Dreaming Along

I’m plugging away on my “after the gap” read of The Darkening Dream. At the 60% point, so I should hopefully be done by the end of the week. There’s only one scene I need to go back to and give a bit of a rewrite. It’s one that’s always been a bit problematic, where a character tells a bit of a story about a previous encounter with the undead, and while it’s only 800 words (it used to be 3,000 in the first draft) it’s told in dialog. That’s always awkward, and it’s the only place in the book where a happening longer than a couple sentences is dialoged out. I even have to use that long dialog paragraph leave off the terminal curly brace thing. Over the two years since I first wrote the scene, I’ve rewritten it perhaps five different ways. As dialog, as flashback, with sarcastic interrupts, without. It was once a creepy, but over long episode, but now after so much trimming it just lacks punch.

I’ll have to revisit after I get to the end of this pass.

And I finally adjusted to past tense again (only took 20,000 words!). It’ll be interesting to see if my head whiplashes so badly when I flip back to Untimed (hopefully soon). I’m due my third draft notes any day now.

Moving through The Darkening Dream I find it paced like a roller coaster. Literally. Including the slow initial tick tick ascent to the top of the first hill (which crests at about at the 20% mark). The pacing is mirrored by the chapter length and the progression of time. In the first quarter, several weeks pass for the characters and on average the chapters are longer and more linear. Then at the top of the hill, I start to slide in the point of view of first one and the other villain. With that, the chapter length halves and the action is compressed into a small number of hectic and deadly days. Like most stories with a lot of violence, if one actually had to endure the narrative in real life, one would probably drop dead of exhaustion. TVs 24 being the ultimate example.

On a slightly different note, I switched the name on my ghetto cover (my home-brew one on the right, placeholder until I commission a real one) back to “Andy” as opposed to “Andrew.” I keep debating this. At some level it feels slightly odd to be in my 40s, a husband, and a father and not have dropped my nickname. But I just never have, and on the plus side all my SEO points at Andy, not Andrew. The later is what the Gas Company calls me.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Vocal Whiplash

I started a new read through and edit on my first novel, The Darkening Dream yesterday. I’m waiting for feedback on my newer book and wanted to cleanup the first one so I’ll have it ready to be proofread for possible self-publishing. This is the first time I’ve looked at it in eight months (I’ve been working on Untimed) and the difference in voice is flogging my brain.

It’s weird and not a little disturbing to read your “older” work. I started TDD in January 2008, writing the first draft of what’s now the opening twenty percent (before heavy alterations). I stopped (because of work and the birth of my son) and picked up in fall of 2009. Although I’ve done about a zillion (more like ten) drafts, traces of this oldest style remain in these early sections. And boy has my literary voice changed since then. Most dramatically, I no longer detail out as much of the action and setting. Nowadays, I concentrate on sketching and implying important points, choosing my scenes less to block through the whole action than to paint in important moments. These old sections have been heavily trimmed down, edited and reworked, but they are still organized in a stodgier more sequential fashion.

And the beginning of my story is tricky, introducing a period world with a large cast of period characters. I’ve several times restructured the start of TDD, including one late attempt this year to write a number of alternate starts. But I have never found a way to replace the measured build up I currently have with a more hook driven start like Untimed has. It’s easier to start that way. Oh well, live and learn.

The biggest shocker, however, is how difficult it is getting used to past tense again. TDD is written in the normal third person past limited, where different chapters focus on different characters. There is no omniscient narrator but the implied narrator shifts from chapter to chapter. Untimed is first person present. Single narrator obviously. I’ve really grown to love the immediate quality of the present tense. One also gets to ditch most the “hads” used to indicate the past perfect. In past tense, you might say, “He went to the store,” or to indicate prior time “Earlier, he had gone to the store.” In present you’d likewise use “He goes to the store” and “He went to the store.” The normal past tense takes over for the past perfect, and it’s a much cleaner tense.

