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.

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Maybe Your Darlings Aren’t Dead

There comes a point with every manuscript I’ve done where I feel like I’ve reached as far as I can go with it. Basically, it’s as good as it’s gonna get. I see it as both an acknowledgement of limitations on my part and my acceptance to move forward. I’ve done a dozen drafts, I’ve queried agents, I’ve done everything under the sun and there’s still no forward momentum on the thing. I come up against the wall and make a choice: Keep working on it or take everything I’ve learned and invest it in a new project. Thanks to the law of Diminishing returns, I always choose the latter.

This brings me to my next point.

There are these aha moments in every writer’s career where something just clicks. It’s like an audible ding when suddenly something just makes so much sense it’s insane how you didn’t see it before.

To put this in context, I’ve been working on how to crack the short story structure lately. I won’t say I’m anywhere good at short stories yet. There’s a lot about them mechanics-wise that I just don’t know. I tend to write long form. So I’ve made more of an effort to see the differences in approach.

My main takeaway so far – which might seem obvious to your short story writers out there – is that the central conflict in short stories tends to be an internal one rather than an external one.

On top of that, I was recently watching a film critique on Disney’s Hercules. I know. Topical, right? But the reviewer was talking about the differences between what a hero wants versus what a hero needs in order to make a story work. I’ve seen this method a few times now, but maybe it was because I was finally looking inward, but something just clicked.

I suddenly knew what was wrong with my main protagonist in my previous novel, The Red Door. I love that book and I’ve been on the fence a while now if I want to self-publish it or just rewrite it one day so it’s on my mind from time to time, but this perfect storm of study gave me the answer to a fundamental flaw with the work that I wasn’t sure I even noticed the first time around.

My effort to go back to correct it requires a complete reread. It stems from a character motivation thing so there’s lots of little details that need massaging. Anyway, I figure I’ll also trim it down some more while I’m at it if possible. It clocked in at a hefty 134K words when I was querying and then I fought tooth and nail to get it down to 130K to meet an open novel submission. Keep in mind that I thought it was a lean as it could possibly get.

Imagine my surprise that not only am I fixing this subtle, yet colossal problem, but I’m trimming this baby down with a hedge trimmer. I’ve cut an easy 1400 words out of the first two chapters alone and the word count just keeps on dropping.

I’m astonished but it also made me realize something. I really had taken the novel as far as I could have at the time. Pass number 151 wouldn’t have been much different than pass number 37. There was only so much I could do with it at my current experience level. I needed to grow and evolve, and level up as a writer. I thought the last draft was as good as it was going to get, but I’ve never been happier to have been more wrong. I like this version so much better. I’ve made a bet with myself to see how much of it I can trim off by the end. I’m hoping for at least another 10K words – words that I thought were so indispensable before – to really get to the meat of the story.

Sometimes we get bogged down with worldbuilding or our own prose or even just or own limitations. Some works may live in the trunk forever as killed darlings, but maybe, just maybe some of them are worth resuscitating every now and again.

To Do or Not to Do

Things have been a bit busy lately. So while I’ve (mostly) kicked this cold, it seems to be tormenting my wife on a recurring basis. On top of that, she and I have begun a rotating schedule of crazy days. Last week, I had a couple 12 hour days back to back and this week, its her turn. And as the only parent home with twins, your attention is pretty much just focused on them and nothing else.

And because of all of this, work has become sort of condensed. Or just dense. Lots to do all the time. I was out Monday with my kids and I’ll be out again Friday traveling for a friend’s wedding, making my remaining free time all the denser.

I’ve found that I need the occasional to-do list of tasks or things to accomplish, but I only ever seem to work from the bottom up. The newest stuff is checked off pretty quickly and the stuff near the top tends to sit there. Hence why my first line on today’s list is and has been “blog” for about a week and a half now.

