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.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Author: James M. Cain

Genre: Crime Noir

Length: 116 pages

Read: May 15-16, 2011

Summary: Taut.


For my second novel I’ve been trying to adopt a sort of hardboiled style, even though it isn’t a crime or a noir. So I figured I go back to the beginning and read some of the classics.

This 1934 novella just breezes on by. The first half (act I) is like watching a train wreck unfold. I greedily devoured the setup. Seedy drifter, sexy unhappy wife, and loser older husband. Plus it’s a crime novel. You know things aren’t going to end up good. The style here is lean and mean. It feels fully modern, dated perhaps only by certain phrases and actually it’s utter bare bones quality, devoid of really deliberate voice. My only complaint here was that it’s so sparse on dialogue tags that I often got confused as to who said what and had to back up and count. That’s too few tags.

Not that it detracted much. So then mid book, the crime itself happens (not counting the aborted first attempt) and the gears shift a bit into legal territory. This middle section I found had a bit too much “tell.” It breezed along, but it reminded me of the second half of The Magician. Then we get to the third act. This was back more to the mater-a-fact what happens, but it did feel a little fast, perhaps resorting to a bit too much forced plotting.

Still, I enjoyed the book immensely, and it seems best as I can tell the blueprint for countless crime stories where greed/lust/whatever drives everyone to an inevitable bad end. Some great movie entries in this genre would be Body Heat, A Simple Plan, or the very recent The Square.

Another interesting thing about this story is not only could you set it in any era, but the exact text could pretty much serve from 1920 through to present day. The only difference now would be cell phones and better police investigatory techniques.

Call For Feedback

As a writer, feedback can be essential to the process. You don’t necessarily want to spend months writing the whole novel draft to find out the voice sucks, or that your plot is boring. I’m a frantic high energy writer (I work 8+ hours a day and usually churn out 2,000 pretty good words), and one of my biggest problems is getting enough feedback fast enough. I want to find out how a chapter works NOW, or hash out what’s going to happen tomorrow. My plots are intricate and I have two people (one I’m married to) who ALWAYS read chapters in a few hours and are willing to spend an hour brutally arguing about how well they work.

Still, it’s not enough. I also use a number of professionals who provide awesome advice, but not only do the cost money, but they’re busy and often take a few weeks to turn stuff around. I’d give a nut for another conspirator who’s great at plot construction. Relatively few people are willing to say, “No, no, this whole branch of the action is boring, the villain and the hero need to be face to face.” Then actually provide suggestions to mull over or shut down. Most amateur critics nitpick on sentences or little inconsistencies. Those are useful, but the big picture criticisms — and more importantly suggestions for fixes — are harder to come by.

I’m looking for something analogous to a TV writers room where people know the story and characters to every last detail and can really yell and hash out ways to interject more power into the story at the plot and character level. This is the hardest part for me to do alone. I can take any basic sequence of events and turn it into a great scene, but building the perfect twisty-turny plot with engaging characters is hard. There’s a reason why you see this most often in great TV shows where they have a room full of brilliant people.

A good argument over the story fuels my creative fire. I suspect if I had more of it I could write even faster.

And I’m willing to pay for said criticism with highly responsive reciprocal reading and response on how your stuff could be better! 🙂

Seriously. I’m extremely fast and sleep very little. There’s no give it to me and have to check back a couple weeks later. I tend to turn stuff around in hours. I’m willing to talk at odd ball times. I can do everything from plot to line editing.

So if you’re another writer, interested, fast, dedicated, good at plots, like the fantastic (my stories always involve some supernatural/speculative element), and willing to dedicate a couple hours a week, shoot me a note and we’ll see if there’s any synergy.

or blog

Also, peek at my novel in progress: The Darkening Dream

Done Again, Hopefully

My freelance editor, the awesome Renni Browne, has officially declared my novel, The Darkening Dream, done, and ready for agents!

Now bear in mind that “done” is a highly subjective term, and that as soon as anyone gives me an idea worth doing, I’ll probably do it, and that agents and editors are bound to ask for changes. Which as long as I think the ideas make the book better, is a good thing.

The new version is 5.00i, but this is my ninth full major draft. Woah.

I remember reading Sol Stein‘s awesome book on writing, where he mentioned that The Magician took 10-11 drafts (I was then on my second) and thinking: that’s crazy! I guess not. Totally coincidentally, Renni also edited that novel, published in 1971!

So it’s been a busy week, working only on The Darkening Dream (I’ll get back to my new novel shortly). In the last 10 days:

1. We finishing our big line edit

2. I rewrote the ending again.

3. I read the entire book and made minor mods.

4. Renni and Shannon (her additionally awesome co-editor/assistant) reread the beginning and the ending and did another quick line edit.

