Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Reading Critically

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My friend has written his first novel and joined a writers’ group to get some feedback on his work. He’s enjoying the discussions and is learning a lot, but he asked me the other day how he could better contribute. He felt like he didn’t have as much to offer about other writers’ work as they did about his.

The most useful thing about critique groups is the variety of things that the people point out. You might not agree with everything or act on everything, for instance, but if one reader had the thought or comment, you know that many others will, so it’s worth considering each comment and looking at text to see if you might change something to make the comment or question go away. If you can offer those kinds of comments, your critique group will appreciate your attendance even more than if you’re merely written something really good.

What to Look For

There are many contributing factors to reading critically. Here’s a fairly bald list of the things that I look for as a substantive editor, and the kinds of things you might look for when asked to read critically.


  • Accuracy. If it’s non-fiction, this is a given. But if it’s fiction, are allusions correct (for instance, do you have a troubadour playing the lute in Northern Germany in the 12 century? Believe me, people know that the troubadours never came that far north and not that early and that there weren’t lutes yet)? If anything can be checked and verified, some reader WILL check it and let it be known that there’s a mistake. As a critical reader, it’s your obligation to pose the question if you have doubts (did people use oil lamps in their homes in 14th century France, or would they have used candles?) or ask them to check it out.
  • Basic grammar and syntax. Is anything distracting about the way the work is written? Are things conjugated properly, and does the writer use words correctly (are the meanings conventional or obscure—or incorrect—are there unnecessary or distracting foreign words, are there made-up words, and if so, is their meaning obvious from context)? Are things capitalized that ought to be, and not when they shouldn’t? Are they capitalized and spelled consistently?
  • Compelling plot/story. If the subject matter is obscure, has the author found a way to make it interesting to folks who might be new to the subject? If the subject matter is well-known, do they have something innovative or unusual to offer?
  • Headings, titles, and subheadings. Can you read only these elements and have a clear sense of where you’re going to end up? Has the writer been clever in a way that makes the work itself less appealing (sarcasm, in-jokes, pop-culture references, etc.) to a wide audience?
  • Hook. The piece has to start with something interesting enough to make the reader want to persist. That means every piece, every heading or subheading, every new chapter, has to hook us, not just the first paragraph. You might not come up with a better hook for someone else’s work, but you might be able to help the writer think in those terms or tighten up an existing hook.
  • Punctuation and formatting. There are plenty of great resources on how to do these things properly, including my own Web page (, among others). Give them a read, and try your best to comply. No one’s perfect, but coming close earns you points. Nothing makes a publisher or a learned reader crazier than to have someone heedlessly ignore these niceties. Such things are the difference between readers thinking that the writer is a clever fellow with an interesting tale and thinking he’s a crackpot.
  • Tense: Does the work waffle from past to present to future?  It’s very helpful to point out waffling because a reader might not know why they’re losing interest, but it’s often this sort of confusion causing the dismay. If every word is valuable, the reader will be grateful. (Swobbling across tenses implies that the verbs are not valuable, which means that none of the action is important.)

Language Choices

  • Clarity. Can fewer words or better words express the same thing? If the expression “in other words” shows up, even the writer already knows that she hasn’t been clear.
  • Dialog and dialect. Is your dialog distracting or is it informative? Have you spent time making people sound like they really would sound and dumfounded readers with tin ears who can’t understand? (Note: Dialect is VERY hard to do well. Until you’ve got rather a lot of experience, reserve most such self-indulgences for the rare injection.) Are there natural hesitations in speech, the “well”, “er,” and “um” that all of us say, and the “I mean,” “like,””actually,” “really” and other ubiquitous empty expressions that many of us sprinkle liberally into any given sentence, and have you thereby bored the stuffing out of the reader? Point out curses or foul language that is gratuitous. Yup, hardly anyone is offended or surprised by these words anymore, but that doesn’t mean writing is improved by their presence. Dialog is a great way to show action (rather than tell about action), but point out if it’s sounding like a transcript. Dialog should serve a purpose other than providing color or breaking up a page.
  • Passive voice. Passive voice distances the reader (and the writer) from what has been written. It can be useful if the character is avoiding admitting complicity in a crime or the marketing department doesn’t want to admit that their product doesn’t really work, but it’s pretty tiresome reading, sentence after sentence.
  • Pompous voice. Are the word choices ordinary language? Readers soon tire of running to the dictionary. It’s another way to distance the reader, rather literally, I’m afraid. If you haven’t heard of the word, there’s a good likelihood that other readers won’t know it either.
  • Repetition. If something repeats, it had better be furthering the plot or there for obvious artistic purposes, or readers will soon be ripping out their hair and walking away. Repeating the story itself is the worst offence, but repeating words is almost as bad. You have to repeat nouns, obviously, but repeating adjectives, adverbs, and verbs appears lazy. And it’s distracting and boring. Point ‘em out, even if you think they might not be a problem.
  • Suitability. If it’s historical fiction, for instance, no one before the 20th century would say “okay” because it’s a radio term. Unless a priest is a bad guy, he’s not likely to curse in casual conversation. If readers are young adults or children, five-syllable words, discussion of historical facts (like wars and mutinies or rulers of obscure places) will lose them fast unless these subjects are the subject of the piece. If the audience is adults, the writing should not also make a five-year old happy. 


