Thursday, May 28, 2020

On Your Marks, Get Set...

Last week I talked about action and I almost spun off on a whole little semi-related tangent. I cut myself off there, but I still want to talk about it, ‘cause it’s one of those things that comes up a lot. And people get it wrong a lot.

What I wanted to address (revisit, really) is that old chestnut that gets dragged out in almost every writing class or discussion or guru-lecture. Start with action. I’m guessing you’ve heard it once or thrice, yes?  Probably just this year.

The problem here is action. Most people see that word and think of... well, all that stuff we talked about last time. Car chases. Ninjas fighting cyborg lizard men. Giant two-headed shark attacks!

So, naturally, this is what they begin with. They come up with a reason to begin with a bank heist. Or a plane crash. Or an armed home invasion. Which is kinda weird in a romantic Christmas story, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? And we need to start with action!

To be clear, this almost never works.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me do one of my Saturday geekery binges, watching three or four bad B-movies in a row. And one of the most common problems they all have is that they start with action. Something crashing to Earth and killing some rednecks or, y’know, a giant two-headed shark attack. Usually in three feet of water. Most giant two-headed shark attacks occur in three feet of water.

But every time, these action-packed events involve people we don’t know and have no investment in. Which immediately lessons the action because it’s not involving anyone I care about, it’s just... happening. To put it in current events terms, we’ve all seen the news about hundreds of thousands of people dying across the globe from Covid-19—heck, we’re past a hundred thousand deaths just here in the US. And while it’s awful, it’s also kind of abstract... until it’s somebody we know. That’s when it hits home and all this stuff happening really connects with us.

Weirdly enough, as a side note... a lot of time the people in these opening action scenes tend to be awful, so I don’t even have basic human empathy for them. I want them to die, and that can switch the whole tone of my opening. Far too often, these events won’t even end up tying back to the story. They’re just little disconnected blips with characters we’ll never see or hear about again.

When I try to start with action like this, I’m just delaying the actual starting point of the story. And I’m doing it in a way that alienates my audience, too. Why would I want to do that?

And one other problem when I start this way. If I structure my story so it begins cranked up to eight-point-three, there’s only two things it can do. It can either take a huge hit and drop down to three or maybe four as I establish some kind of norm. Or it can stay up in that top fifteen percent of dramatic tension and be... kind of monotone. I mean, think about it—a whole story where the tension never shifts by more than ten percent in any direction?

So... why does start with action keep getting parroted around?

As I mentioned last time, there’s more to action than just swordfights. My typing all this up for you to read is action, and you reading it is action. Getting lectured by your boss, trying to get to class on time, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn... All of these things are action. They’re things happening.

More importantly, I think, is they’re actions we can all immediately understand, and they’re actions that can easily tell us something about the people involved in them.

Take mowing the lawn for example. How old is Wakko? Is he mowing his lawn or someone else’s? Why is he mowing it? How much effort is it for him? What’s he thinking about while he’s doing it? These are all really easy questions to answer while he’s pushing the mower back and forth. So something’s happening, we’re meeting the character, and maybe even getting to set up some simple, basic stakes.

When we say “start with action,” we want to feel that events are in progress. That these are real people who existed before page one. We just stumbled across them right now at what’s (hopefully) the point when all the interesting stuff’s about to begin.

Also, just to stop one train of thought real quick—yes, thinking is technically an action. So is fantasizing, realizing, remembering, reading, staring into space, and many other such things. But the key thing to remember here is all of these are really just Yakko sitting at his desk and not moving. So really... nothing’s happening.

And we want to have something happening. Something that falls in the middle ground between daydreaming and demon ninjas roaring down the street on AI-guided murdercycles. I mean, just off the top of my head, let’s look at some action-filled books and movies and see how they start...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins, as I’ve often pointed out, with the two main characters doing their morning jogs.

Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz begins with a young woman writing/narrating a letter to her father, warning him not to come looking for her.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez begins with the main character trying to explain her very thin resume at a job interview.

Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine’s Journey begins with the main character reshelving books in a book store while she complains about her older sister not taking her seriously

My latest book, Terminus, begins with a guy half-listening to a sermon being given on a beach at night. Heck, Ex-Heroes, the post-apocalyptic superheroes vs. zombies book that launched my career, begins with two people on guard duty chatting while a zombie keeps bumping into the wall below them.

Hell, you want an absolutely crazy one? Do you remember how the Transformers movie begins? Yes, Transformers by Michael “it still needs more explosions” Bay? A bunch of Army Rangers get back from a long patrol and hit the showers while their CO goes to call his wife and baby daughter. Seriously. That’s the opening of the movie.

And again, they’re all starting with action... but they’re not starting with action! They’re putting us right into the ongoing story. They’re introducing us to characters rather than slamming us into them.

They’re catching our interest and drawing us in. Getting us invested. Making us want to read more.

Which is a pretty good way to start a book.

Next time, I’d like to share a special message with you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Action Figures

And now I’d like to take a minute and talk to you about this really cool Machine Man figure I got off eBay this week.

No, not really. Although he is pretty cool. He’s got replacement hands with pieces so it can look like his arms are extending like they do in the comics.

(someone at Marvel should let me write Machine Man)

Anyway, I thought it might be good to revisit action. Yes, anything my characters do is an action, but I specifically want to talk about action. The dinosaur cyborg swordfight/ gunfighter strafing the room/ six burly guys in a bar trying to take out one MMA fighter and getting their asses kicked kind of action. The type of action your college writing professor said was pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I love a good action scene. On the page. In a movie. Hell, some television shows these days have fantastic action scenes. And I’ve been part of a few action scenes here and there in my own life.

Action, by its very nature, is fast. It’s a blur. If you’ve ever been part of an accident, a fight, a collision, or any kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about. In the moment, things are just happening. It’s not until later, when things settle down, that we take stock and piece together all the details of what just happened. And then I’m not quite sure how my arm got cut or how my pant leg got ripped or oh crap is that my blood?

Here are a couple tips I try to keep in mind when I’m writing action scenes.

Keep it fastAction can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, that means things are happening in slow motion. Even a paragraph can seem like a long time if I stretch stuff out.

My personal belief is action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would to experience. Throwing that punch and the moment of contact are a sentence, tops. I pare fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum so they read fast. Two ways I do this are to clump some actions together, and also to trust the reader to figure out what happened on their own. 

—Hector kicked one of the man’s feet away and flung his head down at the formica tabletop.

—One minute Officer Barroll had the young woman under control and then she kicked off the ground, went up over the officer’s shoulder, and now somehow she was behind him pushing his arm up along his spine.

Notice how in that second example you probably (hopefully) got a cool mental image of what happened, but you’ll notice I didn’t give a ton of details. I just provided some quick images and a bit of tone. Your brain filled in all the connective tissue, fleshing out the moment and creating a lot of the action.

