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.

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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!

NaNoWriMo

I’ve been looking forward to November for a while now. Not for any real reason, but I like fall. I’ve come to the conclusion that 50 degrees F might be my sweet spot. Probably from living in Scotland. Cold enough to bundle up but not too cold. Hence November.

So with all this longing it just now occurred to me that not only is November tomorrow, but it’s also NaNoWriMo!

I like the festive atmosphere  and take the event seriously enough to participate to crank out 50k words, but I write with a purpose. I don’t just churn out text to make text and I don’t write 50k-length novels. I typically see where I’m at with a project and go from there. Turns out, I’m perfectly paced with last year so rather than starting something new, I’ll be using NaNoWriMo as an excuse to finish Altered Egos.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t need some palette cleansers along the way. So for the month of November, I’ll be taking a break from the personal stuff. The only blog posts you’ll see from me will be fiction.

Yes I’m cheating a little as they’ll count towards that 50k, but the  bulk of those words will go towards my novel. Scouts’ honor.

You can’t see me, but I just cracked my knuckles. I may have forgotten about it, but I’m ready for the arthritic showdown that is NaNoWriMo.

Bring it on!

First Draft Blues

Maybe the single greatest piece of writing advice I ever received was from an AI I had back in college in a short fiction writing course. Her words have stuck with me all these years even though, for the life of me, I can’t remember her name.

“Just finish it.”

Whatever the problem. Whatever the hold up. Keep writing and don’t look back. As she explained at the time, you need to get it out because once you do, the story’s told. That’s the hard part. After that, you can edit and polish to your heart’s content.

While she may have glossed over the editing part – as many of you know, editing is MUCH harder than writing – but she had a point. Those were the words I needed to hear. Push through for the sense of completion and getting out of your own way, and after that, you’re left with an actual artifact of your progress. You’ve made something. Past tense. Instead of present tense: making/working on …

I bring all of this up because I already know that Altered Egos is going to need some work. Everything from the macro to the micro levels. From the story beats and structure to the language and the voice of the main character. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wrote the whole first chapter in the present tense, but the rest of the book is in the past. I honestly don’t remember. I haven’t looked back yet.

What I do instead is to create a generic document alongside my manuscript that’s oh so cleverly titled something like “THINGS TO FIX” and put it all in there. I make a big list of anything and everything I can think of. Once I’m done with the manuscript and I’m familiar with how its laid out, I reorganize that list chronologically with the book so I can hit it on a later draft.

I typically save that stuff for draft 2.5. I guess you could call it 3. Even things that I know are broken, I can’t fix until I’ve read through the book in its entirety first. So after I finish the manuscript, I take some time off to clear my head and then read through and do some general cleanup with draft 2. That’s usually when it goes from “this is the worst thing I’ve ever written” to “it’s bad but it’s not that bad” in my head.

After the cleanup phase, that’s when I go back and and check everything off the THINGS TO FIX list. Then I comb through it again a third time for further polishing. So theoretically at this point, the book is structurally sound (or sounder) and I’m just cleaning up the prose. After this read through is when I’ve started handing the work off to beta readers. The way I see it, it’s not getting any overhaul without their help and this is usually when I’m comfortable enough with that I’ve written to let others read it.

Then its rinse and repeat. Get feedback, make lists, polish.

The other quote that keeps me sane is from somebody’s name I do remember. Some dude you may have heard of named Michael Crichton. “Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten.”

I figure the guy knows what he’s talking about.

Vignettes

Inspiration is real. Waiting for inspiration is BS. By slogging through the trenches, I’m back on board the Altered Egos train and genuinely look forward to working on it again every day. There are two metaphors in that sentence.

I’ve worn a tie so much at work these days that my son says, “Daddy, no tie,” on a near daily basis. It’s not that he doesn’t like ties, he knows that I’ve been against them lately and he’s super supportive.

