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 4

Since my personal National Novel Writing Month ended yesterday, I thought I’d just wait the two days before posting my final update.

I did it!

Fifty thousand words in thirty days. What a ride. Honestly, it feels stupendous.

I’ve successfully completed NaNoWriMo once before. But it’s been a couple years since then. Last year I ran out of book and this year I ran out of writing time. So I honestly wasn’t sure if it was going to happen.

The thing I’m most pleased with is that I’m so close to the end of the manuscript now that I can taste it. I just need to get everyone out of danger and hit that juicy denouement and I’m home free. I’ve said it before, but this novel is taking so much longer than I expected to write. I’ve never looked forward to the editing process more, but that’s for later.

Okay, so some takeaways:

First, WriteTrack is awesome! I’ve never been someone who needed the external motivation to write. If you want to be a writer, then write. I love writing. I’m honestly miserable when I don’t write. That said, there’s something fun about watching bar graphs go up. But if you do need that external motivation or something to keep you honest, this is it.

Second, fifty thousand words is hard to do on the fly. I have an outline, sure, but every time I sit down I need to have done some mental prewriting first. And since I have a full time job, I never had a chance to sit down and crank out three thousand words all at once. On the days where I created some padding for myself, that usually meant sitting down in three smaller chunks to reach the total. Because I need all that prewriting, it pretty much meant I was eating and breathing my novel for the past month as I was always thinking about it. That’s pretty great. I feel more in tuned with the world and characters than ever before.

Third, its great to have goals. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Even then, what’s your mark of success? The completed manuscript? Getting an agent? Getting it published (traditional or otherwise)? So having something like this challenge definitely spiced up the day to day, so even though I’ve finished, I can’t break the habit of recording my daily word count in a spreadsheet. I did that very thing this morning.

So there you have it. It wasn’t the easiest thing, but it was totally doable.

Great time. Would do again.

Rubber band

I just got back from the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to attend, it’s largely a series of in-depth panels carried out over the course of a couple days. I like to think about it as more theory crafting as opposed to word crafting. It’s a great place for authors, fans, editors, and reviewers to all intermingle and talk about books and the industry we love. Oh, and the occasional agent shows up there too from time to time.

Anyway, I always come out fresh with ideas, brain going a mile a minute. In one panel we talked about monsters and another the role of ports in fantasy settings. So, there’s a pretty broad range there.

So many kernels of stories and characters tend to start bouncing around my brain after each one. I’ve actually written a number of short stories based on ideas from these panels and included many elements into manuscripts I’ve been working on at the time. This was my third WFC so I considered myself old guard by now.

As you can imagine in a convention about writing, tropes are often brought up from panel to panel. More importantly, the inversion of tropes and the tropes to avoid at all cost get brought up a lot. So while I’m buzzing with excitement, I’m also shaking with anxiety. For every idea I want to write, I feel like someone somewhere has some warning of what I should avoid if I go down that route. It becomes a balancing act of trying to do what I want, but then try and make it fresh, while also appealing to the publishing industry at large. So it’s like do what I want, but then don’t do what I want. That’s pretty much the crux of the whole industry, right?

Well, what I decided by the end was that I was worrying too much. Why limit myself at the idea stage already? I’m a career coach by day and I often get students coming to me who’ve cut themselves off from options for whatever reason, usually out of fear of failure. I always tell them to just apply and see what happens. Let the universe give you your choices and then figure out the best path. When those choices are limitless, of course its overwhelming. But say you’ve applied to 20 jobs and 3 of them get back to you for interviews, well then you’re potentially choosing between 1 and 3 as opposed to 1 and 20. That’s much more manageable. I really need to take my own advice.

So yes, there are tropes and characteristics I should avoid if I want my work to stand out, but ultimately, I want to write something I’m excited about. Yes, I want others to like it, but I’m my first reader. If I don’t like it, why would someone else?

I’m going to let those kernels percolate for a while. They’re definitely over the fire. I know my next book is in there somewhere. How about I just apply a little elbow grease to all of those ideas to see what works and then go back and figure out how to make it fresh?

