Evolution of a Discovery Writer’s Story

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Discovery Writer, Gardener, Pantser… Whatever you decide to call us, I fall pretty firmly into the camp of writers who don’t plan their stories before they start writing them.  Sure, there’s some mental “steeping” required before I can jump in the deep end, but that’s pretty mystical, even to me.  And in my quest to better my fiction, I’ve learned to ask certain structural questions early on (at the moment, I’m a fan of Dan Well’s 7-Point Story Structure).  But it’s always a bit of a struggle for me, and I’m much more comfortable imposing structure after I’ve written the bones of the story.  Too much too early generally results in an unfinished story.

Since I don’t think things through beforehand, I end up doing a lot by instinct and only assessing the “why” after the fact.  In the moment, I only know it feels wrong.  That means I have to be willing to change my story, sometimes drastically, based on gut feeling alone.

I know a lot of writers who get very attached to what they have written, to the point that any change is painful.  I’ve always had a bit of trouble understanding that point of view – much more painful, in my experience, to know there’s something wrong without knowing how to fix it.  Changing things is the easy part; deciding what to change and how – that’s where things get dicey.

This week, I experienced a particularly vivid example of this.  I thought I’d share, on the off chance it is helpful or interesting to others.

It all began at a write-in I had with my new California writing buddies.  We were using some of my many (and sadly under-used) story prompt tools.  First up, Story Cubes, and I had to put together three images off the dice and use them to start a story.  I got a padlock, arrows pointing in different directions, and a teepee.  Here’s what I came up with in the following fifteen minutes (please have pity on me and overlook any poor quality in the following samples, I didn’t want spend time editing scenelets I’m not going to use):

They left me, tied to a stake and blindfolded.

I stood there while they packed up the tents and loaded the horses.  There were no words loud enough to hear, only mutters as dry as the approaching winds.  They passed by me as they left, I know by the spittle drying on my body.

I think the heat on my skin is from the sun, but I am afraid it is the warning of the winds.

I twist my body from side to side, work my wrists until they are so raw the pain doesn’t fade.  The wood scrapes across my back, but I think that it moves a little.  Or perhaps I only wish it moves.

My fingers swell.  My sweat rolls off me, it feels like ants crawling on my skin.  It may be ants, climbing me to take of my moisture, to eat of my salt before taking my flesh.

When the air begins to move around me, I know my time has passed.  Even sweat does not stand against such heat, and my skin is dry, dry, dry.  My lips are gritty with the carried dust, and I sag against my bonds.

The winds come.  First eddies of searing air around my feet, blistering.  Then waves beating against me, and then a cyclone, ripping the flesh from my body in hair-thin strips as the infinitesimal motes of dust tear through me.

I have no water in my body with which to weep, so my painful sobs are dry.

When the rope releases and I fall forward, at first I think it is the storm which has worn the rope through.  I am glad to die free, at least.  But I would rather not remove the blindfold, or expose more of myself to the ripping wind.

“Geroff yer arse!” A man screams, and his hand closes around my arm and yanks me upright.

This is not the vocabulary of the wind demons who drag sinners to hell.  And it is definitely not the words of the Sheltering Mother.

I get off my arse.

Not bad, but I have no idea where this is going.  Perhaps I’ll figure that out later.  That’s OK though, because we’re moving on to another prompt.  This one out of a book.  “Start a story with the following line: What I’m saying now is a lie.”

What I’m saying now is a lie.

I was never tied to a stake and left behind to die in a dust storm.  The skin never flew from my bones like moths from an old sweater.  I never breathed air so thick it might have been earth.

And that was certainly not when I met my husband.

No, my husband was given to me by my grandmother, who made the match.  He drank with my father, and painted the barn for my mother.  My husband and I have always lived in a house built of plaster and lathe.

He is certainly not kin of the wind-demons.

But since I am lying to you anyway, I will tell you what I want to tell you.

When I was young, I caught lizards with a boy who had hair the color of the noon sun.  We played in the mesquite roughs, where the branches twist like snakes striking.  We overturned rocks to find the scorpions and tarantulas and centipedes underneath.  We lay and shivered on the bristly stiff grass at dusk and watched the bats flutter overhead.  He fed me leaf-ladles of dust and twigs and told me it was soup.  I scrubbed river mud in his hair and told him it was a potion to make him tall and wise.

