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!

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Inspiration

Normally when I’m working on something, I don’t like to read that same genre in fear of cross-contamination. It’s different this time, though. As I’m editing Land of Sky and Blood I only want to read fantasies with an Asian/East-Asian lens. It’s not that I’m hoping to get any of that via osmosis, I think it’s more that I just really like that aesthetic and never really knew how much of it was out there. Now that I’ve tasted it, I want more. Hopefully readers of that material will feel the same way that I do and accept my work as well.

Although, I wouldn’t be mad if one of those books helps me unlock this recurring naming convention problem I’m having. I thought I’d solved it, but I still think its too convoluted and the final effect isn’t quite what I was hoping for. Maybe I’ll get it next draft …

So in light of all that, I thought I’d talk a bit about what I’m currently reading. I realized that topic rarely comes up on my blog which could be odd being a writer and all. I’m maybe 75% through The Prince of Shadow and my ongoing review is that, I don’t hate it? Insert confused face.

Life’s too short for me to keep reading a book I don’t like. I can usually tell if I like a book or not forty pages in. Heck, more like twenty in most cases. But this one … it’s just interesting enough that I think I like the world, but plot-wise kind of boring. Benjamin’s prose is often muddy at times. A whole paragraph will go by and I’ll have to reread it because I’m not sure what he’s trying to say. I also tend to like a protagonist with, you know, agency so a whole book where events are happening too a character and not because of a character are not really my thing. I’m hoping this is just a slow burn and that this is all building up to the end, so who knows?

The beginning of the book must have been more interesting than what I’m reading now to get me this far, otherwise I probably would have dropped it. I’ve also come too far to turn back now. I call that my Wheel of Time Rule. Hooboy. We can talk about that ride later.

Anyway, yeah, so there are some things about The Prince of Shadow that I like and plenty that I don’t. If anything, it’s showing me some new angles to an Asian inspired fantasy world and offers some nice examples of how editing can be your friend, but it’s not what I signed on for.

So yeah, don’t hate it, but already looking forward to the end. I guess it’s part of a trilogy, but at this rate, I don’t have any plans of picking up the other two.

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.

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.

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?

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.