Boy that sounds like a great idea. I wonder who thought of that. He sounds like a pretty smart guy.

[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.

Worldbuilding at Work

I’ve recently come back to my idea about a mystery beneath the sea. The main reason I abandoned the concept is that the more I untangled the knot I’d given myself, the less I liked the answers. I was interested in the deep. The mystery. An alien environment. The claustrophobic dark.

But I ended up with a spaceship and UFO conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those things are awesome, they’re just not what I wanted to write about.

So, I’ve come back.

The problem before is that I had to invent technology to make it work. So the further I got in explaining things, the deeper into science fiction it ended up. I like Sci-Fi. I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But there was a reason why I wanted my story to take place on our planet.

The more stuff I had to make up to explain what I wanted to tell, the further I got from the kind of realism I wanted to tell. If it got too techy, then the deep, dark ocean lost some of its charm. I wanted it to remain this alien landscape of its own. Yes, I know what I said above about being on OUR planet, but you know what I mean. These were some of the original drawing points.

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

I started with the image of a brass-helmeted deep sea diver. What is that world like? When were those in use?

A little investigating gave me a date range. I then set a date post WWI. This limits my technology but not the sense of wonder.

It’s like have you ever seen the movie The Shape of Water? So minor, minor spoiler, but the only explanation for the fishman is that he was found during some guy’s trip in the Amazon. Okay, similar time period to WWI and for some reason that explanation totally works in that context. The viewer knows no such creature existed in the Amazon then or now, but we allow it. There’s room for wonder and imagination. Now if a movie today tried to pull that off, we’d all be like “yeah right!” That’s because we know so much more of the world now.

In my head I call this “Indiana Jonesing” it. You make the story a little more dated and you can pretty much claim whatever you want. Artifact? Secret society? Fishman? Sure. Roll with it. We romanticize the past anyway, let’s fantasize it too.

Back to my point: Using the WWI backdrop gives me what I want. My diving imagery, technological limitations, and wiggle room to include some fantastic elements.

I don’t have a plot yet, but I’ve come up with a couple of characters. Someone’s got to do that diving. Maybe a grizzled frogman suffering PTSD from the war? How about a trauma surgeon too? Who knows? There’s so much material now to mine for content. It’s exciting to be working on it again.

I still don’t have a plot or many of the details, but it doesn’t matter. Those ideas will come.

The point is, this is an exercise anyone can do for story generation. All it takes is a single image or feeling. Start unpacking that image. Explore it. Mine it.

It can get overwhelming trying to come up with characters, a setting, and relevant plot details all at the same time. Oh, and it’s also probably impossible too. So don’t bother!

Find something you love and follow the threads once you start unravelling it. You’ll soon see that it’s not a sweater at all, but more of a spider web. Okay, I’m losing the metaphor here, but I think you see where I’m going with this.

The beauty of writing is that yes we put words on a page, but we need to tell stories to do that. Coming up with a new story is half the fun. I’ve got this one cooking now next to half a dozen others. Something will hatch and let me know when it’s finished (more mixed metaphors).

If not, I’ll just keep following those threads to a new one.

Honorifics

I’m writing an eastern inspired fantasy novel right now and I’ve run head first into a lack of honorifics. I don’t want to use the typical Lord and Lady stuff. I want it unique to my world. But what I’ve come up with on the fly is getting muddled. So, here’s some of that public “workshopping” in action I talked about oh so long ago and a peek inside my head.

The magic system in this book is based on tattoos made from the blood of spirits that grant the bearer special abilities. Out of context that sounds kind of bonkers, but roll with me here, people.

There’s also a clan system which I am calling “houses.” Although, the more I think about that, the less I like it. But that’s its own thing …

Anyway, we have houses made up of what would be the royal families. I’m calling them the Kin. The next sphere out, so these are the people who marry in, retainers, etc. are called the Kith. Now I need something for servants/helpers/etc.