Keep it simple—I know a lot of terminology for weapons and martial arts, but I actually try not to use a lot of it when I write. Again, just my opinion, but I think a lot of that “gun porn” type stuff clutters up action scenes. I want this to move fast, and the more technical I get, the less likely most people will know what I’m talking about. Yes ushiro geri is the correct term for what Wakko just did, but if my reader has to stop to sound out words or parse meanings from context... that’s probably breaking the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head or when you’re shooting at a charging T-Rex. Action is much more about instinct, and instinct rarely involves copyrights, brand names, or model numbers.

Keep it sensory—I just mentioned action is instinctive. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery. With that fast, simple nature in mind, I try to keep a lot of action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations. Like I mentioned up above, specific details can come later. I could write about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes, but in the heat of the moment it might just be the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.

Granted, writing this way can make it hard to describe some things, but again... a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once everything cools down. And some things get bandaged up.

Keep it real—Finally, like so many things in writing, it all comes down to characters.  Action needs to be based in characters with real emotion, characters we have some investment in. A stranger in a high speed car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Yakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.

We also need to have some sense of stakes here. Is someone’s life at risk? Is it someone we should care about? Someone who’s going to have an effect on the plot? If I don’t have any of this, odds are my action is just some empty filler.

Now, as I mentioned at the top, these are all just tips, not rules. There’s lots of times you might want to ignore one or two of them. But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.

A pretty common character to come across in stories is what we could probably call the fighting savant. You know the type. Batman, Melinda May, Jack Reacher, Stealth, John Wick—they’re the tough, unstoppable characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience. For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action as it’s happening around them, picking out beats and planning out responses the way you or I pick our lunch at Panda Express.

But remember... these characters by their very nature should be rare. If I’ve got a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... it means I’ve got a dozen guys who are all kinda average. It’s monotone, and it’s going to get boring real fast.

Two smaller tips to keep in mind when dealing with these savant-folks. One... think about fairy tales. You’ve probably seen some version of that old Grimm’s tale about the guy with a collection of friends. One is the strongest person in the world, one’s the fastest person in the world, one’s got the best hearing in the world... you know the story I’m talking about, yes? It’s a group of people who have superlative abilities, but in a very narrow, focused range. They don’t have a lot of overlap, which is why each one of them is individually important to my team. I mean, if I've got a team where every person can hit a bullseye from a hundred yards with a rifle, pistol, or knife... well, what the hell do I need a sharpshooter for? If they’re all strong enough to punch through concrete, what do I need a strong guy for? And if everyone on the team can do everything... I can probably get by with a much smaller team.

The other thing to remember is point of view. This character might be a master of  unarmed combat, but this one is a borderline giant who favors brute strength and savagery. They’re both going to give us some unstoppable action, but it’s going to be a very different kind of action depending on whose narrative it is. And that should reflect in my writing.

And that’s that.  A handful of ideas for writing fast, hard-hitting action.

Although I did actually have one other thing to say about action. But maybe it should wait until next time.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

My Chronicle of the Plague Months

I finished up the A2Q last week, and for a brief moment I had no idea what I would blather on about this time. Seriously, a complete blank. There’s just so much crap going on in the world right now (as I talked about a few weeks ago) and I was stressing a bit over my own manuscript that I’m working on right now (the non-werewolf one).

So I thought I might talk a little bit about that. The stress and the non-werewolf manuscript. Because maybe you’re stressing about the same thing. Or something closely related. Probably not the fact that your work in progress doesn't have any werewolves. That's a much bigger problem you'll have to deal with on your own.

My new book opens in a bar. The first three chapters are set there (granted, I write kinda short chapters compared to most people). And as I’m heading toward the end of this draft and getting ready to loop around for another look, I’m kinda dreading those chapters.

I mean... is a bar even normal anymore? It was when I started this, but now it feels a little weird. What’s going to be “normal” when my agent and editor see this in a month or two? Do these dozen or so bar patrons—does the whole vibe of the bar—come across differently now? Should they be wearing masks? Should the bartender have gloves? And what does it mean if I write them not wearing masks of gloves. How will people see the book? Hell, how will people see me? I mean, for some idiot reason wearing/not wearing a mask during a pandemic has become a political statement.

How much of the real world should I be incorporating into my writing? I mean, a lot of really smart people are saying things can’t go back to the way they were. Do readers and editors want to see the world that is? The world that was? Should I be incorporating masks and social distancing and hell is the romance angle in this totally stupid now? Can two people have a random meet-cute in a world where most people don’t go anywhere casually? Are people still hooking up in the plague years, or is this scene going to come across as less sexy and more incredibly risky?

If you’re having these kinda thoughts well... join the club. It makes sense, after all. It shows you have a good level of empathy, that you’re thinking about these things and how they’ll be seen by other people.

But thinking about them doesn’t answer the big question. What should we do? How should we—or should we—be altering things in our work to match the world better?

I think what we’re all experiencing right now is a kind of common problem, it’s just rare for all of us to be going through it at the same time, and on this scale. We’re trying to write for the future. We’re trying to guess what readers and agents and editors are going to want to see in nine or ten months.

To some extent, this is always an issue. There are people who find themselves writing political thrillers during major elections. Folks have written books about cutting-edge technology that’s obsolete by the time anyone gets to read it. If you’re a Lee Child fan, you may have heard the story of how a change in the way currency was designed and printed made the entire twist of his first Jack Reacher novel, The Killing Floor, completely impossible. I wrote a book about the American Dream in late 2015/early 2016, and by the time it came out parts of it looked almost foolishly optimistic. These things happen. The world keeps progressing.

Hell, even more hardcore genre books can have this problem. How many sci-fi books and movies are set in a future that we’ve already reached and passed? 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010? Back to the Future? Thundarr the Barbarian? A ton of Star Trek? All of these stories involved “future” events and well... we know those futures didn’t happen.

Y’see Timmy, we can’t predict the future. Even the relatively near future. And our readers and editors know this. Things will always happen that might make some part of my book obsolete or impossible. If it doesn’t happen in the process of writing it, it’ll definitely happen at some point. It's inevitable.

My point is... don’t worry about it right now. Take a breath. The world’s in a very weird place and nobody has any idea what it’s going to be like a year from now. Absolutely no one. So for this book, just do what feels right. And a year from now we can all worry about what things are like a year from now.

I will toss out two small addendums to this.

First, the easy one. If this really gnaws at you, maybe you could incorporate some “current” elements at a lesser level. I mean, here in southern California (probably in most cities) it wasn’t exactly rare to see people wearing masks, especially during flu season or some outbreak. Heck, if you’ve been at an airport any time in the past few years, I’m sure you’ve seen people wearing them there. So it’s not like it would be unnatural to mention masks on a few people, or someone keeping that one alligator-length away from other folks.

Addendum the second. I’ve mentioned once or thrice there are some writers who seriously excel at pumping out really fast, very topical books. It’s a really specific type of market and you need to be a very specific type of writer to do well in it.

