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.

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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.

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.

Worldbuilding at Work

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

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

So, I’ve come back.

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

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

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flat Stanley

While working on the outline for “Of the Blood” (working title for my new fantasy book), I ran into a character problem. I had this POV character that I needed. Well, I wanted her to exist too. I realized I’d been counting on her more for what she represented to the story and not actually for who she was. She had all the warning signs of being a flat character, but it was worse because I realized I knew nothing about her. She wasn’t even an actual character yet.

This gave me pause. There are plenty more detailed outliners that myself, but I can’t write anything without knowing where I’m going. Or in this case, who I’m writing about. So, I needed to find a way to make her more than a character serving the plot.

How to do it?

Talk to a hundred writers and you’ll get a hundred answers. For me, I first looked at her world. Who is she in relation to her family? Her hierarchy in the clan?

This book has a pseudo matriarchal society at its core so mothers and their daughters are pretty important. Well, my character was the fifth daughter, so how important is she really? Close to power, but not really holding any. I can run with that.

Then it was asking myself what does she want? I couldn’t answer the grander question of what is her purpose in relation to overcoming personal flaw and all that, but how about on a smaller scale. Okay, she’s the fifth daughter of a royal house, what does somebody do with that?

Respect. I’m running with the theme of her wanting the respect of those around her. She feels like she has to live up to this shadow and is going out of her way to do it.

It’s a little cliché, but the fun part about being a writer is recognizing that. She wants respect, but me, Writer Dan, knows she needs something else. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, but I know it’ll tie into her purpose. It’s the thing that’ll make her feel whole.

So the beginning of her arc will be chasing artificial situations and trying too hard to win the respect of others. That’s also something I can work with. It gives me a nice foundation for her character to build from. As the story progresses, I’ll start massaging that into better growth.

Coming up with that was about an afternoon’s worth of thoughtful reflection. Just writing down some questions and answers and seeing what made sense. I wasn’t focusing on the plot or anything else to do with the book. I was just trying to figure out who was this person I was creating in a realistic fashion. Doing it that way is a much more organic approach to the eventual conflicts.

There’s still a long road to go, but for now, though, it’s a heck of a lot better than a character whose only function is serving plot POV.

New Beginning

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in a while . I kind of dropped off the map after NaNoWriMo. I finished Altered Egos and wrote another short story and then … then I got busy with other writing endeavors.

I’ve been struggling with what to do with this blog for some time now. I like it but lately – well not lately, lately – I feel like I have to have a blog instead of actively wanting a blog. I think that ultimately stems from me not knowing what to post.

It’s hard. As an aspiring writer, I do a lot of writing but I feel really weird about giving any actual writing advice. I mean I haven’t made it, so who am I to tell anyone else what to do. It’s like the blind leading the blind. Especially when I’m neck deep in another novel, I don’t always want to create a blog post about something or pull my focus away to write some random piece of flash fiction to just have content. When I’m writing a novel, for those four or five months, that’s all I work on. That doesn’t leave me with a lot of other talking points.

So I’ve come to a decision.

You know how they describe world building like an iceberg? The reader only sees ten percent of it and the author knows so much more? That’s what I’m going to do here. Sort of.

I’ll still write the occasional funny or weird story from my personal life and some random short fiction when the mood strikes, but more often than not now, I’m going to use the blog as sort of a workshopping space. It’ll be a place where I can talk about my research and give some insight into characters, plot, setting, and general world stuff. It’ll be useful for me to explore this content and hopefully it’ll be interesting for you to read too.

It may not help you become a better writer, but it’ll be insight into my process.

I think doing that will make this blog more meaningful for me. I mean, my name is on the title after all. But more than that, as you know, there are only so many hours in the day. If I have writing time, I usually devote that time to novel work. Pulling focus only hurts me in the long run. But I think this new approach will solve that. It’ll give me freedom to explore and brainstorm and I’ll post the findings.

