And This is How I Revise

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I don’t know anyone who enjoys revisions like I do. But then, I only know a few authors and they’re all that weird, tight-lipped kind of writer who doesn’t really want to talk about their “process” because either they’re not confident in their process or, more likely, they’re too confident in their process and they don’t want to give away trade secrets to little old me. Yes, this combative stance is why I don’t know more authors. Anyway, the alpha period on Hybrid Mechanics is finally up, so it’s time to get back at it! Here’s where we’ve been and where we’re going.

A lot of the questions I see while lurking /r/writing are about the process of writing a book. I find those questions reassuring because they’re the types of questions I should have been asking earlier in my writing life. For some people, the characters and the plot and the narrative come together easily, but when they reach the end of their first draft, they don’t know where to go.

Then, they have two options:

  • Stumble through the publication of multiple books until they find a process that works and hope that day comes before the last threads of their sanity break free and float away like dust motes in the harsh rays of a mid-afternoon sun shining in through the askew slats of aging blinds on ancient windows in a condemned house on the bad side of a one stop sign town in April of 1921.
  • Ask /r/writing

As far as my process goes, we’re now moving to Draft 2 of a numbered draft system that begins at 0 and ends at N.

  • Draft 0 – 100% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, devoid of continuity and direction
  • Draft 1 – 80% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, with hints of continuity, direction, and purpose.
  • Draft 2 – The first real hint of a manuscript

A lot of great things happen in Draft 2. After all, the main plot points have been set, geography has been mapped out, and the timeline is stabilizing. And yet, there’s still time to move everything around. That’s why I like doing my Alpha reads at this stage; if there are major changes to make, the paint hasn’t dried yet. By that metaphor, the paint hasn’t really been applied yet.

The transition from Draft 1 to 2 begins with what I call The Killing of Mother Earth Printout.

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Look, I’m as averse to killing Mother Earth as the next guy, but nothing beats holding paper in your hand and slashing at it with a red pen. For this draft, I like to print out each page with a bunch of whitespace to the right for notes and what not. Sure, it takes twice the paper to print, but that’s why you bought 100% eco-friendly, dolphin-safe paper from Whole Foods, right?

The printout serves as both manuscript and notebook, and now that alpha readers have had their turn destroying my work, I will set about marking all the problems that will need to be fixed. At this stage, I’m only taking notes and suggesting fixes; I don’t touch the Word doc. Partly is because I need to understand the book as a whole before starting in on edits, and partly because I want to give the Alpha reader stragglers a little more time to send me feedback.

My goal during the read-through can best be summed up with one word: smoothing.

Things that need to be smoothed:

  • Character motivations (did they get what they wanted or do I need adjust what they wanted?)
  • Character dialogue (creating distinct voices is always a challenge, but there are lots of tricks you can employ)
  • Character personality (are they CONSISTENTLY funny? sarcastic? depressed?)
  • Timeline (for example, story takes place in 2017 and X/Y met ten years ago yet you say they met watching The Good Place which first aired in 2016)
  • Geography (draft 0 created a fictional building to suit the story, draft 2 molds the story into a final version of that building)
  • Narrative style (in 3rd person limited, each character has different narrative style, and it’s important that elements of that style don’t overlap)

There are maybe a dozen more that aren’t as vital at this stage, but always good to think about.

To return to my original point, I really enjoy this stage of revisions. This is where a majority of the technical magic happens. Drafts 0 and 1 may tell the tale and be creative and exciting and full of twists and turns, but going forward, my job is to make all of that look effortless and more importantly, intentional.

And that, to me, is what separates tiers of writers. The hard part of writing a story isn’t being intentional — anyone can write with intent. The hard part is understanding that you’re responsible for every paragraph, sentence, and word. Everything. You can’t half-ass anything in the story because the reader is trusting that if something is in your story that you meant it to be there.

That’s a huge responsibility, one a lot of writers don’t figure out until later. I certainly didn’t. It’s also a huge demand, one that makes it impossible to say writing a book requires X revisions.

Writing a book requires N revisions, with N being the number of revisions it takes.

Sorry, /r/writing, but you’re just gonna have to keep working at it like the rest of us.

Maximum Overwrite

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So I’m currently reading Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. I watched the movie a few weeks ago and really enjoyed the universe Koontz created, so naturally I wanted to read the book and get all those extra details that are typically left out of movies. And though I’ve enjoyed reading, it doesn’t really feel like there is more story here. I have a guess about why that is. If you haven’t read Odd Thomas, head over to Amazon and load up the preview.