  • Sentence and paragraph length. Is there enough variety to keep the reader stimulated or does it grow monotonous? Have short sentences been used to promote breathlessness and long sentences to slow the action down? Are there long paragraphs making the page look daunting, or are there a whole series of single lines making the page look like a children’s picture book without the pictures?
  • Story arc. If you took an outline (for fiction or non-fiction), could you see a clear arc of discovery from the introduction of the idea or plot line, through each paragraph, to an endpoint that would have been predictable to someone who knew where they’d end up before they read it?
  • Title appropriateness. Does the majority (and I mean 80%, not 51%) of the piece answer the demands of the title? In other words, if the piece has a title like “Why I Like Sailing,” does it talk about the joy of the activity, or does it talk about wind velocities, boat types, the best places to go sailing, and so forth? The title and the content should match. If it’s fiction, does every paragraph promote either the story itself or character development?


  • Complexity. Can you imagine any other way to tell the story? If you can, tell the writer cautiously, or you’re in for an argument. It might be of value to point it out, though, so just weigh your words before letting fly.
  • Connection. If it’s fiction, do you relate to the characters? Why or why not? Is it something from your personal experience that makes you respond this way, or will a general readership feel the same? If it’s non-fiction, do you feel informed or entertained by the piece? Do you feel invested in the future of the discussion or characters sufficiently to want to read through to the end, or is a small sampling sufficient?
  • Continuity. Is the character wearing a green shirt at the start of the scene and a blue one at the end? Would the character, who claimed to be a pescatarian in chapter one, tuck into a big plate of steak in chapter three?
  • Motivation. Why are the characters behaving as they do? In many cases, the reader doesn’t need to be told why, but it needs to be apparent that the writer knows. In order for someone to be plausibly irritable, for instance, they can’t just be discovered drowning kittens. They have to have been pushed to their last strand of sanity and the reader needs to see some of that. The work needn’t show all the things that made the characters the way they are, but a character who’s evil for the sake of having an evil character only works in cartoons. Implausibly cheerful characters are just as grating.
  • The point. Is the writer telling the story to hear his own voice, or does he have something interesting or important that needs conveying? Yup, I know, it’s fun to wind the story up. But readers soon grow weary if they’re always being wound up.
  • Recurring themes. Does the writer have a soapbox that they keep climbing back up on? Can you recognize a character by an activity, a turn of phrase or a facial tic? Is it too much, just enough, or do you want more?
  • Show, don’t tell. If there isn’t a lot of action, and the action doesn’t lead readers deeper into the plot, there’s probably an inequality of telling the story rather than letting the reader discover for themselves. Good writing doesn’t tell the reader “be sad now;” good writing makes the reader feel sad. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell what this looked like or what happened in the past, but the reader is invested better if they have to ferret it out for themselves. Oh, and what one person thinks is a tale of horror and moral decay, another reader thinks is hysterically humorous. Both responses are legitimate. The writer shouldn’t pick the readers’ responses; they should hope for certain reactions, and you will help the writer if you reveal that your response was perhaps not what they expected or intended, or if it differs from what other reviewers felt.
  • Tension. What needs to happen to make the story progress? Why should we care? If it’s a murder mystery, well, there’s a problem to solve. That’s easy. But other forms of literature are harder to inject urgency into. What is it about the story that compels the reader deeper?

Presenting Your Comments.
Some people start with the good comments first. I like to mix them up, so that the good stuff isn’t colored by harsher comments. (We are, after all, a society that loves to linger on the negatives.) You don’t want the writer to stop writing; you want the writing to get better, right? Direct all your comments, the positive and the negative, so that your goal of helping the writer improve is apparent.

I make smiley faces in the margins when something strikes me as really good, for whatever reason (super clear sentences in a sea of otherwise purple prose, a clever or evocative expression, something unexpectedly funny, etc.). Other people highlight, make check marks, etc. Make sure that the author knows what you liked and why you liked it.

I try to find things that the writer does well, like perhaps they don’t write well (which I don’t say literally) but it’s a really good story. Or it’s maybe twice as long as it needs to be (which I will say kindly and gently and with clearly marked areas that could be cut) but it’s beautifully written. Maybe the story isn’t all that compelling (I don’t care why these people are here doing these things) but the characters are really well developed.  Perhaps the work seems overwrought, over-edited, and over-thought and suddenly, there’s finally a paragraph of wonderful, relaxed prose.

