[title]

Not to bury the lead here but I think my favorite writing technique is using brackets.

[  ] Those guys.

Writing itself is freeing because we can put whatever we want on the page. But brackets are even more so because they not only hold whatever I can imagine, but often, whatever I can’t!

I use brackets as placeholders.

Every time I’m writing dialog and know a character should be moving right now but I just can’t quite figure it out? [body language].

Every time I write a reference to a tertiary character who I haven’t named yet? [guy’s name].

Every time I’m writing and just can’t quite think of the word? [word].

Brackets are the best! I don’t lose momentum by stopping and thinking about how to fill them. I throw on some brackets to the thought and then come back later – often the time-consuming crushing edit that is draft number two – and buff them all out. The added benefit is that brackets are so distinctive, you can even do a Find and Replace if you’re only using them sparingly or for something specific such as “[guy’s name]”.

Brackets aren’t just good for lazy writing. They’re crucial for worldbuilding especially for science fiction and fantasy.

For instance, in my current manuscript, I’ve decided that only the emperor has an army. Makes sense, okay. Now there are eight houses/clans all in favor that make up the bulk of the kingdom, though. They’ll have some kind of military presence too to fight over border disputes and interhouse issues. I can’t call them armies, but I need to call them something.

So I decided that since the peace in the kingdom is kind of only in name only, they’ll each have their own military of some kind. Eight houses need eight names, though. I have maybe one of them figured out right now. I really don’t want to stop and think about this entire military structure when I’m in the middle of a scene that has nothing to do with it so instead, I put [defense force] or [sergeant] in as placeholders.

I don’t know what the final versions are going to be, but I will definitely build them by the end. When I sat down to do all my worldbuilding and prewriting work, I came up with as much as I thought I needed, but obviously things tend to arise organically. So rather than derail the entire manuscript, brackets come in as Band Aids until I develop some crucial missing worldbuilding.

Why didn’t I do all of that up front you might ask? Short answer is to avoid worldbuilder’s disease otherwise I’d always be building a world and never writing one. Long answer is that I didn’t know I needed them at the time.

These are the kinds of things you’re going to have to deal with in the marathon slog that can be a manuscript. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was just finish it. Finish the project. It’s never right the first time anyway so why kill yourself now? All of that can be fixed in post.

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1 – 1 = 2

“Can’t be too careful these days,” Bridges said, slipping the funds into his coat pocket.

“Can’t be too careful these days.” Bridges slipped the funds into his coat pocket.

See the difference?

Yes, the first one is more immediate. It’s a little more in the present than the second example.

Or is it? Without the “said” in the second example, only the “ed” in “slipped” puts this in the past. So tense-wise, both examples have something present and something past.  Other than flavor, what’s the real difference here?

Well, the second example is exactly one word shorter. How much can one less word really add?

Subtraction is addition, my friends. One less word a hundred times is a hundred less words overall. Do it a thousand times and you’ve trimmed off one percent of a 100,000 word manuscript. Believe me, it matters.

You want the excess fat to just fall away, revealing the meaty bones of your story. I’m seeing stuff like this time and again during my latest revision of an old manuscript. Content I thought was as lean as it could possibly be, with more advanced eyes, is getting hacked off left and right. Sometimes with a butcher’s knife. Sometimes with a scalpel. But in both cases, less is more.

A more focused, more streamlined, and more immersive reading experience.

Sometimes you’ve taken a work as far or as short as it can go. Maybe you really can’t cut anything else out because it’ll fall apart. That’s okay. Or maybe you like the longer phrase. That’s okay too, but be cognizant of what you’re doing.

What kind of book are you writing? Is the reader wanting to spend more time on the flavor of your prose or is it the narrative she’s after?

I used to want to preserve everything, but my new rule of thumb is if its not nailed down – meaning absolutely essential – it’s gone. I’ll throw something away, reread it, and then figure out I guess I needed to keep that sentence after all. Often times, though, if my gut says get rid of it, the story really can survive without it. On the chance that I’ve deprived the reader with some great sentence of exposition, well now I’ve offered her a chance to create something  herself to fill in the gaps which ends up bringing her more into the story anyway.

I’ve taken to labeling my drafts so if I need to come back for anything, thanks to the magic of “Control F” I can find where that spot was in the last version and pull out the bits I chopped away in my hasty housekeeping. That ability and knowledge that the changes aren’t actually permanent are pretty freeing.

