Simply Remove Everything That Isn’t Story

I’ve found myself, lately, going over half-completed novels and wondering if I had a stroke while writing them.

It’s not true, of course.  I didn’t have a stroke.  But I was very ill for about four or five years, the time I refer to as “the wheels came off.”

Before the endless moves, there were the endless illnesses, which were, apparently precipitated by low thyroid.  (This is not actually strictly true, which is why it took so long to identify.  My autoimmune issues attack a component necessary to my thyroid output being used by my body.) Low thyroid causes other issues, like weight gain and lack of energy, but most importantly depression, verbal competence issues and memory issues.

The memory issues were a problem because I keep the “design” of a novel in my head as I write.  Even when I’m purely pantsing, I know what the novel is supposed to “feel” like, and so I know how to remove everything that isn’t novel.  Only I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t keep it in my mind, not the feel of it, the sense of it, (it’s like following a thread into chaos.  You have to keep holding on.)  And so my half completed novels (except one that gets ditched from chapter one) are … not even wrong.  I kept going from chapter to chapter going “why am I showing this?  What does this have to do with the plot? Gratuitous sex why?”  And on and on and on.  The chapters and scenes are competently written, but it’s as though someone tried to tell Romeo and Juliet by following Lady Capulet’s depression, her husband’s business deals, friar Laurence’s crisis of faith, the Montague’s reading habits.

Fascinating side details, and the glimmers of the story are there, but for some reason you can’t get at them, because the deranged author is showing you EVERYTHING BUT.

Which in case you wonder is why you won’t see the second of Vampire Musketeers until… oh, late October.  Because that’s the state I found it in.

So, to bring this to where you can use it: writing a novel is easy.  You simply remove everything that isn’t novel.

How do you know what isn’t novel, particularly in those cases (and all of us face them, now and then) when the novel, for whatever reason, won’t let you outline it?

Be aware of the character arc and of the emotions you want to evoke.  Then follow that, like a thread into the maelstrom of the story.  No matter how fascinating side-scenes are, if they neither advance that arc, nor carry any emotional punch that furthers your involvement with the characters, don’t write them.  Or if you must write them, cut them ruthlessly.

Oh, and if you find you can’t keep anything in your head, have so much trouble thinking of words that it feels like you’re writing novels by passing words out one by one in a tiny fissure in the cement wall surrounding you, if you’re depressed and your affect is flat, and most importantly, if you keep getting sick, get your fricking thyroid checked.  And get a comprehensive test, as comprehensive as possible.

There are a dearth of good writers in the world.  Don’t allow health to make you a bad one.



  1. Low thyroid causes other issues, like weight gain and lack of energy, but most importantly depression, verbal competence issues and memory issues.

    If it’s not too personal a query: how was it determined that there were low thyroid issues? Blood tests?

    Just… I want to know if my being broken is more than just depression, grief, and PTSD and stress; and if needed I want to be able to check, if I can.

    1. See, part of the reason we didn’t check for so long was that “stress” thing which started the year of homeschooling and six books, and since then the state of the book world has been scary, and… BUT the weight gain (25 lbs in two weeks is NOT RIGHT even if I’d been eating chocolate every wake moment, much less while on diet.) kind of tipped us off. Oh, also my eyebrows were receding towards the center, and I was losing hair.

      1. Now you know why I sound like a broken record: first move with ANY chronic physical or mental condition should be a thorough thyroid workup. And if thyroid tests normal but there are still symptoms, and especially if there are Hashimoto’s antibodies, next move should be to assume a parathyroid tumor (many thyroid symptoms apparently are actually caused by its effect on parathyroid and calcium metabolism, rather than being direct. One study found 17 or 17 hyperparathyroid patients had Hashi antibodies.)

        For over 20 years I got “you’re not overweight, so it can’t be your thyroid”. Meanwhile it progressed from mere low thyroid to fullblown Hashimoto’s (which according to long-term research seems to actually be end-stage hypothyroid rather than a separate disorder). Guess what, you can be UNDERweight and still have low thyroid.

        After 5 years on synthetic (and I could only take two of the many brands) I developed what is probably a reverse T3 issue with it, so it was worse than none, with the most amazing shortness of breath. Switched to natural desiccated (Nature-Throid) and the problem went away — literally one day to the next.

        If symptoms return, chances are you need a higher dosage. It’s not unusual for dosage to need adjusting over a year or so before it becomes stable, as your own thyroid gland “goes to sleep”. I wound up stable on four times the initial dose.

        Thyroid should be treated sooner rather than later, because if it’s let slide, it progresses, and the late stages can include apparently-unrelated issues like heart disease and cancer. 50% of major cardiac event patients test low on T3.

        If you can’t tell, I can rant about this all day. I’m not really surprised about the reverse-T3 issue; that’s a potential side effect of long-neglected hypothyroidism. Even so, some endocrinologists don’t think it exists. But some still think we should only take synthetic LT4, too. The field is not really in agreement about much of anything, probably because patients and symptoms vary so wildly.