The first mini-scene of TDD is as follows:

As services drew to an end, Sarah peered around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shot her a look, but she had to be sure she could reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he’d done, she couldn’t face him right now. There he was, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’d be long gone before he extracted himself.

“Mama,” she whispered, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle had been Mama’s idea, but they’d never seen eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, was supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffened, but she nodded.

The end of the afternoon service signaled Sarah’s chance. She squeezed her mother’s hand, gathered her heavy skirts, and fled.

As an experiment, I rewrote this in present tense, a fairly straightforward change:

As services draw to an end, Sarah peers around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shoots her a look, but she has to be sure she can reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he did, she can’t face him right now. There he is, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’ll be long gone before he extracts himself.

“Mama,” she whispers, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle was Mama’s idea, but they never saw eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, is supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffen, but she nods.

The end of the afternoon service signals Sarah’s chance. She squeezes her mother’s hand, gathers her heavy skirts, and flees.

Which do you guys like? I suspect that past tense is more appropriate to this story, being conventional and also given the setting in 1913. But I’ve grown so fond of the present tense that I can’t judge anymore.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Plotter vs. Pantser

The Plotter

This is one of those eternal writer questions, getting into the heart of the creative process. For those of you who don’t know, a “plotter” is someone who plots out (outlines) their entire story before writing it and a “pantser” is at the opposite extreme, starting with an idea or a character and just going for it, like a daydream. Of course, everything between exists as well, it’s an analog space. And for what it’s worth, writers, including myself, love to talk about this.

Given that I’m more hard core, workaholic, and over-organized than nearly everyone I know (and having gone to MIT that includes a lot of anal folks) I would have assumed I was a plotter.

But when I got into it a couple years ago by starting to write The Darkening Dream, I found I totally prefer to just go with it. I do need to plot a chapter or two ahead as I can’t write the scenes until I see in my head what’s going to happen, but after I finished revising my first novel (and there was a lot of revision) I decided to try to plot the whole second. This resulted in about two months of fairly unproductive head banging. Then, with only a lame first act plotted, I started writing and it veered onto a different course anyway. The characters and the situation seem to dictate what happens. Often you can’t tell in plotting which secondary characters will be the coolest, etc.

The Pantser

But certainly the pantser approach requires plenty of revision. I always have to go back and examine the motivations of the characters after the first draft and map  more of the formal dramatic arc onto the story in the second and third drafts. Pantsing also leads to Second Act Problems (what doesn’t?). I think that’s just the way it goes. It would be very difficult in the first draft to do the kind of “setup and payoff” that good stories have. A great example of this is the film Back to the Future which undoubtedly had umpteen drafts and where every little reference at the start of the film is a setup that tests and then pays off for one of the characters. Case in point where George McFly gives in to Biff about the car. Then back in 1955 he does it as young George, but by the end of the film, with Marty‘s help he has the backbone to be in charge in the revised 1985. This is formulaic but satisfying and artfully crafted in a way that takes multiple passes. Still, I think you can start any which way that works for you. Sometimes getting the draft finished is the most important thing. Then you can step back and look at what needs changing.

Personally I find the two different modes: plotting vs. just writing, to use different sides of the brain, and therefore useful to stagger. I can only handle a few days of plotting before I need the release of getting it out there. There really isn’t any rush in writing as good as just pounding out a great scene that’s already gelled in your head, and it’s even better when the scene and characters take on a life of their own and bring something novel to the process. Looking back on it, I realize that as a computer programmer I took this same exact alternating approach (between designing the algorithm and just coding) and that the rush and rhythm were nearly identical.

For more posts on writing, click here.

All Things Change

So I’m about halfway through my last polish pass on my third major draft of Untimed. [Update 7:44pm, finished the polish] This is one of the umpteen revision passes. Only another day or two to go before I send it off again and get down to waiting for feedback (hands down my least favorite part of writing).

The book totally kicks ass BTW — biased opinion but true.