My daughter has developed a second joke. Her first one was telling me, “poopy diaper,” when she definitely didn’t have a poopy diaper. Now, she’ll sit on this plastic fish while in the bathtub, look me dead in the eye and say, “fish on the butt!” and then devolve into a giggling fit. I’m psyched that she’s telling jokes. She didn’t get the toilet humor from me, though. It’s all high brow over here.

I keep querying agents hoping for a bite. I try and pitch maybe two or three every couple of weeks. Way I see it, if my query is bad, then instead of cutting all my chances at the same time, I’m doling it out piece by piece. Granted, that means its taking a while. But I’m not ready to put The Red Door to bed yet anyway.

While I’d rather work with an editor and a publisher, Plan B is to self publish. I’ve written five novels by now – two of which are what I consider to be publishable – but I’m waiting until I have three before I hit the self publish button. I figure that three novels of three different styles will be a good starting point and I’ll go from there. Spaghetti on the wall, that’s my approach. Throw enough and something’ll stick.

I’ve been working D&D back into my life, playing with a group about once a month or so. I’m DMing, but I’d much rather play. But since I’m the one making it work the most, I’ll take DMing as a small price to just be rolling D20s again. I’ve looking into joining an online group that meets more frequently and while that sounds great in theory, the twins don’t allow me much free time. The only reason I’m even playing D&D now is because I’ve somehow convinced my wife to play too. She either really loves me or feels really sorry for me. A bit of both?

Right now, we’re watching the days go by, more or less. We were coming to terms with our current family dynamic and thought that was going to be it. But life, uh, finds a way. That cat’s out of the bag, internet. Come March, the kids will be outnumbering the adults at our house.

Hurry Up and Wait

I feel like I need to learn how to write short stories. I don’t quite have their structure down yet. I don’t write them very often. My last one, I’m still working on it off and on figuring out story beats for almost a year now. And the one before that became my novel, The Red Door.

Sure its nice to create more content and I can always put them up on the site or try and sell them, but really, I like short stories for the following two reasons:

1.) When I was killing myself with NaNoWriMo last year and cranking out words, there were definitely days it went beyond pulling teeth to drilling down into the gums. I wasn’t starting a project from scratch, but instead dove into TRD and tried to hit 50k words that month in the process. Even working from an outline, things got tiring some days, so I ended up writing a short story Chi Town Swing in E Flat — That’s the one I’m still figuring out.

Anyway, I’d write TRD in the mornings and work on Swing in the afternoons. It served as a nice palette cleanser and kept me motivated. I know that sounds odd as someone who admitted to not liking to split his focus, but it worked for this occasion. Because the second project was so small, maybe?

So with Altered Egos not even halfway finished, I think I like the idea of a secondary distraction to keep those writing juices flowing.

2.) I’m getting an onslaught of new ideas lately. I’m writing them all down and slowing cooking those kernel, but I can easily see some of them turning into a short story and I don’t want to ignore them or lose my passion for the premise.

We combine points 1 and 2 and we’ve got a pretty solid desire to write short stories.

I know you’re thinking, so just do it already, Dan. And I probably will. I think what you’re seeing here is the result of an early (definitely not mid)-life-writing crisis. I made peace with the fact that Fairfax Cleaners wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. It doesn’t mean its dead, it’s just resting. That was probably because I liked The Red Door so much. Well, now The Red Door is making the rounds and I’m just waiting. I don’t like waiting and I don’t like things hanging over my head.

Burying myself in projects sounds like a good distraction but also has some tangible payoff. Even diving deep into Altered Egos isn’t cutting it because I’m still only halfway finished. Working so hard on TRD only to his a wall like this has infused me with a restlessness that I just don’t like.

Look, I write for me. End of the day, I’m my biggest fan and I’m telling stories that I enjoy. That said, it wouldn’t be so bad for someone else to tell me they enjoy those stories too, right?

Siren

My cousin got married in Hot Springs, Virginia the other weekend. I went out for the ceremony. Now that the kids are two, my wife and I figured that buying four plane tickets for one person to attend an event was a little superfluous.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I’d actually never been to that part of Virginia before. And living in Indiana now, I don’t know if I’m just tree-deprived or what, but man that state is gorgeous! Hairpin turns included.

