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.

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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.

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Middle Madness

I think I’m over the hump with the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed (for a quick blurb see here).

Story structure is hard. And while this book is much better structured than early drafts of my previous novel, it had two major problems: the ending and the first part of Act II. Late (very late) in the second draft I cracked the ending. So that just left the middle.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the biggest comment from my awesome freelance editors’ (I use three: Renni Browne, Shannon Roberts, and R.J. Cavender) involved problems in this middle section. It’s not that the scenes wen’t good or exciting, but mostly that I fell prey to a personal need to sneak Napoleon into the story (time travel seems to call out for the most pivotal personality of the modern era) and this resulted in a bad case of “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (or a variant thereof).

So what is the dreaded Double Mumbo Jumbo? Most specifically it’s the phase coined in Blake Snyder‘s Save the Cat book (which I discuss here). DMJ is invoked by throwing two unrelated implausible things into the same story. However, my specific problem is really a cousin, what my editor Renni calls “1+1=1/2”. This is, the idea that doing the same improbable thing twice in the same book isn’t twice as good as doing it once, but actually half as good. Even if the thing is cool. So a kind of DMJ.

And I was doing it in my middle.

Still, this section of my story accomplished a lot of other things too. And I had to figure out how to rework it to keep as much of the good as I could, avoid a DMJ — and not make TOO much work for myself in terms of repercussions later in the book. Thinking about various ways to restructure, particularly given the constraints of my story, my elaborate time travel scheme, and history itself, was quite the brain buster. I thought on it all day for at least a week. So hard one Friday that I literally gave myself a migraine headache! I found myself pondering time travel so aggressively that I became confused as to what year it was — and then my vision began to shimmer (migraine).

I probably outlined 15 different scenarios and talked about countless more. This part of the writing process is very peculiar. I often end up with a half-baked scenario that satisfies some goals, but just doesn’t really work. One quickly reaches a point where no new ideas surface internally and you need to shake it up. I then find it extremely useful to talk with a limited pool of friends who have read the book in it’s latest incarnation. This allows me to efficiently go over the possible elements. Then we talk out the problems. By vetting numerous failed scenarios it’s often possible to collect enough different disconnected ideas that a single coherent new plot can be jig-sawed together. Or at least coherent enough to polish out in the writing.

This last week, I even twice resorted to writing out (as prose) incomplete outlines to see if they worked. The first revealed itself as a miserable failure. The second made it to the finish.

Now it’s off to friends and editors to see how it passes muster.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Introducing the Writing Index

In my continued effort to improve site navigation I’ve introduced a new page to index all my writing posts, sorted by topic. You can also find it in the “Writing” menu at the top of the site or by clicking on the gold “Writing” icon on the righthand sidebar.

As an added bonus, the page includes a blurb of my new novel, Untimed, check it out.

Untimed – Two Novels, Two Drafts!

My second novel, Untimed, is a YA time-travel adventure.

And I just finished the rough version of my second draft. Whew! Happy to be done with that. The book grew to 84,000 words (it’ll probably get trimmed down a bit for draft three). It still needs polish, but the second draft is often the worst, and this one took 5 or so weeks of concentrated work. While I learned from my first novel and put the beginning at the right place, the previous draft still had a number of classic first draft problems.

Namely, character and motivation needed work. Plot can formally be considered the friction between the protagonist’s desire and the obstacles to said desire. The book is/was jam packed with conflict and action, but the desire line was a bit weak. I won’t say it’s perfect now, but it’s a hell of a lot better. As are the characters. For me it’s difficult in the first draft to flesh both of these out because as a pantser I don’t know exactly where I’m going with the story until I get there. Not that I write blind, but I like the story and the characters to take me where they want.

When writing the second draft, you have an end (even if you plan on changing it), so you know all the elements that you intend to put in the book. Therefore it’s easier to go back and foreshadow those and reinforce the important ones. You also know what the character is going to need to feel at different points in the story, so it’s easier to try and set up and reinforce those feelings.

Additionally, as a pantser, I actually get to know my characters in the first draft. The writing of them brings them to life in my head. Then in the second draft, I need to brainstorm extra elements in their past and present that reinforce the traits I know they’re supposed to have, then hint at the them in the book. Again, hard to do the first time around.

Now to see what some reader that aren’t me think — and trial and nail the third draft.

I’d also like to thank my story-consultants Sharon & Bryan for listening to every blow by blow change and my independent editors Renni & Shannon for pointing me in the second draft direction. Here’s to hoping I went far enough :-).

The second draft involved a few weeks of incubation (June), a full read and polish (also June), and then hardcore writing from June 30 until August 2.

And in case you’re wondering what the book is about, I still haven’t written a log line, but its a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother. And it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Untimed – The Second Cover

Just finished up a new “working cover” for my second novel, Untimed. Thanks a million to my friend and long time business partner Jason Rubin for concocting the excellent logo. He is a true Photoshop wizard.

If any of you have thoughts on the cover (the book’s a YA time travel adventure), post them in the comments.

Now back to working on the second draft.

I will use powers of superhuman concentration to ignore the fact that I have A Dance with Dragons sitting on my iPad — more or less unstarted.

I will.

Not reading during working hours!

Untimed – Two Novels, Check!

Today I reached a milestone and finished the first draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Untimed. Now this doesn’t really mean it’s done, revision is usually more work than the first draft. Still, it’s a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Untimed is the first book in YA time travel series. I haven’t written a log line yet, but it’s currently 70,000 words, and is a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother.

Oh, and it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

I started it Feb 9, 2011 and finished the first draft May 20, 2011. I took about three weeks “off” to work on revisions of The Darkening Dream. So that’s roughly three months. My output was actually slower (as measured in words) than with TDD, because a don’t overwrite now. If anything Untimed is underwritten and certainly needs a lot of character work in revision, which might make it grow slightly.

I learned a lot of things from problems with TDD (mostly fixed in my many many revisions). I learned to find a place to start your story that really hooks BEFORE starting to write. I learned not to write any scenes that involved merely going from place to place. I learned not to flash back. I learned to stick with the plot, not the sub plots. And a whole lot more.

And I tried to outline the entire story before I wrote it, failed miserably, and concluded that I’m really a pantser (a seat of the pants writer).

For info on my first (and completed) novel, click here.

ps. If you’re one of my many dedicated beta readers, and want to offer early high level feed back, send me a note.