        Side note: the phlebotomists’ professional organization, whatever it calls itself, has a chart of when to take meds vs when to draw blood. And notably, you should not take your thyroid med the morning of a blood draw for thyroid tests, because it messes up the results.

        1. I had tests, but they didn’t look at the RT3 so they told me over and over again everything is okay.
          Actually I APPEAR to be producing the right amounts, my immune system just attacks the T3.
          And I got told ALL THE TIME that “no, you’re fat because you eat too much and don’t exercise” even though I’ve been on a diet for 20 years and I DO thank you have very high will power. And I do exercise. They tried everything: based on the idea that I was lying to them. Now with T3 supplement and the other half dose in Nature-Throid, the weight is starting (STARTING) to slid off. More importantly little pesky things like incontinence when sneezing or laughing are a thing of the past.
          Part of the reason they were sure it wasn’t hypothyroid with me is because I’m so articulate. They didn’t see how much I’d slowed or the struggle behind the eyes.

          1. I had a blood workup done a few months ago. Now I’m going to call and make sure they ran a thyroid check too…

          2. I think I’ve had them check thyroid, but I’ve apparently got a lot of long term chronic stuff causing impairment that isn’t necessarily obvious when speaking with me.

          3. The more I dig into it, the more biochem I encounter, the more I agree with the “You eat too much and move too little because you are fat, NOT the other way ’round.” I know you already low-carb, so have at least some benefit there.

            I’ve made some dietary changes and likely need to make a few more but things have gotten a bit stranger than I’d expected. I’ve recently found myself in the curious position of needing to raise my blood pressure. Some, hopefully most, is keeping fluid levels up (postural hypotension – I can feel faint if I stand up suddenly if I don’t get enough fluid) but it’s jarring that even after a 10+ hour stressful shift I tested at 101/65 (I have seen 95/63) and 55 bpm. At a biometric screening a couple years back I was relaxed and asked, “Are you alive?” 48 bpm. And various blood markers too low for the (admittedly simplistic) machinery to measure.

  2. Sometimes you find that what you thought wasn’t novel is. As someone who seems only able to outline a little ways ahead, I go ahead and write scenes I tell myself I’ll cut later. Then it turns out they are useful.

    1. YES. This. I think my first three novels suffered from my cutting out 2/3 of what I wrote, but that’s because I had an outline, if it wasn’t in the outline, it got cut. I was an idiot.

      1. This is why I am not a fan of machete editing. In my experience, the urge to cut comes more often from something being underdeveloped than from it being surplus.

  3. Very interesting, except the part about “Gratuitous sex why?” You don’t need a reason for gratuitous sex, that is why it is gratuitous! You are never gonna beat out that guy who wrote 50 Shades if you keep asking yourself questions like that!

              1. Yep. I skip them, written sex just bores me. If it’s mostly hints and short moments now and then, no detailed scenes, it can, sometimes, work, in the sense of actually titillating, and something like mostly just pillow talk which is not only about feelz etc but touches also details relevant to the actual plot is of course okay. But mere sex scenes, especially long, detailed ones – yawn. And if I find out I’m skipping big parts of it what’s the point of reading the damn thing in the first place?

                As you can maybe guess romance novels aren’t really my thing either. Even when they do have a good plot beyond will they or won’t they and they do that part usually receives way too little attention compared to the will won’t did part so boring.

          1. Sex advancing the plot: Gretchen Richter and Jeff Higgins, 1632
            Sex not advancing the plot: any time John Ringo writes it (Note: and I usually like his writing. But his id is a weird and scary place.)

            1. Perhaps not advancing of the plot, but Ringo advances character development with his. Not a fan of a good chunk of the “Ghost” novels myself – but the id of the main character there is a weird and scary place.

          2. I like gratuitous sex. I just don’t care to have it adulterated with plot. That’s why “pornography” is still somewhat distinct from “romance.” At least, it was last time I looked…

      1. Someone else’s fake sex, whether book or TV or movie, is terminally uninteresting to me. And it shows the authors are going to throw it at you, no matter how much you find it fake and laughable, pretty much every time they need a distraction. Good writing and plotting and characterization go out the window.

        For the visually-oriented, maybe.

        The relationship development (if any) is potentially far more useful (for me). That has an infinite variation.

        1. Visual sometimes does work for me, written never (except for occasional hints which leave most or almost all of it to my imagination, with both visual and written those can work). Generally I prefer stuff which just doesn’t have sex scenes, even the visual stuff works so rarely.

    1. Unless there’s constant making out all through the book because my damn characters won’t behave for five minutes. Constantly sneaking off, then coming back later all happy… can’t get anything done!