This post originally appeared on danielverastiqui.com on May 16, 2014,
but the concept of Maximum Overwrite still applies.

Or, if you’re the I don’t take my orders from blogs type of person, here’s a random excerpt:

“Robertson’s here,” I told her.

“Who?”

“Fungus Man.”

Suddenly he was on the move, walking between the headstones, toward the church.

“We better forget dinner,” I said, drawing Stormy to her feet with the intention of hustling her out of the belfry. “Let’s get down from here.”

Resisting me, she turned to the parapet. “I don’t let anyone intimidate me.”

The entire book (so far) is written in short paragraphs comprised of one or two sentences. It feels like a fast read because you’re constantly flipping pages, but then you get to the end of the chapter and it’s like, did something just happen?

Compare that to:

In the darkness, she dreamed of home, of the shadowy streets of Umbra where tech was a presence you could feel with every breath, bleeding from every jackport, collecting in the street like a river of energy. Wading through it, walking with her steel toes in a sea of people and information, was the only time Cyn felt alive. The people of Umbra were just like her, pursuing the same things in life, yearning for that singular nirvana of total awareness. To be all knowing, to be completely connected: these were the dreams of the populace, fleeting fancy no one truly expected to attain.

She imagined Tate standing at his window again, hands clasped behind his back, his occasionally sharp mind thinking of new and interesting ways to enslave the population with a satiation of the dependency some of them had lived with since birth. In a way, he was the first generation of the coercive feeder, a prototype attempt at controlling people’s lives. He chose the advertising, chose which stories to feed and in what light. If he didn’t think he was manipulating people by constantly running anti-Vinestead propaganda, then he was more of a fool than Benny Coker. It was hard to imagine Tate not seeing the similarities between himself and James Perion, how alike they were in purpose.

If you pull a bunch of books from the shelf at random, you may think sentence length is just a matter of style, that each writer simply falls at a different place on the spectrum between curt and garrulous. While that may be partially true, sentence length is often a conscious choice by the author. A writer who is verbose 95% of the time can increase a sentence’s impact by placing it alone in a new paragraph.

X SAT WITH C in his lap, her arms wrapped around his body. They were on the side of a hill he had recreated from a childhood memory. It had a long gentle slope that ended at the edge of a lake with a Japanese name he couldn’t remember. It was night in the construct, simulated, but dark enough to see the twinkling stars strewn haphazardly across the great expanse of black above them. The rig’s rendering engine struggled to deliver the necessary graphics, such that the reflections of the stars stuttered in the smooth glass of the lake.

They kissed.

Dean Koontz has a way with metaphors, and even with his short paragraphs, he manages to use them skillfully. It makes me wonder what his prose would be like if he wrote longer sentences and simply extended those metaphors into something approaching poetry.

Indecisive Poetry

I’m currently working on a new short story titled House of Nepenthe. This early in the process, I’m mostly cutting out as much as possible. Writing a zero draft is all about overwriting; writing a first draft is about stripping away all of the indecisive writing you produced.

I recommend overwriting to anyone who feels like they don’t know what to write. Overwriting is writing for the sake of putting words on the paper. Overwriting is writing anything and everything.

For example, maybe you aren’t sure which metaphor would best describe a character’s walk:

She spotted me through the crowd and began walking towards me like a queen through her subjects, like Moses through the Red Sea, like a knife slicing through warm butter, like any running back through the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

You get the point. The zero draft is not the time to be making the monumental decision of your final say on this lady walking through the crowd. Just get some ideas down; brainstorm as you go along.

Here’s an example from House of Nepenthe:

What Kenny needed was someone who truly loved him, someone to comfort him in his time of vulnerability. He needed someone to tell him it was going to be alright, that there was a Heaven or somesuch nonsense waiting for him on the other side of death. He deserved more than a woman who could barely stand the sight of him, deserved a woman who wouldn’t throw dirt on his grave with a sense of satisfaction.

Sometimes it feels like I’m just taking notes when I write a zero draft. The above paragraph is where I stopped during my last rewrite; I was too tired to imagine how I could turn those words into something palatable. Still, having something to work with is often easier than staring at a blank page.

Every once in a while, I’ll find a paragraph that is long and flowing and decide not to cut it down to nothing. Every once in a while, you’ll sit there and overwrite and produce something you really love, even if it is verbose. For some moments, verbosity and languid language are the only options.