In some cases, the writer reads the piece aloud in the group, and the critique is extemporaneous. This is a hard way to do it because one person will say, “oh, I didn’t like such and such” and everyone else will say “yah, me too,” obscuring whether they’d actually had the thought themselves or just recognized it as true once they heard it. There’s a difference. Some readers can identify what they do or don’t like, but most people have a general sense of liking or not liking it and no clear idea of why they feel that way. It’s hard to gauge into which category the item falls with this “group think” response. However, it’s very interesting to hear how the words sound out loud—the writer will discover many things for themselves that did not leap out at them when they were reading silently. And, of course, you can learn what sorts of things people make note of, and add them to your list of things to look for yourself.

Other groups submit their work in advance, and each reader has a chance to review as much as they want before the meeting. For readers like me, this allows several passes (one for the story, one for grammar/syntax/formatting/punctuation, one for continuity, and one for fine tuning) and it allows me to edit my own comments, to make sure that they’re all helpful, positive, and clear. The comments are read aloud, and again, you have a chance to see what sorts of things other people point out and add them to your list.

Some groups don’t meet in person. This works much the same as the advance submission, where each participant has the opportunity to read the submissions several times, but it loses some of the interesting discussions that come because one person thought it was a romantic story and another thought it was a tale of stalking. (This happened recently during a discussion of Proust’s “Swann’s Way.” It was very surprising indeed.)

Whichever way your group works, there’s a lot to be gained by participating in critical review. Your editor/agent/publisher might be happier to get your work if it’s squeaky clean, but also, they are rather likely to just put you in the “no” pile if your work is too rough, rather than working with you to smooth it out. The critique might help you avoid the “no” pile.

Written by Melanie Spiller

November 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm

What’s Your Purpose?

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Thrice in the recent past, I’ve encountered writers who are stuck in their writing. In the case of one, he’d been working with a critique group and didn’t know how to proceed. One critic said do this, another said do that, and neither thought he was on the right path. In the case of the second writer, there was just so much to write about, she was stopped in her tracks. The third was trying to do everything at once and although he wasn’t having trouble writing, he was overwhelming his audience.

The problem of the first writer (shall we call him Vincent?) was simple. He had a story to tell, but people wanted him to tell their stories instead. In an effort to please them, he was getting stuck. It wasn’t his story anymore. We stood on a street corner saying goodnight one evening, and I could see from the bleak look on his face exactly what the problem was. He was trying to please his audience before he knew how his own story ended.

The second writer (let’s call her Alexandria) has done a lot of writing. Newsletters, blogs, journaling, and so on. She has had an extraordinary life so far, and there are parts of it that really should be told and heard around the world. She’s stopped in her writing because she has a largess of resources. It’s hard to begin when there’s so very much to do.

The third writer (I think I’ll call him Mike), falls between the two. He wants to tell the story of his family, but he’s also charmed by the way he heard it himself and wants to share that. He wants first to recount sitting at some elder’s knee and then to recount the stories they’d told. Even his own family is having trouble reading through it and they share both the experience and the history.

All three have the same problem. They don’t really know why they’re writing. They just know that they want to or need to.

Vincent’s case is easy. He needs to tell his own story in his own words. Once he’s finished it, or he’s far enough along that he has some distance from the earlier chunks, he can start seeking the advice of others. But until he has his own clarity about where he’s going and how he’s getting there, any advice he gets, even advice that coincides with his own designs, will divert him from his goal of writing, After all, no matter how well he’s written or how pristine his prose, he has many rounds of editing ahead of him. He has his own multiple passes, the passes he makes after other people tell him what they think, and if he’s lucky enough to find a publisher or an agent, they too will tell him what to do.

My advice: Just write your story. Worry about what other people think later. There will be plenty of time to please them.

Alexandria’s situation is more complicated. First, she has to pick out the stories that she feels convey her message, knowing that along the way, she will change her mind a hundred times. Then, she has to understand that she has more to offer than a single flavor. There’s a memoir, there are instructions about the line of work that she’s in, there’s a sort of love song to a mentor, and there’s her own very interesting take on life and all its turns and twists.

My advice: Make some outlines, apportioning each bit to its assorted corner. Things might wander from one place to another, but at least she’s got a place to start.

Mike’s problem is that he wants all things to be in one place. He wants to share this great experience of learning about the Ancient Ones from the merely Old Ones. He has done a whole lot of research to back up his story, and he’s cleared time in his life to write it. All advice that he needs to separate the tale from the telling falls on deaf ears.

My advice: Decide whether you want to tell your tale or whether you want to get published. If you just want to tell your tale, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to get published and everyone tells you it’s too complicated, it’s probably too complicated.

All three have the same issues. They believe that they have something to say that people will want to hear. In Vincent’s case, he just needs to get past the fear of dropping the new baby on its head and know that no matter how carefully he watches, the baby is going to eat some dirt or fall over or some such dreadful thing at some point. (Please excuse the metaphor. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

In Alexandria’s case, she has a traffic jam. Once she figures out which story belongs where, she can pick and choose which one she’s ready to work on. It’s a kind of Rubik’s cube of writing.

