The Over Under on Overwriting

Hi all, it’s time for another infrequent blog post! I jest. I mean, well it is time, but I’m hoping that these will become less and less infrequent. After all of the topsy turviness in life, I’m finally settling into something of a routine. It’s only taken … counts on fingers … seven months? Oh, is that all?

Anyhoo, today I want to talk about underwriting versus overwriting.

I’d say that I was primarily an overwriter in the beginning as I tried to describe every little thing to help set the scene. But then I did some work, read some articles, and tried to really just put down all that was necessary. That seemed to work for a while until I read some more articles and did even more work to hone craft and that latter practice stressed the addition of concrete images and sensory details. You know, stuff to really set the scene … wait…. Isn’t that where I started?

Yes and no. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but usually, in the beginning of our writing careers we’re all overwriters. We list every little thing in the room to help with layout, we double explain just about everything, and at least I was (am), an exposition overwriter where we really want to make sure the reader gets what the character is feeling right now. All of that leads to long, drawn out paragraphs and slows down the pace.

So back to my original question, if less is more, then why are we adding more again? Well, it comes down to those concrete sensory images. We still need to hear sounds, smell smells, and see what your characters are looking at, but rather than catalog the contents like a museum, why don’t you just give me the highlights instead?

I had a book return from a publisher recently that was generally well received, but had the note that it was overwritten. I was confused at first because it had started off at 133K and I’d trimmed it to 119K before they got their hands on it. How was it still too wordy?

My usual editing process involves around a half dozen drafts that are me fiddling with this or that and all the while also chiseling away at the marble to get to the statue inside. There comes a point where I’m happy with the prose, figuring its as slim as can be, but I’m realizing now that I need to take it one step farther. Once I think it’s slimmed down, that means it needs at least one more full pass. Just because I could keep a word, a sentence, a paragraph doesn’t mean I should. I’ve started an experiment where I cut it out and tell myself I can go back and put it in again later if need be. Spoiler alert, after a few seconds of grief, I realize that eh, the scene still works just fine and there’s no need to pad it out again.

So that’s where I’ve come to in my overwriting/underwriting journey. I’m a self-acknowledged overwriter, but as long as I know that, that’s a good thing, right? To switch metaphors on you, I’ve started to treat my prose like a Jenga tower. Once it’s built, I keep removing support blocks to get it as lean as possible … this metaphor doesn’t exactly work because I’m not putting all the blocks back again but you get where I’m going with this … If the tower falls, well I’ve officially broken the story and it’s time to add to some of the support. But nine times out of ten, whatever I remove not only isn’t missed but ask me a few days later and I couldn’t even tell you what I’d cut to begin with.

Phases of a Book

I’d say I’m just about done with the brainstorming phase of my new book. To give you some perspective, when I write a novel, it usually goes down something like this.

Brainstorming Phase: This is usually about a month. Sometimes longer. I’m always jotting random ideas down and doing the occasional research about something, but this phase is the hardcore focus of all my mental energy on something new. This is also where I do my more targeted researching.

Structure Phase: Once I’ve got a pretty good idea of the world and what I want to say, I make a one page document for pacing. This is really the narrative framework in which the entire thing hangs. I identify the plot points, the hook, changes in narrative phases, etc. It’s not super robust, but I need to know how the story unfolds and where I need to fill getting from A to B. This takes maybe a week or a week and a half. Often times, I go back and do some final fiddling with brainstorming and concurrent research as I build it out.

Outlining Phase: I then turn that one page document into a 16-20 page outline depending on the scope of the novel. I try and break it down into what I think will be the chapters with bullet points telling me what’s going to happen in each one. I also include notes to myself, lines of dialog I’ve already written, and all the must haves and put them where they need to go. It’ll take me maybe two to three weeks to get this whole thing together.

I try not to leave anything blank. I’ll be vague at times in a bullet like “hero gets in a fight and the villain gets away” and when I get there in the manuscript, I’ll have a better idea of what that fight will be, but I don’t like to have an entire protochapter look like:

  • They storm the base
  • big fight ensues
  • they’re about to catch the bad guy, but the tables are turned.