I bring it up because I guarantee you these folks have already written the lockdown murder mystery novel, the “have to venture out during quarantine” novel, the “falling in love over Zoom” novel, the “lost soul finds new purpose handmaking masks” novel, the “unfeeling businessman learns the real meaning of life after a beloved person dies of covid-19” novel, and probably far to many “brave reporter uncovers the real conspiracy behind the lockdowns” novels. Wow, that was a hell of a run on sentence. If Ray Porter narrated my blog, he would smack me upside the head for that one.

My point is, unless I’ve already finished it, I should probably hold off on something that ties directly to current events. There’s a really good chance a lot of writers already beat me to it (in the sense that their novel’s already done). Which means there’s a really good chance agents and editors are already swamped with these brilliant, high-concept ideas that I just thought up off the top of my head and all of you could immediately picture. Even if I go the self pub-route, odds are these other writers have already sewn up that market. Or bled it dry. Maybe both. Whichever of those works best for you.

But my big point still stands. For now, try not to worry too much about this. Make sure your book works overall, that all the big beats work before fretting over small details. Even if some aspect of the world means my book is now 100% impossible, it can still be looked at as a story of the world that was, and it’ll still need to be the best book I can make it.

Anyway... that’s my semi-inspirational, reassuring ramble for this week. Hopefully it helped a few of you. It actually calmed be a bit just writing it out.

Next time... I don’t know. After three months working on the A2Q, I feel a little lost. Is there a particular topic anyone would like me to address and blather on about? Something from the A2Q I could clarify? Just a random question that’s been bugging you? Let me know down below.

And if nobody has anything... well, I’m sure I’ll come up with something exciting.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

A2Q Part Twelve—Completion

Well. Here we are. One last time.

This is the final part of the A2Q, and I think this last topic is the thing that gets overlooked the most when people give out writing tips. In fact, a lot of writing advice dances quickly around it. Because it’s not a pleasant thing to think about.

That thing—the last part—is this.

Eventually you have to stop.

A lot of you've probably had someone tell you “writing is rewriting.” It’s one of those maxims that gets tossed around a lot. And it’s true. Sort of.

But the part they probably didn’t tell you is that rewriting is also a trap. It’s a rabbit hole you can fall down, working on draft after draft after draft. It becomes constant revisions, always finding something else to tweak, a better word to use, a more dramatic place to break those paragraphs in. It can keep you stuck in place, doing lots of work for smaller and smaller returns.

If you’ve ever followed any sort of exercise routine, you know that a key part of it is that you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to increase the weight or the reps. You have to run an extra mile, or get your time down by two minutes. If I keep doing the same thing again and again, the benefits of it begin to drop off. Eventually I plateau and I’m just here at this level. Not advancing in any way.

Weird as it may sound, writing is a lot like this. We need to keep pushing ourselves. To make our mental muscles flex and stretch and try new things. If we fall into a rut, we’re never going to accomplish anything.

I say this from experience. During the A2Q—and a bunch of other times here on the ranty blog—I’ve mentioned my first completed novel, The Suffering Map. It was my “just moved to California” novel and there’s a fair argument to be made that I spent close to twelve years working on it. Hell, most of those years were just the first draft (although, in all fairness, for almost seven of them I gave up on it and focused on screenwriting). There are nine different versions of it currently in my computer.

In the end, it got me some mild interest from a few agents. And that was it. Nothing else.

So around late 2006 I put it aside and started working on something new.

And this can be scary. It’s borderline terrifying to think we’re going to take this werewolf manuscript that we’ve been pouring all our great thoughts and clever ideas into for months (or years)—that we’ve put all this energy and effort into—and forget about it. It seems like a huge waste, doesn’t it? What was the point of doing all this if I’m just going to put it aside and move on?

Which is why sometimes... we embrace the trap. We might not admit it out loud, but sticking with this manuscript feels safe. Because stopping means we either need to risk rejection or admit it needs to get put away. Either of these can be a huge punch in the gut. But if I keep working on it, if I keep telling myself it’s just not quite ready yet... I can put off that moment.  I mean, it’ll happen soon, absolutely. As soon as I can do one more draft

And again, I’m saying this from experience. When I set The Suffering Map aside, I think I spent a week wondering if I was making a mistake. Should I give it one more look before filing it away? Maybe try one more submission? Was I giving up too soon?

But I finally embraced the truth. I’d done all I could with this particular manuscript, and it  wasn’t going to get any better. And neither was I. I needed to work with new characters in new situations. I had to follow some different paths, not the ones I’d walked back and forth on a dozen times and beaten down so nothing could grow there any more.

That’s where we are now with this book we’ve been writing. My werewolf book, your whatever-it-may-be book. I can’t tell you exactly when you’re going to reach this point, but it’s important to realize this point exists. Reaching it is good. It’s a normal part of the book-writing process—moving on to the next book.

What happens with this one? That’s going to be up to you. Maybe you’ll acknowledge it’s not quite ready yet, stash it away on a jump drive or in the cloud (maybe both, just to be safe) and move on. Maybe you’ll send it out to a dozen agents or publishers. Perhaps you’ll decide to publish it yourself. Again, it’s up to you to decide what’s right for you and your book.

Whatever the decision is, though, it’s time to say goodbye to this thing we’ve been working on and move on to something else. To let our brains shift into new patterns. Get them working on some different concepts, something new and exciting.

Because if we don’t, we’re just going to stall out.

And that, m’friends, is all I’ve got for you as far as how to write a book. How to take that tale out of your head and put it down on the page in the best way possible. Even at 110 pages on this end, I know it could’ve been a little denser in a few places. But I tried to keep this to easy-to-digest chunks and included links wherever I could. Plus, y’know... pandemic. And I was trying to finish an actual book of my own.

Anyway, I hope it was semi-educational and at least partially useful for some of you.

Next time... well, we’ll see what we’re all up for.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A2Q Part Eleven—Revisions

Getting close to the end now.

I want to talk now about incorporating feedback. I know to some folks this doesn’t sound like a vital part of “writing my first novel,” but I personally think it is. One of the reasons my “college novel” (Trinity) crashed and burned was that I got really hung up on early feedback. I tried to figure out how to please everyone because I gave everyone’s thoughts equal weight. I still see that happening today—people who want to somehow listen to every voice and incorporate every note. Even contradictory ones. I’ve seen people spend years trying to do this.

Also I know it may also seem a bit weird that this part and the last one have been split into two posts. It might seem feedback and revisions go hand and hand. On one level, yeah, they do, but I think the criticism half of it is important enough to warrant its own focus for a bit. Being able to accept feedback from knowledgeable sources is a big thing for a writer. It’s taking a huge step forward. And I think it’s really, really tough to write a good book if I can’t take that step. So it really is a separate, important step in the process.

Plus, splitting them up this way gave me an even twelve parts for the A2Q.

All that said, let’s talk about incorporating notes

The first thing we need to talk about is sorting the feedback. Not all criticism is created equal and valid, despite what that guy on the internet shrieked at you. We need to take those fifteen page packets of notes, and the copies of your manuscript with notes up and down the margins, and figure out what’s what. You can do this on the fly, break it all down before you actually start the revisions, or whatever works for you.

