And This is How I Revise

2018-04-16 06.51.50

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.

Wake or Be Woken

Wake or Be Woken

It’s never too early to start freaking out about having to write a book description that will somehow magically convince people they need to read my latest Science Fictional opus. I have never, not once, written a book description that I was happy with. Instead, I write something the day it goes live on Amazon and hope for the best. Probably not the best marketing tactic, but whatever. For book 5, I’m looking to get a jump on that madness.

I sat down this morning and told myself there was no way I was going to get anywhere near a book description. Instead, I just started writing some garbage. Then I paused, hit Enter a few times, and wrote more garbage. I did that for about half an hour. Here’s what that produced:

The year is 2017. Donald Trump is President. Mass murders are commonplace. Nazis are back. The world balances on the precipice of nuclear war. Most people agree: reality is completely out of control.

But it’s not all bad news.

As it happens, none of it is real.

The world as you know it is actually a simulation centered around the city of Austin, Texas, and more specifically, four of its residents. There is nothing special about them on the surface; one’s a manager at a tech startup, another is a former soldier who drives for Brinks, the sole female is a moderately famous YouTube personality, and the fourth is a day-trader who is making a killing with Bitcoin.

They’re just normal people living out what they believe are normal lives.

But in reality—that is, actual reality—they are all dreaming, hooked into a collective delusion set in the Live Music Capital of the World.

For almost four decades, they have enjoyed American life at the dawn of the 21st century. But now it is time to wake up.

How will they feel when they learn everything they’ve ever known is a lie? Will they tell themselves they knew it all along? Will they abandon their faith and embrace chaos? Or will they use the opportunity to make a fresh start as someone else?

Only time, vicious infighting, and the threat of death at the hands of synthetic killing machines will tell for sure.

Does this adequately describe what Hybrid Mechanics is about? Not really. It’s one aspect of a multi-faceted story, the idea that we’re all living in a simulation. I really want that idea to be in the book description because I don’t want readers to think it was all a simulation is some kind of twist.

It’s not a twist.

It’s a starting point.

After that, comes the how, why, where, and when. The real question is whether the characters can survive long enough to answer even one of those questions.

Oooh, mystery.

/sigh/

Someone should take my blog away.

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WIP Update: Crossed 100,000 word mark on December 2017.12.14.

Live Forever

Live Forever Offer

I do a lot of silly things to encourage people to write reviews of my books, but this whole get your name in the next book tactic seems to work the best. You know, aside from cold hard cash, which, by the way, should not be delivered as an Amazon Gift Card unless you want to get 20-30 reviews deleted in a single afternoon. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle to get reviews (even bad ones), especially when the book is selling and plenty of people seem to be reading it. I used to think I could impress upon people the importance of leaving reviews, but no. Bribery is pretty much the only thing that works.

Last time’s winner was Curtis, and since it’ll be a while, here’s a preview of where he ended up in the zero draft:

“Identify yourself,” said Jake.

The man stepped back and looked up.

“Ho there,” he called. “Don’t see many people up this way. What brings you to Challis?”

“Identify yourself!” Jake stepped to the railing and pointed the rifle over it.

The man’s hands went up. “Easy, stranger. My name is Curtis.”

“Curtis what?” asked Jake. “What’s your revision?”

“My revision? What do you take me for, some kind of Lassiter drone?”

“You’re not organic,” said Jake.

“Now that is true. I am not an organic human. But I am a person, just like you.”

“I am a sixth generation Vinestead synthetic,” said Jake. “You’re nothing like me.”

“They’re up to Six now? Interesting.” Curtis stepped back several feet so he wouldn’t have to crane his neck. “Well, Mr. Six. Seeing how you’re hunting organics and I’m not an organic, I don’t see that we have any quarrel.”

Jake considered the offer, shook his head. There weren’t supposed to be any other synthetics. If there were, who did they follow? What was their purpose?

“What are you doing here?” asked Jake.

“We have some monitoring equipment up there,” Curtis replied, gesturing with an outstretched arm. “Helps us keep tabs on who comes and goes in the valley. We picked up a whole mess of activity in Arco day before last, so I came down to make sure everything’s in good working order here.”

“You’re tracking our movements?” His finger trembled on the trigger.

“Yours. Humans. Animals. Anything that moves. Gotta know who’s walking in your backyard, am I right?”

“This isn’t your backyard,” said Jake. “This is Lassiter’s domain.”

That made Curtis chuckle. “Lassiter doesn’t exist in this world, pal. He may reach out to you from VNet, but he can’t walk here. Funny how that works, huh?” He adjusted his jacket. “Look, I’m on a schedule here, so if you’re not gonna come down, I’ll just come back another day. Safe travels, Mr. Six.”

He turned to leave. Jake raised the gun.

“I’m not done with you,” he warned. “This gun will tear you in half.”