I brought my Switch with me, eagerly looking forward to some time to myself. I got some writing and reading in under my belt, but I also played an S-ton of Switch. I’d purchased I am Setsuna, a game I’d had my eye on for a long time, specifically for this trip. Yet, when a friend loaned me Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for my travels, all I did was play Zelda. A game I’d already played and beaten on his Switch.

In fact, I’m still playing it. Much to my detriment.

Gaming-wise, the Switch is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. And the worst. It’s portable nature means its never far from my side and I’m always playing it. After playing Zelda on my friend’s machine, the final nail in the convincing-myself-coffin to buy my own was that now that my kids have transitioned to their toddler beds, it means we’ve pretty much lost our family room for nightly hangout space. The room is right across the hall from their bedroom, so just being in there will wake them up. Our retreat is back into our own, now baby-free, bedroom with my X-Box 360 to watch movies, the last iteration of Apple TV, and our old TV from almost ten years ago. Sensing a trend here? Outdated technology.

My Switch comes with me of course. I never know where I’ll be allowed to hang out and play games, so having a console not far from hand is a great perk. It also means that as I type, say, this post, I keep glancing over to that blue and red siren sitting on the edge of my desk.

If I was having a hard time getting back into Altered Egos, then the Switch isn’t helping things.

Know what? I think that’ll do for blogging today. I just remembered that there’s a gentleman in a hot air balloon selling monster masks that I need to go speak with.

Wrench in the Machine

I’m in the process of writing my sixth novel right now. I’d like to think that with every one of them, I try new things and I learn something every time. This time around, I gave myself a dose of what being a “professional writer” must feel like. Notice I put that in quotes, that’s not to say it wasn’t professional, but more that there’s no single model of what being a professional writer looks like.

After wrapping up my first round of edits on The Red Door, I sent it off to my beta readers which has become my usual practice. I figured I’d have a couple of months before I got anything back. This makes for an equally exciting and terrifying time. Picture it if you will, you spend how long —  Four? Six? — months working on a project you care deeply about and then you hand it off to others, eager to hear what they think about it. It makes me anxious and antsy and other words that start with A. Agitated? I wanted to hear their thoughts now. I didn’t want to wait two months twiddling my thumbs.

I needed something to do. So I gave myself a new project. Enter my next novel, Altered Egos.

Now, I had a pretty good idea Altered Egos would be next on the plate anyway, but I’ve only ever worked on one novel at a time. Purely to distract myself and to keep myself working, I dove right on in with an outline and started writing it in the hiatus. I got about 30k words in before I got all the feedback for The Red Door.

Now, my original plan was to work on both at once. That’s the responsible writer thing to do. But seeing as I’m not working with a publisher (yet, hopefully) I soon realized that the time spent not editing The Red Door meant time longer before I had a finished project. So I switched gears and diverted all focus back to The Red Door to crank it out for querying.

That’s been finished for about a month now and I’m back into working solely on Altered Egos. The problem, my friends? It is a struggle. It’s not just a motivation thing. I’ve long learned that you can’t write only when you’re motivated. Writing is a job. Flexing muscles. You know the metaphor. The works. This is something deeper. As much as I try and remind myself what excited me about the project in the first place, I can’t help daydreaming about The Red Door. It’s out there in the ether. I think the Schrodinger’s cat-nature is what’s killing me. It’s hard to care for a new baby when my other one is out there in the wilds, alone.

So I hit my daily word counts as planned, but I’m working on ways to trick myself back into this new project. It distracted me once, it can do so again. I  just need to fall in love with it all over again. Easy, right?

In the mean time, I’ve added a link to Fate Stitcher over on my Comics page where you can download the entire graphic novel. Free. That’s essentially seven issues of my first baby. All free. I hope you like it.

Let me know what you think and if you have any advice about switching gears and staying invested, I’m all ears!