I saw the sun-haired boy for the last time the day Mama and Gran brought me into the house to tame my wildness.  They put me into the bedroom and tied my window-shutters closed with strips of muslin.  They put heavy rocks in front of the door, twice as big as I was.

They tell me it took twelve days for me to quiet.  Six days without food and another six days without water (they had been pouring water through a hole in the wall).  And when they finally dared open the door, I was a girl and my hair was antelope-brown.  They will not tell me what color it was before that, but I like to think it was dark like a moonless night.  Or perhaps black like the shiny body of a widow-making spider.

I ate bread soaked with water and let them wash my body with water and lye-soap.  Mama says they washed the mesquite dust away and found me.  Gran says they combed my hair with a dry thistle, and shook loose the demons that had lodged there.  Papa says I was a pretty little girl after I got cleaned up.  Gramps says I was always pretty.

From that day, they kept me inside the house of plaster and lathe, and taught me things I would need to know.

I learned to spin, weave, and sew by making my new clothes with Gran.  When she was not looking, I would skew the weft or knot the thread to create a roughness, and I would run my finger over it to feel the bark again.  My mother taught me to cook, and I remember leaning close to the fire to breathe its heat into my lungs, so like the summer sun in the roughs.  They did not let me help boil the soap or gather the eggs.  They did not take me across town to worship the Sheltering Mother on Firstdays.  But I was allowed to beat the rugs on the stoop if one of them stood with me.

All right!  I like that.  I spent the rest of the night moving this particular story forward.  But later, when I came back to it at home, especially when I started to look at the ending, I realized it still wasn’t right.  I used all sorts of visual details, but it’s still all summary, no scene.  Everything is distant, and the voice just didn’t feel quite right for this particular character.  Plus, the start is gimmicky, and probably needs to be cut.

So, perhaps back to close first person?

I do not remember anything before Gran opened the door to my bedroom.  All was darkness and wind, and then that iron latch rattled.  A little pale light streamed into the room, framing three bodies in the doorway.  Then I could see that it was not dark, that light seeped through the cracks between the closed shutters and through several hand-sized holes in the walls.

Gran shuffled toward me over the uneven wood-slat floor, nudging chunks of plaster and torn strips of lathe out of her way with her silver-fitted cane.  I looked down, the only escape left to me now that my body would not move.

She reached me and cleared the floor in front of me.  Then she knelt, awkward and with many popping joints.  She reached forward and brushed my hair out of my face, dislodging a cloud of plaster dust and a rain of wood sticks.  She lifted my chin with her cool, paper-dry hand and studied my face with a gaze full of intent.  Then she held a tin canteen out to me, and my tongue cracked for want of water.

I reached for it, but stopped.  My fingers were more splinter than skin, prickly like dried cactus.

Gran tsked and lifted the canteen to my lips herself.  I drank as much as she would let me, messily, water sliding out of the corners of my lips and down my throat.  She took the canteen away too soon, and I licked desperately at the moisture my tongue could reach, heedless of the taste of dirt and plaster.

Ugh. No.  I feel like I lost the mood and tone I liked so much in the last iteration.  Plus, this particular point of view is going to make it tough later on, especially since Gran’s intentions are so important to the story.  And the voice still isn’t right.  The girl sounds far too normal.

After a little pondering, I decided to try an omniscient point of view.  Maybe I could have some scenes, recapture a bit of tall tale tone, and depict the girl as properly mysterious.  Maybe.  I usually don’t like reading or writing omniscient, but it can be done.  It’s just a question of whether I can pull it off.

After twelve days, Granny Higby opened the door.  No one can say what was in there before that prairie sage fell to the floor and that iron latch rattled.  But afterward, there was only a girl.

They say the room was so shambled they didn’t see the girl at first among the chunks of lathe and plaster.  They say the floor rolled like the foothills, with some slats bowed upward and some bent down.  They say every surface – walls, floor, ceiling; everything except the door and the closed shutters –  bore deep rents, as if from a panther’s claws.  But even with all that dust, they say it still smelled of hot grass under sun-bleached skies.  Like heat-lightning and dust devils.