And that’s it. No further details. No reminder of what’s at stake or notes about development. I’ve found that I ALWAYS run into trouble when it’s that vague. Looking at you cough Partners in Crime cough. So I need to iron that out which is why it takes me extra time to get all of that in order.

Writing Phase: The meat and potatoes. It takes me anywhere from 4-5 months to write a first draft. I go through the ole outline and get my words in for the day. Rinse and Repeat. You know how this part works.

Waiting Phase: Another couple months where I distract myself with something else to let the dust settle and the ideas gel from the first draft.

Editing Phase: Another 4+ months of grueling fine tuning and rewriting to make that pile of words into something that someone would actually want to read.

So there you have it. I’m just about finished brainstorming so it’ll be soon onto the structure phase. I’ve written eight novels by now and this is the process I’ve developed for myself. I would like to do more works concurrently: edit one work while brainstorming another, etc. and I’ve done that to some extent, but seeing as I’m not a full time writer, I only have so much time to devote to a project so I’m going laser focused again. Onward to novel number nine!

What I’m Reading: (see, told you I’d bring these back …) Just finished Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red about a, I suppose its technically a cyborg, who calls itself Murderbot and loves serialized media. It was just the right length for the writing style. A strong voice but also sparse on the details which makes sense since its in first person or first bot or whatever … which I imagine would get old for an entire novel. That said, I’m definitely going to read a followup in the near future.

As that was so short, I started John Connolly’s The White Road. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, I’ve really come around on Connolly. I didn’t care for his first novel, but that last two were pretty great. And you want to talk about voice? They tell you as writer that you should read wide and look for lessons about craft in other peoples’ work. Whether its a duck flying over a salt marsh or the description of a crime scene, imagery in Connolly’s books is just awesome. I don’t mean super cool, I mean awe-inspiring. I’m definitely taking notes.

What I’m Watching: The Imagineering Story on Disney +. Love or loathe Disney, this documentary series is still incredible. To see how they pulled off some engineering marvels is just fascinating. It also serves as a great lesson for anyone interested in customer service and really the value of a product. You can see where they’ve designed a complete user experience and where they were just phoning it in. Each episode is only an hour, but my wife and I keep pausing it to comment and marvel so it takes us twice as long to get through them.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

My posts have been pretty inconsistent lately. There’s been some illness in the family – I’m actually writing this sick in bed at the moment, lots of editing work that needed doing, and pressures from the day job all vying for attention so this ole blog is just getting the short end of the stick time after time. What that’s telling me is that I need to write these things in advance. I suppose that’s the smart thing to do, but now why would anybody do something responsible like that?

On to writing … I’ve been battling a mini internal crisis lately. See, I poured a lot of myself into Land of Sky and Blood. I learned new techniques, even took a class, and really tried to make that book as rich as I could make it. Then I went ahead and wrote Partners in Crime (well got about three quarters of the way through anyway) and I discovered that … let’s say LoSaB is hearty stew … it’s got a bunch of complementary flavors, some fresh ingredients, a few old favorites, and it’s all balanced so you’re getting the combined effect of the entire recipe. Well, if LoSaB is a stew, then Partners in Crime is just broth. It’s simple and felt like after everything I’d learned, I was actually taking a step backward in writing it.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t figured out the ending yet either, so that ground me to a halt, but still, I knew something was wrong for a while but pressed on anyway. I hate not having it finished. “Always finish what you start” was rule number 10 in my Tae Kwon Do studio growing up and all these years later, I still hear Master Gladwell and Master Kim’s gruff disapproval in me for not finishing that damned book. I need to get around to finishing it. I mean, I even finished Ghost Hunting and that book is a train wreck!

I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Ghost Hunting before. All writers have trunk novels, right? Well GH deserves to live in the trunk in a secret compartment so cleverly disguised you’ll never find it again. That book was just awful! It’s the only novel I’ve ever written that I’ve never even tried to edit before. It did teach me a few things like balancing character voices and not to dive into a story before doing all your research, though. The novel had an emphasis on sailing and let me tell you, I don’t know the first thing about boats. I was nowhere near ready to write that book, but the takeaway was that I finished it. Knowing Partners in Crime remains unfinished is like sleeping with sand in my bed. I hate it.