I think the overwhelming amount of feedback we get is going to fall into one of three categories—opinions, advice, and facts. Being able to figure out which one’s which is going to be tough. It’s also going to be a skill you can use forever. It’ll help you throughout your writing career, and probably in other parts of your life, too. A lot of folks think their angry opinions are facts. Some folks think they’re offering advice when it’s just an opinion. And some writers (yeah, it’s on us too) hear facts and advice and think they’re just opinions.

Let’s go over them.

First up is opinions. An opinion is someone’s personal thoughts about a topic (in this case our clearly flawless werewolf manuscript). Opinions don’t need anything else behind them. They can just be a gut response. They’re super-subjective and they can carry a lot of baggage.

They’re also, by and large, the first thing to toss. If someone’s just scribbling “that’s stupid” in the margin or “werewolf stories are so overdone,” I tend to ignore them. I once had a beta reader cover The Suffering Map with red ink because they decided everything in the manuscript was wrong  because characters made decisions they didn’t like.

Now, I’m not saying opinions have no value. They do, but only in a “general direction” sort of way. An individual opinion really doesn’t mean much, in this instance, while a dozen identical opinions have a bit of weight. Maybe. If only one person thinks I telegraphed Luna being the werewolf too much, they’re probably just reading too much into it. I know some folks who have a bad habit of retroactively adjusting their awareness/expectations, so they “always” saw that twist coming (because if they didn’t, it means they got tricked like everyone else). But if most of my beta-readers (and agent and editor) think I telegraphed it... maybe I did.

Next is advice. In pretty much any sense, this is thoughts and ideas that have an actual rationale behind them. A big difference between advice and opinions is I can almost always explain the reasoning behind my advice in an objective way. I’ve mentioned this little factoid before—anyone can say “this sucks” but it’s a lot harder to be able to explain why something sucks. Sometimes advice is self-evident, other times it may need a line or three of explanation.

For example, one setting in the werewolf book is the bar Phoebe works at, and some reader might point out “Should some people be wearing masks here at the bar? It’s your most crowded location, and even optimistically when this book comes out it’s probably still going to be a very common sight.” It’s the reader’s idea, but we can all see the logic and the chain of reasoning behind it. Or they might get halfway through the manuscript and point out “Wow, Phoebe is coming across as kinda dumb,” and offer a few examples that have happened so far.

Last are the facts. These are, well, I mean, they’re facts. No alternatives. If you tell me I spelled Jake Gillanhall wrong, it’s something we can both look up pretty easily because there’s a definitive answer. If the last words in my book are To Be Continued and you tell me there’s no ending, you’ve caught me dead to rights. If you tell me the full moon doesn’t actually last five nights and we traveled there in 1969, you’re absolutely correct.

Worth mentioning, sure, maybe those mistakes are there on purpose. It might be a clue that someone thinks we landed on the Moon in 1955 and there could be a good reason why I have a bunch of spelling mistakes. But (as I’ve mentioned once or thrice before), it should be very clear to the reader that these are deliberate mistakes, not accidental ones. I’ve always been very leery of “journal” books that have a bunch of misspellings and use the excuse of “it’s the character making mistakes.” I know this kind of thing gnaws at editors, too. So if my beta readers don’t get that this is deliberate, if they think it’s an actual mistake... I may want to think about that.

Now that I’ve got them sorted, the next step is weighing them. This is one of the reasons it might not be bad to have more than one person reading your manuscript. I still don’t think it’s good to get ten or twelve or more folks, but having a well selected five or six can still give me a lot of viewpoints—and possibly some opposing ones.

Then I just start going through them page by page. Personally, I like to do it all at once. Here’s everyone’s thoughts on page one, everyone’s thoughts on page two, everyone’s thoughts on... you get the point. Yes, it’s a bit slower to go this way, but it also lets me get reactions all at once rather than getting Reader A’s responses on this page right now, Reader B’s responses in three days, and Reader C’s sometime next week. This also saves me from spending a lot of time rethinking the page because of A and B’s thoughts, only to finds out later C, D, and E all really liked it. And so did I, hopefully, because I wrote it.

That’s how a lot of this will go. Weighing how people respond to different things. Everybody likes Phoebe and dislikes Luc (just like they’re supposed to). But everybody also thinks the description of Phoebe’s armor is just... bad. The unanimous ones are the easy notes to get. Everyone hates this, everyone loves that. The big thing is to actually read them, to not give in to that instinct to just brush the bad comments aside.

Sometimes, it’ll take a little more back and forth. If one of my beta readers thinks there’s a little too much sex and innuendo in this werewolf book, but two others have no comment and the fourth keeps adding comments saying “Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhh”... that’s kinda evenly split, arguably positive. One thinks it’s a negative, two don’t seem to mind either way, and one likes it. I should consider that and weight changing it appropriately

Likewise, if three of them hate it and one likes it... well, maybe this needs some work. Sometimes I just need to accept that sometimes things just don’t work the way I’d hoped they would. It sucks, but it’s better that I’m learning it from three or four people I know rather than a potential agent or publisher. Definitely better than hearing it from the two hundred people who decided to leave reviews.

A few other things to consider. If a lot of readers are suggesting something doesn’t work, they’re probably right. If they’re telling you how to fix it... they’re probably wrong. This is your project. Your art. People can suggest whatever they want, but the only person who knows what it needs is you. Don’t get bullied down a path you don’t actually want to go down. Look at the notes, look at your manuscript, figure out what’s going to make it work.

On a related note, yeah, sometimes we also just need to put our foot down and say “the space cantina stays in!” Because this is art (our art, anyway) there are going to be things that might not be totally logical. They may be a bit more excessive and flowery (or violent and horrific, or sexy and scandalous) than they arguably need to be, but in my mind this moment or this character or maybe this chapter needs to be there, Maybe it’s not necessary for the narrative or dramatic structure, but it’s important for the world. So even if everyone thinks it’s unnecessary and/or a bit distracting... I’m keeping the space cantina.

I do need to keep track of how often I’m putting my foot down, though. If there are dozens of instances where my readers are pointing out logical, reasonable things about the manuscript and I think I need to put my foot down on every single one of them... maybe I’m not as open to feedback as I’m telling myself. Might be worth taking a few steps back, having that stiff drink we mentioned last time, and starting over.

Like I mentioned above, this whole process can take some time, but I really think it’s worth it. So much of writing is done alone (and let’s face it—a lot of us tend to lean toward the introvert side) that our internal empathy scale can drift a bit. It’s good when we’re starting out—and honestly, I think, even after we’ve had a degree of success—to have someone we trust help us recalibrate that scale.

Also worth mentioning... Your mileage may vary, but after I do all of these revisions, I try to do one more line-by-line read through. I’ve learned (the hard way) with all these tweaks and revisions, something often slips by. Just a little thread I didn’t snip or tie off. Like maybe at some point I gave a bunch of Luc’s dialogue to Quinn, but I forgot to change some pronouns and now trying to follow who’s talking is a mess. Or at one point I decided Luc would be called Etienne (to cut down on any possible Luc/Luna confusion) and missed a few here or there. Or maybe I cut a whole awkward (on many levels) discussions about safe sex between Phoebe and Luna from chapter four, but they still refer back to it in chapter fifteen. This is a big house of cards and it’s not hard for something to get overlooked when those cards get shuffled.

