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.

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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.

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.

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.

Juggling Brains

As the process of the revising my — hopefully — almost finished novel, The Darkening Dream, draws out the amount of work I have to personally do on it declines toward the limit of… well very little. More and more I’m just waiting on something to come back from someone else. When it does, I have a little flurry of activity and then it’s back to waiting. This is par for the course in the glacially paced publishing business, and I haven’t even seriously gotten into the game of waiting on agents and editors yet, which makes glacial look fast. Hell, publishers routinely (read almost always) sit on books for 12-18 months between signing and release. Of course, this is mostly because that’s how it was done prior to the computer and internet age, and must change very soon or they will find themselves in Chapter 11. One only has to look at something like this to realize that.

But in any case, the authorial solution to this process is to write another book in the meantime.

I’d had a really fantastic idea a couple months ago, as usual a hybrid between some new ideas and one of the forty-two thousand stories that have been bouncing around in my head for years. Often a great book comes out of the evil-mutant-mating of two or more half-formed book ideas. In this case the oldest of these is a time travel concept I conceived in the fall of 1994. Anyway, I’ve been doing some outlining work on it since the new year and finally began writing. Three chapters (5700 words) popped out in no time, as I’m very good at the process of converting a scene idea (as long as I know in my head roughly what’s supposed to happen) into the actual prose. I’d half-forgotten how fun first-drafting is. More fun for sure than line editing, and WAY more fun than outlining, and WAY WAY more fun than writing queries or synopses.

The tricky part when flipping back and forth between books is not getting the voice all confused. The Darkening Dream is in third-person past, and has six distinct character voices, while the new one is first-person present with very clipped immediate sentences. Good synaptic exercise for sure.

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.

On Writing: Line Editing

Line editing and polish is an interesting part of the process of professional writing. It bears a lot of similarities to optimizing code as a programmer, but more fun. One of the weird things is that no mater how many times one has read a chunk of prose, there’s always room for improvement. In code optimization, one is usually trying to make the code either smaller, or use less memory, and there’s a clear logarithmic curve, where for ever increasing energy one can achieve ever shrinking gains. Plus, in order to make it faster or smaller one often has to make the code messier or more complicated. Caching is a frequent speed optimization and this always leads to extra complexity and bugs.

Not so with prose. Optimizing prose should always make it better.

With prose, shorter is usually better — not always, but usually. You want your story to move. Scenes serve a number of purposes. They must entertain, and be cool. They must characterize, and essentially, they must move the plot forward. Each scene therefore has a set of things it accomplishes, changes in the state of the characters, their knowledge, their situation. I have scenes that have dropped from 2600 to 1100 words and yet still accomplish all the same plot and character transformations. Oftentimes even more has been thrown in during the process. If every line, ever word matters, then the scene races along.

At first my editing was a mater of reading the prose over and tweaking the sentences using my inner ear. I have a pretty decent one due to lifelong obsessive reading (5000+ books at least — 150 novels this year alone). If you want to write, you must read. There’s no other way. You have to fill your head with sentences so that when you see an awkward one, it rings wrong. Plus, reading is also the key to vocabulary. Still, you can manually build vocabulary, but it’s tough to build inner ear quickly. My early editing passes were like what I’m going to do with this blog post. I wrote it, then I read through and neatened up the bad sentences — very casual.

But there’s a much deeper level of craft possible.

Here is a paragraph from my novel’s first draft:

The newly exposed body was that of a young boy, perhaps fourteen years of age.  He lay naked on his bake in the dirt, covered now only by a few random sticks and leaves.  He had light mouse brown hair, and his pale eyes were wide open leaving him frozen with a startled expression.  His skin was very pale all over, and one arm was bent savagely behind his back, the shoulder bulging in an odd way as if it had been ripped halfway out of its socket.   This was on the opposite side of the mangled leg, lending him a kind of grim diagonal symmetry.  He had gashes on the wrists, ankles, and a deep gouge on the side of his torso.   There was surprisingly little blood.  Numerous flies however had discovered what little there was, they buzzed happily about the wounds, and crawled in and out of his nostrils and mouth.

Then again as it was a couple weeks ago, after probably 15 or so light self-editing sweeps:

Revealed was the body of a boy, naked in the dirt, belly up, covered only by stray sticks and leaves. His eyes stared at the sky, a startled expression frozen on his face. His skin was bluish white. One arm was twisted behind his back, the shoulder bulging halfway out of its socket in response. On the opposite side, his knee was mangled, lending him a ghastly diagonal symmetry. Cruel gashes scarred his wrists and ankles, and a deep gouge split the side of his torso. There was surprisingly little blood, though innumerable flies buzzed about the wounds, crawling in and out of his nostrils and mouth.

