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.

Covid Catchup

So I’ve been working on a new manuscript again and boy I’ve got to tell you, it feels great! I’d been banging away at what should have been a short story, but was becoming a novella for a while but I let that project peter out. I’m not the best short story writer so I tend to work on those when the inspiration strikes. The last one I wrote I started awhile ago, got about third of the way through, put it aside for over a year, and came back and finished it. To this day, I think it’s the greatest piece of fiction I’ve ever written. Shelving a short story for a bit doesn’t bother me. Abandoning a novel? Now, that’s another story.

That’s why I tend to get tunnel vision when I start a new manuscript. I need the brainstorming, prewriting, outlining, and finally the first draft itself to all kind of fall into place. The ones I’ve struggled with the most are the projects I’ve rushed. I finished this outline a few months ago, sat on it while we moved houses, but now I’m up and running … well, writing … Three chapters in and I’m loving the work again.

When I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. If I can’t practice the craft, then I at least try and keep my mind sharp. Most books were read for enjoyment, but even so, it’s hard not to analyze the style and structure. Once you’ve peered beyond the Matrix Code, I can still appreciate the lady in the red dress, but I’m also looking at the 1s and 0s.

So here’s what I’ve been reading since last post:

Unsouled – by Will Wight – I came across this book on a reddit thread and I didn’t realize how popular it was until after I’d read it. I thought the writing is pretty rough around the edges, but the story itself is awesome. Maybe it’ll get more polished in later books as Wight writes more. You know when they tell you nobody reads for plot, they read for character? That’s maybe 90% true. The character in this book is likeable enough, but man what kept me going was more of that sweet, sweet worldbuilding.

The Meiji Restoration – by W.G. Beasley – Doing some light reading for a future novel. I was looking for a good background on this period in Japan’s history and this book is apparently the best place to start. Make no mistake, it’s pretty much a text book, but it’s so detailed and covers all the major angles. Really fascinating and accessible.

The Curse of Chalion – by Lois McMaster Bujold – Another one that comes highly recommended, but I’ve got to tell you, I don’t get it. Something about the beginning grabbed me. Not like a hook, but more like a warm blanket. It lulled me into wanting to read more and I did. But then … nothing happens. For many, many pages. I guess if you’re into the day to day of fantasy court life then this could totally be your jam. For me, I had to call it quits halfway through.

Steel Crow Saga – by Paul Kreuger – Speaking of nothing happening … hoo boy! Again, strong start with some solid worldbuilding but then its just chapters and chapters of characters walking and talking. Characters who I don’t like. At all. I find their smarmy, smugness, frustration, and resentment completely uninteresting. They make sense for their backstories, but they don’t move on quick enough. I don’t need a 180, but there weren’t enough little character moments for me to see growth of any kind. This one I happily put down halfway through.

Emperor of the Eight Islands – by Lian Hearn – The funny thing about this one is that I actually had a preview copy of the first couple of chapters that I picked up ages ago at a World Fantasy Convention because I thought it looked cool. Forgot about it and never read it. Fast forward a few years later and here we are. It wasn’t bad. I liked Hearn’s Heaven’s Net is Wide and Across the Nightingale Floor enough. I’m glad the story in EotEI didn’t drag out because every character was pretty much miserable all the time and I just couldn’t handle that for a thousand pages. There were some good moments, but I’m not really in a rush to read book 2 yet. It doesn’t mean it’s off my radar, but I have a lot to read between now and then.

Shadows of Innistrad and Eldritch Moon collected stories – by miscellaneous authors – I’m a huge fan of Magic: The Gathering and those of who you know what I’m talking about, my all-time favorite plane is Innistrad. I just love it. I run a D&D game in that setting and even have the MTG artbook for the original set. The collector in me will one day collect a copy of each card from that set too. Why? Why not. Anyway, I’ve long since had a passing interest in the greater story behind MTG and discovered these collections of bundled stories that were originally released on their blog. Reading it now like two complete novellas was pretty cool. With different authors and characters, some stories were better than others. My big takeaway though? Tamiyo is awesome. And not just because I’m one of those people who have nostalgic fondness for Kamigawa.

The Black Prism – by Brent Weeks – What I’m reading now. I’m digging the short chapters that really keep the story moving. Though that beginning is a textbook example of fantasy jargon. I’m a fantasy writer and there were times I had a hard time following, but I tend to trust the author and the reading experience. I’ll sit back and let it all soak in. So far I’m enjoying it.