So hopefully this’ll help you put some of that feedback in perspective and let you sift through it.

There is one part left to the A2Q. One final lesson to impart, my young apprentice. Apprentices? Apprentici? How many of you are even reading this?

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

A2Q Part Ten—Criticism

Welcome back everyone. Or welcome for the first time if you’re part of this ridiculous wave of new people following me around. Either way, glad to have you here.

I wanted to get back to the A2Q and wade out into the less-enjoyable parts of this whole writing thing. I know some of you thought the first draft was the less-enjoyable part, and for others of you it may have been the editing. But I’m willing to bet most of you are going to moan and grumble and gnash your teeth at this part.

It’s time to talk about feedback and criticism.

Now, if I don’t plan on showing this to anyone—if I just wanted to write a book to prove to myself I could write a good, complete novel—congratulations. You’re done. I hope all of this was helpful in some way. Feel free to follow along more if you want, but we’re definitely going to be leaning in a certain direction from here on.

The rest of you...

If my goal is publication—traditional or self—I’m going to need to deal with feedback. Or to put it another way, criticism. This is an essential part of the process. No, it really is. These days with people shouting at movie studios and directors and authors for every choice they make, it’s good to remember that actual criticism refers to an objective critique of my work from someone qualified to make it.

So let’s talk about criticism. Why we need it. Who we need it from. And accepting it. Well, some of it. Depending.

First off, why do we need it? Well, so we can improve. You’ve probably heard about people talking about “going blind to things,” and I’m a big believer in that. Sometimes we get so focused and invested on something that we don’t see problems—or solutions—that are sitting right in front of us. I’ve talked a couple times in the A2Q about “fresh eyes” on the manuscript, and the freshest are going to be the ones that’ve never seen it before.

The simple truth is, none of us are the end-all, be-all of writing. There will always be things we miss. Things we do wrong. Things we can improve. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just... wrong. No other way to put it.

I’ve been doing this for a while now, but my editor actually came up with the last line of Dead Moon after I went through at least seven or eight different versions of it. I’ve helped at least three writer-friends work through problems recently. And I’m kinda gearing up to show this new book to a few of my regular people. Cause it may be my book, and I absolutely get to write it the way I want, but I still need to be aware of how it’s going to appear to other eyes. Some folks might not get that joke. Others may not like that character. And it’s entirely possible I’m just doing something wrong and don’t realize it. Maybe not even wrong, but it’s possible I could do it much better.

Next would be, who do we need it from. Oddly enough, not from assorted unknown randos on the internet who want to tell us everything we’re doing wrong. If I’m going to get feedback from someone, it needs to be someone I trust, and someone I trust to be objective. And there’s a good chance that person isn’t RealWriter173643—“I’m bringing the novel BACK after twenty years of garbage from big publishers.”

(Don’t listen to that guy)

A fairly common thing is to get some beta readers. Nothing wrong with that, but I think they need to be chosen carefully. I’ve seen folks who’ll just desperately send their material to anybody willing to read it. And while I completely understand that need to be read, I think finding a beta reader this way is likely to do more harm than good.

A good beta reader, like I said, is someone I can trust to be honest with me. Brutally honest, if need be. Let’s face it—a lot of our friends and family and significant others have a vested interest in keeping us happy. They’re probably going to be overly gentle with the criticism, maybe even tell a few white lies. So we should be a little cautious before immediately handing it off to one of them.

They also need to be someone with a relevant background. Just because someone was a solid B+ English student back in high school and has read a lot of books doesn’t mean they’re going to understand the nuances of narrative structure and how it works. There’s a lot more to it than that.

And finally, my beta reader should actually want to help me. If you’ve ever been in a writing group, either in the real world or online, you know there are those folks who just live to rip stuff apart. They delight in showing you how you may have messed up, but rarely offer any actual help. They just think they're scoring points for being more vicious and nitpicky than anyone else. Might be worth noting that—at least in my experience—these folks often think their opinions about a manuscript should be treated as hard facts. These aren't the kind of people you need critiquing your book. I mean, you don't need people like that in your life at all.

Personally... I think beta readers are a good thing. Even if it’s just one person I let read this before I send it off into the world. Especially if this is all new to me and my first time trying to put a novel together. I don’t want to have a weird turn of phrase or an obscure reference or maybe a line that can really be misread which suddenly makes me or the book look very wrong.

Look at it this way. This is a way to get feedback under controlled conditions. I’m picking the person who’s going to see this first. I’m making sure it’s someone I can trust, and also—not meant in a harsh way—someone who won’t matter. This isn’t making a first impression on an editor or an agent or a potential reader-who-likes-my-stuff-enough-to-pay-for-it. It’s somebody I know who already knows me

Actually, one last thought here. I probably don’t want too many beta readers. I think if I’m hitting double digits this manuscript’s going out to too many people. This is when it suddenly turns into that writing group or class where I’ve got a fifteen or twenty copies of my manuscript to go over, and maybe some of them also have additional documents. If I wrote a 400 page book, that’s almost eight thousand pages of notes and comments to go through. And the truth is, they’re going to get redundant fast. Get people you trust, get enough of them to be a good sample size.

At this point in my life, I’ve got four people I consider good, solid beta-readers. Two are men, two are women. Two are screenwriters. Two are novelists. Two are professional editors (there’s some overlap here, clearly). One writes comic books. All of them have different backgrounds and different fandoms and hobbies. I’ve known all of them for at least ten years, and I know them all (and they know me) well enough to be as brutally honest as they need to be.

And I know some folks think of this as “meddling” or a waste of time, but it’s not. Which brings us nicely to... accepting criticism.

This final part is where I think a lot of people crumble, one way or another. Some folks accept any and all criticism as evidence of their failures and toss their manuscript in the incinerator. Other people simply refuse to bend, not yielding an inch or admitting the possibility of a single flaw in the glory of their creative vision made manifest.

If I have good people reading my manuscript, there’s no reason to reject what they have to tell me. They’re trying to help me, right? We just said that. Why am I fighting it now?

Well, we all know why. It hurts. It’s scary to think we put all this effort into something, invested all this time, and it just wasn’t enough. It still needs more work. it’s enough to make you give up. Or maybe dig in your heels and shout “no, no, no, NO!”

But look, we’ve already done this twice, right? No matter how rough it was, we made a bunch of decisions and observations when we put our outline together. And then we did it again after our first draft was done, when we were looking at the overall plot/story with fresh eyes and seeing where it needed some tweaks. This is just one more pass from someone who doesn’t have any preconceptions about what’s on the page. They’re not going to see what I think is there... they’re just going to read what’s there. And it’s important I know that.

I need to be open to this criticism. I asked for it, after all. I wanted these people to help me find the weak spots and confusing moments and that one word I keep using that does not mean what I think it means.