In Mike’s case, he needs to decide whether he wants to get published or just finish writing it all down. If it’s the latter, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more of a journal that way, or a blog, perhaps, than a book.

You might have noticed a contradiction in what I’m telling Vincent and what I’m telling Mike. I’m telling Vincent not to listen to his critics until he’s gotten some distance, and I’m telling Mike to listen to the critics who say it’s too much information and too much swobbling in time and place to follow the story easily.  What’s the difference? Vincent is writing a memoir that he might later fictionalize, and Mike is writing fiction based on facts.

Alexandria will encounter some of these same issues, I suspect, but right now, she just needs to get started and the path will get increasingly clear. Frankly, I can’t wait to read all three.

Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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Stage Fright

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I don’t get stage fright. After all, one way or another, I’ve been on a stage since I was four years old—ballet, playing the flute, ballroom dance, a brief theater period in college, teaching in a classroom and privately, and of course singing. But when I went to that historical novelists’ conference, lo and behold, I got a little stage fright.

It was standing outside the room where everyone pitched their books to agents and publishers that did it. I was fine, didn’t expect much, thought of it as a way to suck information out of people more than a way to get into print. I got to the room in plenty of time, signed in, and then lurked, listening to the others talk about their books, their pitches, or the weather. Suddenly, my stomach lurched up into my throat. Apparently, it showed on my face, as the nice woman signing us all in came over to me and asked if I was okay.


Here’s the thing. I’ve been around plenty of people who get stage fright. You can feel it, almost smell it on them, a kind of quivery stomach, heart in throat extravaganza of sweating palms and loose bowels. But *I* don’t get it. Nope. If you’re prepared, even if you make mistakes, you will recover. Heck, as I always say after singing a solo, “no one was killed.” You just can’t take it so seriously.

But I did. I seriously did.

I pulled myself out of it quickly enough, though. Here’s the tale.

The night before, there was a reception, and we all stood around pitching our books to one another while we sipped adult beverages. This nice young man, a graphic novelist specializing in the Trojan horse era, asked me what it was that I thought would go wrong. I realized that I couldn’t explain. So then he said to me—and here’s the really clever part—give me your bad pitch.

So I did. I slumped my shoulders. I pinched my voice up into my nose. I whined on academically about the driest aspects of my book. I pretended that I was proud of how LONG the book is. I used long words and foreign words to make myself seem smarter. I checked my teeth repeatedly for savory morsels.

Those were all the things I didn’t want to do. So then, he said—knowing I was ready now—give me your good pitch. And I did. I was funny, engaging, and told my story with light in my eyes. I could feel myself just flat out enjoying that I’d come up with this idea and seen it through. I mentioned my second-draft trimming efforts and my plans for the next book.

Ta da!

So there I was, getting nervous in the line to present to important dignitaries, and I just ran that little exercise again. I got all the ickies out before I went in to see someone who could decide whether or not I really did have a good idea.

You know, this works, or so I’m told, for proper stage fright as well. I’ve read that if your hands are all sweaty and your heart is pounding away like it’s a conga drum, you try to make your palms sweatier and your heart beat harder by just willing it so. Apparently, that makes these unpleasant fight-or-flight instincts quiet right on down.

You’ll have to let me know though. Even though I’d only known about the solo for four days (someone had to bail at the last minute), I got away with it at this weekend’s concert extravaganza without a peep of stage fright. After all, no one was killed.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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A Writing Conference

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I spent last weekend at the Historical Novelists Society’s three-day conference in San Diego. Wow.

I could really just stop there, it was that good. Oh, the hotel was humorously hokey (they had fabulous chandeliers hanging from stained ceiling tiles that were polka-dotted with dirty air conditioning vents) and noisy (less than a mile from the airport, across the street from where the military hosts its helicopter fleet, and half a block from the Amtrak trains, who have not been discouraged from honking merrily for most of a mile all through the night), and the food was, um, institutional but plentiful. But the conference itself! Wow!

The first night was a reception with a cash bar. The good news about the cash bar is that no one got conspicuously drunk. The bad news was that it got seriously loud and it was impossible to be heard without screaming. But it was such a hoot! People practiced pitching their books, talked about getting published, and were generally hilarious, friendly, and informative. I even got feedback for my pitch, which was worth the attendance fee in itself.

Then we went in to dinner. This was buffet style, but very well organized. They had a buffet line down both sides of the hall and the wait staff came to tell each table when it was their turn, so there wasn’t a dreadful line, and even though my table’s turn was late in the serving, the trays had all been replenished and everything was fresh. There were speeches during the meal welcoming us and telling us what the weekend held.

After dinner, we were treated to published writers reading their fight scenes. I was surprised that they were not all written by men and that they weren’t full of death and destruction. It was interesting. I’ve never thought about writing anything more violent than a disagreement, so it gave me pause.