Try it out.

Micro Goals

Writing a novel is hard work. No doubt about it. Even when the words come out in a massive rush of inspiration, you still have to edit and polish and do all that stuff that makes a book actually good. What was it Michael Creighton said? “Great books aren’t written. They’re re-written” … or something like that.

Another thing you’ll hear a lot is that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to juggle so many things in your head to keep them all present in the story and then chug along with that word count to, you know, actually write the novel.

I’ve always tried to hit a thousand words a day with any project I’m working on. That fluctuates with things like NaNoWriMo or if I’m “in the zone” or want to be extra diligent or whatever. But I’ve started something new to help make hitting that daily word count interesting.

I’ve started posting pictures of my word count on Instagram. Sure they’re not the most visually appealing images, but I’m celebrating my micro goals here.

It’s often hard to gauge success. When do you get to be happy? When the book is started? When it’s finished? When you’re querying? When you’re agented? When it’s sold? When it’s published? All of the above?

It’s also easy to keep pushing the goalposts back too. The anticipation for the thing is usually better than the actual thing, so once you’ve gotten what you wanted or you’re close, there’s never really this big ding, ding, ding that goes off cueing instant satisfaction. It’s easy to keep moving the goal line and keep looking towards the horizon.

Don’t.

Be happy with everything you’ve accomplished. Whether it’s writing ten word today, or a thousand, or ten thousand, you’re doing something awesome. Acknowledge your success and celebrate them. If you don’t, who will?

Maybe Your Darlings Aren’t Dead

There comes a point with every manuscript I’ve done where I feel like I’ve reached as far as I can go with it. Basically, it’s as good as it’s gonna get. I see it as both an acknowledgement of limitations on my part and my acceptance to move forward. I’ve done a dozen drafts, I’ve queried agents, I’ve done everything under the sun and there’s still no forward momentum on the thing. I come up against the wall and make a choice: Keep working on it or take everything I’ve learned and invest it in a new project. Thanks to the law of Diminishing returns, I always choose the latter.

This brings me to my next point.

There are these aha moments in every writer’s career where something just clicks. It’s like an audible ding when suddenly something just makes so much sense it’s insane how you didn’t see it before.

To put this in context, I’ve been working on how to crack the short story structure lately. I won’t say I’m anywhere good at short stories yet. There’s a lot about them mechanics-wise that I just don’t know. I tend to write long form. So I’ve made more of an effort to see the differences in approach.

My main takeaway so far – which might seem obvious to your short story writers out there – is that the central conflict in short stories tends to be an internal one rather than an external one.

On top of that, I was recently watching a film critique on Disney’s Hercules. I know. Topical, right? But the reviewer was talking about the differences between what a hero wants versus what a hero needs in order to make a story work. I’ve seen this method a few times now, but maybe it was because I was finally looking inward, but something just clicked.

I suddenly knew what was wrong with my main protagonist in my previous novel, The Red Door. I love that book and I’ve been on the fence a while now if I want to self-publish it or just rewrite it one day so it’s on my mind from time to time, but this perfect storm of study gave me the answer to a fundamental flaw with the work that I wasn’t sure I even noticed the first time around.

My effort to go back to correct it requires a complete reread. It stems from a character motivation thing so there’s lots of little details that need massaging. Anyway, I figure I’ll also trim it down some more while I’m at it if possible. It clocked in at a hefty 134K words when I was querying and then I fought tooth and nail to get it down to 130K to meet an open novel submission. Keep in mind that I thought it was a lean as it could possibly get.

Imagine my surprise that not only am I fixing this subtle, yet colossal problem, but I’m trimming this baby down with a hedge trimmer. I’ve cut an easy 1400 words out of the first two chapters alone and the word count just keeps on dropping.

I’m astonished but it also made me realize something. I really had taken the novel as far as I could have at the time. Pass number 151 wouldn’t have been much different than pass number 37. There was only so much I could do with it at my current experience level. I needed to grow and evolve, and level up as a writer. I thought the last draft was as good as it was going to get, but I’ve never been happier to have been more wrong. I like this version so much better. I’ve made a bet with myself to see how much of it I can trim off by the end. I’m hoping for at least another 10K words – words that I thought were so indispensable before – to really get to the meat of the story.

