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.

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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!

Head Case

I’d been doing some traveling lately and visiting family which has put me behind on both blogging and writing. Aside from some memories and a boat load of pictures of my kids, I didn’t come back empty handed. My sister-in-law is an awesome photographer who did me a huge favor and snapped me some snazzy head shots.

Headshot for Screens

Nice, Right? I mean just look at that handsome devil.

Okay, all joking aside all credit goes to my sister-in-law who clearly knows what she’s doing. I just sat around and tried not to look like an idiot. Smile more? Less? Serious face? I think I went through the gamut. The old train station also helped. I really like that background!

Anyway, got some time in the sun down south where my kids played with their cousins for a week. Physically, I’m exhausted from traveling — three little kids on airplanes will do that to you — but mentally, I’m all fired up. I’ve got some business stuff to take care of, a short story to finish, and of course editing Draft 2.

Draft 2 has been kicking my butt. It was always going to be rough in the beginning, but I also think it’s because I was trying to cram everything I’d missed in during that second pass. I’ve since come to realize that like anything I’ve ever written, it’s going to be a another dozen or so drafts until I’m finished, so it’s okay to let stuff go for next time. Fix what I catch and streamline those 165k words into a coherent story and then polish, polish, polish while I work out other details. You don’t carve a masterpiece in the second try. You chip away and smooth stuff until one day you’re just finished with it.

Seriously, coming at my problem like that has just freed me. I can’t wait to get through this current pass so I can hone in some more on the next one. Want another metaphor? It’s like zeroing in on a target. I could probably cut down on the overall number of drafts by slowing down, but I’m not sure my work would be as good.

I’d been taking a writing class these past couple months to polish my prose and something I’ve learned is that I like to do that final polishing in little isolated chunks. Take a few “completed” pages at a time and then make them better. I think I was trying to do too much too quickly before. I’m allowing myself the ability to let stuff go, flag it, and catch it later, being more deliberate with my choices. I think it’s going to make me a lot happier in the long run.

Full Stop

I write chronologically by nature. I always start at the beginning and work my way towards to the end. It makes me really uncomfortable to write scenes out of order. I don’t like going into a situation without knowing all the subtle nuances and decisions that got my characters to that point, so whatever I end up writing feels hollow to me. Even those big, shiny set pieces I know are going to be in there and I’m super excited about, I still can’t write them out of order. I’ll get there when I get there.

The only way I can write unconnected scenes is once I’ve finished the manuscript. With the story told, it’s much easier for me to see, “Oh, I’m missing this scene here,” or whatever, and then go back and write it. Doing it that way removes my earlier hang ups and it’s not much of a problem.

I bring all of this up because I ran into a brick wall in my current manuscript. There’s a particular battle that I’ve known about since the outlining phase. A small force has to win against insurmountable odds. I knew it was coming. I knew I should prepare for it. But Past Dan decided I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Past Dan is an idiot.

I have no idea what to do. It’s not exactly writer’s block because I know what needs to happen and the big turning points in the sequence. What I don’t know is how to bring those about in a logical manner. I mean, this rag tag group of heroes has to win, yes, but win in a believable way.

The diligent writer in me knows I won’t be getting my words in for the day while I sit and noodle this one out. That Dan wants me to pick a point after the battle and just continue since I know how it’s going to end anyway. But I just can’t. It feels wrong. I guess I can massage in continuity edits later, but it’s hard to get going. Unless I figure this out soon, I may not have a choice.

It’ll be an interesting exercise for me for sure if I just breeze past this pivotal scene. I know other writers who don’t have the reservations that I do and can write whatever scene they need in whatever order that strikes them. Not me, friends.

So maybe you can help me out. Besides a small group winning against a large one, how does said small group win if they’ve already given up the high ground? Seems impossible, right?

Now I’m mad at Past Dan for two reasons.

  1. Why didn’t he figure this out earlier?
  2. I control the narrative. Why are we even in this mess?

Oh well. Instead of my daily word count, I think it’s off to read some history forums and learn as much as I can about underdog battles. If any of you have any insight or advice, Present Dan is much more receptive than Past Dan. He’s all ears.

Slave to the Narrative

Ever hear about plots being on rails? Or maybe characters being a “slave to the narrative”? Those are both descriptive ways of explaining that the plot is the driving force of the book, overshadowing everything else. Things happen because the plot demands it, not necessarily because it feels natural to do so.

I’ve always known of the concept, but it never hit me as hard as it did now. I’d gotten some good advice from an agent about my manuscript Altered Egos and wanted to implement it into the most recent draft. In the book, my protagonist is a supervillain who’s freed from prison to stop a serial killer. Now there are plenty of things vying for his attention and trying to keep him under someone’s thumb, but I realized that I too fell prey to making him a slave to the plot.