Go over the notes your readers sent back. Really read their comments, don’t just skim looking for praise. Or for scorn.

And then... take a deep breath or two. Step away from the computer. Maybe have a drink. And a nice meal. And another drink. Just don’t sit there glaring at it.

Because I guarantee you, some of these notes are going to burn. They will leave welts. People aren’t going to get all your jokes. They’re going to be baffled by some of your word choices. Someone’s going to say that wonderfully cute and endearing character you spent so much time on is just annoying as hell. You will feel yourself ready to snap back like you were reading the comments section on a political article.

Let all those first responses go away. Resist the animal urge to strike back at those who’ve hurt you and yours. Accept that this is going to help you.

Okay, maybe have another drink. But I’m cutting you off after that one. You’re not going to be some flat Hemingway cliché.

And hey, speaking of having drinks...

As some of you may have noticed, WonderCon didn’t happen this year. One of the many, many cons that have fallen before our current pandemic crisis. I was going to host the annual Writer’s Coffeehouse there. I don’t talk about the publishing side of things much here, but that’s all we talk about at the WonderCon Coffeehouse

But now WonderCon is doing  a bunch of virtual panels, and Friday afternoon (tomorrow) I’m going to be recording a Coffeehouse with Kristi Charish, Stephen Blackmoore, and ML Brennan. But we need questions from you. So hit us up with your questions about publishing—any questions—and the four of us will try our best to give useful answers. Put questions in the comments down below, send them to one of us on Twitter, or if you feel a little self-conscious about standing up in front of everyone, you can send me a DM on Twitter or an email at peterclines101@yahoo.com and then when we talk you can just be “V” or “Crash Override” or “somebody else.”

Next time... let’s talk about working through other people’s notes.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Golden Rule

I’ve been doing the A2Q thing for a while now and I wanted to take a moment to talk about a related matter.

Since I started this ranty blog way back when, there’s one thing I’ve tried to be clear about. This is mostly all just advice. And the thing about advice is... you can take it or leave it. It’s not required and it definitely doesn’t fit every situation.

I do dabble in rules now and then, yeah. Lightly. I do firmly believe writing has some some rules and it’s important to learn them. Knowing them will only help me. Heck, knowing them can help me break them.

But overall, this is just advice. Some of it’s going to work for you, on this particular project. Odds are a lot of it isn’t. That’s how this whole writing-art thing goes. You get a huge pile of thoughts and ideas and advice dumped on you and it’s your job as the writer to sift through all of it and figure out what’s going to work for you and what isn't.

It can take a while. Maybe even years. And nobody wants to think it could take years for them to figure out how to write. That’s why some people like the idea that this is all very teachable. That it can get broken down into equations and page counts and formulas. Do this, then this, then that, and BAM New York Times bestseller right there. Now give me $250 for sharing my secret method with you.

Because I mean it’s that or... doing the work. And none of us want to do that. Believe me, if there was an easier way, I’d be on it in a heartbeat. But there isn’t. That’s the Golden Rule I’ve been pushing here for... hell, over a decade now.


The way I write isn’t going to be the way you write. I know this because I have a lot of writer friends and I don’t write like any of them. They don’t write like each other, either. You can probably find some similarities, some common threads, but for most of us our process is our process.

And I know this might seem a little weird and hypocritical because this is exactly what I’ve been doing here for the past three months. The A2Q is one long ongoing series of “here’s how you do this...” How can I spend all this time telling you how to do things and then say none of it’s going to work for you?

Well, I’ve used cooking as an analogy for writing before, and I think that’s a good way to explain the A2Q. Don’t think of it as a book, think of it as a recipe that I’m teaching you. Maybe for pizza. And I’ll show you how I do the crust, the sauce, how I cut the veggies, what cheese and spices I use, oven settings, all of it. Beginning to end.

Yeah, there’s a chance you can follow all these steps and do it exactly like I do, even though you’ve never once cut vegetables or crushed garlic. But if you’ve never done this you’re probably going to end up making a few practice pizzas. And more than likely... you’re going to want your crust a little different, maybe a little thicker or more chewy (are you one of those deep-dish weirdoes?). Maybe you don’t want veggies, you want more sausage and pepperoni. Plus, it could use a lot more sauce and, heck, why am I even using red sauce when there’s perfectly good pesto to put on pizzas?

Hell, you might be one of those pineapple monsters.

So you’ll try my recipe once, perhaps twice, and then you’ll tweak it to work better for your tastes and preferences. You might decide there’s only one or two bits that work well for you (brush olive oil on the outer edge of the crust? Hmmmmm...) and ignore the rest. Or maybe none of this will work for you, because you and I just have some very different ideas of what makes a good pizza and how to make it.

That’s great, whatever you do. It’s absolutely fantastic. If my recipe gets you to a better pizza, than my work here is done—even if it just means realizing you don’t want to do it my way. Process of elimination is part of the process, y’know? Figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t.

The A2Q is me trying to give you a nice, easy recipe for a book. You’re supposed to fool around with it and change it. Maybe do things in a different order. Perhaps start in a different place. Some of my ideas and suggestions might not work for you, and that’s cool. The idea is to get you thinking and considering these different elements, maybe making you really aware of some of them for the first time. And then you’ll figure out how to use them in a way that works best for you and gives you the results you want.

That’s the Golden Rule.

I just thought it might be good to bring it up again.

Anyway... next week, back to the A2Q. There’s still more work to be done.

Until then, go write.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Super Bonus Parrot POV Post

Yeah, that’s right. Extra post on top of all the Tom Gauld cartoons I’ve been putting up. Because I’m having trouble focusing on my book, but I’ve been helping other people with theirs.

Hey, speaking of which, a friend of mine was having a point of view problem. Her novel’s in third person limited, but every now and then it would kind of drift out of her lead character’s point of view and settle with somebody else. Only to leap back to the protagonist a few paragraphs later. She knew it was there, but she just couldn’t get it right in her mind.

And as we were shooting emails back in forth, I had a sudden random thought on how to explain it. Which I shared with her. And will now share with you.

Third person POV is like one of your characters having a parrot on their shoulder.

No, stick with me, this is brilliant...

Let's say our main character is a pirate captain we’ll call Bonnie. Bonnie has a parrot who rides around on her shoulder. That parrot is her story’s point of view. Really, he’s our point of view into the story.

The parrot’s close enough to her eye level that it sees what she sees and hears what she hears as she moves through the plot. It’s even close enough to Bonnie’s head that it can hear her thoughts. Yes, some parrots are telepathic at close range. Really. But only at close range, so it can't hear anyone else's thoughts, because it's on Bonnie’s shoulder.

If people walk away from Bonnie, the parrot naturally has trouble hearing them. I mean, its hearing isn’t any better than her’s. It might even have trouble seeing them. Heck, they might walk out of the room or building or whatever and they’re just gone as far as the parrot’s concerned. And the same’s true if Bonnie walks or rides or sails her ship away from them. The parrot's on her shoulder, so it loses sight of them.

