New and Shiny

I took some time off with the family last week for some rest and relaxation. We live in the Midwest, which meant that we had a long drive to Florida each way. With three small kids, there was plenty of time where someone fell asleep in the car which meant it was pretty quiet for a hours at a time (the other hours, not so much …). But it gave me a lot of time at the wheel to do nothing but sit and think.

Without writing anything down, I find it hard to actually work on a story like that. I need to clear out the clutter in my head as I go along. Otherwise, I get stuck in these thought loops where I just sort of revisit the same concept over and over again even when I’ve already decided what to do with it.

So instead of work on anything new, really, I spent a lot of that time getting excited for the next WIP.

As I’m not a working writer — well, I am, but you know what I mean — I always come to the same point with every book. Once it’s written, I can either start something new while working on the edits knowing it’s going to take twice as long to edit the old work or I can double down and try and get finished in half the time. I typically stick to the latter. I want that finished project and don’t like sitting around without something to pitch.

That said, since I couldn’t really work on anything in the car, I got to do a lot of time daydreaming about the next work, which to me is still pretty important even before I sit down and write it. You need to be excited about what you write. I mean, if you aren’t excited by the work, why would your reader be?

So I really did get to rest and relax. Refill the ole tank as it were. I’m giving myself maybe another week off from the last book before I dive back into the dreaded Draft 2, so I’m filling that time with research and word sketches of what my next book could be. It’s  starting to twinkle over there just out of the corner of my eye as it tries to catch my attention and be my next distraction.

Advertisements

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 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!

Draft 2

This might be a strictly me thing, but there is no aspect I fear so much in all of writing – not even the blank page of a new book – then the beginning of revisions.

Once I finish any manuscript and get to the satisfactory “The End”, I let out an enormous sigh of accomplishment and relief. I did it. The marathon is over. I let myself rest on my laurels for a bit, give myself plenty of pats on the backs, couple more sighs, and allow myself the victory because I know the real work is only just getting started.

As I’m writing, I keep a running list of items that need to be updated, fixed, or changed for the next draft. I so cleverly call this my “THINGS TO FIX” list. It’s in caps so you know it’s important. This list is my new outline of what needs my immediate attention in the early revision stages. Thing is, I can’t even get to that list until I complete what I call Draft 2.

Now all writers have a second draft. Nobody gets it right the first time around. But I’m talking about Draft 2. Capital D. Plenty of writers can just dive back into the guts of his or her story and incorporate the changes outlined in their own THINGS TO FIX list, but not me. I need to go through the whole thing one time, tightening it up along the way, to give the whole book shape in my head. Only then can I go back and put the big changes into Draft 3.

Draft 2 is where all brackets get filled in, word choice is cleaned up, prose isn’t scrubbed so much as shaped. It’s what turns this giant pile of words into a story and it is exhausting. That’s where I confront my failures head on and try and turn them into something worth reading. Let me tell you, it’s a slog. It’s slow going doing all of that fine tuning, but for me it is completely necessary. I need to make the machine before I can go about fixing it.

I always go through the same stages too. The beginning of the manuscript is often the roughest which makes sense since it was the first part of the story written down. I was still finding character and voice and yet to hit my grove. So, naturally, I think my writing is garbage. Cleaning up all the clunky prose doesn’t help my self-esteem. Somewhere in the process, it gets better. Usually, this is when the story is starting to kick into gear. By the end, I’ve settled with the idea that it’s not all that bad. Not great. Maybe not even good. But not as scum-bucket terrible as I thought it was.

But now I have a story and that’s something I can fix. The next pass puts in the big elements. The pass after that cleans it up yet again. Each time I go through the manuscript, I polish it further and further until at some point I’m legitimately happy with it in its entirety. It transforms from a complete mess to something worth reading.

I’m not even close to that stage yet with my current manuscript. I’m maybe three fifths into it. A little slower than expected. I had other projects vying for my attention. But already, judging by what I’m generating day to day and looking at my THINGS TO FIX list, I know this one is going to be a doozy.