But I can’t give it my full attention just yet. I’ve since moved on to the new shiny thing. After living and breathing LoSaB for a year and a half, I’m ready to move onto the next project. It’s still in the brainstorming phase right now, but I’m getting a handle on the story. There are a lot more component parts to this one and it’s definitely more stew than broth. Maybe when I finally sit down to start that first draft, I can allow myself to knock out Partners in Crime at the same time as a brain break. But right now, I only have so much time to write and if I don’t feel like it’s a constructive use of my time.

The Hustle

I’ve been a little lax on the ole blog here, so sorry about that. First I was busy and then got sick. Every time I wasn’t wrapped up with something, I was doing the final read through which turned out was followed by a second FINAL final read through of Land of Sky and Blood. So my eyes were pretty much spent every day and couldn’t stare at a computer screen anymore. I’ve poured so much time and attention into finishing the manuscript that I actually broke my own rule and abandoned Partners in Crime. I’m maybe 20K words away from finished that novel, but haven’t touched it since December. It’s weird. I’ve never just stopped a work like that before. I do plan to finish it. And soon. I hope. But hey, I’m done. Land of Sky and Blood is done!

Now comes the pitching …

I told myself that I was going to take my time with this one and I think I did for the most part. My usual schedule has been to both write a book and query a book within the same year. That’s just the way my pacing has seemed to be going. While I’m querying the last work, I’m simultaneously working on the new one. When the new one is query ready, the old one cycles out and I start the next manuscript. That’s what I’ve been doing for seven years more or less.

That all stopped in 2019. Land of Sky and Blood was too large and just wasn’t ready. So instead of rushing, I wanted to take my time and I like to think that it paid off. I ended up with the most ambitious thing I’ve ever written. But now its time to make the rounds.

Just like I’ve been more deliberate with my writing choices, I’m more deliberate with who I’m contacting in the publishing industry this time. I’m really only approaching those who I think would enjoy the work rather than throw spaghetti at the wall to see what’ll stick.

But it’s still nerve wracking, right? Rejection is never fun. Whether its from an agent or an editor or a bad review. As an author, you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project you believe in, so it hurts when someone else doesn’t share your same vision. It’s counter intuitive if you think about it. The best authors are probably sensitive, creative people. You’d have to be to dig into the art part of writing and really form a connection with your reader. Yet these are the same people who are also supposed to have thick skin and just shrug off rejection. It takes time and is definitely a learned skill.

Like I said, I’ve been writing now for over seven years. There were times when I’d see rejection in my inbox on a weekly basis. And rightly so, I might add. Some of those manuscripts weren’t actually all that good. So how do you handle something like that?

During the low times, I try and remind myself why I’m passionate about the work in the first place. Often, I wrote the novel because an idea was just burning in my brain. It was something I wanted to read but it didn’t exist so in a way, I was the first fan. Just because somebody else didn’t connect with the material doesn’t mean that no one will. It’s already got a fan, remember? Me. So I tell myself not to lose heart. In a planet of seven billion people, I can’t be the only one who would like it either. That’s just simple probability. There’s got to be others out there who’d feel the same way. Maybe they won’t see it. Maybe the vehicle I chose was wrong. Who knows? Maybe the work will stall and get shuffled aside as I try and sell my next shiny obsession. It doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth reading.

Just remember, if something doesn’t sell, it doesn’t mean you have to throw it out. Yeah, we all have trunk novels, but there might be a couple of gems in there too. Maybe you can sell it later. Or maybe you can rewrite it or reuse an idea for a future project. Nobody knows you’re stealing from yourself. I’ve reused character names, plot points, and thematic elements.

At the end of the day, I see every novel as a learning experience at the very least. I’ve learned or practiced something new with each one. There was no way I could have written Land of Sky and Blood without writing all of those other novels before it. I hadn’t leveled up as a writer yet.