Granny Higby went in with no hesitation.  She went slow, using her iron-topped cane to knock the debris out of her path.  Higby Senior watched from the doorway next to his daughter-in-law, who covered her face with her apron rather than see Granny torn apart.

But the girl just sat there on the slatted wood floor in the center of the room, hair gray with plaster dust and hands more splinter than skin.  Like a dead cactus – that bad.  She kept her eyes lowered to the floor, as was proper for a young lady.  But the very first thing Granny did was tilt that girl’s chin up with her chill, papery old hands and look into her eyes.

What Granny saw must have pleased her, because the very next thing she did was pull her tin flask.  “Take it child.  You must be powerful thirsty,” she said.  Ma and Senior didn’t even see the flask change hands, but there it was, sucked empty and dropped on the floor.  The clatter of it shocked Ma back behind her apron.

“Now, now,” Granny said sternly.  “Pick that up for me, dear, and hand it back next time.  My bones are too weathered to be chasing my things about on the floor.”

The gall of that shocked Ma into looking, despite the danger of any manner of blood and guts.  Her knuckles were white to match the fabric she clutched so tightly, but she watched as the girl picked up the flask and handed it back to Granny, meek as anything.  That’s when Ma started to see the potential Granny had been telling her about for twelve days.  She hadn’t been able to hear the truth beyond the hair-prickling screeches and bone-shattering crashes, but she caught an echo of it just then.

So that’s the version I’m working on now, and I’m liking it so far.  We’ll see how it works for the full story and what others think.  Who knows, I might end up back at one of the other versions.  As my first-ever intentional attempt at omniscient, I’m sure I’ll end up going through a pretty hefty revision.  But at the moment, it feels right, and the words are flowing.

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Anyone Interested in Beta Reading?

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This month, I’ve finally gathered up enough energy to get back into my revision of Cliff with No Edge, and I’m just flying through! I’m pretty confident I’ll have it ready for beta readers by the first week of October. Very exciting!

But that also means I better send out a call and start compiling my list of willing test subjects readers. And you, lucky friend who just happens to be within my social media sphere, qualify! If you have any interest, please read on for more details.

Here’s how it works:

Beta readers agree to read the nearly-finished draft of my novel and give me comments to help improve it. There are no special requirements – beta readers need only be people who like to read and who want to help me improve my book.

I will send out a list of questions along with the book. These questions are there to answer specific questions I have about the reading experience. They aren’t meant to limit your feedback in any way. They are more of a tool to help you think critically about specific aspects of the book (think third grade book report: “what character was your favorite, and why?”)

The book will be provided in a Word document so that you can use the “track changes” and “comments” functions if you so desire. If you want a different format, I can probably swing it, just let me know. If you don’t know how to use “track changes” or “comments,” I can probably show you!

Beta readers get to read my book before it is completely finished. That means I love them most of all my friends, but it also means they’ll have to read a pre-publication-quality book with errors and problems. They have to promise to point out these problems and errors with complete honesty. They also have to promise they will still love me even after seeing “the” misspelled for the fourth time.

Speaking of misspellings, although I will always appreciate every word of feedback I receive, there is no need for beta readers to get too down and dirty with my prose (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Final polish & copy editing is a whole separate ball game, and happens after I have made all the content changes for the book (why spend tons of time on a section I might cut?). At the same time, I promise that I have been over the draft several times already, and it should not be painful or unintelligible.
A couple notes on content: Cliff with No Edge is an adventure fantasy, and has magic, action scenes, and a different world and culture. It also deals with some heavy subjects. There is violence, both in the “fight scene” sense and the domestic violence sense. It is not, in my opinion, overly graphic, but if you are sensitive to these topics, it may not be for you. Check out the “sneak peek” section for an idea of the intensity level.

I hereby set this deadline: I will finish and send my book to beta readers by October 5. This means that beta readers will have 6-8 weeks (think end of November) to read and respond about the book. In December, I will begin the next revision. That means I will appreciate and read late feedback, but it will be less useful to me depending how far into the revision I am.

If you would like to be added to my beta reader list, just let me know! I can never have too many opinions at this stage, so the more the merrier. Message me, tweet me, post on my wall, leave a note in the comments section, whatever. I will need your name and email address to send you the file. If you have expressed interest to me in person, I didn’t have a list then, so I probably don’t remember – sorry!

