Update From the Cave

Hey all you cool cats and kittens … yes, like the rest of the planet I finally watched Tiger King … anyway, hey, it’s a blog post!

I’m still not as productive as I’d like to be, but I did finish the outline for my new book. I’ve put a pin in cranking out the three Altered Egos and spinoff books because I’m so unhappy with the sequel. So this story is something brand new. I don’t even know what I’m calling it yet.

The outline is finished, clocking in at 20 pages – that’s a lot for some people, not nearly enough for others – but sounds about right to me. I try and break the content down around story structure points and cut it up into what I think the chapters are going to look like. I’m not always accurate. I’m also terrible at judging the finished word count. I’d love if this was tight enough to be only 80 or 90 tops. I thought Land of Sky and Blood was going to be just over 100K and it came in at 167K so what do I know …

There are still a few spots in the outline that need attention. I don’t like to leave holes if I can help it. I’ll figure out a fight sequence when I get there, but if somebody has dirt to blackmail another character, say for instance, that’s kind of something I need to know up front.

While all that was getting fleshed out, I submitted a story to the Writers of the Future contest. I won’t give the name of what I wrote in case word gets out and a judge puts two and two together – it’s supposed to be a blind submission – so I don’t accidentally disqualify myself, but I’ll let you know how the whole thing turns out.

It did stoke my fires around short stories again, so that’s something. I’m not much of a short story writer. I have the hardest time coming up with a concept small enough for a short story, but rich enough to be interesting. That said, I think I’ve got another one cooking in the old brain pan. It needs more research. Particularly, YouTube research. I’m not above reading – I mean, come on – but it’s not like I can get a book from a library these days. OK, I can get an ebook I guess, but those rarely work for me because I’d rather read on my phone than a computer screen. I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but there are already too many extra steps now that the barrier of entry is getting pretty steep. So instead, I can read blog posts and articles, but I’ve found that a couple of YouTube videos helps with the background info so I know what questions I need to be asking later. It’s not like I can get a book about what life was like in a Shinto shrine. Or can I?

Hope you’re all happy and healthy!

What I’m Watching: Aside from Tiger King, my wife and I finally started watching the second season of Netflix’s Lost and Space reboot. It’s pretty great. We liked the first season a lot. Well the first third and the last third. The middle kind of dragged because they didn’t know what to do with Parker Posey’s character. They still kind of don’t, but this season has a larger story going on that’s pretty interesting. We’re really digging it so far. Something this show does really well in both seasons is throwing environmental problems at the characters. In fact, that’s most of what the show is and the answers are rarely straightforward. They can’t really kill anyone off because it’s a family show, but it’s still tense seeing what they’re going to put this poor family through next.

What I’m Reading: I just finished the Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I liked it a lot in the beginning. It was an intriguing concept, was kind of literary, and celebrated stories. I mean, what’s not to like? But then … well, then it kind of kept going. Not a lot really happens. January gets angry and upset and scared a lot. By the time the character growth comes, I was pretty much done with the book. My biggest complaint is that early on we’re told that the magic comes with a price. January even says as much. Except, for her it doesn’t. She seems to be the only one who gets to break all the rules and doesn’t suffer a single consequence.

I just started the Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann. I’m only in chapter 3. I mean, I’m still reading the free preview so I can’t really say much about it, but I like the premise and I think I like the characters. I’m always looking for books to fill the Shogun-sized hole in my heart so we’ll see.

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 Process

I typically experience some growing pains when I start a new project. I need to ease into it. “It” being both the habit of contributing daily words to a document and the ability to hold a new world and all its complexities in my head. I give myself a couple of weeks to get back into the swing of things, but with Partners in Crime, I was off to the races from day one. Getting back into the head and world of Elias, The Architect, supervillain extraordinaire of Altered Egos was like riding a bike. That’s saying something because I never learned how to ride a bike. Don’t look at me like that. I grew up on this steep hill with lots of woods all around. It was a whole thing.

