Full Stop

I write chronologically by nature. I always start at the beginning and work my way towards to the end. It makes me really uncomfortable to write scenes out of order. I don’t like going into a situation without knowing all the subtle nuances and decisions that got my characters to that point, so whatever I end up writing feels hollow to me. Even those big, shiny set pieces I know are going to be in there and I’m super excited about, I still can’t write them out of order. I’ll get there when I get there.

The only way I can write unconnected scenes is once I’ve finished the manuscript. With the story told, it’s much easier for me to see, “Oh, I’m missing this scene here,” or whatever, and then go back and write it. Doing it that way removes my earlier hang ups and it’s not much of a problem.

I bring all of this up because I ran into a brick wall in my current manuscript. There’s a particular battle that I’ve known about since the outlining phase. A small force has to win against insurmountable odds. I knew it was coming. I knew I should prepare for it. But Past Dan decided I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Past Dan is an idiot.

I have no idea what to do. It’s not exactly writer’s block because I know what needs to happen and the big turning points in the sequence. What I don’t know is how to bring those about in a logical manner. I mean, this rag tag group of heroes has to win, yes, but win in a believable way.

The diligent writer in me knows I won’t be getting my words in for the day while I sit and noodle this one out. That Dan wants me to pick a point after the battle and just continue since I know how it’s going to end anyway. But I just can’t. It feels wrong. I guess I can massage in continuity edits later, but it’s hard to get going. Unless I figure this out soon, I may not have a choice.

It’ll be an interesting exercise for me for sure if I just breeze past this pivotal scene. I know other writers who don’t have the reservations that I do and can write whatever scene they need in whatever order that strikes them. Not me, friends.

So maybe you can help me out. Besides a small group winning against a large one, how does said small group win if they’ve already given up the high ground? Seems impossible, right?

Now I’m mad at Past Dan for two reasons.

  1. Why didn’t he figure this out earlier?
  2. I control the narrative. Why are we even in this mess?

Oh well. Instead of my daily word count, I think it’s off to read some history forums and learn as much as I can about underdog battles. If any of you have any insight or advice, Present Dan is much more receptive than Past Dan. He’s all ears.

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Slave to the Narrative

Ever hear about plots being on rails? Or maybe characters being a “slave to the narrative”? Those are both descriptive ways of explaining that the plot is the driving force of the book, overshadowing everything else. Things happen because the plot demands it, not necessarily because it feels natural to do so.

I’ve always known of the concept, but it never hit me as hard as it did now. I’d gotten some good advice from an agent about my manuscript Altered Egos and wanted to implement it into the most recent draft. In the book, my protagonist is a supervillain who’s freed from prison to stop a serial killer. Now there are plenty of things vying for his attention and trying to keep him under someone’s thumb, but I realized that I too fell prey to making him a slave to the plot.

I thought I’d covered my bases pretty well by having him always be scheming for ways out, but then I went back and reread scenes of him running head first into danger. I had to stop and ask myself why. Well, I knew why, because I needed him to blow up that mech or to save that guy for whatever reason. But would my protagonist really do that?

The short answer was yes. He needed to accomplish these tasks to further his own plans. The longer answer was yes, but he’d have reservations. I needed to do a better job of explaining that in the prose. I was missing the entire emotional piece of how he felt about the matter. I just had him moving about like a chess piece. Yeah, he’s an intellectual guy and I had him examining many of these situations from an intellectual angle but I don’t care who you are, if bullets are flying over your head and things are exploding left and right, you’re going to be on the verge of peeing your pants. But none of that was in there.

It made those scenes feel hollow. Here I had a protagonist with a strong character voice, but we never really got into his head. It wasn’t some parlor trick I was going for, it was just weak writing.

I’ve never been one of those authors who say their characters are dictating the story as they go along. I need an outline and I need to move my pieces around from Point A to Point B, but there are times I can do a better job of explaining how my characters feel about those elements. More often than not, readers are enticed by the plot, but they stay for the characters. It’s the emotional connection a reader forms with a protagonist that has a lasting effect, but they can’t form that emotional connection if the character doesn’t actually emote.

Glad I got that advice and caught it when I did.

Just a reminder that my book Fairfax Cleaners is for sale on all major e-retailers. And you can of course get a print on demand version from Amazon.

Dun Dun Duuuuuuh …

It’s finally here.