        1. I tried writing the sex scenes, they came out dumb. Really, really dumb. Even I didn’t want to read it.

          So now they sneak off-screen and come back all sappy and goofy later. Its all they do. I gave them too much ability, so they don’ t have to work very hard. In between emergencies they just fool around all the time. They have fun, and I write about it. Biggest issue I have is finding a problem that stretches them without dissolving the planet.

          There appears to be another book in my brain trying to get out, this one may have a lot less fooling around in it. The big characters don’t get to come and save the day until the end. Then they fool around afterward. Off screen.

        2. I was mentally wondering if it was one of the ones in the Shifters series, but then I realized two things in quick succession:

          1) I wouldn’t WANT to read about Tom and Kyrie’s sex life; it would feel too voyeuristic, like peeking in on real people’s most intimate moments. Ew. (So whether it is or not, please don’t tell me; I don’t want it confirmed, and I don’t want it denied since that would let me narrow it down, and I don’t WANT to be able to figure out which book it is.)

          2) Wait, that bit about “it would feel like peeking in on real people’s most intimate moments” means that my subconscious thinks of Tom and Kyrie as real people.

          And when I realized that, I decided to tell you about it. Because thought #2 is about the best compliment a writer can receive.

  4. Spider Robinson had a writer character in one of his books who looked for the “cry from the heart” for her central character in order to write the book. It’s one way to get the theme of the book.

  5. Hmm … I don’t know until after I am done and look at it whole, if a scene is extraneous or not…
    What has happened in a couple of books is that I have a Sudden Brilliant Insight/Notion at about two chapters from the end which necessitates going back and doing a bit of rewriting to incorporate it.

  6. Geez, Sarah! What a great post. I am so completely stumped in my writing process I can’t even face the MONSTER draft. I still believe in the story but I just can’t write any more. And every time i try to face it by going back (even to the beginning), i just get bogged down. It’s a nasty morass of extraneous (?) details and side plots and… I don’t even know what.
    I’m so close to giving up. I’ve even tried rewriting from the beginning. Now I have more than one draft… in the same condition because I keep doing this to myself.
    But your idea to keep the character arc in view seems like a lifeline. I’m going to try that.
    One more time….

    1. Keep plugging, Connie. From another struggler at just getting back to it (even for a short).

      What I’m trying right now (and definitely YMMV) is getting a draft done, then going back through it ruthlessly with red pencil. (Actually, red font on the word processor, but the same thing.) Then going back through it after it is reduced to “bare bones” – and seeing where I am too ruthless.

      And, to Sarah: “I grieved that I had no shoes, until I met the woman with no legs.” Your health and other issues have been so much more, and lasted so much longer, than mine, and you have still produced something – probably not your intent here, but you give me motivation. Now that mine have receded some, I do have to get back up on the horse (hopefully – the spouse is probably going in for surgery in a couple of weeks or so).

      1. Y’all help me realize what a pussy I am, and that I have no excuses for not being more productive.

        1. *sigh*

          Hypothyroidism, chronic depression, debilitating reactions to medication, acute grief over the deaths of both parents, a minor stroke, a duodenal ulcer, a fall on ice which resulted in concussion and a damaged spine – two of my cervical vertebrae spontaneously fused, and I can no longer turn my neck all the way from side to side. That’s just since May, 2011, when I attended the writing workshop at which I began to learn about self-publishing.

          In those five years and a bit, I have only managed to release six books, one of them very short – a collection of six short stories. I feel as if I have accomplished nothing at all. Can anybody tell me if I have a partial excuse?

            1. Ah, but you’ve also been selling to Baen (and elsewhere?) and keeping up a daily blog schedule.

              I haven’t actually written six books in those five years, alas. Several of them are essay collections, and I have not been writing new essays as fast as I’ve released collections of the old ones. And the two actual novels I’ve put out were already in existence in draft form, and patiently gathering dust while I figured out something viable to do with them. After my last go-round with traditional publishers, I had given up and was waiting for the market to change. Boy howdy, did it change! I did do thorough rewrites of both books before I put them out, but that’s less difficult work (for me) than coming up with a new one from scratch.

  7. My various attempts at writing fiction have been mostly unsatisfactory to me, so I decided that wasn’t really my thing and I would just watch.

    However, I was recently lamenting the lack of mature adults as protagonists of a heroic story over on Sarah’s blog. Someone gave a reason why one one would be hard to write. My muse said “oh, yeah? Let me show you how it’s done” and boom I had a concept and an outline.

    There’s still a lot of writing to be done, but I have a start. So, hermit that I am, at what point would it be a good idea to invite an alpha reader into the process?

      1. Anybody who wants to read and be read, let me know. Email is this amazing thing that can send a whole book from Canada to Ahwatukee instantly!

      2. be careful. You might be deluged with “interesting” manuscripts. (And by interesting I mean “draft so rough that sandpaper dreams of being that draft when it grows up.”)

    1. I think JM Ney-Grimm’s Winter Glory handles the mature adult protagonist really well. And beautifully. (Full disclosure: she’s a friend, but she did an amazing job with that one.)

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