Anyway, I guess this means I really “get” this character which is good, I suppose, since I fully intend on him leading a series. This is the first time in like eight years to have shifted my writing time table so much. I typically start a manuscript around June or July and take about four months to finish a book. Then I spend the rest of the year revising and polishing that book. By the time I’m happy with it, it’s next June or July and while I’m pitching the old one, I’m starting a new one. There was no real rhyme or reason as to why the summer was my go to start date. That just tended to be my writing habit and schedule time after time, creating a cycle. That all changed thanks to the size of Land of Blood and Sky.

Starting later in the year than usual means that I’m actively looking forward to NaNoWriMo this year. I relish the excuse to crank out 50k words in a month and put a sizable dent in the book. Now, I suppose, I could just do that now. I mean if you remember, I didn’t get a chance to really participate last year thanks to family obligations so I held my own NaNoWriMo in February. I could make my own again, starting today even, voluntarily sitting out NaNo, or do two back to back, but the idea of cranking out 100K words in sixty days … well, it doesn’t quite scare me, it’s more like just thinking about it is making me tired and I’m already exhausted thanks to little kid with the sniffles who didn’t sleep last night. I’d hate to burn out so quickly.

Besides, my brother wants to participate this year. He’s a writing appreciator and has dabbled with some stories over the year but doesn’t have the time to spare. A big part of NaNoWriMo is the community aspect, so it would be fun to have a writing buddy again.

So yeah, while the timing of Partners in Crime throws me, it’s actually a refreshing change of pace. I’m excited to be back in Basalt City and I’m eager to get into the manuscript so I can try this whole full time novel writing thing I’m attempting to do. My beta readers should have their notes of Land of Sky and Blood back to me by October and the goal is to not drop the ball on Partners in Crime while I edit LoSaB at the same time.

Normally I don’t ping pong back and forth like that between projects, I’m too eager to get one finished for pitching, but this time around I’m eager for the work. Change can be good.

And Done

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

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

So what’s next?

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

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

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

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

The Power of Editing

I’m only 410 pages into my 554 page manuscript. This is another polish round, so I’m reading it start to finish and cleaning things up as I find them. It’s faster moving than it was in the beginning, but I’m ready to be finished. The next round I can do some more surgical fixing followed by a line by line polish after that. At this point, I’m ready to get the manuscript in the hands of beta readers. I don’t want make it perfect if the whole thing needs to be reworked. What’s the point?

But all this gets me thinking just how much the story can change as its being edited. I don’t just mean rewriting and cleaning things up either.

So here’s a great example: I have four main POV characters. In the beginning of the book, each character gets his or her own chapter. As these characters come together by the end, the chapters get a bit more muddied as I jump between POVs. Now I can keep them that way because it works thematically — total accident by the way — or I can cut them apart, mixing and matching the whole way through.

Benefit of keeping them as they are: More time in the respective character’s head means more investment from the reader.

Cutting them up: Holds interest longer as more seems to be happening since we’re jumping back and forth. POV changes also create more stopping places for the reader which would be a bad thing if it means putting the book down or a good thing if means people push on for “just one more section”. Who knows?

I feel like I want to cut them up, but I’m on the fence. If you’ve ever read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, I think of those books as the gold standard. Each one has only like nine whole chapters, but those chapters are huge. Lots of section breaks and POV switching. Terry Pratchett wrote that way too. Actually, he wrote without chapters and just broke when he felt it necessary.

However, Stranger Things season 3 is warning me otherwise. In the beginning, I liked the cutting back and forth, but it eventually got annoying because I felt like there wasn’t a lot of overall progress. Right when something good started happening in the story we’d cut away leaving me more frustrated than interested. Now, in my opinion, that season had its own problems later on, but this point still stands.

That’s just a structural thing. Rearranging chapters only changes the presentation of information and not what is being said. Yet it could completely change the feel of the entire book. That’s how important editing can be.

“Great books aren’t written. They’re rewritten.” Michael Creighton said that I find myself coming back to that again and again like a mantra.

Okay, that’s enough from me. I need at least another forty pages done today to keep on schedule. Happy writing and editing, everyone!

Just a reminder that Fairfax Cleaners is still on sale all of July. As much as a dollar on Amazon or as little as totally free on Apple Books!

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.