I thought I’d covered my bases pretty well by having him always be scheming for ways out, but then I went back and reread scenes of him running head first into danger. I had to stop and ask myself why. Well, I knew why, because I needed him to blow up that mech or to save that guy for whatever reason. But would my protagonist really do that?

The short answer was yes. He needed to accomplish these tasks to further his own plans. The longer answer was yes, but he’d have reservations. I needed to do a better job of explaining that in the prose. I was missing the entire emotional piece of how he felt about the matter. I just had him moving about like a chess piece. Yeah, he’s an intellectual guy and I had him examining many of these situations from an intellectual angle but I don’t care who you are, if bullets are flying over your head and things are exploding left and right, you’re going to be on the verge of peeing your pants. But none of that was in there.

It made those scenes feel hollow. Here I had a protagonist with a strong character voice, but we never really got into his head. It wasn’t some parlor trick I was going for, it was just weak writing.

I’ve never been one of those authors who say their characters are dictating the story as they go along. I need an outline and I need to move my pieces around from Point A to Point B, but there are times I can do a better job of explaining how my characters feel about those elements. More often than not, readers are enticed by the plot, but they stay for the characters. It’s the emotional connection a reader forms with a protagonist that has a lasting effect, but they can’t form that emotional connection if the character doesn’t actually emote.

Glad I got that advice and caught it when I did.

Just a reminder that my book Fairfax Cleaners is for sale on all major e-retailers. And you can of course get a print on demand version from Amazon.

Fairfax Cleaners is Self Published!

I did it. I finally did it. I took control of my own writing career and self-published my first book.

It’s been something I’d been thinking about doing for a while now, but couldn’t bring myself to do because I’ve been so captivated by the traditional model. However ever since going through Fairfax Cleaners again for one final overhaul of the manuscript, I knew it would be the perfect candidate.

DanMelnick_FairfaxCleaners_eBookFrontCoverFINAL

Here’s the blurb:

Gus cleans up the bodies, he doesn’t make them. Keep the Hidden City hidden. That’s the job and deal he made with one of the fairy overlords of Chicago. It’s another day dismembering troll, when Gus discovers Maureen hiding out in the back of his van. His boss is hunting humans with tremendous magical potential and Maureen has already gotten away from them once.

Most people who catch the fairy’s interest typically wind up on the other end of Gus’s bone saw.  Gus knows he should turn her in, but can’t bring himself to do it. Even a man who hides the dead has a conscience. So he helps her escape, earning the wrath of the Hidden City: evil fairies, a rampaging werewolf, and a spirit assassin powered by vengeance. And that’s just the start of it. His boss has gone to a lot of trouble finding Maureen the first time and will do anything to get her back. There’s no way he’d both forgive Gus’s betrayal and let them escape the city alive.

It’s got some violence and a whole lot of language — if the cover didn’t tip you off. So if you’re sensitive to that, you now know.

The official launch day is May 7th, but you can preorder it now at the following links:

Kindle

Physical Copy (not available until launch day)

Kobo

Nook

iBooks

Smashwords

I’m definitely looking for reviews, so for those of you who have already read it and would like to talk about your experiences, I’d really appreciate it. If there is anyone out there who would be interested in a free copy in exchange for an honest review, please reach out and I’ll send one your way.

So what this whole process has taught me:

  1. Layouts take so much more work than I realized. I must have fiddled with different versions of the manuscript for hours every day for weeks to get them all in the proper format for the platform.
  2. Microsoft Word is so much more than a “type here” program. There is so much going on behind the curtain if you will, its staggering. Also, I’ve never loved Find and Replace more.
  3. A good cover is worth investing in. Let’s be honest, we really do judge a book by its cover. Or it at least makes us pick it up and give the book a chance. I’m super pleased with what Extended Imagery has cooked up for me.
  4. People read books in a lot of places. Going into this I thought if I hit Amazon and iBooks, I’d cover my bases but I couldn’t be more wrong. There are so many platforms out there. It’s great that people can choose the vehicle that works for them, but it means more work for me to generate reviews
  5. It’s really fun. I didn’t think I would enjoy this behind the scenes process so much, but I really do. I’m already working on the next manuscript I’ll be self-publishing.

Draft 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just have to get through Draft 2 first.

NaNoWriMo 2018

It’s November 12th, which means we’re in the thick of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. This is my third time participating? … engaging? … being a part of the event. If you’ve been reading my blog you know that it’s something I’ve both been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure.