On Saturday, the conference offered panel discussions, mini-lectures, blue-line feedback on work, and the opportunity to pitch to agents and publishing houses. I made my first pitch that day. This was quite an interesting experience. People signed up for certain agents and editors in advance. I was lucky enough to be granted three pitch sessions. The organizers assigned each of us a ten minute session. Pretty much everyone turned up early for their sessions.

Each of us was granted eight of the ten minutes. Someone came along and politely informed us when we were at six minutes. It was obvious from the waiting area that the editors and agents were adept at assessing, as some people popped out after only two or three minutes looking dejected, and others popped out looking elated. I’m pretty sure that writers would be dragged physically away if they exceeded their eight minutes. This was a well-oiled and incredibly efficient machine.

People were so nice, too. Not just the agents and the officials who kept us moving along, although they were lovely. The other writers were really nice, too. Everyone was solicitous before and after a pitch, and everyone respected someone pulling aside and not participating in the conversations. There were supportive smiles and knowing nods. And when each of us slunk into a panel discussion session already in progress, everyone understood and was nice about that, too.

The panel discussions were great. In some cases, they talked about certain aspects of writing and publishing, in others, they talked about their processes, and in yet others, they talked about pitfalls and fortuitous happenstance. They were all excellent.

There was a sit-down dinner the second evening for which we had all pre-selected a meal option. I have peculiar dietary needs and the meal they provided wouldn’t do. The wait staff was nice about that and although I was eating my dinner while everyone else was having dessert, they were very helpful and I got the meal I needed. After dinner there was a fashion show, everything from ancient Greece through the middle ages, the Tudors, the Victorian era, the civil war, and the 1940s. The person MCing the parade was hilarious, a sweet grandmotherly type with a rather saucy wit.

After the fashion show, there were readings of sex scenes. These were interesting and fabulous, but I was completely out of steam and toddled off upstairs to sleep before it was over. In the morning, there were more pitches, more sessions, and then a long and sad goodbye.

This was my first writers’ conference and it set a high bar. I chose it partly because of its location (I could visit with my long-lost cousins while in town) and partly for its timing, but mostly, I chose it because it was specific to the genre of my books.

I came away with new friends, new draft readers who specifically enjoy the sort of book that I write, and a LOT of new energy for the revisions and such that will be needed before my successful pitches can go very far. And too, I sort of pitched another idea to my fellow writers, and I’m clearly onto something, so I’ve begun writing that one too.

In the near future, there are other conferences to attend. One is a general genre conference and another is about getting feedback on the writing itself. I’m not sure if the timing or the money will work out for those, but I’ll let you know what happens.

The one thing I’m sure of is that a genre conference is a very good thing indeed. And the HNS has at least one very happy new member.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

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Poking at Things

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I spent a large portion of the weekend trying to write a synopsis of my novel. It’s a funny thing: If it’s someone else’s work, I can be creative and witty—and brief—but if it’s my own work, I can only be academic and dry. This is strange, because the book I’ve written is only a little academic and not at all dry.

It seems obvious now, but one thing I learned both from my non-historically oriented writers’ group and from the historical novel reading I’ve been doing lately, is that the academic stuff won’t sell books to non-academics. So, in a manner of speaking, I’m “dumbing” my book down.

I wanted to show a 12th century German monastery as a stark contrast to modern perceptions of monasteries and the Middle Ages, and to teach about Hildegard von Bingen’s life without writing yet another book  featuring Hildegard as the star. But it turns out that all of that “showing” came out like a bunch of “telling.”

I think the crux of the problem is that much of a nun’s life  is internal, and many revelations came through the thoughts of my narrator nun so that it looks like a lot of expository writing on the page before a single word is read. In my second draft, I’m trying to squish a lot of that. My writers’ group told me (in so many words) that it was daunting, even when their own work employed a similar amount of exposition. So it is either my writing that is daunting (gadzooks!) or this is the nature of writing about something completely unfamiliar to an uncontrolled audience.

I’ve decided, then, that in the interest of getting published, even though this one is the nearest and dearest subject matter that I will likely ever write, I’m dumping a LOT of the internal dialogs. They might move over to the memoir/travel guide to things Hildegardian, and they might end  up as bits of purple type stored in a “bits and pieces” folder on my hard drive.

Also, through the course of writing a synopsis and a summary of the various chapters, I have discovered that I left out one of Hildegard’s miracles, the curing of a blind child. Go figure. Now there’s a big yellow ADD note appended to the opening of the appropriate chapter awaiting revision. How hideous.

I’ve sent my summary/synopsis to three or four friends to solicit “sharpening” ideas, because—you know—I don’t market myself well. And in at least one case, I’ve done a fair amount of poking around in her work, so I’m pretty clear about her quick wit and clever connection-making. But, um, I haven’t heard from any of them (other than a willingness to do it). So now I’m suffering a crisis of confidence in with all the other angst about dumbing down my book.