I ALSO need honorifics/ something for the way the serving class refers to the higher class:

“Your Kinship?”

“Lady-Kin?”

See, that just sounds weird?

I suppose that if the royals have the most and best tattoos then that could be the modifier. Since this all comes back to blood, I immediately vetoed referring to the more powerful people in the kingdom as the “Blooded ones”. It sounds cool at first, but Lady of the Blood kind of evokes menstruation, right? Nothing wrong with that, but my book isn’t about it and I don’t want to mix metaphors and end up muddling things further.

So, maybe art is the way to go.

“Yes, Painted One.”

“It shall be so, Marked One.”

“As you command, Illustratedness.”

I think art is working here. I still don’t really know what to call the servants other than servants. I think “Painted One” has a nice ring to it. Now all I have to do is find a way to make “Illustratedness” less of a mouthful.

The Prophet

My brother got the flash fiction group back together. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but I thought you might be interested what I come up with. Every time I crank out a piece, I’ll make sure to post it. Enjoy!

The Prophet

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Dr. Sam Marsters rubbed his thumb over the tiny statue. The stone was smooth to the touch having been handled for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. The little figurine had been gradually ground down over countless gentle touches. With just the faintest traces of a willowy beard and an overly elongated head, it barely looked human anymore. “This is the second one this week,” Sam said.

“Now that we know what we’re looking for, they’re popping up all over the place.” Caleb checked the inventory list. “Kosovo, Papua New Guinea, Marseille, hell, even Baltimore. Climate … religion … doesn’t matter. Ever since the university started offering rewards for acquisitions, it’s been like a fire sale.”

“Thank God for benefactors, I guess.”

The office was cramped. Documents and catalogs were everywhere. Sam, leaned back, his leather chair squeaking while Caleb moved a stack of reports off the only other chair and took a seat opposite the desk. The cord of the ceiling fan clinked with the rotation.

Caleb shrugged. “Plenty of fake ones too. Who would’ve thought there’d be so many out there?”

“I think that’s the point.” Sam put the figurine down and massaged his eyes. Christ, he was tired. Bone tired. The weariness that settles into your marrow making you heavier than cement-tired. “I’m still having the dreams.”

“Me too,” Caleb said, softly.

“I’m sure most of the planet is by now.” Sam gestured toward the impressive inventory list. “Always the same thing too. Darkness. Pressure. Something’s coming. Something big.”

“They haven’t ruled out some kind of psychological warfare,” Caleb said.

Sam scowled. “This isn’t the War.” He snorted. “Please. You and I both know it’s more than that.”

Caleb was one of the calmer grad students, but even he was getting frayed around the edges. “Well then what?”

Sam crossed his arms. “There’s an intelligence, can’t you feel it? In the design, sure, but in the application too. Every time I see that black place, I can’t help but feel like something’s staring at me from the other side. This lurking presence just looking at me like it’s waiting to come through. Every time I think I’m getting close, like I’m about to see what’s in there, the dream shifts to the figurine-thing.”

“The Prophet figures. But that would mean whatever this thing is, it’s been trying to get our attention for a long time.” He looked to the bearded figurine sitting on the desk. “Some of those carvings are ancient.” The ceiling fan did little to relieve the heat or the humidity, but still Caleb shuddered. “So the dreams … they’re its way of announcing the arrival? You realize what you’re saying, right?”

“That an extraterrestrial intelligence has invaded our dreams and is sending us a ‘save the date’? Yeah, I know how that sounds.”

There was a knock at the door. “Dr. Marsters?” Lydia poked her head inside. He waved her in. “Another package for you, sir.” She handed him an already open box. The ripped tape and loose packing material looked like the entrails of a carcass.

“Cairo,” Sam said, checking the return address. Caleb made a note on the inventory list.

His fingers probed the contents searching for the familiar form of another Prophet figurine, but they brushed against something flat. He pulled the object out, spilling shredded paper pieces everywhere. It was a piece of wall tile.