5. I went over that.

6. I got back a critique on the beginning of the book, and made some changes based on that.

7. This inspired me to write two entirely different beginnings.

8. We eventually decided the original was better, although I moved a few nice tidbits from the new stuff over.

9. I reread the whole first half of the book, and the ending again, and made some more improvements.

10. On Sunday I rested.

So now I return to the agent game (referrals very welcome), and to the agonizing internal debate about the relative merits of self publishing in the modern (and very rapidly changing) market. And back to the first draft of my new novel (about 25% done).

If any of you beta readers want a copy of the new improved 95,000 word The Darkening Dream, drop me a note.

Beginnings and Endings

The first thing I did after getting my line editing back over the weekend was work on the ending of my novel. Beginnings and endings are so important, and as is probably typical, I’ve changed them a lot.

The ending is important because it’s what has to wrap everything up, and what leaves the aftertaste in the mouth of the reader. But it isn’t going to do you any good unless they get there.

Which brings us to the beginning. So important in so many ways. First of all, agents and editors glance at the beginning,and if it isn’t awesome, they’ll just put it down right there. Second, so do many readers. They browse the first couple pages in the bookstore (or on Amazon), or even if they buy it, if it doesn’t grab them right away they might just move onto to another book. I know I do.

During revision, The Darkening Dream has already had three different beginnings. But I’ve never been totally satisfied with them. I took a new high level crack at rearranging the flow of my story’s first crucial day, and ended up whipping out two new takes on the first ~7,000 words. That puts three beginnings on the table if you include the current draft. Each have their plus and minuses.

Do I start with the violent supernatural event that kicks everything off?  Do I start with character development on the protagonist? How do I introduce my large cast of characters?

Now that I have a couple takes I’m trying to decide which one to pursue. IF YOU’RE ONE OF MY BETA READERS, HAVE READ THE BOOK ALREADY, and are interested and throwing your opinion into the ring, drop me a note and I’ll send you some options 🙂

The good news about my new novel, is that before I even started writing I found a totally awesome place to start the story. I LOVE the start of that book, and so does everyone I’ve showed it to so far. Lessons learned.

The Darkening Dream

Since I’m always cryptically referring to my novel in progress, I figured I’d post a few words about it.

The Darkening Dream is a historial dark fantasy. It’s currently 95,000 words and I’ve just finishing up the line editing and polish. [ Updated 3/16/11 ] I’m looking for a literary agent to help me start slogging through the process of publishing.


As to the thing that matters — the story [ Updated 3/25/11 ]:

An ominous vision and the discovery of a gruesome corpse lead Sarah and her friends into a terrifying encounter with a fledgling vampire. Eager to prove themselves, the young heroes set out to track the evil to its source, never guessing that they will take on a conspiracy involving not only a 900-year vampire, but also a demon-loving Puritan warlock, disgruntled Egyptian gods, and an immortal sorcerer, all on a quest to recover the holy trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel. Relying on the wisdom of a Greek vampire hunter, Sarah’s rabbi father, and her own disturbing visions, Sarah must fight a millennia-old battle between unspeakable forces, where the ultimate prize might be Sarah herself.

To read about my second novel (in progress), click here.

Or here for the index of all my Creative Writing posts.

Book Review: XVI (read sexteen)

Title: XVI

Author: Julia Karr

Genre: YA Dystopian Fiction

Read: Jan 16-19, 2011

Summary: Good premise, tried hard, fell flat.


I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The premise is fine, set in a dystopian 2150 where teens are branded at 16 as”legal for sex.” Nina is almost 16, and is dealing with not only the stress of this oncoming rite of passage, but boys, the death of her mother, and a bigger conspiracy.

But where to begin with the problems. The protagonist is okay, and there isn’t anything wrong with the prose, but fundamentally this book stands out as an example of premise over plot. Plot, we are told is how the characters in a story deal with or overcome the premise. A good one sells the premise in an engrossing and personal manner. The plot just felt weak, and the characters reactions to it rushed and forced. People keep popping up out of nowhere. Dramatic events — like the narrator’s mom dying — blink by. They live in Chicago, yet everyone seems to know everyone. The villain tattles his villainy while playing hide and seek with the heroine — so very Scooby Doo.

And the Science Fiction is pretty darn mediocre. This is 150 years from now and music and films are stored on “chips!” There won’t even be physical media in 15-20 years. There is no mention of a net or internet — nary a computer. They still have magazines! Video playing machines that play films on chips (like a DVD player). People have phone numbers (also on the way out already). There are no substantial tech improvements. Some “transports” that maybe fly. Mention of moon and mars settlement, but no matching tech on earth. No new biotech, no new computer tech.

150 years ago is 1860 and the civil war!

I didn’t hate the book, in fact wanted to like it, but it just fell flat.