Thank you all for your wonderful support!

King’s Mark Complete!!!

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This is the one you’ve been waiting for. Or maybe it’s only me that’s been waiting for this one. But here it is. I’ve officially completed King’s Mark!!

Writing a book is both more and less work than I thought. The things that scared me about writing a novel-length project were hardly blips on the radar – I didn’t get bored with my characters or my story. I didn’t have to write tons of boring connecting bits. I do have a large enough vocabulary, and my writing style isn’t too elementary (I still get little pangs of inferiority when I read some of my favorite stuff, because comparatively I have a very simple style). But I was totally able to do it.

Some other things didn’t scare me enough, it seems. I was pretty confident that I could get through revisions pretty quick – the story was solid, right? And I tend to turn out pretty clean first drafts. I expected quick little changes. No. On just this final revision, after tons of changes in the second revision, I tore out 7200 words of tossed scenes (it would be more if I counted all the little bits I deleted or rewrote) and added about 12000 new words. Compared to writing the book, it went quickly, but it was a much more agonizing process. It makes me want to outline, but although I’ve worked out some waypoints for Thieves of Moirai, it appears I need another demonstration to convince me it’s necessary. Or possibly, this is just the way I’m going to work, forever and ever.

Anyway, it’s 2:30am and I’m very sleepy, so any further analyzing will have to wait. Tonight, I sleep!

Tomorrow, I feast and celebrate with Coca-cola and a movie at the theater!

And Tuesday, I send it away to the first agents on my list!

Roseate Spoonbill and a Milestone

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Well, this is one of my last wildlife videos from Florida. I hope to be able to gather some more soon! They probably won’t be from Florida though 🙂

Anyhow, this is a Roseate Spoonbill (and you should recognize his Wood Stork companion), feeding in a pond in the Everglades. You can see his spoon-shaped bill – you’ll never guess how it got its name. It uses the flattened part of its bill to sift through mud and muck to catch little aquatic invertebrates and hunts mostly by touch, like the Wood Stork. The bald head is something else they share, and although there are several theories, no one knows exactly why this is beneficial for them, although we suspect it has something to do with how it sticks its whole face underwater. The side-to-side movement is a very typical feeding behavior for this species. Like flamingos, the pink coloration is a by-product of carotinoid pigments (specifically canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, if you want to get all scientific) in its diet.

They’re beautiful birds, and I was really lucky to see a few!

I hoped to have excellent news this week on the writing front – and I do! I’ve finished my list of changes for the King’s Mark revision, and I’m on to the final polish. I plan to have it complete by the end of the week, so my dad can read it on the plane when he heads overseas next weekend. However, all this work means I haven’t been doing much thinking about other things, like blog topics… so here’s an alligator!

Distracted yet? No?

Now?

On Pressure and Story Scope

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This is a great blue heron, who happened to pose right next to us on Anhinga Trail.

Same heron, even closer. Isn’t he beautiful? And just a tad of a show-off?

And on to writing news!

I’ve had a couple days off work this past week, which has given me a chance to focus on writing. I’ve got two more days off, so I’m hoping to speed through my planned changes. If I can manage it, that will leave only the polish/line-edits. I got an actual deadline yesterday (instead of the fake ones I keep setting myself) of March 16, which is when I need to get it to my father for his comments before he leaves the country. I always work better with an externally set deadline, so I’m very hopeful.

I’ve also had some time to work on Thieves of Moirai, and I ran the first two chapters through critique group yesterday. I received some good feedback from the Wordslingers. So far, it’s pretty encouraging. Also, they gave me some stuff to work on – which is, of course, the point. Thieves is in first person present tense, which is completely opposite of King’s Mark. There are some limitations that come from this, one I’m still struggling with is fitting description in without screwing up the narrative.

In reality, the biggest challenge I’m facing right now is myself. For some reason, I’m feeling the pressure to write Thieves well. I never really felt this for King’s Mark, probably because I just wanted to make it all the way through the story.

