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).


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.