“They sent it up from downstairs,” Lydia said. “Thought you’d know what to do with it.” Her hands clasped in front of her, she waited for dismissal.

“What is it?” Caleb said.

Sam didn’t have the foggiest. The tile was old, that much was easy to tell. Probably like the figurine on his desk it could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years old. Hard to know without proper dating methods. It was painted, not carved. The style looked about right for what he knew was ancient Egyptian and …

The realization hit him like a kick to the gut. More sweat beaded on his brow. “Is this real?”

“That’s what they say.” Lydia shifted uncomfortably and checked a memo pad. “Let’s see … ah, here. Clay and paint composition put it somewhere around 2000 BC.”

“What’s wrong?” Caleb said. “Jesus man, you’re white as a ghost.”

“That’s all, Lydia.” Sam’s words sounded raspy even to his own ears. “Thank you.”

He waited until she’d closed the door behind her again and he was sure she’d be back at her desk before he flipped the tile over to show Caleb. There were many hieroglyphic markings he didn’t know, but the center image was obviously clear. Human shapes were kneeling, praying maybe, to something massive and humanoid with an overly elongated head. But instead of the beard, the figure’s mouth was a mass of writhing tentacles.

“Jesus,” Caleb said. “That’s …”

Sam’s hands tingled. He’d drop the tile if he wasn’t careful. “I don’t think it’s a ‘save the date’,” he said. “It’s not announcing its arrival, its announcing the return.”

Other Worlds Than These

Time has been in short supply these days, but I’ve usually managed to carve out some space for writing. I’m still coming up on the midpoint of the novel and damned if I’m not excited about it.

I don’t know why I’m so surprised at myself at how much I’m enjoying working on this book. Who would spend so much time writing something you didn’t want to, right? I think a large part of it is comparing this novel to my last one. The last book was a fantasy adventure story. It had some great kernels in there that really got me going in the beginning. When I go back and look at the worldbuilding, what at the time felt lush, I see now is really only half baked. There are a few things though: a magic system, a religion maybe, definitely some of the animals, that will show up in my later works. They’re just too cool not too.

The other novel was also the first time that I tried writing a book from multiple perspectives. That ended up being a mixed bag as more than half of them were on the same crew together. Oh right, yes, they were on a sailing ship looking for an ancient secret. When it’s laid out like that, it sounds kind of dull doesn’t it? Anyway, so there were only so many times when the crew would split up – usually fight scenes – that would require different viewpoints to tell the story. Other than that, they often had the same objective. I was just telling it from a different angle each time.

I spent a long time on that book. So much that a third of the way in I felt like I still wasn’t getting the characters right. I scrapped everything and started over. It only added to the overall time commitment. I’ve mentioned before that my rule of thumb is to hit 1k words a day. That’s a minimum as the story progresses. Well, as the book was drawing to a close, I was hitting my 1k, but it was broken up into 500 here, 500 there as I fluttered around it like a hummingbird. I couldn’t bring myself to crank out everything in one go. Whatever had drawn me into that world initially, I had lost by the end. What should have been an exciting build to a conclusion I’d spent months working toward was just some event I couldn’t get to fast enough.

“What happened to that novel?” you ask …

It’s sitting in a digital trunk somewhere. Normally, I dust it off again a few months later for some editing, but that one is still only the rough draft. One of these days I may go back and see what’s what but for now I have other things to do.

Do I regret it? No. There are some good ideas in there that I got to play with and will hopefully see again. I was disappointed for a while and felt like I had nothing to show for my efforts. I don’t make my living off of my writing so there’s only so much time in the day that I can devote to it. Every day that doesn’t produce results is a wasted opportunity. That said, I may not have a viable product with that old novel but it taught me a hell of a lot if only in lessons of what not to do. I’m definitely a stronger writer because of it.

We may yet see a future for Edison Pearce, Annika Draey and the crew of the Gallow’s Ticket, but for now, they were lessons in multiple viewpoints, characterization and running with what made sense over what the plot demanded. I wish them well on wherever their adventures take them and think of them often.