Sometimes we get bogged down with worldbuilding or our own prose or even just or own limitations. Some works may live in the trunk forever as killed darlings, but maybe, just maybe some of them are worth resuscitating every now and again.

Worldbuilding at Work

I’ve recently come back to my idea about a mystery beneath the sea. The main reason I abandoned the concept is that the more I untangled the knot I’d given myself, the less I liked the answers. I was interested in the deep. The mystery. An alien environment. The claustrophobic dark.

But I ended up with a spaceship and UFO conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those things are awesome, they’re just not what I wanted to write about.

So, I’ve come back.

The problem before is that I had to invent technology to make it work. So the further I got in explaining things, the deeper into science fiction it ended up. I like Sci-Fi. I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But there was a reason why I wanted my story to take place on our planet.

The more stuff I had to make up to explain what I wanted to tell, the further I got from the kind of realism I wanted to tell. If it got too techy, then the deep, dark ocean lost some of its charm. I wanted it to remain this alien landscape of its own. Yes, I know what I said above about being on OUR planet, but you know what I mean. These were some of the original drawing points.

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

I started with the image of a brass-helmeted deep sea diver. What is that world like? When were those in use?

A little investigating gave me a date range. I then set a date post WWI. This limits my technology but not the sense of wonder.

It’s like have you ever seen the movie The Shape of Water? So minor, minor spoiler, but the only explanation for the fishman is that he was found during some guy’s trip in the Amazon. Okay, similar time period to WWI and for some reason that explanation totally works in that context. The viewer knows no such creature existed in the Amazon then or now, but we allow it. There’s room for wonder and imagination. Now if a movie today tried to pull that off, we’d all be like “yeah right!” That’s because we know so much more of the world now.

In my head I call this “Indiana Jonesing” it. You make the story a little more dated and you can pretty much claim whatever you want. Artifact? Secret society? Fishman? Sure. Roll with it. We romanticize the past anyway, let’s fantasize it too.

Back to my point: Using the WWI backdrop gives me what I want. My diving imagery, technological limitations, and wiggle room to include some fantastic elements.

I don’t have a plot yet, but I’ve come up with a couple of characters. Someone’s got to do that diving. Maybe a grizzled frogman suffering PTSD from the war? How about a trauma surgeon too? Who knows? There’s so much material now to mine for content. It’s exciting to be working on it again.

I still don’t have a plot or many of the details, but it doesn’t matter. Those ideas will come.

The point is, this is an exercise anyone can do for story generation. All it takes is a single image or feeling. Start unpacking that image. Explore it. Mine it.

It can get overwhelming trying to come up with characters, a setting, and relevant plot details all at the same time. Oh, and it’s also probably impossible too. So don’t bother!

Find something you love and follow the threads once you start unravelling it. You’ll soon see that it’s not a sweater at all, but more of a spider web. Okay, I’m losing the metaphor here, but I think you see where I’m going with this.

The beauty of writing is that yes we put words on a page, but we need to tell stories to do that. Coming up with a new story is half the fun. I’ve got this one cooking now next to half a dozen others. Something will hatch and let me know when it’s finished (more mixed metaphors).

If not, I’ll just keep following those threads to a new one.

Honorifics

I’m writing an eastern inspired fantasy novel right now and I’ve run head first into a lack of honorifics. I don’t want to use the typical Lord and Lady stuff. I want it unique to my world. But what I’ve come up with on the fly is getting muddled. So, here’s some of that public “workshopping” in action I talked about oh so long ago and a peek inside my head.

The magic system in this book is based on tattoos made from the blood of spirits that grant the bearer special abilities. Out of context that sounds kind of bonkers, but roll with me here, people.

There’s also a clan system which I am calling “houses.” Although, the more I think about that, the less I like it. But that’s its own thing …

Anyway, we have houses made up of what would be the royal families. I’m calling them the Kin. The next sphere out, so these are the people who marry in, retainers, etc. are called the Kith. Now I need something for servants/helpers/etc.

I ALSO need honorifics/ something for the way the serving class refers to the higher class:

“Your Kinship?”

“Lady-Kin?”

See, that just sounds weird?

I suppose that if the royals have the most and best tattoos then that could be the modifier. Since this all comes back to blood, I immediately vetoed referring to the more powerful people in the kingdom as the “Blooded ones”. It sounds cool at first, but Lady of the Blood kind of evokes menstruation, right? Nothing wrong with that, but my book isn’t about it and I don’t want to mix metaphors and end up muddling things further.