“You wrote me a poem?” Her eyes lit up.

“I prefer to think of it as a mnemonic cipher, but call it what you will.”

“I can’t wait to hear it.”

X cleared his throat, focused his eyes on C’s. “We will walk through the forest no longer, and no more will we dream of days past. We have pained enough in our lifetimes, let this dying love be our last.”

Slowly, the look of interest faded from C’s face, replaced by the impassive expression of a kitchen appliance. Her arms unfolded, fell lifeless in her lap. X watched her chest rise and fall, slower and slower, until it stopped completely. Around him, the room shaded down a few levels, a frozen background out of focus. Bringing a memory to a dead stop was at the same time a sad and beautiful thing to behold. It was the marker that differentiated the memory from the reality, that reinforced for the hundredth time that the original experience was long dead and even the memory of it could crumble under the weight of a few words.

Oh, I hope you didn’t think I was going to provide you with a personal example of how prose can be poetry. You’ll have to look to much better writers for that.

In Sum

I suppose if this post has to have any kind of point, it is this: do not be discouraged by the succinct final product of Odd Thomas. Don’t think you have to find the perfect set of eight words to make up a particular paragraph the first (or fifth) time through. Just write. Overwrite. Put everything down on the paper.

Play your cards all the way to the river and then make the best hand with what’s on the table.

Turn ’em and burn ’em, and you’ll get through it.

PS. I’ve also started reading Cipher by Kathe Koja, which so far seems devoid of short paragraphs. Check them both out!

In It For The Money

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I’ve never paid much attention to the financial profit/loss aspect of independent publishing. I just don’t see the point. I know, generally, how much the royalty checks will be each month, and I know it doesn’t compare to the marketing and materials spend. One of the supposed advantages of indie publishing and print-on-demand was that it required very little in terms of upfront money. But what they didn’t tell me when I started in 2004 (because nobody knew) was that it does cost money to self-publish. A lot of money, it turns out. Sadly, for myself and a lot of writers, the dream isn’t to get rich on my novels; I just want to break even.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I use Intuit’s TurboTax to do my taxes. I used to love their Quicken product, but gave it up years ago in favor of Mint. And when they bought that, I gave up Mint in favor of You Need A Budget. All that is to say that I’m not familiar with Intuit’s other financial planning offerings. So, I was surprised to see them advertising a self-employed version of their QuickBooks product while I was doing my taxes. As it turns out, it’s possible to deduct some of your writing expenses when you file. I had never given that much thought before.

One of TurboTax’s features that I really like is the live “refund” counter. But this year, it really turned my crank when I put in my royalties and saw that refund crater. Damn you, IRS! TurboTax tried to lessen the blow by asking if I’ve spent any money in pursuit of my “small business,” but alas, I had not kept track, so it would have all been guesses.

Well, 2018 is the year that all changes. From now on, I’m keeping track of everything I buy that is related to indie publishing. I don’t know if it will be all deductible, but if it saves some money, then maybe the experiment is worth it.

Think about all the money you spend to fuel your writing habit:

  • Editorial services
  • Graphic design (covers, marketing, etc)
  • Webhosting, domain names, email addresses
  • Word, Scrivener, Scapple
  • Laptop, computer, keyboard, mouse
  • Printer, paper, pens, highlighters, staples
  • Envelopes, postage
  • Advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Goodreads, Google
  • Gas mileage to the bar, drink purchased, sorrows drowned
  • Red Bull, candy corn, whiskey, aspirin
  • Intuit Quickbooks Self-Employed ($10/mo)
  • Bribes for Positive Reviews

If that number is higher than your writing income, well, my friend, you’re operating your small business at a loss, and in addition to my condolences, you deserve a tax break*.

*The asterisk means I’m not a tax lawyer and I have no idea if that is true or not. I don’t even know if tax lawyers are a thing.

Anyway, if you haven’t started doing your taxes this year, you can get Intuit’s QuickBooks Self-Employed for free for a year by filing with TurboTax (always check with your bank or credit union to see if they have a coupon). If you’ve never tracked your profit/loss before, it might be an interesting experiment to see how it all stacks up at the end of the year.

I’ll let you know how my experiment turns out… if it’s not too embarrassing.

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Fingers crossed, am I right?