Anyway, this has me planning to spend my “downtime” (waiting) doing some really serious research on self-publishing my first novel, The Darkening Dream, and seeing if I can get it out there before the holiday season.

I’ve been following self-publishing blogs like A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and Dean Wesley Smith for around a year. These guys — rhetoric aside — have made sense for some time but the arguments for traditional publishing grow lamer and lamer. Check out something like this, which lays it out there — albeit with a lot of flavor. Publishing is in the throws of the cataclysmic “doing digital” change that has or is shaking up all the media businesses. For example, in music the conversion from media (vinyl, cassette, CD) to MP3 during which the labels/studios stuck their head in the sand and found themselves nearly destroyed.

The fact is, the change is coming no matter what any big old-school companies want or try to do. Readers are well on their way to embracing ebooks, the rise of the tablet (aka iPad), and dropping smartphone and reader prices (order your Kindle Fire here! 250,000 preorders in 5 days!), has etched the writing on the wall (in blood). In a few short years print will make up 20 or less percent of the market. Paper books (and I say this as someone who has a two story library with over 15,000 of them!) aren’t going to vanish instantly, but they won’t be majorly relevant for novel sales.

So this basically guarantees completely and without any doubt that print revenues will crater, leaving publishers unable to support their big overheads. Borders (and nearly every independent) going bankrupt will just hasten this. Barnes and Noble is next. They tried with the Nook, but Amazon is going to crush them (again, Kindle fire, not to mention $79 regular Kindle). And publishers, being large old-school companies that employ LOTS of people under the old model are showing lots of signs of panic, but pretty much not a glimmer of adapting to the changing business.

But they won’t have one soon. Because without control of the gates to bookstores, they don’t control anything.

Right now they still make the better product. But as an author they:

1. tie up rights

2. take way too much money (15% vs 70% doing it yourself)

3. take way too long (15 months instead of like 1-2 to market!)

4. charge too much for ebooks

5. don’t actually do any marketing

6. often have really stupid ideas about “marketability” (like “sex doesn’t sell” or “vampires are over” *)

Eventually new meaner leaner packaging companies will make the murky ground of processing books a bit easier, but in the meantime. Time to get researching.

If anyone knows a kick ass indie book marketer, I’m looking to hire one (that’s the only part I can’t really do myself).

For more posts on writing, click here.

* From above: The Vampire Dairies and True Blood both prove both statements simultaneously asinine. And while TDD does have a vampire, he does not ever sparkle in daylight (900 years and he hasn’t seen a glimpse of it) and he is not in the least sexy. He is, howeverfrightfully smart, cautious, and happy to decorate your house with the entrails of your closest family members.

Weekend Draft

I just finished the rough cut of the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed. Just in time too to get out of town.

This weekend will be quiet and post free. I’m off to Vegas with the Foodie Club for some more high end gluttony. Namely Twist by Pierre Gagnaire and  É by José Andrés (my review of the comparable Saam here).  You can expect detailed coverage when I get back.

For more on the revision process, see this recent post.

Or for more posts on writing, click here.

Revision Slog – Novel as Algorithm

As I slog toward the end of my third major draft of my new novel, Untimed, I felt the need for brief procrastination in the form of detailing the process. Most people seem to discount how much grind and sheer time investment is required in writing (and revising) a novel, even a vey steady workaholic like me. Let’s do a little breakdown.

Untimed is actually fairly short, currently at 83,000 words and 38 chapters. This is MUCH shorter than my first book started out. Length is a factor because you have to iterate (i.e. read through the book a LOT of times).

Think of each major draft as a loop (I am a programmer) with various sub loops.

. Generate Idea (for the most part this kind of happens or doesn’t)

. Character Design and High Level Plotting (you could spend who knows how long on this, I don’t find it that useful upfront, most of it just comes to me while doing other things)

. The First Draft:

. Initial drafting: For each chapter (1..38) loop:

. Plot the beats in the chapter. This takes an absolute minimum of 1-3 hours even if you know exactly what’s supposed to be in there. Sometimes it takes several days of banging your head and talking to others.