The portents had foretold of its inevitable arrival. I knew it was coming, feeling it in the marrow of my bones. It’s been hanging over my head like a dark cloud – nay, a burial shroud – for months …

The dreaded Draft (capital D) 2 …

You may recall my mentioning of this monstrosity a time or two before. This is what I call the draft after the rough draft. Well, duh, but it gets a capital letter because it’s so much more than simple polishing. This is where I take that pile of words and create an actual story out of them. With a 165k word manuscript, it’s quite the pile.

If that wasn’t hard enough, it’s always a rougher go in the beginning. 1. That’s because I’m just starting the editing process and 2. I write chronologically, so the beginning is where I was still figuring things out all those moons ago and hoo boy, does it show. In later revisions, I’m able to mark editing time by how many chapter I can get through. Now, I’ll be pushing through for like an hour and a half and when I check the page count, I’ve gone all of three pages. To say it’s a process is an understatement.

Still, though, it’s a necessary evil. My list of things to fix is four pages long and I can’t implement a single one of them without at least going through this ordeal first. My goal is to have it complete and agent-worthy by mid-July so I’m ready for Gen Con.

It’s gonna be a struggle.

A saving grace, though, is that I’ve had weeks now to think about some of the larger issues plaguing the manuscript. There were plenty of times in that first pass where I bracketed things and kept on going. I’ve since created a document I call my “Worldbuilding Band-Aid” that covers all the little stuff I hadn’t fleshed out before. Between that and my list, I’m creeping along.

At the time of this writing I’m only two chapters in. That’s like 15 pages out of 262, so yeah. Mid-July huh? My hope is that the trend continues and the editing gets a little smoother, a little easier the farther along I get in the manuscript as my writing gets better.

Then I’ll go back and “put more tension in chapter 2” and “add life to the city in chapter 1” like my things to fix list wants me to, but it’s a little hard to do that now as I’m still filling in the blanks, fixing sentences, and figuring out just what the heck Past Dan was thinking.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Ever notice how authors know so many random things about a lot of stuff? That’s because in order to create conceivable worlds, we need to know how those worlds work. That’s where the whole an author only writes 10 percent of the iceberg thing comes from. You need to know so much on the back end in order to write a realistic setting. Learning all that can inform other stories down the line and even if it doesn’t, it makes for a bunch of random facts for the back pocket.

For instance, did you know that after the passing of the Metropolitan Police act in 1829, constables’ uniforms had stiff collars to avoid strangulation as they were definitely not a welcome sight around the city? Because thanks my research for The Red Door, I do.

To help put this in perspective, you’ve probably heard stories about getting lost in Wikipedia or falling down rabbit holes on the internet. One search leads to another leads to another and so on …

Story creation works that way too. Let me give you an example.

I’ve talked a little about this before, but my new story all started because I wanted to do something with a deep sea diver. OK, when did they do hardhat diving with a breath line? Well, the Navy still used the Mark V helmet up through WWII (I had to learn that …).

Well, I don’t want to use that time period, but I like the idea of a soldier, so how about after WWI?

OK. It ended in 1918.

Well, I don’t want it to be RIGHT after, so let’s push it back to 1919.

Great. Where?

Well, my protagonist has seen enough battle. He wants to settle somewhere idyllic for a while. Oh and there needs to be water.

How about the Mediterranean Sea?

That sounds good. Lots of history there. I can base him in Greece.

What was Greece’s role in WWI? How would the react to an American fisherman living there now? If he’s a diver, he’ll need a tender, probably a local, so was this guy in WWI as well? Also, in 1919, Greece was gearing up to fight another war against he Turks and his tender would be involved with national sympathies and …

See what I mean? You make a couple of decisions and the threads just start appearing. Do I need to explain all of this in my own work then? Absolutely no, but I need to understand the interplay and relationships because its all going to inform what I write.

It’s been fun doing the research. I was just reading something about sunken treasure ships which lead me to Egyptian ports which lead me to trade routes and the list goes on.

I may have directed this journey, but remember it all started with me wanting to do something with deep sea diving and it spun out from there.

To me, that’s what makes storytelling so much fun. Yeah, it’s a lot of work putting all these pieces together, but change just one facet and the entire story changes. That’s why, the last time I tried this, I got from the Marianas Trench to spaceships.

The Trail to Self Publishing

Ever since finishing my latest manuscript, I’ve needed something to keep myself busy during the mandatory cool down process. Some of that has been conducting research for the next novel. But most of it has been one final editing pass through a book I wrote a couple of years ago.