But with all these things I have to do vying for my attention, let’s talk about things I want to do …

I’m still pitching The Red Door. It’s hard not to get discouraged at times, but I keep myself motivated by only querying maybe three people at a time. I don’t always wait a full 8 weeks or whatever to try again – maybe only 2 – but I do try and keep the numbers small. My reasoning being that with every pass, I go back and revisit the pitch. I’ve tweaked the letter and opening couple pages a bunch now to make them as strong as possible. Obviously, this is a subjective business, so I’d like my work to speak for itself and I’d hate to be the one getting in my own way with a bad pitch.

Blame my career services day job, but I see this kind of thing all the time. Great candidates sometimes have terrible resumes and cover letters. Employers will never know how great they are until these documents get cleaned up and the applicant gets out of his or her own way. It’s not them who aren’t working, it’s their approach. I try and do the same.

As far as distractions go, I’m still working my way through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild again. I could beat it at any time, but I’m getting all the shrines now. I’m up to 91 or something. I’m basically just twiddling my thumbs and turning my brain off until the next game. Having a console-quality experience in my work bag is the best brain brake ever. I used to think that my PS4 was my favorite guilty pleasure, but hands down, its the Switch.

Vignettes

Inspiration is real. Waiting for inspiration is BS. By slogging through the trenches, I’m back on board the Altered Egos train and genuinely look forward to working on it again every day. There are two metaphors in that sentence.

I’ve worn a tie so much at work these days that my son says, “Daddy, no tie,” on a near daily basis. It’s not that he doesn’t like ties, he knows that I’ve been against them lately and he’s super supportive.

My daughter has developed a second joke. Her first one was telling me, “poopy diaper,” when she definitely didn’t have a poopy diaper. Now, she’ll sit on this plastic fish while in the bathtub, look me dead in the eye and say, “fish on the butt!” and then devolve into a giggling fit. I’m psyched that she’s telling jokes. She didn’t get the toilet humor from me, though. It’s all high brow over here.

I keep querying agents hoping for a bite. I try and pitch maybe two or three every couple of weeks. Way I see it, if my query is bad, then instead of cutting all my chances at the same time, I’m doling it out piece by piece. Granted, that means its taking a while. But I’m not ready to put The Red Door to bed yet anyway.

While I’d rather work with an editor and a publisher, Plan B is to self publish. I’ve written five novels by now – two of which are what I consider to be publishable – but I’m waiting until I have three before I hit the self publish button. I figure that three novels of three different styles will be a good starting point and I’ll go from there. Spaghetti on the wall, that’s my approach. Throw enough and something’ll stick.

I’ve been working D&D back into my life, playing with a group about once a month or so. I’m DMing, but I’d much rather play. But since I’m the one making it work the most, I’ll take DMing as a small price to just be rolling D20s again. I’ve looking into joining an online group that meets more frequently and while that sounds great in theory, the twins don’t allow me much free time. The only reason I’m even playing D&D now is because I’ve somehow convinced my wife to play too. She either really loves me or feels really sorry for me. A bit of both?

Right now, we’re watching the days go by, more or less. We were coming to terms with our current family dynamic and thought that was going to be it. But life, uh, finds a way. That cat’s out of the bag, internet. Come March, the kids will be outnumbering the adults at our house.

Hurry Up and Wait

I feel like I need to learn how to write short stories. I don’t quite have their structure down yet. I don’t write them very often. My last one, I’m still working on it off and on figuring out story beats for almost a year now. And the one before that became my novel, The Red Door.

Sure its nice to create more content and I can always put them up on the site or try and sell them, but really, I like short stories for the following two reasons:

1.) When I was killing myself with NaNoWriMo last year and cranking out words, there were definitely days it went beyond pulling teeth to drilling down into the gums. I wasn’t starting a project from scratch, but instead dove into TRD and tried to hit 50k words that month in the process. Even working from an outline, things got tiring some days, so I ended up writing a short story Chi Town Swing in E Flat — That’s the one I’m still figuring out.