Then two weeks ago, I did a serious self edit pass. The heavy use of passive voice makes me cringe now, even though I had a deliberate intent in using it (to have the effect of someone looking, and then surprised to see this shocking sight). After that my editor got to it, then I cleaned that up yet another time. Notice how the final result is 40% shorter than the original, but isn’t really missing anything. There was too much prose the first time. There’s still a lot, as this is a purposeful attempt to kick the sentences into slow gear for horrific effect.

The body of a boy lay naked in the dirt, belly up, covered only by a few remaining sticks and leaves. His eyes stared at the sky, his face frozen in bewilderment. His skin was bluish-white. One arm was twisted behind his back, the shoulder bulging unnaturally. On the opposite side his mangled knee was twisted, lending him a ghastly diagonal symmetry. Gashes scarred his wrists and ankles, and a deep gouge split the side of his torso. There was surprisingly little blood, though flies buzzed about the wounds, crawled in and out of his nostrils and mouth.

Or take this example of some dialog from my first draft. The first speaker is the sister of the second (Sam).

“Hi Sarah,” she began, but quickly turned to her brother, “Sam get that pack on the horses and lets get going.  Nothing fun is going to happen here right in front of Sarah’s house.”
Sam snapped to mocking attention at his sister’s order, “yes ma’am!”  However, he quickly packed Sarah’s stuff into the saddle bags and then put his hands together allowing Sarah to step up and swing onto the small horse.

Then the current edited version.

“Sam, get that pack on the horses. Nothing fun’s going to happen here on the street five minutes from our house.”
Sam snapped to attention, “Yes, ma’am!”

The sentiment is the same, but it’s a third the words, and vastly snappier. A frequent culprit is first pass dialog. In the first line, the same thing is said twice, both indicate the desire to hurry (which is the only real point). Cut one, or merge. The beat about turning isn’t important. The “snapped to mocking attention” is a TELL. We can tell from the action and his dialog that he’s mocking her (it might not be obvious from the isolated lines, but it is knowing they are siblings of the same age). The final bit about mounting the horse isn’t really needed. In the next scene they’re ON the horses, so we don’t have to show them mounting, it’s assumed in the dead zone of the scene break.

In essence, even after one has worked out much of the plot and character quirks, each scene, each paragraph, each sentence can be polished. Lately for example I’ve been trying to make description more lively. A chunk from my first draft:

The Palaogos house was a large home that had been built approximately fifty years earlier, in the residential adaption of the gothic revival style.  It was all wood, and had a haphazard and eclectic appearance not unlike a giant gingerbread cake.  Frilly little wood details abounded, and it was even replete with a turret like tower.  Inside the atmosphere was generally dark (Palaogos men were not often bothered to draw curtains or open windows), and had lots of odd shaped rooms decorated with a very peculiar mix of period furniture.  The floors were draped in heavy carpets, mostly Turkish, covered with dizzying non-figural designs.  The furniture itself was all very large and heavy, a mixture of things like medieval trunks and benches, juxtaposed with Viennese, Bohemian, and Venetian baroque cabinets and consoles (the later adding a touch of gilt to offset the dark woods of the former).

The description is just description. There are a few amusing comments mixed in, but awkwardly with the parenthetical forms. Below is my current version.

He wound through the maze of staircases and twisty corridors that honeycombed his new house. Built by some baker-turned-architect maddened by the American Civil War, its gothic revival style lent it a haphazard appearance not unlike a giant gingerbread cake. Frilly wooden details included a turret-like tower and odd-shaped rooms carpeted with dizzying non-figural patterns. To this Grandfather had added his own taste for the baroque, all grand and substantial, a hodgepodge of medieval trunks and benches, juxtaposed with Viennese and Venetian cabinets. Dark portraits of dour old men and dying saints scowled down from gold-framed canvas perches.

I’ve converted it from passive to active. He actually travels through the space. Attributing the construction to the “baker-turned-architect” livens things up, and instead of just saying there is baroque furniture, it’s attributed to Grandfather such that we get just a smidgen of characterization.

As you can see this is a highly iterative process. If you are curious to learn more — and there is like 10,000 times more to learn — my freelance editor has a great book on the subject (click the picture to the right).