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?

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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!

[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.

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.

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.