You can read this all as a new mission statement going forward. Let’s see how this works, shall we? Hope you enjoy the ride.

Carving the Ice

The alpha reader responses have come trickling in and I’ve been lapping them up like a thirst-starved desert dweller. Although, I supposed I should really be calling them beta readers as the book had already gone through a couple of drafts before they got their eyes on it. Technically, the only alpha reader was yours truly.

Semantics. Gotta love ’em.

Or don’t.

The responses have been overwhelmingly good which has definitely calmed my blood pressure some. Sending this out was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. No. That’s probably a lie. I have twin babies at home. I’m sure they’re up there too, those adorable monsters.

They’ve all liked the story a great deal, but the readers have pointed out some important but glass-shattering issues that have to be dealt with before I can take Fairfax Cleaners to the next level. It’s always intimidating seeing how much work needs to be done on a project I’d previously assumed to be “almost finished,” but while yes, I’m collecting opinions, it’s important to remember that the readers aren’t wrong. I don’t need to go back and fix every little thing they had issue with, but a few of the more common and glaring examples tend to stand out.

I’m of the mind that it doesn’t matter my intention while writing the work. If I ever have to explain myself for clarity about why something is the way it is, it means I’ve failed as a writer. I’m not going to write to thousands of individuals and answer all of their questions about how I dropped the ball in making something clear. This is a humbling experience. Critique by nature is uncomfortable. No one likes to be judged. But it’s not me, personally, on the pedestal, it’s the story. And even then, no one is saying they don’t like that story. But when someone points out that I had a character say “you can’t go to the police because they bad guys own the police” and then the police NEVER play a role in the story whatsoever … that my friends is a problem.

It’s always interesting to me too what people pick up on. One of my male readers, a close personal friend, found two side characters to be redundant and brought nothing to the story. But when I asked one of my female readers about them, she said, please don’t cut them. They’re definitely needed because they help explain/progress the relationships between many of the other characters. If you ever wanted proof that male and female readers can want different things, there you have it. One was only looking at it from an action perspective, the other was focused on the character growth. Both were right in their way as the scene in question does need work, but I already know how to better integrate it into the overall story that doesn’t involve cutting anyone out. The problem was in my failure to make it abundantly clear in the first place.

This process is also helping me carve the iceberg. You’ve probably heard that backstory and worldbuilding are like an iceberg where only 10% of it ends up in the story, but the author needs to know the other 90% to make the characters believable. While I’ve certainly tried to input what was needed, I probably only ended up putting 7% in and some things that were crystal clear in my mind came out opaque to others.

All that said, I’m invigorated like a shot of adrenaline to keep going forward. My writer sleeves are already rolled up and I’m prepping the surgical gloves to go in elbows deep. I’m waiting to hear back from two more readers – one of which I know is taking incredibly detailed notes – and then its open heart surgery on this beast.

Oiling the Machine

I’m probably preaching to the already well-educated choir here, but having children is exhausting! Rewarding, sure. But my god am I tired. All. The. Time!

We’ve settled into a good enough routine where I get some sleep to function. As to the to actual level of functionality(?) functionability(?) see I have no idea … well I’ll leave that up to you. I can get to work now with clothes fit for a human being of my profession. I’ve also been able to shave my “dad beard” on occasion. The gym has been long gone. Running’s been pretty much out too even though it kills me. We’ve been having some gorgeous fall mornings lately. When I let the dog out, I can hear the autumnal whisper egging me to come join its crisp embrace.

The only thing from my life before that I’ve been able to dredge up without feeling like I’m shoving a round block into a square-shaped hole, and perhaps the most important thing from life BB (before babies), is that I’ve gotten back to writing. I was about 3/4 of the way through my latest novel before the little dragons were born and I was worried that my enthusiasm for the project would die out during my month away. I’m happy to report that not only have I started writing again, but I’ve been making some serious headway into the project, picking up pretty easily from where I left off.