At some point I’m going to come out of the fog, blinking like I haven’t see the light of day in years, and be astonished there’s something good – or at least to me it is – in front of me. It takes a while to get there though, and often involves a lot of self-degradation. So celebrate those victories when you have them. But keep going. The light at the end of the tunnel is a finished book to be proud of.

I just have to get through Draft 2 first.

A Balanced Diet

You can consume or create, but you can’t do both.

I think Kevin Smith is fond of saying that. I’m sure I could look it up, but it doesn’t make the statement any less true.

I’ve found that I get in rhythms where the work comes easy – well, easy enough sometimes, but it’s still work – and then I fall off the wagon where it’s pulling teeth every time. And for me, that’s usually due to outside distractions.

For instance, right now I’m waiting for some feedback and while I wait, I’ve become almost paralyzed. I don’t want to do any writing because I’m too excited and too eager to deal with the work I sent off for scrutiny.

Now, should I be working? YES! Is anything someone says about the other work going to affect my current work? NO!

And yet, I’ve become both incredibly distracted and self-indulgent. I’ve given myself permission more to put off writing like “I deserve this” and “it’s okay.” Everyone deserves a break and a reward, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve come to recognize that’s not what this is. It’s stalling. What I really want is to work on the stuff I sent out.

Every time I decided to put off writing for some video game time or a movie or whatever, I’m not actually doing myself any favors. I’m not recharging the batteries, I’m killing time in the hopes that today will be the day I get that email. But you know what? It hasn’t been that day yet, so why would it be today? It’ll get here when it gets here.

Focus. It’s kind of important.

That’s why I’ve been writing more about my big push to really dive deep into my latest project. I mean it, but it’s also a way to trick myself back into work.

While I’m consuming, I’m not creating. For me, consuming media is like eating candy. It’s delicious and tastes good at the time, but eat too much and I feel icky. Creating media is much more substantial. That’s my well-balanced meal with all the fixings and flavor.

Taking a break is fine, but be honest with yourself.

[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.

1 – 1 = 2

“Can’t be too careful these days,” Bridges said, slipping the funds into his coat pocket.

“Can’t be too careful these days.” Bridges slipped the funds into his coat pocket.

See the difference?

Yes, the first one is more immediate. It’s a little more in the present than the second example.

Or is it? Without the “said” in the second example, only the “ed” in “slipped” puts this in the past. So tense-wise, both examples have something present and something past.  Other than flavor, what’s the real difference here?

Well, the second example is exactly one word shorter. How much can one less word really add?

Subtraction is addition, my friends. One less word a hundred times is a hundred less words overall. Do it a thousand times and you’ve trimmed off one percent of a 100,000 word manuscript. Believe me, it matters.

You want the excess fat to just fall away, revealing the meaty bones of your story. I’m seeing stuff like this time and again during my latest revision of an old manuscript. Content I thought was as lean as it could possibly be, with more advanced eyes, is getting hacked off left and right. Sometimes with a butcher’s knife. Sometimes with a scalpel. But in both cases, less is more.

A more focused, more streamlined, and more immersive reading experience.

Sometimes you’ve taken a work as far or as short as it can go. Maybe you really can’t cut anything else out because it’ll fall apart. That’s okay. Or maybe you like the longer phrase. That’s okay too, but be cognizant of what you’re doing.

What kind of book are you writing? Is the reader wanting to spend more time on the flavor of your prose or is it the narrative she’s after?

I used to want to preserve everything, but my new rule of thumb is if its not nailed down – meaning absolutely essential – it’s gone. I’ll throw something away, reread it, and then figure out I guess I needed to keep that sentence after all. Often times, though, if my gut says get rid of it, the story really can survive without it. On the chance that I’ve deprived the reader with some great sentence of exposition, well now I’ve offered her a chance to create something  herself to fill in the gaps which ends up bringing her more into the story anyway.

I’ve taken to labeling my drafts so if I need to come back for anything, thanks to the magic of “Control F” I can find where that spot was in the last version and pull out the bits I chopped away in my hasty housekeeping. That ability and knowledge that the changes aren’t actually permanent are pretty freeing.

Try it out.