So, maybe art is the way to go.

“Yes, Painted One.”

“It shall be so, Marked One.”

“As you command, Illustratedness.”

I think art is working here. I still don’t really know what to call the servants other than servants. I think “Painted One” has a nice ring to it. Now all I have to do is find a way to make “Illustratedness” less of a mouthful.

Haiku

The other night while bored and lying on the floor while putting my kids to sleep, I kept myself awake by composing a little haiku. This should explain how tired I was …

 

A good first line is:

Eye catching. Thought provoking.

Now do it again.

 

I even composed a runner up …

 

First lines are hard work.

Siren songs of investment.

Better back it up.

 

Sitting there in the dark, I either read on my phone and inevitably work towards a pair of thicker glasses or prewrite for the next day’s manuscript work.

Or create haikus I guess …

Flat Stanley

While working on the outline for “Of the Blood” (working title for my new fantasy book), I ran into a character problem. I had this POV character that I needed. Well, I wanted her to exist too. I realized I’d been counting on her more for what she represented to the story and not actually for who she was. She had all the warning signs of being a flat character, but it was worse because I realized I knew nothing about her. She wasn’t even an actual character yet.

This gave me pause. There are plenty more detailed outliners that myself, but I can’t write anything without knowing where I’m going. Or in this case, who I’m writing about. So, I needed to find a way to make her more than a character serving the plot.

How to do it?

Talk to a hundred writers and you’ll get a hundred answers. For me, I first looked at her world. Who is she in relation to her family? Her hierarchy in the clan?

This book has a pseudo matriarchal society at its core so mothers and their daughters are pretty important. Well, my character was the fifth daughter, so how important is she really? Close to power, but not really holding any. I can run with that.

Then it was asking myself what does she want? I couldn’t answer the grander question of what is her purpose in relation to overcoming personal flaw and all that, but how about on a smaller scale. Okay, she’s the fifth daughter of a royal house, what does somebody do with that?

Respect. I’m running with the theme of her wanting the respect of those around her. She feels like she has to live up to this shadow and is going out of her way to do it.

It’s a little cliché, but the fun part about being a writer is recognizing that. She wants respect, but me, Writer Dan, knows she needs something else. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, but I know it’ll tie into her purpose. It’s the thing that’ll make her feel whole.

So the beginning of her arc will be chasing artificial situations and trying too hard to win the respect of others. That’s also something I can work with. It gives me a nice foundation for her character to build from. As the story progresses, I’ll start massaging that into better growth.

Coming up with that was about an afternoon’s worth of thoughtful reflection. Just writing down some questions and answers and seeing what made sense. I wasn’t focusing on the plot or anything else to do with the book. I was just trying to figure out who was this person I was creating in a realistic fashion. Doing it that way is a much more organic approach to the eventual conflicts.

There’s still a long road to go, but for now, though, it’s a heck of a lot better than a character whose only function is serving plot POV.

Passion

As any good writer knows, you can’t wait for inspiration to write. Not if you want to write for a living. It’s a muscle that needs to be trained. You can write without the muse and can still end up writing good material. There are better posts than this one all about art versus the craft of writing, but I can condense it all down for you. Spoiler alert, it usually boils down to discipline.

No. For today, I want to talk about Inspiration’s sister, passion.

Yes, it’s possible to write without passion, but your readers will feel it. Passion for what you’re working on infuses every word on the page. It’s what keeps that excitement and energy going through the marathon slog from that first blank page to writing “The End” thousands upon thousands of words later.

I’m not a full time writer. I have a day job I need to balance with my (hopefully) burgeoning writing career. So that means, I can only really work on one project at a time. I’m trying to be better about that, though. The best I can do right now is while I wait for edits on one book, I’m doing the research, brainstorming, and worldbuilding for the next one so by the time I’m completely finished Book A, I’m all set for Book B.

I had the kernel of an idea: scientists discover a beacon from the deep and go down to investigate. I worked and worked on it until it became this story about a crashed spaceship and extraterrestrial cover ups. Hence, my last post about the research I was doing. But then something happened. The story became more about the government conspiracy than what originally got me excited about the project in the first place: exploring the deep, dark ocean.