Now, this isn’t to say the parrot can’t jump to someone else’s shoulder. It's not chained to Bonnie or anything. But if it does leap over to someone else... well, it’ll be really clear it happened. There’s going to be flapping wings and flashes of color and maybe a squawk or two. Everybody is going to know if that parrot switches shoulders. We'll have no question it happened, and we’re all going to know where it is now. And once it’s over there it’s going to be seeing and hearing the same things as them. And maybe their thoughts, too, because seriously... they can do that.

But also keep in mind... the parrot’s not going to switch shoulders for no reason. It’s gotten comfortable on Bonnie’s shoulder. It’s content. It’d need a really good reason to jump over to somebody else. And to jump back. We definitely don't want it jumping here and there and back and forth 'cause—again—we’re all going to know if the parrot jumps to another shoulder. And I don't want people focused on all that movement instead of what’s actually going on.

My point is, at any point in my narrative, I should be able to say “where’s the parrot” and know the answer. If the parrot is suddenly somewhere else, and I don’t know how it got there, I have a problem. Because we know it’s a big deal when it jumps to someone else’s shoulder. If we missed that movement... something went wrong.

Does all that make sense?

My third person POV should stick with my character, and we should know—without a shadow of a doubt—if it shifts to be with another character. Because I don’t want my readers to suddenly be lost, trying to figure out how and when the point of view—when we, the readers—jumped from Wakko over to Dot. That’s the kind of thing that breaks the flow. And breaking the flow is always bad.

Next time... more random thoughts on writing.

Until then go write.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A2Q Part Nine—Editing

Well, if all goes well, we’re making a big time jump here. All the past things I’ve been blathering on about—plot, characters, story, theme—these are all elements that we can spend a day or three on. Maybe even less, if they’ve been fermenting in my head.

But between last week and this week, well... hypothetically a lot of time has passed. I’m really, really hoping you didn’t write an entire first draft in a week. If you did... well, that’s another issue we need to discuss. I’m hoping you took your time, within reason, and we are—hypothetically—a month or two or maybe even six later.

You have a first draft now. And it’s a beautiful thing. Maybe the file is so big it’s an entire meg on your computer. An entire megabyte of your words. I know that might sound laughable or dismissive, but seriously—you need a lot to hit a one megabyte Word file.

But...

(yeah, here comes the but)

...it needs editing. No probably. There’s a chance you wrote a perfect, flawless first draft, but more than likely... you didn’t. I haven’t yet and I’ve been doing this for a while.

It’s okay, though. Everybody needs to edit. Everyone. Anyone who says they don’t is either A) lying to you or 2) delusional. Our work needs editing and revising. If you remember waaaay back at the beginning of the A2Q, I talked about how ideas need to be cut and polished like diamonds? Well, that’s what we’re doing now. Figuring out what needs to be cut and then giving it all a good polish.

Again... this is okay. Don’t worry. Every book you’ve ever loved has gone through this process. And we’re going to go through it so this book can be one other people can love.

Ready?

First up, the easy part. This is a 100% complete draft, right? Beginning,middle, and end? I’m not going to get a hundred pages in and find blank space or notes to myself like [FIND WHAT THESE ARE REALLY CALLED] or [ASK ELLEN HOW TO DO THIS]. There’s nothing wrong with doing that on a first pass—I do it all the time—but before I start editing I need to fill in those spaces in my book with actual, y’know, book.

So, again... this is a 100% complete draft, right?

Fantastic.

Before diving in, may I suggest taking some time away from your book. You don’t want to finish a draft, then turn right around and start the next one. We want to get a little space, and let things fade in our mind a bit. I don’t want to be looking at the manuscript in my head, I want to be seeing the one in front of me—the one everybody else is going to see. We’re going to need some stark honestly for this, so I want to be clear what’s really there.

One tip for this—I’d suggest switching the font. Go from Times Roman to Courier. If you’re one of those folks who likes to write in Comic Sans, switch it back to Times. A different font is going to make everything sit differently on the page and it’ll make you actually read what’s on the page. You’ll become very aware of what is and isn’t there, and catch a lot of stuff that’s been sliding past you.

Once you’ve taken some time away, changed the format... read it. Just read through this new manuscript with those fresh eyes. Maybe make some quick notes, but for now just read it. Again—don’t remember it, read it. Try to see what’s really there on the page.

Now, I’ve talked about editing a bunch of times. It’s a big umbrella that a lot of things fall under, many of which I think can get broken down into three categories or types. It is my humble opinion that one of the big reasons people have issues with editing is they get these different types confused because they never get more specific than “editing.” I want to talk about each of these three types of editing and maybe give a few examples of each. You may have heard of one or two of them.

First up is story editing. This is when we try to improve the plot and story by reorganizing different elements, clarifying them, maybe even adding to them. Sometimes we might even add all-new elements.

Second is what I’m going to call reductive editing. This is when we’re cutting things, usually to tighten up dialogue, descriptions, and maybe even to simplify larger elements a bit. Sometimes, in all honesty, we’re just cutting to get closer to a certain word count.

Third is copyediting. This is when we’re correcting things throughout the manuscript. Formatting. Spelling. Grammar. The nuts and bolts things that are still important because they’re holding things together.

You may notice there seems to a bit of overlap here. I’d say it’s a little less “overlap” and a little more “weaving between lanes in high traffic,” as we’ll see. You may have also heard different names or definitions for these. Look, I never claimed to be an English major or anything. If you’ve heard it called something else, cool. I’m just trying to make this easy to distinguish.

Anyway... let’s go through these in a little more detail.

We’ve kind of talked about story editing already, in a sense. When we first had that pile of ideas and notes and we started sifting and arranging them into an outline—that was story editing. Trying to find the best order for things, the best way to introduce different elements, and so on. That’s what this is—taking what we’ve already got and figuring out if we can make it even better.

Yeah, we’ve already done that. But now we’ve written everything out. We’ve got a better sense of the characters and the size of the events and how they’re going to land with my audience. Maybe that needed a little more description than we thought and that bit needs a lot less. And maybe we’ve realized some of this... doesn’t really serve any purpose.

This is one of the reasons we want to look at this with fresh eyes. So I can see where problems have developed. Or maybe they were there all along, but I couldn’t recognize them until it was all here in front of me.

F’r example, now that I’ve looked at all of this again, does it have a good dramatic structure? Does the tension start low and rise throughout the book(maybe with a few dips and drops here and there for our heroes)? How’s the pacing? Does it feel like there are any slow parts that just stretch on a little too long with nothing actually happening?

That’s a good one right there? Are things happening? Are events pushing the plot and my characters’ stories along? Or are they stalling out in places. Are people talking or thinking about doing things more than they’re... y’know, doing things?

This is story editing. Taking an honest look and deciding what story elements do and don’t need to be there. Or maybe just need to shift to somewhere else.

Also—don’t get scared here if it looks like you need to make big changes. If it turns out my outline was wrong, then it was wrong. So what? The first draft’s done. Make a new outline if you want and then write to that one. I’ve written a complete first draft and then gone back and completely rewritten the ending, or ripped out whole chapters. It happens. Don’t worry if it does.

