Presentation Does Matter

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim on my Switch lately in those rare instances when I’m allowed to turn my brain off for a while. Skyrim is an odd choice for me, not because it’s a huge RPG — I love those — but because I’ve already played it when it first came out over seven years ago and decided that I didn’t like it.

The urge to pick it back up again came to me on a whim and boy am I glad I listened. Aside from the inclusion of the DLC material, there’s nothing new about the game on Switch. It’s still the game I played seven years ago and put down. So what changed?

I think its the portability aspect. I love having this entire world in my hands. Usually, I hate open world games. Its part choice paralysis and part narrative pacing problems — I’m looking at you Final Fantasy XV. See, in open world games, you’re given the main quest line to follow and then as you go through it, you’re constantly running into peripheral things to do. With the fate of the world or empire or whatever at stake, it kind of breaks all narrative immersion when you stop to help someone find their chickens. Find your own dammed chickens! But I digress …

This time, I knew what I was getting myself into. I decided just to play the quests I wanted as long as they were relevant to the plot in some way. Each decision, I massaged out in my brain so it was all part of a single narrative experience. And the fact that I could take this entire world with me in the palm of my hands was what sealed the deal. Even if I only have ten minutes to spare, I can just dive in and lose myself in Pict, the Dragonborn for a bit.

It reminds me when I tried reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind for the second time. I’d heard all the usually things when it first came out, read about fifty pages, and just couldn’t get into it. I figured I’d never read it. Who has the time to read books they don’t enjoy anymore? Then fast forward a couple of years. My wife is pregnant with the twins and going to sleep at 8pm every night. Good thing the Switch doesn’t exist yet, so instead, every night when she’d fall asleep I’d read. I read A LOT!

That Christmas my mom had joined the Rothfuss train and bought both The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear for me as presents. I’d finished whatever I was reading and needed something new and figured why not. I owned them now and if I didn’t like them, I’d donate them. I’d been working through a stack of free books and a trip to our library to offload them was on the horizon anyway.

Now the copy of tNofW I’d tried before was the big, honkin’ tome you’re probably familiar with. The version I’d been gifted was this little thing (I’ll find the exact edition when I get the chance), still a hard back, with the thinnest, softest pages. It kind of forced you to hunch your shoulders a little to hold it. And the nature of the narrative being told in the first person made it feel like I was reading someone else’s journal. Like Skyrim on the Switch, something just clicked and it just pulled me right in. I thoroughly enjoyed it and even read the next two.

As writers, the goal is to pull a reader into your world through the power of your words alone. But it certainly helps to present those words in an appealing format. I have a definite appreciation for layout that I never had before which was why when I was working with the cover artist for Fairfax Cleaners, it was really important for me not to display the main character on the cover. So many urban fantasy covers feature some photo realistic – or real realistic – protagonist just kind of standing there and looking badass, I guess?

Personally, I find the covers boring. And unless you have some quality art production behind you, that style is so easy to screw up and look cheap. It may be just me, but I think it’s kind of a trope at this point and I wanted nothing to do with it. So instead, I opted for a severed foot, a bloodied hacksaw, and some rubber gloves. Let the words paint the picture of what my protagonist looks like. I wanted the art to prime that stage. The right presentation can prepare the reader for the journey, but it’s up to the writer then, to make sure that journey is one worth taking.

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The Power of Editing

I’m only 410 pages into my 554 page manuscript. This is another polish round, so I’m reading it start to finish and cleaning things up as I find them. It’s faster moving than it was in the beginning, but I’m ready to be finished. The next round I can do some more surgical fixing followed by a line by line polish after that. At this point, I’m ready to get the manuscript in the hands of beta readers. I don’t want make it perfect if the whole thing needs to be reworked. What’s the point?

But all this gets me thinking just how much the story can change as its being edited. I don’t just mean rewriting and cleaning things up either.

So here’s a great example: I have four main POV characters. In the beginning of the book, each character gets his or her own chapter. As these characters come together by the end, the chapters get a bit more muddied as I jump between POVs. Now I can keep them that way because it works thematically — total accident by the way — or I can cut them apart, mixing and matching the whole way through.

Benefit of keeping them as they are: More time in the respective character’s head means more investment from the reader.

Cutting them up: Holds interest longer as more seems to be happening since we’re jumping back and forth. POV changes also create more stopping places for the reader which would be a bad thing if it means putting the book down or a good thing if means people push on for “just one more section”. Who knows?

I feel like I want to cut them up, but I’m on the fence. If you’ve ever read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, I think of those books as the gold standard. Each one has only like nine whole chapters, but those chapters are huge. Lots of section breaks and POV switching. Terry Pratchett wrote that way too. Actually, he wrote without chapters and just broke when he felt it necessary.

However, Stranger Things season 3 is warning me otherwise. In the beginning, I liked the cutting back and forth, but it eventually got annoying because I felt like there wasn’t a lot of overall progress. Right when something good started happening in the story we’d cut away leaving me more frustrated than interested. Now, in my opinion, that season had its own problems later on, but this point still stands.

That’s just a structural thing. Rearranging chapters only changes the presentation of information and not what is being said. Yet it could completely change the feel of the entire book. That’s how important editing can be.

“Great books aren’t written. They’re rewritten.” Michael Creighton said that I find myself coming back to that again and again like a mantra.

Okay, that’s enough from me. I need at least another forty pages done today to keep on schedule. Happy writing and editing, everyone!

Just a reminder that Fairfax Cleaners is still on sale all of July. As much as a dollar on Amazon or as little as totally free on Apple Books!

Head Case

I’d been doing some traveling lately and visiting family which has put me behind on both blogging and writing. Aside from some memories and a boat load of pictures of my kids, I didn’t come back empty handed. My sister-in-law is an awesome photographer who did me a huge favor and snapped me some snazzy head shots.

Headshot for Screens

Nice, Right? I mean just look at that handsome devil.

Okay, all joking aside all credit goes to my sister-in-law who clearly knows what she’s doing. I just sat around and tried not to look like an idiot. Smile more? Less? Serious face? I think I went through the gamut. The old train station also helped. I really like that background!

Anyway, got some time in the sun down south where my kids played with their cousins for a week. Physically, I’m exhausted from traveling — three little kids on airplanes will do that to you — but mentally, I’m all fired up. I’ve got some business stuff to take care of, a short story to finish, and of course editing Draft 2.

Draft 2 has been kicking my butt. It was always going to be rough in the beginning, but I also think it’s because I was trying to cram everything I’d missed in during that second pass. I’ve since come to realize that like anything I’ve ever written, it’s going to be a another dozen or so drafts until I’m finished, so it’s okay to let stuff go for next time. Fix what I catch and streamline those 165k words into a coherent story and then polish, polish, polish while I work out other details. You don’t carve a masterpiece in the second try. You chip away and smooth stuff until one day you’re just finished with it.

Seriously, coming at my problem like that has just freed me. I can’t wait to get through this current pass so I can hone in some more on the next one. Want another metaphor? It’s like zeroing in on a target. I could probably cut down on the overall number of drafts by slowing down, but I’m not sure my work would be as good.

I’d been taking a writing class these past couple months to polish my prose and something I’ve learned is that I like to do that final polishing in little isolated chunks. Take a few “completed” pages at a time and then make them better. I think I was trying to do too much too quickly before. I’m allowing myself the ability to let stuff go, flag it, and catch it later, being more deliberate with my choices. I think it’s going to make me a lot happier in the long run.

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.

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.