I set out to keep King’s Mark small (although small is a relative term, and applying it to KM is somewhat debatable). I kept the history to a minimum, although it is there. Cultures and geography are simple, and rather than spend tons of time world-building I used existing cultures and places as a base. The magic system was contained. I wanted it to be a stand-alone book, with room for a second, and by the time I finish revising that’s what it will be. I’ll admit, having 4 POVs did not make for a “simple” book, although I started off with a very simple plan for each of my 3 main characters. That part grew beyond my expectations, but still. Overall, small.

Thieves is a much larger undertaking, although it only has one POV (which I haven’t worked with much before now) and takes place in one city. The world is completely my own, with predatory plants of my devising and a completely alien culture. The magic is common and widely used, and has complicated applications (although the rules are simple enough). My main character knows about things I don’t and has a personality vastly different than my own. By the second chapter, she’s already wrapped up in family problems, the criminal world, and politics. She’s lying to everyone, the very setting is hostile toward her, and she’s just discovered murder victims. And I’m pretty sure this is a trilogy, at least. So… bigger.

Thieves is my second attempt, and for some reason it seems important to do it right. Not to mention, I’m extremely excited about the story idea, and I’m a little afraid to screw it up. As silly as it is, I’m nervous that the general approval King’s Mark received was a fluke, or beginner’s luck. And for some reason, the positive feedback on the first couple chapters of Thieves intensified this feeling rather than diffused it.

So I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t write it perfectly. That’s what revisions are for. Plus, I’m a discovery writer, so if I don’t give myself leeway to play with the story, it will never grow into something I can shape. I have to have faith that I will make good decisions or be able to fix problems when the time comes. And I should remember all those other common writing gems – ideas are cheap! The story in your head is always idealized! Give yourself permission to suck!

Next week, I hope to have made significant progress on revisions AND Thieves, and I will definitely have a video of a Roseate Spoonbill foraging. In the meantime, here’s another pretty ocean shot.

What’s Taking So Long?

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I am not anywhere close to finished with my final revision – in fact, if you look that way —–> you will see that I’m still less than 1/4 of the way through. I recently had a friend ask what I could possibly be doing on what is technically my FOURTH draft (really rough, rough, first, now second).

She’d read the book during the beta read, and liked it pretty well (yay!). So clearly I can’t have missed that many big things, to require what will certainly be more than a month of revision. I must be slacking!

Well, yes. I am slacking. But in between bouts of slacking, I am actually doing some pretty drastic revisions. But since you’re interested, I’ll give you some insight into the process.

First, I received feedback from my beta readers. A lot of it was good (good for my ego, bad for the writing), some brought up completely surprising issues (good for the writing, frustrating for me), and some of it showed me problems where I knew there were problems (= a kick in the pants for me).

Sorting through the feedback is what takes the most time for me. I have to go through several phases:

1. Denial/anger – That’s stupid! My writing is perfect! They just didn’t get it!

2. Denial/hope – No, they mostly said good things, I was just focusing on the negative

(look back at the comments)

3. Depression – They’re right, my writing sucks 😥

4. Analytical – Come on! Buck up! Can I fix that? Let’s list the ways.

5a. Relief – Thank goodness, if I change this ONE word here, it’s fixed. Moving on…

5b. Denial/anger – I can’t possibly do that! It’s too much work/not what I want/this isn’t fun anymore!

6. Acceptance – OK fine.

7. Inspiration – Oooooh! If I do this it will be so much better!

Repeat for EVERY FREAKING comment, and for EVERY FREAKING cascade change that must take place because of the change I decide on.

I’m not kidding.

Now the good news is that through practice, I can usually live through the first 3 steps in about 60 seconds of turmoil. There are some instances where it takes longer, usually because the passage or character in question is one of my darlings (which means I have an abnormal love or attachment to it for some indefinable reason). I am pretty proud of this*, and hope to be able to shrink the jump even further, until I hardly even notice the emotional blip.

Actually, what takes the longest is the jump from #6 to #7. For larger changes, that is pretty necessary, because if I’m just resigned to it rather than excited about the improvement, I won’t write the section very well. In fact, there are changes that I knew needed to happen with the last draft, but I couldn’t get to step 7. So I put it out without the change rather than make a change I didn’t believe in. I am happy to say that at this point, I have worked out all of those problem areas with help from this last round of feedback. The reason I couldn’t solve the problem was I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.