Next up is what I’m calling reductive editing. This is something I’ve talked about a lot here on the ranty blog. We all get a little wordy in our first drafts. We use a few too many adverbs. We describe things with a bit too much detail. We let conversations go on and on. And we also tend to...

Okay, a thought exercise for you. If I said you no-questions had to get rid of three characters in this book—three characters with names and/or dialogue, who would you pick? Why did they jump right to mind? Is it because you knew getting rid of Wakko wouldn’t mean too much rewriting? Or because Dot and Yakko could be merged into one character (Dakko? Yot?) pretty easily? Because really... they don’t do that much.

We all do this. We bulk up characters and their descriptions and subplots, letting them take up a lot more space on the page than their actual contributions might warrant. I’m not saying every single character has to be a vital linchpin to the plot, but... well, how fast did you come up with three characters you could cut?

And I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking “Ha ha, good thing there’s absolutely no literary fat in my manuscript. Every single element is perfectly balanced and artistically necessary.” Which, yeah, there’s a chance it is. Maybe.

But remember this. As a first time author—hell, even as a successful one—the odds of a sale are better with a smaller, tighter book. No one’s saying a publisher won’t look at something big, but if I can trim two or three thousand words off my manuscript it can make a difference. Even just a psychological difference, when they look at that cover page and see 98K words instead of 101K words.

Finally, there’s copyediting. The often long and painful process of going through a manuscript line by line, word by word, and making sure everything’s correct. I’m using the correct words, spelled the right way. I’ve got commas where I need them and all my dialogue’s got quotation marks at both ends. Indents and spacing and page numbers.

People get contentious about this for a few reasons. Some folks will declare writing doesn’t have rules and they can do whatever they want, however they want. Others say it’s irrelevant because the genius of their writing will shine past all that to illuminate the heart and soul of the reader. And still others say, well... I mean, isn’t that the publisher’s job? They’ve got people for that, and they know this isn’t going to be perfect.

There’s a bunch of problems with all these views, biggest among them... what if I plan on publishing it myself? If I’m the publisher I need to be able to do all of this. And if I want someone else to publish it... well, why would they bother to look at it if I can’t be bothered to give them my best work? I mean, if they get those first fifty pages and it’s clear I didn’t even bother to fix my spelling mistakes, what else didn’t I bother with?

And to be clear—there are times my story might require typos and odd grammar. I occasionally spell words in odd ways. I sometimes take certain stylistic liberties with commas when I write. So do a lot of writers I know. But it’s always very clear this is a deliberate thing—I know I’m doing it and why I’m doing it. But these are exceptions, and exceptions by their very nature are rare things.

So there’s a bunch of editing thoughts. Let’s apply some of them. Remember that first page and a half  of our werewolf novel I wrote last time...?

++++++++++
Chapter One

            “Luna!”
            Phoebe sifted through the laundry pile again, willing the black top to appear even though it hadn’t the last three times she’d looked. “Luna,” she bellowed again.
            Upstairs the sound of the shower finally stopped and she heard the thump of feet on the wooden floor. The bathroom door creaked open. “What?”
            “Where’s my black top? The one with the ribbing?”
            “I’m trying to get ready,” her little sister growled. “I’m going out!”
            “So am I! Where is it?”
            “How should I know?”
            “You borrowed it last night. You promised you’d wash it.”
            Silence. Then the bathroom door creaked again quietly.
            “Luna!”
            What?” Her voice echoed in the small house.
            “Where is it?”
            A sigh echoed down the stairs. “I’ll get you a new one.”
            “You’ll what?”
            “I kind of... misplaced it.”
            “You what?”
            “I lost it, okay. I said I’ll get you a new one.”
            “Goddammit. I wanted it tonight. It fits under my armor.” She looked at the leather sleeves, vest, and gorget piled on the bed. Her mom's old hand-me-down armor. Stained dark brown with years of oil and sweat and blood that sank in before it could be cleaned off.
            “Wear the green one.”
            “It’s long-sleeved and I wore it last night. It stinks.”
            “It’s not like anyone’s going to complain.”
            Phoebe bit back a sigh of her own sigh and marched over to the hamper of dirty clothes. “How did you ‘misplace’ lose it?”
            “I was at a party.”
            “That’s not an answer.”
            “Yes it is,” Luna sang down the stairs. “I’m getting back in the shower now.”
            “We’re going to talk about this later.”
            “Whatever.” The bathroom door creaked shut and hot water started to gush flowed again.
            They’d have to talk about that too. The water bill and the gas bill had been high last month. Phoebe felt pretty sure Luna’s long showers were a major big part of that.
            She pulled the green top from the hamper. It had been warm last night, especially under all the leather, and she’d sweated a lot. The top was still damp, and it reeked. But it was that or she could try to find a Henley or turtleneck that wouldn’t bunch up under the armor and slow her down.
            She sure as hell wasn’t going to be some B-movie cliché, hunting werewolves with nothing on but a leather vest.
++++++++++

Let’s talk about some of the tweaks.

As far as story editing goes, you’ll notice I changed “mom’s old armor” to “hand-me-down armor.” Now it feels less sentimental and more a necessity from lack of funds—a subtle hint at their financial status.

For reductive editing, I snipped some adverbs and redundant words. Only seven altogether (when we count what I added in). Doesn’t seem like much, but this was only a page and a half. At that rate, we're talking about 1,400 words cut out of a 300 page manuscript—closer to 294 pages at that point. And those were really minimal cuts, weren’t they?

There wasn’t a lot to copyedit because, well, I checked it all as a regular part of the blog post last time. But I remember there were two or three typos in it, because I scribbled that all out really fast. One of them was my thumb not hitting the space bar hard enough so two words ran together.

Also worth mentioning you don’t have to do all of this at once. Some people like to just work in a single document through the whole process. Others write, save it as a draft, do an editing pass, save it as a draft, do another editing pass, save a draft, and so on. I’ve talked about my own method before, but figure out what works for you.

Y’see Timmy, that’s one of the toughest thing about trying to explain editing—even just these small tweaks. A lot of it does just come down to figuring it out. Yeah, we can study grammar, but so much of the raw art of it is just experience. Being honest with myself about my own work. Writing a lot. Reading a lot. Making mistakes. Learning from them. It’s how we get a sense of which words fit and which ones don’t. And like so much of this, it’s a flexible thing. Just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it’ll work every time.

In the end, the goal is to make this the best I possibly can. Not the best first draft or the best it can before I get bored. Ugly truth is, it’s going to be work, it’s going to take time and there’ll be points when you go back and forth about cutting or keeping things. That’s just the way it goes. But it’ll get slightly easier every time. I promise.

...at least, until you try to write a more complex book.

But we’ll get to that another time.

I think I’ve still two or three post left in this whole big process thing. Hopefully you’re still interested to read them. But next time I may take a quick break from the A2Q to talk about some related ideas.

Until then, go write.

And edit.