Time After Time

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Photo by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

I’ve really taken a liking to non-linear narratives. When you think of all the ways you can mess with a reader, there’s nothing quite like the confusion you can create by having multiples stories operating on multiple timelines. Did A happen before B? Are they happening at the same time? And then later, when everything becomes clear, the reader is incented to re-read the entire book, because now it has taken on different meaning. Today, I was trying to figure out what had sparked this interest in time-confusion, and I realized it started long ago with movies like Pulp Fiction, but it wasn’t until I read Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines that I was compelled to try it myself.

Warning: Spoilers for Wayward Pines below. If you haven’t read it and you like so-called “good books,” do yourself a favor and go buy it now. Don’t watch the TV series; buy the book.

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I read all three of the Wayward Pines books on a trip to Punta Cana, finishing up the third as we landed back in Austin. While the second and third books were good, it was the first that really punched me in the gut. You start the book thinking both story lines are happening at the same time, but how can that be? Then there’s the way people are behaving. And some of them having different memories of different times?

When the helicopter landed and the truth came out, I was absolutely blown away. I loved it. The mystery. The clues. Everything about the twist was perfect for me.

I immediately started working on a new book, Por Vida, with the intention of having story lines that would intersect with hopefully the same punch as Pines. The feedback has been good; I don’t think people saw it coming, but more than that, it was fun to write.

I get bogged down when writing linear stories. That’s why I have to have multiple characters/POVS in my books; otherwise, I won’t get anywhere. It’s not exciting for me to describe Character A going from here to there, doing this and that, and finally something. There has to be more to a story than simple plot points, and multiple timelines ups the complexity big time. Sure, there’s more to keep track of, but if you can do it right, it makes for an exciting read (and write).

Ultimately, you have to write something that excites you as an author. Weaving two timelines together in a way that will surprise and delight a reader truly excites me. Having that power over a reader excites me. I want them to get to the end and say I should have seen that coming! I want them to go back and read the story again and say Look at all these clues!

My upcoming book, Hybrid Mechanics, implements multiple timelines as well, with some extra twists thrown in. Beyond the “didn’t see it coming” twists of Pines, there’s also the “I know it’s coming, I just don’t know how.” That’s where I want to be. I want the reader to know I’m gonna mess with their heads. I want them turning each page in the hopes of finding another clue that will let them unravel the mystery before I reveal it to them at the end.

If they beat me, fine… I’d love to hear about it in their review. But if I beat them, awesome… I’d love to hear about it in their review.

Anyway, those are today’s thoughts on multiple timelines. Love ’em or hate ’em, they can add spice to an otherwise pedestrian narrative about synthetic killing machines hunting the last of the organics in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

My 10 Greatest Achievements / Failures of 2017

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As each year comes to a close, it’s important to look back on everything you’ve done in the last 365 days and tell yourself either good job or you suck. Because what is life without judgment, either internal or external? If you don’t grade yourself, how do you know if you’re #hashtag winning? Exactly. So here you go, 10 of my proudest achievements and 10 of my darkest moments of 2017.

10 Greatest Achievements

  1. Got my son to sleep on 5.29.17.
  2. Got my son to sleep on 8.12.17.
  3. Got my son to sleep on 12.30.17.
  4. Got my son to sleep on 7.01.17.
  5. Got my son to sleep on 11.26.17.
  6. Got my son to sleep on 11.25.17.
  7. Published my 4th novel, Por Vida, in April.
  8. Got my son to sleep on 11.27.17.
  9. Got my son to sleep on 9.18.17.
  10. Completed the zero draft of Book 5 on 12.31.17.

10 Greatest Failures

  1. Did not get my son to sleep on 12.31.17.
  2. Did not get my son to sleep on 8.22.17.
  3. Did not get my son to sleep on 11.28.17.
  4. Purchased the Dark Tower movie instead of waiting for it to show up for free on Hulu.
  5. Did not get my son to sleep on 6.19.17.
  6. Did not get my son to sleep on 7.31.17.
  7. Did not get my son to sleep on 12.25.17.
  8. Drew First Blood from my son on 12.18.2017.
  9. Did not get my son to sleep on 11.29.17.
  10. Did not convince Richard Linklater to make a movie out of Veneer.

Honestly, nothing really compares to the pride I feel when I get El Matador to sleep. It’s literally the best thing I can possibly do with my time. And, conversely, when he continues to wail and his momma has to come take over, I feel like a failure.

Oh well! Here’s hoping I get better at it in 2018!

Enjoy all your free time, people without kids!