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 process (48)



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.



As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly.

— Paul Rudnik

(via Writer’s Relief)


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.




This is how it starts

On my way to meet coworkers for lunch today, I drove past a wheelchair that appeared to be chained to a stop sign. I did a double-take: yep, definitely chained, to a stop sign, with a padlock and everything.

The wheelchair itself was empty, and there was no one else around, but there were well-used chair pads and stickers and bags hanging from the handle. Signs that it was someone’s primary location during the waking hours of the day.

The whole drive to the restaurant, I wondered about it. Where was the wheelchair’s occupant? Were they wheelchair-bound but not paralyzed? Had they gotten up out of the chair and walked away? And if they did, why? Why there, at that stop sign marking a low-traffic intersection, with the wheelchair parked on the edge of a high curb? If they didn’t, had someone carried them? Had they gone willingly? Had they been kidnapped? Carted off in an ambulance? And why the chain? Presumably so it wouldn’t be stolen, but why leave it there in the first place?

It occurred to me how someone who’s paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair truly is confined, without any need for walls or bars or anything. I mean, we spend millions and millions of dollars trying to keep people confined to a building with cement block walls and miles of razor wire-topped fences, but for someone whose only means of mobility is a wheelchair, it would take nothing more than a bike chain and padlock to doom them.

A snippet of a short story started to stir. A dark and gothic sort of story, one that would end with the main character, a man paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, chained to a post and left to die. He wouldn’t even have to be a criminal…. Perhaps he had crossed paths with a psychopath, one who didn’t go in for all that gruesome stabbing or strangling nonsense but still felt an urge to kill. Or he was a gambler who got in too deep, and since there was no point in kneecapping him, his bookie’s hired thugs got the easiest enforcement gig they’d ever been assigned. Maybe he was a mafia informant and someone ratted him out to the mob boss. Or maybe he was an eccentric millionaire in a big mansion with no relatives and a staff that he bullied relentlessly, and one day, his butler just had his fill of all the abuse.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have to be such a dark tale. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy, and had some family, but they were gold-digging layabouts and anxious to get their hands on his fortune. In that tale, maybe the story starts with him in his wheelchair, chained to a pole (or a tree? a fence? a broken down car, for a bit of ironic symbolism?), and it’s all about how he managed to save himself, and what he went through to survive.

Welcome to my brain. It’s scary in here.


Recognizing the difference between working and "working"

I’ve been stuck for some time on a particular plot point in Book 2. Normally when I’m stuck for too long, I step back and work on a different part of the story. Or tackle some research, or edit, or go through my notes for inspiration. Or I step away entirely for awhile, lest I make the block worse by forcing it.

All of these are part of the process of writing. When I say I spend at least two hours every day writing, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m actually putting words down on electronic paper for two hours. (Although I surely do love the days when that’s what i’m doing!) It may mean the business of writing, or even just spending some good quality time thinking about the story, dedicating some mental energy to this character or that story arc. Writing is work like any other, where you spend time doing things that aren’t actually the task itself, but are necessary to complete the task.

It can be a fine line between the business of writing and procrastination, however, and not easy to recognize when it’s happening. Getting sidetracked on the internet is an obvious clue, of course, but other things, like starting a story wiki (OMG MY NEW FAVORITE THING) or learning about ancient pole weapons for your new character (who you already decided an hour ago wields a naginata, but then got sidetracked by all the exciting varieties of deadly blades attached to long sticks) blur the line between “necessary to continuing work” and “avoidance”.

Still, I think I can safely say the 30 minutes I just spent building a series of flow charts in Excel for the aforementioned plot point that prompted this post falls in the “necessary to continuing work” category. As I struggled yet again with that damn chapter a little while ago, I realized I was just too fuzzy about how everything fit together and I needed to see it. A bunch of circles and arrows later, and I feel like I’ve finally got the thing sorted and am ready to tackle the chapter again.

Of course, the additional 10 minutes I spent prettying up the flow charts with 3-D shading effects and color-coordinated text probably wasn’t entirely necessary….


Don't quit your day job

Life intruded, and has meant a longer spell away from updates than intended. It’s meant a backlog of interesting articles I’ve wanted to link, and snippety writing sorts of things to post, and blogging on My Thoughts On Matters Of Writerly Import.

“Life”, in this case, being largely my day job. It’s a good job, but a demanding one, and leaves precious little time for everything else I might want or need to do. And writing, like other artistic careers, means it’s likely to be your second job*, which means it takes a backseat to the demands of your primary job. Hence the dearth of posting….

All writers struggle with that balance, of course. Encouragingly, even many of the greats still had day jobs that kept the power on and food on the table. From the aforementioned backlog:

Vonnegut Sold Saabs: 11 Author Day Jobs

(One thing about being a writer: even your day job can be rich fodder for a story, often in surprising ways. Even though I write epic fantasy, my own jobs have provided plenty. Frequently in the form of despicable characters that can be killed off in satisfyingly gruesome ways. Kidding! I kid. No, seriously.)


*Not just for financial reasons — many writers who earn enough to live off of keep their day jobs so they’ll have insurance, especially if they have children. But you know, universal health care = socialism ooga booga, and so we’ll continue with the worst-of-all-worlds system we currently have.

Never mind that we live in a society that prizes wealth and the making of it so highly that even those who are obscenely wealthy through no skill or talent of their own other than simply their accident of birth are lauded and emulated instead of derided as the shiftless layabouts they are. Meanwhile, teachers pay for school supplies with their own money while working in schools that are crumbling down around them, libraries are considered an unnecessary luxury, and the schmoes who actually do the vast majority of the work in society are asked to work ever harder lest they lose what little security they have.

So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me in the least that artistic expression — that spark of divinity, of immortality, of the potential to transcend into something far more than this mass of cells and fluids and atoms and electric impulses — is something we’re told should be a hobby, at best. It’s not practical, produces nothing of use, contributes nothing of real value.

In my imaginary world, schools are castles, teaching is one of the most prestigous careers you can aspire to, libraries are considered as fundamental to modern society as electricity, and artists don’t have to choose between their need to create and their need to eat.

Thus concludes my Unsolicited Rant For The Day.


Delivery is everything

More research for Book 2 as I push through another difficult section. Lots to learn, lots of tiny decisions to make that will make or break the conclusion I want, so that it’s like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded.

But in researching The Battle of Carrhae, I learned about the Parthian Shot, which I am delighted to now know.

The Parthian Shot was an archery maneuver performed on horseback by the Parthians (who lived in part of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), wherein the archer, at a full gallop, turned his body back to shoot behind him at the pursuing enemy (usually as part of a faked retreat, to lure the enemy into a flanking trap). You may remember that scene in The Two Towers, when the Rohirrim raid the Uruk-hai camp in the middle of the night (when Merry and Pippin make their escape into Fanghorn Forest)…there’s a scene where one of the Rohirrim raiders gallops by, turning and firing on an Uruk behind him as he gallops past. (One of the coolest scenes in the movie, IMO.)

It takes considerable skill to perform this maneuver, both as a horse rider and an archer, as you would expect. The horse must be guided strictly by the thighs, since both hands are otherwise occupied, and of course you must be able to sight and shoot from a very unnatural position while in motion, very quickly. When the Parthians perfected this maneuver, they did it without the benefit of saddles or stirrups, as neither had yet been invented.

The “Parthian Shot” also became a metaphor for delivery of an insult as the speaker departs:

    “With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.”
    —Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1886)

We know it now as the “parting shot”.