Anyway, I’d write TRD in the mornings and work on Swing in the afternoons. It served as a nice palette cleanser and kept me motivated. I know that sounds odd as someone who admitted to not liking to split his focus, but it worked for this occasion. Because the second project was so small, maybe?

So with Altered Egos not even halfway finished, I think I like the idea of a secondary distraction to keep those writing juices flowing.

2.) I’m getting an onslaught of new ideas lately. I’m writing them all down and slowing cooking those kernel, but I can easily see some of them turning into a short story and I don’t want to ignore them or lose my passion for the premise.

We combine points 1 and 2 and we’ve got a pretty solid desire to write short stories.

I know you’re thinking, so just do it already, Dan. And I probably will. I think what you’re seeing here is the result of an early (definitely not mid)-life-writing crisis. I made peace with the fact that Fairfax Cleaners wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. It doesn’t mean its dead, it’s just resting. That was probably because I liked The Red Door so much. Well, now The Red Door is making the rounds and I’m just waiting. I don’t like waiting and I don’t like things hanging over my head.

Burying myself in projects sounds like a good distraction but also has some tangible payoff. Even diving deep into Altered Egos isn’t cutting it because I’m still only halfway finished. Working so hard on TRD only to his a wall like this has infused me with a restlessness that I just don’t like.

Look, I write for me. End of the day, I’m my biggest fan and I’m telling stories that I enjoy. That said, it wouldn’t be so bad for someone else to tell me they enjoy those stories too, right?

Wrench in the Machine

I’m in the process of writing my sixth novel right now. I’d like to think that with every one of them, I try new things and I learn something every time. This time around, I gave myself a dose of what being a “professional writer” must feel like. Notice I put that in quotes, that’s not to say it wasn’t professional, but more that there’s no single model of what being a professional writer looks like.

After wrapping up my first round of edits on The Red Door, I sent it off to my beta readers which has become my usual practice. I figured I’d have a couple of months before I got anything back. This makes for an equally exciting and terrifying time. Picture it if you will, you spend how long —  Four? Six? — months working on a project you care deeply about and then you hand it off to others, eager to hear what they think about it. It makes me anxious and antsy and other words that start with A. Agitated? I wanted to hear their thoughts now. I didn’t want to wait two months twiddling my thumbs.

I needed something to do. So I gave myself a new project. Enter my next novel, Altered Egos.

Now, I had a pretty good idea Altered Egos would be next on the plate anyway, but I’ve only ever worked on one novel at a time. Purely to distract myself and to keep myself working, I dove right on in with an outline and started writing it in the hiatus. I got about 30k words in before I got all the feedback for The Red Door.

Now, my original plan was to work on both at once. That’s the responsible writer thing to do. But seeing as I’m not working with a publisher (yet, hopefully) I soon realized that the time spent not editing The Red Door meant time longer before I had a finished project. So I switched gears and diverted all focus back to The Red Door to crank it out for querying.

That’s been finished for about a month now and I’m back into working solely on Altered Egos. The problem, my friends? It is a struggle. It’s not just a motivation thing. I’ve long learned that you can’t write only when you’re motivated. Writing is a job. Flexing muscles. You know the metaphor. The works. This is something deeper. As much as I try and remind myself what excited me about the project in the first place, I can’t help daydreaming about The Red Door. It’s out there in the ether. I think the Schrodinger’s cat-nature is what’s killing me. It’s hard to care for a new baby when my other one is out there in the wilds, alone.

So I hit my daily word counts as planned, but I’m working on ways to trick myself back into this new project. It distracted me once, it can do so again. I  just need to fall in love with it all over again. Easy, right?

In the mean time, I’ve added a link to Fate Stitcher over on my Comics page where you can download the entire graphic novel. Free. That’s essentially seven issues of my first baby. All free. I hope you like it.

Let me know what you think and if you have any advice about switching gears and staying invested, I’m all ears!