I’m definitely the kind of person who thinks trunk novels ought to stay in the trunk, but I’ve had a few that were pretty close to being “a real boy”. And since I made the promise to myself that I wanted to self-publish this year, well I needed something to publish.

I still have a couple of books doing the querying rounds, so they’re not exactly on the table at the moment, leaving me Fairfax Cleaners, my one and only urban fantasy from a couple of years ago.

The pitch:

Gus, a cleaner for the fairy overlords of Chicago, turns against his family by protecting a girl with immense magical potential from being murdered to jump start a ritual to revive a forgotten god.

Those of you already making the connection, I conceived and wrote this book way before I read any Jim Butcher. I like the books, but imagine my frustration, right? Well, I made the choice not to change locales because I used to live in Chicago and I liked the world I’d created. Other than fairies, magic, and Chicago, this book and Dresden have nothing in common so I like to think I’m safe.

Going through it again has been enlightening. I definitely tightened up a lot of the beginning, reworking some troublesome chapters before ultimately cutting another 13,000 words from the whole thing, streamlining it shark-smooth.

I gotta say, I’m thrilled with the final result. I really like this book. It’s the first one where I really cared about structure and I feel like it shows. I’ve got someone doing the cover as I write this and hope to have more information in the next couple of weeks.

Guess it’s time to finally make those KDP and iBook accounts so I can get this party started.

Those of you who’ve blazed this trail before, any advice?

Another One in the Can

I finished manuscript number 7 this morning. I’ve only had one other novel ever reach this length and that was after a whole bunch of revisions. I can’t believe its finally over. I feel both excited and relieved!

I originally thought it would be something like 100,000 words at most. It was pretty clear to me that I was nowhere near close enough on my estimate when I was about 80,000 words in and just then hitting the midpoint. Rather than despair, I pushed on.

It was actually pretty liberating knowing that I’m going to cut at least a third of what I’ve written. At least I’m guessing it’ll be a third. Honestly, I have no idea. I just know there’s some fat in here that needs trimming.

Even though I feel like I’ve accomplished telling the story I wanted to tell, I don’t think I want the book to be this long. It’s ballooning because I’m balancing four different character stories that all intersect, but I know I can pare it down. Cut out all that fat and just streamline the hell out of it.

I remember listening to an interview with Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness fame a couple years ago about his Ash Versus the Evil Dead TV series when it was first coming out. The way he described each episode was that they’d filmed for your standard hours’ worth of programming, but then cut them all down to twenty-two minutes. All that boring middle stuff was just gone. That way they never waste the viewer’s time or spend too long on needless downtime.

That’s kind of how I’m approaching this new work. I wrote the words needed and then, like Edward Scissorhands, make something beautiful out of that tangled mess. Well, I hope it’ll be beautiful, but you know what I mean.

My THINGS TO FIX list of changes and edits for draft two is like four pages long, but I wouldn’t let myself touch it until I was finished. Well, now I am. But I’m gonna need to rest on these laurels for a bit and let my mind drift so I can come back with a fresher perspective.

The greatest piece of writing advice I think I ever received was from a GA back in college. She said something along the lines of “Just finish it. Once the story is told, you’re done. You’ve succeeded in writing that story. Finish the work and then go back and make it look good.”

Michael Creighton put it much more elegantly when he said, “Great books aren’t written. They’re re-written.”

So that’s what I did. I kept trucking along, checking things off my outline as I go, knowing full well there’s a whole heap of stuff that needs to be fixed in post. I don’t see any of this as a failure, but a learning exercise. It’s practice for a whole variety of things.

This is my third fantasy manuscript. As a fantasy reader, I thought I wanted to write fantasy, but my first two turned out to be duds. In fact, one of them is my Voldemort of manuscripts – he who shall not be named – and is never talked about. As a newly-realizing science fiction author, I’m stuck with it, though. I had my doubts a third of the way in, but wouldn’t you know it, but the darned thing has grown on me. I think there’s something worth salvaging here.

Week 4

Since my personal National Novel Writing Month ended yesterday, I thought I’d just wait the two days before posting my final update.

I did it!

Fifty thousand words in thirty days. What a ride. Honestly, it feels stupendous.

I’ve successfully completed NaNoWriMo once before. But it’s been a couple years since then. Last year I ran out of book and this year I ran out of writing time. So I honestly wasn’t sure if it was going to happen.