Even worse, I’ve run out of closets to clean. No really. The hall is done, the walk-in, all the kitchen cupboards, and the bedroom. Even the refrigerator is clean. I suppose I haven’t done the bathroom, but that should take all of five minutes. I’m going to have to <chokes> work on revising my books, I guess.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

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Round Two of my Hildegard von Bingen novel is underway, and simultaneously (for reasons of pure avoidance), so is the travel guide to Things Hildegardian.

Thinking about how I will revise each chapter is fun. I went through and put a story arc on each fictional chapter (as I’d threatened to do in The Story Arc) and now I can see the slow points. I highlighted them in the outlines. I can focus on whether to add some action, change direction or tone, or just lop off the slow bits.

In the first chapter, it was pretty easy to lop off the beginning right after the second slow point. The lopped bits provided some context for the scene, but they didn’t really further the story much beyond introducing the characters and their location in time and place. The characters can introduce themselves during the less slow parts. See? That wasn’t so bad.

But all that reckless abandon and lopping away caused a dilemma. You see, I’d used the early part of that first chapter to show something about life in the Middle Ages within a convent, things my early readers had trouble understanding without a little help (oh, those pesky modern sensibilities!). Now I’ve got to find some clever way to put those little snippets of facts into the action. Someone can coyly say “oh she’s one of the reluctant nuns,” I suppose, and things of that nature.

Some of that knowledge of the 12th century needs to be in place for the second chapter to go smoothly. So there I sat, looking at Chapter Two as if it were a three-headed monster that had swooped up from under the davenport.

I turned my attention to the travel guide. I thought this would be easy—after all, I’m changing it to a memoir with an appendix full of directions for how to get there. Initially, it wasn’t hard, I plopped the directions into an appendix and then massaged the memoir-style stuff to flow nicely. But then I encountered the interesting tidbits about non-Hildegard things to see in the town. These are interesting! I can’t just lop them off! I can’t make another chapter or appendix for non-Hildegard things, can I? I mean, the memoir must include all the non-Hildegard things I did or it’s not the whole experience.

This led to the horrible question: Does it really have to be accurate? In other words, will anyone really mind if I go out of order, combine several trips into one, skip bits that I think won’t be interesting or add off-topic bits because they’re interesting or funny? (Like the fifteen-foot tall foot and ankle that I encountered outside a library in Mainz. Wouldn’t you be sad if that were missing?)

In the Travel Guide, the feedback of my readers was that the personal vignettes were the best parts. So my excursions around the town, Hildegardian or otherwise, are of interest, right? I mean the theme of the whole book is Hildegard and I plan to teach about her life as I go, but a memoir doesn’t need to be completely focused, does it? Shouldn’t it ramble into my own experience rather more than not?

And the fiction book, well, it’s fiction even though it’s based on history. I want to teach the facts, but it isn’t, after all, an academic exercise. So I have to snuggle the facts in there with the more entertaining aspects of the story. Can I use this technique in the non-fiction book?

I don’t know. I think I’ll go “revise” a closet or something. It’s gotta be easier.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

Why Am I Writing About This?

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I’ve begun revising my travel guide/memoir. Revising just isn’t as fun as I’d like it to be.

First, let me say that originally, the book was a memoir. Then, I started think that it would be truly useful and interesting to tell people what to see where in regard to my favorite historical figure, and how to get there and so forth, a sort of Michelin guide to a time and place. And I had gotten self-conscious about why anyone would want to read the meager meanderings of Melanie as she trotted around Germany.

So it shouldn’t be hard to put it back to being a memoir, right? Wrong.

When I vetted the travel guide and the fiction work through my writing group, they kept wondering why I was so interested in this particular character. My answer amounted to “because she was so interesting.” And I’m normally pretty good with words.

One person said that the best parts of the travel guide were the personal vignettes. I told her that I’d written most of the things that held any interest or humor into the book already, and she said “so make some up” to fill in the gaps. That’s partly how I came to write a novel about my favorite historical figure.

Now that I’m revising the travel guide to be a memoir, I’m trying to provide some explanation of why a perfectly ordinary 21st century nominally Jewish and somewhat bohemian woman of Russian descent would get so obsessed over an uptight 12th century German saint.

I guess it’s on the order of why some people like cheese and some people like the color blue, and some people like Josquin, and some like football. I really can’t explain it. The music she wrote (I’m talking about Hildegard von Bingen, if you hadn’t already figured it out) is ecstatic and celebratory, her visions were dark and angry, her studies of nature were thorough, and her thoughts on philosophy were stimulating. What’s not to like?

As I read the laundry list I just wrote, I feel that it doesn’t really explain 25 years or so of fascination. I suppose some of it comes down to just enjoying rooting around in a subject. It might have just as easily been chocolate manufacturing or politics, I suppose. Doesn’t everyone have a pet subject like that?