Ideas change. Concepts evolve as you work on them. Your end result rarely looks like what you originally thought it would be. These things tend to happen. But somewhere along the way, I’d completely lost the passion I once held for the project. It started feeling like something I had to do and not something I wanted to do. I’m not going to lie, I actually got pretty depressed about it.

Here I’d spent all this time working on an outline and characters and concept for something that was going to make me miserable to work on it. Or I could throw it all away and start fresh, wasting all of that development time making me miserable for squandering resources.

It was a hard decision, but ultimately, I decided to start something new. Well, new-ish. I’ve been cooking up a fantasy setting for quite some time and while I was waiting for reader feedback from my last novel, I wrote a “practice” short story in that world to test the worldbuilding waters so to speak. Turns out I love it. So much so, that I’m working on selling that piece and I now want write an entire novel in that setting.

I wanted someone to tell me it was okay to abandon the other work and switch to something else. Once I made that decision for myself, though, I knew it was the right one. I’m not one to give up or chase flights of fancy. I like to think I have pretty good work ethic – hence why I was feeling bad about the situation. But this has already proven to be the right decision.

I have passion for this new story. My initial concept for it morphed and changed and grew from that tiny kernel just the like the other one did, but I didn’t lose the spark this time. I’m excited to get started. Excited to work on these characters. Excited to see this world. It’s my most ambitious novel yet and I should be quaking in my boots. Honestly, the spaceship one might be easier. But go big or go home, right?

That’s not to say that all the research and work I’ve done on the other story is totally wasted. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and resurrect it in some form or another. Or maybe I’ll pick at its corpse for the stuff I still like. I really do plan on writing a novel about a discovery at the bottom of the ocean. But for right now, it looks like I’ll be writing something else.

So while you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you can at least lean into the work you enjoy doing. Your enthusiasm will help carry you through. If you’re not excited about the book, why would your readers be?

Blackhat Noodle Scratcher

My new book is going to have a space ship in it.

Oh? That’s not enough for you? You want more? Kidding.

But yes, it will involve the exploration of a downed spaceship. One that’s crashed onto our planet and has been forgotten about for decades. I wanted to tie it into real-world UFO studies/history and thought it would be cool to have a UFO conspiracist (is it still a conspiracy if it’s real? Advocate maybe?) character to help explain all of that to unfamiliar readers. This character can rattle off case studies and sightings. That kind of thing.

One big problem, though. Aside from the Roswell crash, I didn’t know any of the other major ones. So I started researching.

First off, I found this amazing resource here, aptly titled Best UFO Resources. It’s been a godsend of information all painstakingly catalogued and organized.

I just got through UFOs: What to Do an internal document published by the RAND corporation and the Rockefeller-sponsored UFO Briefing Document – The best available evidence and I gotta tell you, this is fascinating stuff!

Growing up, we’ve always been interested in UFOs and the paranormal in my house so this was very much going home again for me. What I didn’t realize was just how much information was really out there.

Some of these cases are really well documented and the sightings were seen by many, many people. So whatever it was, something happened. It’s incredible to read about how the agendas of the organizations specifically created to investigate this stuff ended up changing over the years. Take project Blue Book for instance. That was the Air Force’s designated UFO research group but it eventually turned into a smear campaign against the very thing it was supposed to be investigating. That’s probably a book in itself.

Anyway, as I’m working on my own world building for the book I’m going to write, I’m struck with a few weird inconsistencies.

So even with the mountain of reports and anecdotal evidence I’m reading, I still can’t help but think of the Fermi paradox. If the math says there should be other intelligent life out there, where are they?

Then we get into the sightings reported in this UFO research. If extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth for some time to study us why are the ships so different? There’s some frequent shapes in the sightings but saucers, orbs, cylinders, and triangles all strike me as very different craft. So are these the same species with different kinds of tech?

I mean a B-52 Bomber doesn’t look like a helicopter but there’s still SOME design consistency.

So what’s up with the different ships? Are they all different races? In which case, that means that multiple races are all interested in Earth of some reason either A. independently of each other or B. as part of some larger conglomeration. But if that was the case, why so many? Wouldn’t one report back be enough to satisfy that coalition group?

Maybe I’m answering my own question here. If different races keep visiting us as evidenced by the different designs of their craft, then that means they aren’t working together BUT they’re all interested in something about our planet.

I wonder what that is.

These are the kinds of questions I need to figure out for my new book if I’m going to make any headway with it.