So I’m going to start querying and hustling and pitching and everything that entails, but the book already has a fan. I’m proud to have written it and thankful for the experience regardless of what happens. My sights are already set on the future.

Well, maybe after I go back and knock the abandoned Partners in Crime first …

NaNoWriMo 2

Another short post this week. In fact, it’s going to be this way the whole way through NaNoWriMo and the month of November. These words don’t count 🙂 But seriously, it’s because I’m just swamped this month. I’m cranking out those 50k words while trying to edit a massive book at the same time.

I’m about three thousand words under where I should be in the event right now. That’s all right. I’m starting to pick up the pace and write more per day.

I’ve never been much of a marathon writer. Even if I know where I’m going, my brain gets tired. I think the most I’ve ever written in one sitting is twenty-five hundred words? Some of you are probably scoffing at the number and rightly so. Usually, on days when I need to make up word count or I want to make a really big push, instead of writing in one long session, I break it up and write in spurts. That’s much more manageable for me.

I think it was Ray Bradbury who used to say write two sentences six times a day. If worse comes to worst, you’ve got twelve sentences out of the deal but as often happens, you won’t stop writing once you start. Now I can’t write six times a day — I just don’t have the time for that — but I can write through a couple of smaller sessions. I usually try to get around a thousand words out first thing in the morning. That’s when I’m most productive anyway. If I don’t switch gears to something else entirely, I’ll come back to the work and try and write about 500-600 word chunks throughout the day. Everyone is different, but that seems to work for me.

Okay, that’s all the break I get. Hit twenty-five hundred words today (in three sittings) and it’s time to get some editing done. Until next time!

Happy writing!

And Done

Well, I did it! I hit my August deadline and Land of Sky and Blood is currently off with beta readers. I’m always looking for more readers so if Asian-inspired epic fantasy is your thing, I’d love to have you on board.

Wow! What a weight off my shoulders. This was my longest book yet, but it also required the most worldbuilding and character details. I have four main POV characters, so there was a lot to wade through at the end and it’s cleaned up as much as it’s going to be for the time being. It’s time to let it fly.

So what’s next?

There’s a short story I really want to finish. I wrote the first six pages which is essentially the setup and absolutely fell in love with it right before I was getting to the good part. Then I had to put it on hold to finish these edits, so coming back is weirdly intimidating. I have to make sure that lightning didn’t escape the bottle.

After that, it’s beginning work on the Altered Egos sequel. A couple weeks ago I decided that instead of starting a new IP I was going to pour my energies into Altered Egos and subsequent books pretty much going against everything I’ve always said about my writing career. I didn’t want to waste time writing books that no one will read. But that’s because I was thinking of only the traditional model. I’ve really come around to the idea of publishing my own series and so far the world I think best fits this model for me is Altered Egos. That and I’ve been dying to get back to those characters 🙂

I’ve had a lot of fun with Fairfax Cleaners, but before I expand that universe — and I totally plan to, I already know what the next couple of books are going to be — I’d much rather play with my supheroes and villains first. Altered Egos is nearer and dearer to my heart, so my new plan is to write those sequels and then self-publish that series.

The real trick is to fill this time with work.  I don’t do waiting so well, especially when it comes to waiting for beta readers to get back to me. But like a fish or a cat, I guess, I’m putting the shiniest of shiny things in front of me to distract myself as I wait around. If I’m really lucky, I’ll turn those time-killing exercises into some real progress.

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!

Crisis on Multiple Dans

I’ve been on vacation that last two weeks with the family. There was plenty of rest and relaxation. Also some stress and aggravation from trying to herd three small children to “HAVE FUN”. And driving. Lots of driving. So many car arguments.

My lowest moments? I transformed into a capital “D” Dad on this trip and had to say dad things like “I’m turning this car around and we’re going home!” and “Now NOBODY gets a movie!”. It’s awful. My kids turned me into a monster. But aside from that, it was a pretty fun trip. We went out east to visit my parents for a week and then drove south to surprise the kiddos with a secret Disney World trip the following week. So it was kind of eventful.