What really helped during the break was that I never really stopped thinking about the book. I literally made myself think about the book at least once a day to keep my thoughts fresh and to remember where and how I left things. It kind of helped that the chapter I left on was one I had the least amount of notes for. My time away served as a hella long brainstorming session.

But it worked! Getting back into the saddle took some effort and personal forgiveness, so I didn’t chastise myself for only making 500 words every now and again, but things are back to being in full swing.

If anything, the added bonus is that I took care of that refresh/re-calibrate time I typically use after every book. Once I finish a novel, I force myself to shelve it for 4-6 weeks and let the dust settle. I come back with a fresh set of eyes and a list three pages long of all the stuff I feel the need to fix. Even though I hadn’t finished my book, that’s basically what I did while I was off learning how to be a parent.

I can’t wait to finish now so I can start tearing it apart. My middle is sluggish and dull. I see that so clearly now. I want to rework how I introduce the main protagonist too. And there’s a named side character I use in the beginning who never gets comeuppance. I demand comeuppance!

So once I finish – I’m down to the final confrontation – I can go back and restructure some stuff. I’m pretty surprised by the length. I’m already hitting 117k and it’ll most likely be closer to 130k by the time I’m done. Granted, this is the rough draft and I just told you about how there will be restructuring involved, but its shaping up a little bit larger than I originally imagined. Hopefully, that’ll work in my favor to create a tight story once I trim all the fat like a T-bone. I’m hoping to have something ready for alpha readers in a month.

How cool would it be if I had human babies and a literary one at the same time?

Blocking Fight Scenes

I always seem to run into the problem where I lead a protagonist into a situation against a giant monster/beast/enemy thing and then have to figure out what to do about it. Seriously, out of the 4 books I’ve written (counting the one I’m currently working on), it’s happened in 3 of them. I like fight scenes. I like watching fight scenes. But when it comes to writing them down, I hit something of a wall. I want a rampaging beast, but my mental space is totally blank.

There’s your backstory for what happened today. I’ve known for months now, that this particular fight was going to happen but all my notes say is something like:

– Abe shows up and ambushes Gus

– This is Abe’s last chance to redeem himself. He’s desperate

– They argue like brothers. Fight breaks out

That’s it. My next note is for what happens after the fact. Oh, and Abe is a werewolf. I should probably have mentioned that. In order for this scene to be interesting, something needs to happen. There needs to be danger and conflict. I realized yesterday that I couldn’t accurately visualize the fight because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Just like outlining the story itself, I needed to outline the fight. And that meant blocking.

I’ve heard of blocking fight scenes before. I meant to create a bullet point list of events, but I soon ran into the issue where I wanted to expand on things. Then I’d get lost and end up trying to figure out what was coming up next same as I would if I just winged the fight scene like usual. So I had a better idea. My experience with theater and role playing led me to this:

IMG_1564

I drew the layout of the room. Luckily, I had these two vinylmation guys at my desk to help out. And my wife said they were useless! We have Captain America there as my protagonist, Gus, and Oogie Boogie as the werewolf, Abe. I still kind of made the fight up as I went along, but I kept this little playset right by my computer. I just acted it out. I’d jump from the figures to discover the next action/reaction and then back to the keyboard to write about it and describe all of the emotional stuff.

IMG_1565

It helped so much! Not only did I get a clearer picture of what was happening, but by drawing in the background, it showed (if only to me) that this wasn’t happening in a white room. I had props and obstacles and just stuff that could help and hinder my characters. I’m really happy with the outcome and it’s definitely something I’ll be doing with fight scenes from now on. I have a big one coming up at the climax that’s going to take a map D&D style! I can’t wait to set it up and play – er, I mean, manipulate my models – to see what happens.

On a side note, I really hope this book gets published. That way, when you read the scene I’m talking about, you can picture these vinylmation figures duking it out instead 🙂