Oh, and don’t forget all the lovely tangents. There’s all the early music stuff (the development of it, performing it, analyzing it), there’s the history stuff (it was a time when exciting discoveries were just about to be made. The steps leading up to those discoveries are fascinating), there’s the regional stuff (several of my parents’ closest friends during my childhood were from Germany), and there’s the traveling part (putting oneself in the land of the “other,” and seeing how the world works in other places than home).

Okay, so I come from a family that loves music, literature, traveling, languages, taking things apart (and putting them back together again), puzzles, good food, reading, and the occasional terrible pun. I love all those things too.

The thing with Hildegard is that she’s most of those things. She’s a puzzle because she got away with amazing stuff. She convinced people— including Bernard of Clairvaux (who was instrumental in the inquisition effort), a violence-prone king, and the pope—that she heard from God and had messages for them. She traveled around preaching (preaching!) against the Cathars, an odd little sect that everyone loved to hate. But nuns didn’t travel and women didn’t preach. Women STILL don’t preach. Why was Hildegard allowed?

And of course the music is intriguing. First, Hildegard didn’t really know all the rules of Gregorian chant (or she knew and chose to ignore them). But also, she was writing for women’s voices. Men typically have about an octave and a half of comfortable range before you start bringing in the trained singers. Women, on the other hand, often have two or more, even untrained. So Hildegard played with range and vocal leaps in a way that the monks who wrote for men just couldn’t.

Also, where Gregorian chant used texts from the bible, Hildegard wrote her own poetry. She loved a good metaphor and she especially loved the idea of “greening,” which meant that things were virtually verdant with faith or love or other religious sentiments. She especially loved that “virga” had three meanings and she used it constantly. (It is the name of the most stable of notes—a single note that is emphasized or “weighted”—it is a reference to “the virgin” of Christian significance, and it also means a branch, like on a tree, growing and giving life to the tree in its greenness.)

And Hildegard didn’t just write her own texts and music. She made up words if she didn’t know one that meant what she needed. She also wrote a bit of musical theater, something that it took other composers nearly another 300 years to think was a good idea and imitate.

Oh, and speaking of imitation, because people wanted to sing Hildegard’s music and made copies of it, hers is the first European composer’s name to which specific work can be attributed. You see, the church thought it was vanity to take credit for writing music, and most secular musicians were also illiterate (or at least don’t seem to have documented their ideas), so Hildegard began the tradition of being named as a composer.

See? I’m so obsessed with all this stuff that I forgot that I was writing about revising.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

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The Full-Page Dilemma

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I always thought that facing the blank page was many writers’ problem. I don’t struggle with it much, myself. But lots of writers have told me about it and I believe it’s a real problem.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve written and written and the first draft is finished, and now I have to revise. If someone gives me feedback and tells me where I’m too wordy or the metaphor doesn’t work, I’m eager and ready to do the work of repairing it. But left to my own devices?

I think the trouble is that I am very comfortable writing. I like words—I like their nuance and their infinite variety. And, I play with words. I love a pun, I love collectives (I collect them:, and I often enjoy using a word that is appropriate but not often called upon in a given circumstance.

So when I reread my work, I’m embarrassed to say, I enjoy reading what I’ve written. Oh, it’s not that I’m not critical of my own work. It’s that as I attempt to revise it, I often compound the problem by being, well, ME during the revision.

I suspect that the trick is to try to read as if I were someone else. If someone called Adrienne (my dear friend) were to read, what would she call out as convoluted or misdirecting? Or what about my dad, who doesn’t like when it’s sarcastic or snarky?

I think there’s a certain handicap to writing easily. Perhaps if I agonized over the words, there wouldn’t be so many of them. (I think my worst offense is wordiness.)

Here I sit with several complete (and lengthy) documents ready for revision. The most pressing are a work project, my travel journal/memoir/travel guide and my historical novel. Oh, and I’m not counting the two and a half novels that I wrote off and on during the early 2000s.

Oh, and I have the next historical novel bubbling away under the mild-mannered surface. It’s so much more appealing to start the new thing than to do the disciplined, gown-up, and responsible thing and revise my finished works before starting the new. After all, if I do the second drafts, I lose the excuse for not getting published.


Let’s look at what’s stopping me. The work project isn’t a priority for the department, so it’s hard to scrape time together to focus on it. Not only that, perhaps no one will look at it when it’s finished anyway.

The travel journal/memoir/travel guide has been in the works since 1998, and frankly, although I’m thrilled to have finished the first version of it, the revision from travel guide to memoir format is so huge that I don’t want to do it. I’d rather clean the house or something. Oh, once I get started, I know it will be fine, but it’s the getting started that is the hard part. It’s the full-page dilemma.

And the fun one, the historical novel, well, I’m waiting for feedback from my writing group. Even though they’ve reviewed the early chapters and I figured out how to solve some basic problems within those early chapters. They’re going to review the rest next month. Uh huh. I could get started. But not having the whole thing reviewed is an excuse so I don’t have to start.