. Pound out a first draft. I can do 2000-2500 words of new draft in one 8 hour day. I generally make this a chapter. Occasionally I’ll be on a roll and do two.

. Reread it to catch really stupid typos, phrasing, and make sure it makes sense (1 hour)

. Subtotal. For above book that represents 50-60 workdays (NOTE: if you take days off, it’s chronologically much longer). Notes on finishing the first draft, here.

. High level pass:

. It’s impossible when writing a chapter or two a day to see the big picture in the book, so you have to do at least one faster pass through afterward.

. I can do about 10-15,000 words a day like this, which is actually fairly brutal

. Subtotal. About 7 workdays. 1-2 full reads.

. Quick read:

. If you want to judge pacing you have to read it all in a day or two like a normal book, not on the computer

. Subtotal. 1-2 days. 1 full read.

. Draft total. About 60-70 workdays. 4-5 full reads.

. Wait for feedback:

. Since you have to finish something and send it to someone, even a paid editor will take some time to read it and return feedback. This usually takes several weeks. I try and overlap it with the cleanup passes, but it’s tricky.

. Revision Drafts (I’m currently finishing the third major redraft) so I’ve done two of these so far on Untimed:

. Plan, outline, and organize changes.

. Can take from a couple days to a couple weeks. Some thoughts on this with Untimed HERE.

. I can do about 2-3 chapters a full day of revision. So for each block of 2-3 chapters loop:

. Do the actual revision. This can be fairly grueling, involving initial big surgery, a smoothing pass, then a cleanup pass

. Reread it to catch really stupid typos, phrasing, and make sure it makes sense (2 hours)

. Subtotal. Plotting 7 days, revising 15 workdays. Generates 2-3  extra reads per chapter.

. Medium Quick read:

. Checking for consistency

. Subtotal. 3-4 days. 1 full read.

. Total for each revision draft. Approximately 25 workdays. 3-4 full reads. Notes on the second draft HERE.

. Wait for feekback. You have to find out from others, often people who have never read the book before, how a draft comes across. This takes awhile. A reader who gets back to you in a week is amazing. It often takes several and some gentle (or not so gentle) prodding. Or tossing them some money. Sometimes that doesn’t even work. I had one (paid) unemployed beta reader tell me that they couldn’t start it because it interfered with their watching TV! NOTE: Said individual did not get paid.

. Line Editing:

. When the big picture is all settled out one sends it out to an editor for Line Editing. This involves more editor time than author time, but still chunks of the book come back and one must go over the edits and install them.

. My editor will request a “compression” pass before sending it to her. This is an extra pass to try and self edit it first.

. I can do about 8000 words a day like this. Approximately 10 days. 1 read. This is brutal but can be overlapped chronologically with the editor’s line editing. I.e. I can self edit a chunk and then send it out, meanwhile self editing the next chunk while the editor is working on the previous one, then also fit in the next part (processing) of returning chunks in a pipelined fashion.

. I can “process” returned line editing at about 6,000-8,000 words a day. For each chunk loop:

. Read over the track changes version of the line edit in word, approving and rejecting various edits and making cleanups

. Copy over each scene in into the real draft. Cleanup formatting.

. Do a quick read of the chunk or chapters to make sure nothing got screwed up

. Subtotal. Approximately 12 workdays, but spread across more chronological time as the edits can’t churn out this much per day. 2-3 full reads.

. Quick read:

. If you want to judge pacing you have to read it all in a day or two like a normal book, not on the computer

. Subtotal. 1-2 days. 1 full read.

. Total for line editing. approximately 24 days. 4-5 full reads.

As you can see. This adds up to a LOT of days and a lot of passes. Finishing up the third draft here, I’m already on eight months and at least 12 read throughs, and I can look forward to several more of each.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

_

I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

For more book reviews, click here.

PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.