On Writing: Yet Another Draft

The good news is that the comments from my Nov 13  draft came back Tuesday and they were very positive, and a lot less extensive than the previous three batches. So hot off an intense 8 day mega redraft, followed by one day of toddler party, followed by a full read in one day, followed by a half day of fixing the things I found in my own read… I did another 2 day mini full draft. v4.60.

I think it’s finally getting pretty close to just needing line editing (polish and smaller scale fixes). One thing about the process, however, is that a bit like a video game before you’ve had the testers pound on it, one is not entirely sure what one has. Sure, I know the book so well I can name every one of my 300 scenes in consecutive order, quote passages, or tell you to the day and version how a scene has evolved. Still, it’s hard to judge the work as a whole without a full read — and I just did one on Monday (plus two full drafting passes since then).

This is why one needs a ready supply of beta readers. Too bad it’s illegal to lock friends in a room with the book and tell them no food until they slide notes back out under the door.


On Writing: Passes and Plots

This afternoon I finished the rough cut of my 7th major draft of my novel, The Darkening Dream. In my process, a rough cut is a draft (in this case v4.55 — yes you can tell I’m also a computer programmer) where I’ve done all the major changes I intend, but I haven’t yet gone through and reread the whole book (again, for the 40th or so time) to fix up little inconsistencies I missed and to tweak and improve the prose specifically. Part if this is that different read and edit passes have different paces, and it’s not a great idea to mix them.

In a rough cut pass one is struggling to perform large scale surgery. To cut out big sections and sew them back together. To remove characters, objects, or character the motivations, purposes, or settings of things. I like to move fairly fast during this phase because I have to keep in my head all the little loose ends that need to be tied up (I try to write them in my change plan — a kind of chapter-wise outline of changes — which I follow as I redraft). Plus, during a big rough cut the novel is also “broken”. To me this is analogous to the period when a program can’t be compiled or crashes in some heinous way. So, I don’t really want to stop too long and noodle over a sentence. I don’t like either my novels or my programs broken. It was S.O.P. during Crash Bandicoot and Jax and Daxter to build a test disk every night that testers would play the next day. If your build was broken, this couldn’t happen and other people couldn’t work. Same with the book, I like to be able to give it to a beta reader if necessary. You can’t if it’s broken.

On a read-as-a-reader pass one drops the thing on the iPad (these days) and then read it from start to finish, jotting quick notes or highlighting problems. If you stop to fix them for too long, then you loose the feel of the book as it was intended to be read. This, by the way, is why if you want to really enjoy a book, you should read at least a few pages each day. If you take a two-week hiatus (or more), you lose too much continuity.

And finally, there is polish. In this kind of pass you line edit, or change on the fly. Improving sentences, polishing phrases, fixing errors, trimming fat, whatever. It’s possible while doing this to easily trim 5-15% out of a scene without actually removing any real content. This too has its easy analogy in programming: optimization, particularly of memory or code size (no longer very relevant). In this kind of pass you just work at the low level, and so you can move slowly.

So that was passes. Now onto plots and subplots.

In my previous major draft (v4.43 — don’t ask) my editors pointed out something huge that I was subliminally aware of as a problem, but hadn’t pinpointed the exact cause. I had two major subplots going in my book. One was the main plot, and the other was the villain‘s secondary agenda. I used to have three, but that was in versions before 4.xx.

To explain this, in v4.43 and before: There were the heros and the villains. The villains had this super bad plan going, and they had multiple sub goals serving this plan. The two main villains (meaning the ones who have points of view in my story, not the boss villains) had this separate — albiet bad — agenda to get something from a vaguely good third party. The heros were both the target some of the other offscreen villains and collateral damage of the pov villains. Now this was done originally to show that the villains were so badass that even distracted they were crazy nasty. The heros had as their agenda stopping the villains and saving themselves (nothing really wrong with that), however, they were never really able to understand the actions of the villains because of the mysterious secondary objective.

By making the seemingly simple change of merging the secondary objective and with something the heros had this entire situation was changed and improved. Now, the villains want something the heros have, and although they do much the same things they did against the third party + the collateral part, they do it all to the heros (and a little to each other, because they’re evil!). By way of analogy, before the heros and villains were on adjacent train tracks lobbing bombs at each other and trying to cut each other off at the pass, now they’re on a head-on collision course firing full time at the other. This got rid of the third parties which no one cared about, and had the net effect of creating literally dozens of additional opportunities for conflict and 5 or so new big head to head confrontations — and this is in a book filled to the brim with fights. Conflict is a novelist’s bread and butter, so this is win-win.

It’s also worth saying that to improve any work. Be it video game, novel, or whatever. When you get well articulated suggestions you have to be willing to try and view their merits objectively. This is with the end of judging if the end result would be better in an absolute sense. Of course, sometimes even if it is, the bang for the buck isn’t there, or there are tradeoffs. The changing itself, however, is part of the process.