Look at me. I’m sitting here blogging about not starting rather than starting.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm

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When Characters Take Control

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There I was, all prepared to write the death scene of my historical figure, and I was debating about whether my (entirely fictional) protagonist would repent her wicked ways or carry her jealousy into the next world with her, when POOF! I accidentally killed off another character.

There are three main characters: the protagonist, the protagonist’s best friend who is also the narrator, and the historical figure. There’s a minor fourth character who serves as bearer of news and as general innocent, so the others can have edifying conversations.

I’d written the historical stuff that needed to happen in this chapter when the innocent wanders off into the woods (mushroom hunting), topples off a precipice, and breaks her leg. She manages to flutter about being carried back to the monastery by a burly manservant, but then she succumbs to shock.

I sat there bawling my eyes out as I wrote her faltering; telling the narrator what is to be done with her meager belongings and then the silent aftermath of her death. But once it was written, I was stunned. I hadn’t planned to kill her off—in fact, now I have a problem with the end of the book.

I tried to un-write it, to bring her back to life. Then I tried to justify the death, showing how hard things were in the middle ages and how crude medicine was. I also told myself that it was a foreshadowing of everyone else dying in the next two chapters, everyone but the narrator. (They are all quite elderly. Obviously the historical figure’s life has to end, and I wanted the jealous protagonist to live a roughly parallel life.)

Then, I told someone what I’d done, and how silly I felt crying over a character that on some level I had chosen to kill off. She said, “Don’t write things that don’t promote your plot.” Wise words.

However. Because it’s not a complete work of fiction, some of my plot is driven by historical facts. Chapters are defined by getting to the next momentous event. To keep it from being dry and sounding like non-fiction, I interspersed fictional events that sometimes had to do with furthering the plot and often had to do with revealing life in the 12th century, especially in a nunnery, which is not at all like modern preconceptions (if my writing group is any indication).

I’d addressed the historical event in the chapter already, and because I have a psychological problem with having chapters each of 16-20 pages and then suddenly writing one of only four pages, my sweet little minor character went slipping off the edge.

Oh, I could have leapt forward in time a few months and let the historical figure die her natural and well documented death. But I wanted that particular event to occupy a whole chapter on its own, so the weight of it can be revealed. And I wanted room for my protagonist’s thoughts about it.

So I killed off my innocent. I hadn’t planned to, didn’t know I was going to do it until it was already underway, but that’s what I did.

Many years ago, some creative writing teacher or other told me that when your characters take on their own lives and you lose control of their actions, that’s when you’ve written a plausible character. I’ve had it happen before, where the characters began behaving in a way that I had not planned or foreseen but that was entirely in keeping with my plot. This is the first time where it took the plot somewhere I hadn’t expected to go.

And I’ve slept on it for a few days now, and I think I like it that way. She stays dead. Rest in peace.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 9, 2011 at 11:43 pm

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The Story Arc

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Pretty much any resource on writing fiction will tell you that there needs to be a natural arc to the story that you tell. If you’re writing for theater, it’s in three acts:

  • Introduce the characters and the dilemma.
  • Bring the characters and dilemma to a crisis.
  • Solve the crisis.

For fiction, it works roughly the same as for theater, whether it’s a novel or shorter fiction. In a novel, you might have a long drawn out arc that parallels the three acts, and in each chapter you’ll have shorter versions.

Rules are made to be broken, though, right? I mean, how many murder mysteries have you read where the chapters are only a page or two long. Each chapter is basically a “scene,” driving toward a satisfying point along the arc, but not having much of an arc itself. You can almost imagine the writers’ work ethic: One chapter a day. Or one page a day.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but obviously, you can’t break the rules endlessly or people will grow tired of plot points without any connection to one another. And there’s the reverse, where the whole story is one long stream of consciousness, unbroken into digestible chunks. There may be an arc, but it’s darned hard to ferret it out.

I have a dilemma, as I sit facing the first round of revisions on my freshly finished (or nearly finished) historical novel. You see, real lives don’t necessarily come with a nice story arc. There’s a fair amount of dishwashing and planting the crops and such that don’t warrant coverage. In a novel where everything is fictional, you can design the characters’ lives around nice plot arcs, but it’s not so for fiction based on real people. Especially if a lot of people know a lot about your central character.

In my first draft, I peppered a fairly factual account of a famous person’s life with little vignettes that revealed how life was in the 12th century and the skeptical attitudes of   contemporaneous people toward the famous person who later became fairly universally revered. Some of the little vignettes felt contrived as I wrote them. Tales at the end of the book felt particularly contrived as I headed toward the end of the lives of my stars. Like I was filling in the space between accomplishments.

I think what I’ll do as part of my revision process is something I’m always telling technical writers and editors to do:

I’m going to pull an outline out of the work.

Chapter by chapter, I’m going to make an outline so that I can see where I do and don’t have arcs. Maybe there are some plot points that are pathways rather than arcs, but I don’t want any true side trips and I want to make sure that everything drives toward the same end point.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 25, 2011 at 11:14 am

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