Two weeks away also meant two weeks away from writing. And in those two weeks I received a couple more rejection letters.  You’re never going to make it as a writer if you can’t handle rejection and boy have I gotten some letters over the years, but these two hit kind of hard. They were some final nails in the coffin of a particular work and I was realizing that it just wasn’t going to sell.

So in the midst of the Florida sun and Disney World I was also experiencing an existential crisis of what to do with my career.

I’ve always had this dilemma of striving for traditional publishing versus self-publishing. There are good reasons to go either way. Bad ones and pitfalls too. Even more than that, I’ve written seven novels now over the course of seven years and the last four books I’d say have had somewhat open endings or at least room for a sequel but I’ve never written any followups.

The life cycle of my books tend to go something like this: outlining and writing the first draft takes a couple months. Then polishing and editing takes the second half of the year. Usually while it’s taking me a year to write one book, I spend that entire year pitching and querying the last book. Once the new book is ready, I rotate the old one out, start pitching the new, and start writing something else. Thus the cycle continues.

My way of thinking was why write a sequel to a book that no one will read. Well, a lot of self-publishing thrives on series. Even my own Fairfax Cleaners I’ve envisioned to be a Hidden City series. I was going to hold off and publish those intermittently with other works. At least that was the idea, but down in the Florida sun I’ve come to a new decision. I do want to write a series, but while I love Fairfax Cleaners, Altered Egos is nearer and dearer to my heart. I’m going to finish editing my current manuscript and then I’m just going to dive into the Altered Egos sequel. I’m not going to lean into self-publishing anymore, I’m going all in. I mean, I wanted to write a series anyway so why not? What’s stopping me?

I’ve come full circle on this. I originally get into novel writing because I wanted to write comic books and got tired of convincing other people to draw stories for me. With that notion, if I love something and think its worth reading, well then maybe I should do it myself again and get it out there.

The writing industry is about the market, but the writing art is about passion. And right now I’m passionate about writing about a supervillain protagonist in a world of superheroes so that’s what I’m going to do. If I think these stories are worth reading, then there’s probably a couple people out there like me who’d appreciate them as well.

6/24/19 Check In

Wow it’s been two weeks since my last post! Time’s been flying by. I try to get something out every Monday, but I’ve just been so darned busy lately. A smarter me would have a bunch of these posts written up in advance and then have them scheduled to come out for instances such as these, but I haven’t had the time to write one post let alone some for a backlog.

Some general updates:

I’m 1/3 of the way through my last draft of Land of Sky and Blood before I release it to my beta readers. It’s always equal parts exciting and nerve wracking when I turn my work over to other people. It’s not that I can’t handle the critiques, I’m just impatient. After working on something for so long I want to know what people think about it now, not two months from now. But I guess other people are busy too or something …

You can never have enough beta readers, so if you’re interested in being one of mine and you like Asian inspired epic fantasy, hit me up!

I finished The Prince of Shadow and … yeah, I’m glad it’s over. After so much build up and the main character, Llesho being carried through the narrative, I was expecting, I don’t know … more? The end has what I guess is a final twist, but it happens so quickly and almost out of left field that it’s hard to be excited. It was more of a “Huh. I guess that happened” kind of a moment. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll read the sequel, but right now, it’s just not going to happen.

My current read is Whisper of Shadow and Steel. I grew up playing and loving the Legend of the Five Rings card game. All of my Asian fantasy reading was getting me back in the spirit to find the old Clan books to read them again, but seeing as how they’re based on a role playing game whose rules have become outdated, I wasn’t that surprised to discover that they didn’t exist in a digital format.

That said, a few new ones do, though. Whisper of Shadow and Steel came out last year for crying out loud and I had no idea! Anyway, I’m already halfway through it – it’s pretty short- and it’s like going home again. Once a Scorpion, always a Scorpion.

Also, my book Fairfax Cleaners will be going on sale for the low, low price of a dollar the whole month of July! If you were ever curious to read some urban fantasy in Chicago that has nothing to do with wizards, now’s your chance!

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.