The thing I’m most pleased with is that I’m so close to the end of the manuscript now that I can taste it. I just need to get everyone out of danger and hit that juicy denouement and I’m home free. I’ve said it before, but this novel is taking so much longer than I expected to write. I’ve never looked forward to the editing process more, but that’s for later.

Okay, so some takeaways:

First, WriteTrack is awesome! I’ve never been someone who needed the external motivation to write. If you want to be a writer, then write. I love writing. I’m honestly miserable when I don’t write. That said, there’s something fun about watching bar graphs go up. But if you do need that external motivation or something to keep you honest, this is it.

Second, fifty thousand words is hard to do on the fly. I have an outline, sure, but every time I sit down I need to have done some mental prewriting first. And since I have a full time job, I never had a chance to sit down and crank out three thousand words all at once. On the days where I created some padding for myself, that usually meant sitting down in three smaller chunks to reach the total. Because I need all that prewriting, it pretty much meant I was eating and breathing my novel for the past month as I was always thinking about it. That’s pretty great. I feel more in tuned with the world and characters than ever before.

Third, its great to have goals. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Even then, what’s your mark of success? The completed manuscript? Getting an agent? Getting it published (traditional or otherwise)? So having something like this challenge definitely spiced up the day to day, so even though I’ve finished, I can’t break the habit of recording my daily word count in a spreadsheet. I did that very thing this morning.

So there you have it. It wasn’t the easiest thing, but it was totally doable.

Great time. Would do again.

Week 3

Still going steady.

Other times I’ve done this, I’ve written in fits and spurts. Three thousand words here, a thousand words there … This time I seem to be trucking along with about two thousand words a day and half that pace on the weekends. That’s pretty good. I’ve got nine days left and twenty-thousand words to go. It’ll happen.

My THINGS TO FIX list is growing especially long. It’s like a friend wearing a Halloween mask. It only looks scary, but ultimately it’s going to make the book better in the end. It’s also going to be a heck of a lot of work. But that’s a still a problem for Future Dan, though the rate I’m going Future Dan is going to be Present Dan pretty soon.

There’s a whole bunch of worldbuilding that needs clarification, but one of the big issues I know I need to fix is my naming conventions. I’ve had this idea for a while now and this manuscript is the first time I’ve got a chance to test it out.

It goes something like this …

Places tend to be permanent so they get very descriptive, albeit dull names. Those mountains are gray, well then they’re the Gray Mountains. Or your city is close to the shore, then you live in Nearshore. They’re supposed to be self-descriptive.

Now people, that’s where it gets interesting. People change. Places don’t. In this world, people are given a name at birth and then earn or are assigned names later by authority figures. These names are usually descriptive of the person’s deed or actions at a certain point in time. So someone might be born with the name Round Like Acorn, then later be named First of Snowfall, and even later earn the name Cheats At Cards. That’s three different names for one person and totally confusing. Especially when you have dozens of characters running around.

So I tried adding some consistency, by making the noun static. That would make my example:

Round Like Acorn

Round Of Snowfall

Round Cheats At Cards

So, even if you don’t remember everything, at least “Round” stays the same and that becomes the character’s name and nickname for the reader. But I’ve already broken my own rule because in “Round like Acorn,” the noun subject is actually the implied “You”. I mean it works, kind of, but it sometimes feels like putting a circle in a square shaped hole when you’re writing something like, “Round kicked off the wall and flipped into the water.” It’s awkward.

If that wasn’t enough, there are noble families in the story who play an important role in the narrative and the world. I also wanted to incorporate them into a person’s name so that as a reader if you’ve never met a character before, one look at his or her name and you’d know what family they belonged to.

It’s funny. Writing it all out like this feels like I’m giving away a secret recipe or something. I’m all right with it though. Last night, I think I finally cracked it. It’ll probably still be confusing, but I’ve simplified some of it and with enough explanations on my part to remind the reader, I hope it actually pulls people into the world instead of kicking them out.

We’ll see, though. Getting it into the hands of some beta readers will be the ultimate test. Gotta hurry up and finish it first before that even happens.

Week 2

The second week of MyNaNoWriMo continues to go well. I’ve slowed down a little thanks to some work commitments, but there’s still time to catch back up. I don’t know if I’d be as optimistic if it wasn’t for WriteTrack. The program continues to impress. I love watching my daily word count goals change based on my current writing habits.

My latest work in progress is in the home stretch now. I just entered the start of the Resolution phase a couple thousand words ago. Meaning, that we’re on our way to the climax, actual resolution, and denouement.

