, oh my!

So when this sudden urge to do the creative room struck, I decided to let myself take this little intermission from that familiar writing flow that I’d been feeling during the editing/pitch process. To trust that it would still be there, waiting for me. Trust my instincts, trust that taking the time out to concentrate on the creative room, to enjoy all the excitement I get from thinking about it and planning it and making my vision a reality.

I’m happy to report that letting myself take this detour was the right thing. I’m so excited to get it done I can hardly contain myself! And in the meantime, I’ve been focusing on my other creative pursuits, namely collaging and art journaling. All that energy of waiting to start the creative room needed an outlet, and although it’ll be so much easier and more fun to collage and art journal in my creative room, I’m not holding off doing either of them until then, something my Practical Self probably would have. After all, not having a dedicated space for such activities didn’t stop me from doing them before I decided to do this makeover, so why should it stop me now? That’s my Creative Self giving my Practical Self the finger.

Soon, the creative room will be ready for me to create all the live long day (and night, knowing me). I’ll have a lovely space to write in, with a different view than I have now and a door I can shut while I’m tussling with a particularly thorny plot issue. (Or, more likely, getting myself out of a plot corner.) That same space can be used for playing with paints and making messes with glitter and scribbling angry screeds in red crayon across a crudely painted background. There’ll be space for my husband to create, too, and for us to spend entire Saturdays being arty together while we listen to our usual NPR Saturday schedule. Space, too, for my dear friends to do the same, and for us to make crazy art and laugh and exclaim about each others’ talents and become closer than ever.

I’m excited for what’s ahead once this room is done, and for the possibilities it holds for me and my writing. I’m not one to believe that you need everything just so before you can start writing — I wrote my first book in all kinds of places, and in all kinds of circumstances, whether they were conducive to writing or not — but it feels luxurious to have a space for it. It feels like a tremendous privilege, and one that I earned.


Got my pitch critique!

Yep! Received my pitch critique Tuesday afternoon. I’m pretty stunned by their turnaround, considering they had 200 participants in the workshop. Especially considering the detailed, instructive feedback I received on mine.

I’m immensely pleased. I won’t have to chuck it and completely start over, and I have a clear idea of where I need to really focus my improvement efforts. They even said that “this is a strong start for your pitch”, which was very encouraging and makes me feel like I’ve got the right idea for my approach, I just need to refine it.

So back to revisions on the ms and refining the pitch. Then: query!


Word count marathon, day 7

Despite interruptions, work continues on the Great Word Massacre of Aught 10. (Yes, I know it can’t be an Aught if it’s year 10, just go with me here.) I’ve had little time, thus made slow progress, but it’s progress nonetheless. This is a cumulative revision from the last week or so:

Starting word count: 236,303

Ending word count after revising Chapters 41 through 44: 234,792

# words cut: 1,511

I have most of the weekend to spend on revisions, so I’m hoping to clear some big swathes through the verbiage landscape. I also have Monday, which I took off (something about “a ridiculous number of unused vacation days, missy!” from our illustrious HR Director at my office) and plan to spend doing yet more revisions.

Speaking of time and the act of finding it, I’ve been thinking about John Scalzi’s post from last month about finding — or more accurately, making — the time to write. “When did you find the time to write this?” is a question I get asked a lot when people find out about my book, especially how long it is. Inevitably, the conversation turns toward how we do or don’t fit in the things we need and want to do. Scalzi’s point that you make time for the things that you really want to do is absolutely true, and doubly so for writing. As the old writing advice goes, the number one rule about writing is butt in chair, hands on keyboard.

To take it a little further, I think when writing is something you not only want to do but need to do, you simply can’t not do it. It’s not an option. I could no more not write than I could not breathe, and it has absolutely nothing to do with whether I’m published, will be published, or am even any good at it. I will forego sleep, meals, and most other responsibilities in order to write. It’s meant sacrifices, too, and finding the balance between writing and everything else is a daily juggling act for any writer no matter what their circumstances are. Really, though, isn’t that true for everyone no matter what their particular passion happens to be?

Which isn’t to say there aren’t slumps. Eru knows I’ve been in a slump for the last couple of years (ye gods and little fishes, has it really been that long?) and it’s been difficult as hell to cope with not having my daily routine of writing. Coming to terms with that reality has been as much a struggle as the actual struggles that have caused the slump in the first place. But as I seem to be emerging out of that period, I have a better appreciation than ever of just how critical writing is to my sense of well-being. And thus, how important it is to make time for it.


Pitch is finished, bitchez!

After an almost-overnighter working on it last night/this morning, my pitch is done and sent off for critique. WOOOOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!! I feel like there should be confetti and celebratory cakes. And jugglers!

I feel pretty okay about what I sent. It’s solid but not brilliant. There were a couple of places that I couldn’t quite get the way I wanted, but the hours spent revising and refining certainly showed in the end product compared to my initial attempt.

I never had a flash of inspiration that sometimes comes when you need it most and makes the rest flow with ease and assurance that this, this is exactly right. But those flashes are rare any time, so that’s not too surprising. It went more the way that writing usually does, where you fight for every word and sentence and spend hours and hours wrangling structure, pacing, voice, and theme. And maybe the fact that it feels like a work in progress will make it easier when I get the critique back with a resounding “NEEDS WORK SRSLY”.

This was a really terrific experience and I’m so glad I did it. I’d been avoiding my query liek whoa, and while it was every bit as hard as I thought it would be, it’s a necessary part of the process if I want to pursue publishing. Brevity is my weakness, no doubt about it, so summarizing my story in eight to twelve sentences for the pitch portion of the query was a personal challenge. It turned out to be more room than I realized to summarize the story, but every sentence — every word! — still must do double or triple duty. I’ve done similar exercises in the past (55 Fiction is one of my favorites) and they’re a good reminder of the power of pithiness. A writing friend once described my style as “lyrical”, which made me beam for days, but I know veer too close to purple at times and that’s something I need to continually work on.

The great thing is that I now have my query essentially completed. (Well, the first draft of it, at least.) What a relief!

Now to complete my ms revisions. I obviously didn’t reach my goal of trimming 50,000 words in time for submitting my pitch, so for listing my word count, I put in the current count and in parenthesis: “finished manuscript, currently undergoing revision”. So while I wait for feedback from the agent, I need to finish up those revisions and get that word count down as much as I can. And I’m so happy to finally feel energized to do that and start querying finally.


Word count marathon, day 6

Starting word count: 238,428

Ending word count after revising Chapters 18 through 22, 40: 236,303

# words cut: 2,125

I didn’t have the full day to work on editing due to other obligations, so this was actually a pretty productive day, considering. Only two and half days to go until the deadline, eep!