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.

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 4

We’re in the home stretch! I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday, so I had to make up for it today. I’m now exactly on track to finish by November 30th. I plan to front load my word count over the next couple of days though because…

  1. I don’t want it hanging over my head
  2. I doubt I’ll get much writing done around Thanksgiving.

Not having a chance to write yesterday means I missed out on both my 14 day in a row and my 21 day in a row badges. Honestly, I think the 21 one might have been shot anyway, but 14 was doable. Oh well. I know the badges don’t really mean anything, but I’ve played enough video games in the last ten years to be a fan of achievements.

I’d say I’m a fan for the new NaNoWriMo site and its features. My biggest critique and feature it is sorely lacking in my opinion is that right now you can’t retroactively add to your word count. Say, I did write yesterday but forgot to enter it. Right now there’s no way to do so and tag it for the correct date. It’s all day of input. I assume that’s something they’ll iron out once everything calms down because it seems like a massive UI oversight to me.

Anyway, hope you’re all doing well and we can get back to much longer, more meaningful posts once this is all through.

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!

Running the Numbers

Not going to be a big post this week. NaNoWriMo is this Friday and I’m getting into the headspace to take a fifty thousand word bite out of Partners in Crime. It’s madness, I know.

I love taking part in this community event and I’m looking forward to it more this year because we’re not going anywhere for Thanksgiving. You might not think that’s a big deal, but it’s hard to write 1700 word a day as it is. Maybe you have have little kids at home like I do and don’t always get to write on the weekend. OK, that means instead of 1700 words a day, I’m looking at around 2,380 words every week day instead. A little harder, sure, but not impossible. Now, factor in a week of Thanksgiving vacation? Leaving for the holiday creates a 12,000 word deficit on top of the weekend issues.

So yeah, that Thanksgiving week can really make or break the event for me. Case in point, we visited family last year and I wasn’t able to finish the event and instead did my own in February. This year, I’m going to knock it out in November as intended.

The contest? Competition? Event … just wants you to crank out 50K words, but I give myself the following rules:

  1. All writing must be fiction. Blog posts do not count.
  2. There shall be no filler writing. All writing must create or advance a story in some way. Writing words for words’ sake is pointless.
  3. The fifty thousand words don’t have to be in the same manuscript. I’ll often write the bulk of them in the manuscript I’m working on but then write other flash pieces or short stories keep my creativity fresh. As long as I’m producing content, that’s okay.

That’s about it. I look forward to taking part and if you’re also doing the challenge, I’m always looking for more writing buddies. You can find me under dmelnick.

Happy writing, everyone!

Avoiding Writing is Making Me More Productive

I’m a firm believer that writer’s block isn’t necessarily someone’s inability to write, it’s more about an extenuating circumstance. For me, when I find that I just can’t move forward, it’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong with my story. My subconscious picks up that something is wrong (usually a worldbuilding or plot element), and only once the issue is ironed out, can I then proceed as normal.

The only other time I get blocked is if faced with a mental distraction that impedes my ability to focus. Good news or bad news. Stress. Whatever. But even so, I’m usually really good at just powering through. Even when I’m sick as a dog, I can usually suck it up enough to at least write a couple hundred words. Even if that’s the only work I do all day, I can then my reward myself by being taking the rest of the day off.

But then you get a day like to day …

I was up a lot last night with another sick kid and I just can’t do it. I’m exhausted and can barely focus on anything. What makes matters worse is that I’m currently writing a scene where my protagonist is exiting a storm drain, but I can’t picture what a a pump station looks like. The only two things that can hold me up are working in tandem and doing a heck of a job. During my drive to work this morning, I went through all of my usual prewriting steps but all I ended up doing was staring blankly at the road.

All morning I kept thinking I’d come back to writing. First I’ll just answer some emails or do some work on a project. Lunch has now rolled around and I’m no closer to starting. For every time I could sit down and start writing, I instead wind up working on something else. I may not be doing a lot of writing today, but I’m sure getting a lot of work done. Just like my subconscious brain knows when something is wrong with a story, it also knows that if I fill my day with useless stuff then I have no excuse not to write. But if I’m busy doing actual things of importance, well then I’m just busy.

Yeah, it’s a flimsy blanket, but it’s keep me warm all right?

In fact, I’m going to wrap up this post and then go edit a manuscript. Oh not the one I’m writing right now, a completely different one. Who knows? After that, maybe I’ll look up what a pumping station looks like.

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.

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.