“Inspiration” is a little bit of of a misnomer here – what it really means is I need to find the perfect way to integrate the change into the story. It is rarely the first solution that comes up – for some reason my brain needs to soak up the change and come to terms with it before it can spit out a good idea. It can’t be too predictable, and it needs to fit the characters and situation well. The greatest solutions fix multiple problems. Sometimes I end up going with what a reader suggests, but most often I come up with my own way.

Then comes the actual writing. I have to rewrite the scene, and all the scenes the change affects. I actually collect up as many things as I can before I start writing, so I have a comprehensive sense of the new story (I try to do them all, but something new always comes up while I’m working).

And once all of the changes are made, I have to go back through and polish the new writing. That includes a ton of stuff, all of which is absolutely essential to a good final product. To give you an idea, here is about 1/4 of my “polish” checklist:

– Add weather, smell, sound, touch

– Run checklist in “Fire in Fiction” pp229 for violent scenes

– Check setting descriptions & comparisons – tied to POV character & character’s current emotions?

– Check first and last lines of scenes, chapters, book

– Watch for emotion/exposition repetitions

– Check use of my problem words: breath, caught, grab, saw, heard, felt, looked, almost, about, quite, nearly, really, actually, just, stepped, started, that, had, was, stare, finally, eventually

– Check speech tags & actions

– Check injuries have lasting effects

– Read for character motivations & conflict

– Read aloud

– In-line corrections from feedback that haven’t been dealt with

So anyway, that’s what I’m up to. Trying to clear the distracting stuff and make the pretty stuff shine brighter. Maybe I’ll do a demonstration sometime, and show you from comment to the change I settle on. But I think this post is plenty long as it is!

*Speaking of, if you are interested in developing this skill (it is a skill), here’s what I did – seek out harsh, honest criticism. If they don’t say something that gets your panties in a bunch, they aren’t doing their job. When you find it, SHUT UP and listen. Write it down, or have them write it down. Fume as long as you need to. Don’t work on that part of the book/story until you can read the comments without the emotions taking control. Then consider the comments seriously, and think about it until you can see why they gave that feedback – it isn’t always what they identified as the problem. Brainstorm a solution. Save a copy of your story before you start to change it in case you want to go back, and then butcher it mercilessly. Usually, you will discover part way through that it was a good idea. Repeat, over and over.

Herons Hunting and Novel Ransacking

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This post finds me back at my writing desk in the cold north. It is snowing, which is beautiful but not exactly welcome. As much as I love my little car, it is not up for blazing trails. I think the word that describes my short excursion this morning is “slushplaning.” I would say hydroplaning, but I think the liquid water molecules are outnumbered at this point. This does not bode well for work tomorrow.

Anyway. I’ll get to the writing in a moment, I do have some things to share in that arena. But I just got from a vacation, and I had the opportunity to observe and film some wildlife doing some interesting things. Ah, the wonders of the digital age. I’ve got a good number of them, and I’ll be breaking them out over the next few posts. So here’s number one!

This is a video of a little blue heron hunting. He got some insects and a few small brown anoles while we were watching him. The way he waves his head back and forth is mainly a “targeting system,” a behavior which allows the birds to account for distance and refraction of the water before striking (herons don’t have the same depth perception as we do, because their eyes are on the side of their heads). It also serves to distract prey while the bird lines up for the strike.

On to the writing news!

I spent a chunk of my vacation planning out revisions for King’s Mark with my dad, who is an excellent person to bounce ideas off of. I got my brain from him, so he usually gets what I’m trying to do, while at the same time maintaining more distance from my work than I can. We managed to solve several of my more vexing problems rather elegantly, in my opinion. My beta-reader feedback started trickling in last weekend, and so far there hasn’t been anything unexpected, so I haven’t had to completely reconsider the solutions I’ve already worked out.

I’m off work until Wednesday, so today and yesterday have been almost entirely spent in revision-land. I have not actually started rewriting yet, but I hope to be ready to start that by the end of today. I am reaching a point where the changes I’m looking at could be good or just as problematic as the text I already have. I don’t believe in changing something until I have something measurably better to replace it with, so we may be nearing the asymptote of this revision.

But, before I lose myself in the weeds again, here’s another pic from my vacation:

An Alligator!