For those of you who don’t know, the idea of the event is to write fifty thousand words during the month of November alone. For some, that’s no small feat. Other’s that’s just November. For me, I tend to write about a thousand words per day, so that’s a little up there for my daily word count. Things get especially dicey, thanks to Thanksgiving. I always lose days/words thanks to that bird and the vacation my family inevitably tends to take that week each year.

I’ve been seeing some critics of NaNoWriMo this year. People who question the validity of the challenge. Real writers write and don’t need a contest. That kind of thing. While I completely agree with them that you shouldn’t need an internet “holiday” to write your novel, nor should your novel only be fifty thousand words, but I like NaNo.

I’m sure it’s different things to different people, but to me it’s a challenge. It’s a way to test my writing mettle and see what I’m made of. It lets me feel like a professional writer for a month with deadlines hanging over my head and all the joy and anxiety that brings.

It’s also a community builder. I assume this is the primary reason most people like it too. Writing is a solitary activity. We often write alone, just you and the computer/notepad/whatever. Even co-writing things, you take turns. The most collaboration you can do is talk about the idea before or after, but still it always comes down to your implementation of the words on the blank page. My suspicion is that’s why we see so many people talking about writing. It’s one of the only ways to share your habit — this lovely hobby or profession — with other people in a meaningful way.

I never want to race through a novel in only 30 days or spit out words just to spit out words, but I like knowing that there are others out there in the struggle. Each pep talk, each motivating email, each mention of the event, really, is a nice reminder that I may be alone with my thoughts and my keyboard, but so are so many others. Will the content produced during November fill our shelves with decade’s worth of masterpieces? Hell no.

I’d honestly be shocked if just one thing written during NaNo was publishable, but that’s not the point. You need to write a million bad words before your first good one. Well, here’s a productive use of your time to get fifty thousand of them out of the way.

I’m using this year’s NaNo to carve a nice chunk out of my manuscript’s overall word count. I’ve been dabbling with some flash pieces as a change of pace to keep the ideas coming, but it’s a nice way of making some great headway towards the end of the book. Last year, I finished my manuscript halfway through November and sat around twiddling my thumbs. I don’t think that’ll be a problem this year.

So if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year like I am, don’t fret. Whatever your reasons for doing it, I think you’re awesome. Keep at it. Hit those daily goals. And happy writing!

[title]

Not to bury the lead here but I think my favorite writing technique is using brackets.

[  ] Those guys.

Writing itself is freeing because we can put whatever we want on the page. But brackets are even more so because they not only hold whatever I can imagine, but often, whatever I can’t!

I use brackets as placeholders.

Every time I’m writing dialog and know a character should be moving right now but I just can’t quite figure it out? [body language].

Every time I write a reference to a tertiary character who I haven’t named yet? [guy’s name].

Every time I’m writing and just can’t quite think of the word? [word].

Brackets are the best! I don’t lose momentum by stopping and thinking about how to fill them. I throw on some brackets to the thought and then come back later – often the time-consuming crushing edit that is draft number two – and buff them all out. The added benefit is that brackets are so distinctive, you can even do a Find and Replace if you’re only using them sparingly or for something specific such as “[guy’s name]”.

Brackets aren’t just good for lazy writing. They’re crucial for worldbuilding especially for science fiction and fantasy.

For instance, in my current manuscript, I’ve decided that only the emperor has an army. Makes sense, okay. Now there are eight houses/clans all in favor that make up the bulk of the kingdom, though. They’ll have some kind of military presence too to fight over border disputes and interhouse issues. I can’t call them armies, but I need to call them something.

So I decided that since the peace in the kingdom is kind of only in name only, they’ll each have their own military of some kind. Eight houses need eight names, though. I have maybe one of them figured out right now. I really don’t want to stop and think about this entire military structure when I’m in the middle of a scene that has nothing to do with it so instead, I put [defense force] or [sergeant] in as placeholders.

I don’t know what the final versions are going to be, but I will definitely build them by the end. When I sat down to do all my worldbuilding and prewriting work, I came up with as much as I thought I needed, but obviously things tend to arise organically. So rather than derail the entire manuscript, brackets come in as Band Aids until I develop some crucial missing worldbuilding.

Why didn’t I do all of that up front you might ask? Short answer is to avoid worldbuilder’s disease otherwise I’d always be building a world and never writing one. Long answer is that I didn’t know I needed them at the time.

These are the kinds of things you’re going to have to deal with in the marathon slog that can be a manuscript. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was just finish it. Finish the project. It’s never right the first time anyway so why kill yourself now? All of that can be fixed in post.

1 – 1 = 2

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

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

See the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try it out.