I’m an outliner. I need structure and story beats to know where I’m going. I can trim and edit later, but if I don’t have these sections laid out then I find that my stories just fall apart. So finally getting past Plot Point 2 was a huge deal for me. It was the signal to shift it into the next gear. Plus, the switch came after what ended up being a twenty-one thousand word battle scene. So there’s that. I don’t think of myself as much of an action writer, but this a fantasy leading towards the epic fantasy. If there aren’t battles and combat every once and a while, then it’d be a pretty boring book.

When I’m not writing, I’ve been doing some editing of older manuscripts getting them ready for self-publishing. I’m always astounded when I come back to something that I thought was as good as it was ever going to be and then find a way to make it better. Usually that involves substantial cutting and editing.

Case in point, my latest manuscript – Altered Egos – is still making the querying rounds. It’s a science fiction story clocking in a 105k words. I’d done seven drafts up until that point and thought it finished. Then I had an epiphany late one night as I fought the baby back to sleep. I not only knew how to trim some of the fat, but I realized how I could combine two similar scenes into just one and cut down on the redundancy too. The end result trimmed 11k off the final product and its sitting pretty at 94k now. Further proof that works are never finished, just abandoned as the saying goes.

When it comes to writing, I’m not really all that much of a perfectionist. I want to be happy with the final product, but I don’t agonize over the little things. You’re talking to a guy who used to turn in rough drafts in college because he couldn’t be bothered to go back and read a paper even once. So it’s not like I enjoy doing draft after draft after draft. I go until I feel like the work is finished and then it’s time to move on. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be proud of the result, but I don’t often get  hungup.

Lately I’m learning that as I level up as a writer, that some of my earlier works can still use another pass or two proving that they weren’t actually ready for publication in the first place. That’s okay. Now that I’ve decided to release them, I can clean them up one last time so they’re even better.

The thought of publishing my own work used to make me nervous. I kept thinking that what if I wanted to return to this world or idea someday. If I publish it, then I can never make the 2.0 version to sell to a traditional publisher. But then I realized that I haven’t run out of ideas yet. I’m working on finishing my seventh manuscript and they’re all wildly different from each other. I’ve got ideas for book eight primed on the back burner right now and that’s assuming I don’t end up writing a sequel to one of these soon-to-be self-published works instead. So running out of ideas just isn’t going to happen.

Okay, enough of that. Time to get back to writing.

Week 1

Full disclosure, I didn’t give myself that six day handicap after all. I’m a realist. I have three little kids at home so I’m not always going to get time to write on the weekends. So, my personal time frame officially began on Jan 7. And it runs through Feb 6.

Week one of my National Novel Writing Month or – MyNaNoWriMo – is going well. I felt clever writing that, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to use that abbreviation. Also, it’s kind of a pain typing so many alternating capital and lowercase letters. Anyway …

I’ve always like the festive camaraderie surrounding the event, but I think the thing I like most is the data graphs. I mean, I’m going to write anyway, but there’s just something so satisfying about watching that little bar move. Even more so, I love the constant tug of war with myself as I watch my target daily word count fluctuate. Am I going to make it in time? Who knows?! I’m on a wild ride only I care about. And by wild, I mean like put a quarter and ride a pony in the mall kind of wild.

I was prepared to go at it on my own and put all that info into an Excel spreadsheet. That was until I found WriteTrack. Its everything I wanted!

You create your personal goal and set the parameters. I chose fifty thousand words in thirty days, but you can do anything. People struggling in the beginning of the craft can put ten thousand in a month. Whatever. The neat part is not only does it calculate your daily word count so you hit that mark – and update it depending on your progress – but you can assign a weighted value to each day as well. The output looks like a calendar and if I know I need to hit, say, five thousand words today or whatever, I can change the typical value of 100 and crank that sucker up to 1000. It doesn’t actually do anything, but it reminds me to keep on trucking.

In the time I’m not writing, I’m editing some of my other manuscripts. If I’m going to self-publish them after all, they need one final-FINAL read through. I’ve also been fiddling with Altered Egos some more which is still making the querying rounds. I thought it was tight as can be, clocking in at 102 thousand words, but I’ve been able to trim it down to 94K. It’s considerably increased pacing and I found a way to combine two very similar, and now I realize, redundant scenes, into one. I had to kill some darlings, but I’m pretty proud with the outcome so far.

Okay, enough of that, I need to get back to it. Today’s only weighted at 100, but I lost time over the weekend. Gotta get back to it!