Curtis shrugged, didn’t look back. “You’d be doing me a favor. I was never a fan of this sleeve anyhow.”

If you’d like to join Curtis in Hybrid Mechanics, you can buy / review my most recent book, Por Vida, here.

See you in the Vinestead ‘Verse!

Is It Novel Yet?

Almost as soon as I call a novel finished and ready for publication, I start on the next one. I think everyone does. And like a lot of other writers, I don’t really have a new story in mind. It’s just an idea. One of hundreds. And each one needs to be investigated to see if it contains a story. For months, a year, maybe more, I investigate each of these slivers of ideas and try to stretch them like a ball of dough into something resembling a pizza. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it is hard to tell when I’m not good enough to write the story, if I’m just being lazy, or if there simply isn’t a story there. I try to stay pragmatic, not get too overexcited, but at some point, you just can’t deny you’ve got the beginning of a novel on your hands.

Screenshot 2017-10-19 09.48.24

In my experience and humble opinion, there is no more vital milestone than the completion of 1/3 of Draft Zero. For my books, that’s about 20 chapters at 2,000 words apiece. Everything before this moment is just the cobbling of ideas, pushing them together to see how they fit. But once you reach this point, the story takes on new life. The rules have been established. The characters are in the proper positions.

Everything is primed. The story can now write itself.

Back_to_the_future

At this stage of what I generously call my writing career, I can write 2,000 words on anything. Any story. Any idea. You want 2,000 words? Give me a couple hours. Or give me Red Bull and candy if you need it sooner. The fiction I post on this blog are examples of this daily “scratch writing,” which I do after a novel to find the next one.

It’s harder to stretch an idea to 10,000 words. If really pressed, by sheer force of will, I could do 20,000. The number of ideas that live past 20,000 are shockingly low. As I mentioned, it could just be that I’m lazy or not skilled enough to stretch the story, but to keep my ego on life-support, I tell myself there just wasn’t a story there.

It’s a cruel game sometimes. You think you have something. You write several chapters, and then it just fizzles out. Or you try and try but just can’t hit that sweet spot. Because really, it’s not just about getting to 20 chapters; it’s also about properly positioning the people, settings, technology, and conflicts.

I’ve gotten ideas to 1/3 of Draft Zero exactly four times in the past. All four became novels.

How’s that for a jinx?

So that’s why I’m excited today. That’s why I’m posting this nonsense on my blog, even though it is likely of little interest to anyone else. I, on the other hand, love to learn about how other writers do it.

So for those of you who write: how do you know when you’ve got a novel?

Sentence Length Variance

If you read enough books, you can gain an understanding of sentence length variance without really knowing what you’re learning. And when you sit down to write, you’ll follow the style and flow of your favorite authors, using short sentences if they used short sentences, and going on long-winded, semicolon-dotted tirades describing the contents of a store room if they went on long-winded, semi… okay, you get it. But if you do need it spelled out for you, consider this quote:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

— Gary Provost

I love and hate this paragraph. I love it because it’s dead-on. I have not seen a piece of writing advice that encapsulates rhythm and flow like this one. And I absolutely hate it because I wish I had been clever enough to think of it first.

Being aware of the flow of your words is paramount. It’s another layer of storytelling. It’s more than what you’re saying; it’s how you’re saying it. Can stilted language create anxiety? Or long sentences fatigue? Or any length any emotion?

If a character is overwhelmed, I’ll run a sentence into the ground until everyone is exhausted. If a character is scared or angry, their dialogue will be short, clipped. How fast the reader gets through the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter… all of it matters. When do they stop for air? When does it all become too much?!

I finished another chapter in Book V this morning, so I loaded it up intent on counting the number of words in each sentence. When that got too tedious, I decided to count the number of words in each paragraph. After all, those need variance too, right? Too many big blocks of text and the reader’s going to go watch YouTube.

So I counted up the words. 2,106 words in 79 paragraphs. Smallest paragraph: 1 word. Longest paragraph: 95 words. Average paragraph: 27.

Here’s what it looks like:

paragraph_word_counts

I like short sentences. They have drama. Power.

Longer sentences are great too, especially when they’re drawing the reader in, showing them things they may have missed, expanding on ideas in a thousand different ways to show them the hopelessness of the character’s plight.

I was glad to see there was plenty of variance in paragraph length. I think I tend towards shorter paragraphs because of the way it looks on the page, so there’s definitely an aesthetic consideration at work here as well.

When I look at the shortest of sentences and take into account their content, it’s almost as if they serve as punctuation marks for groups of sentences. A handful of regular-sized paragraphs followed by a short stinger.

“Watch me,” said, Armando, tossing a wad of paper towels into the trash can. He hurried out of the bathroom, wanting to get away from Jimmy and Ethan and the office and the horrible malaise that was slowly enveloping him. It was as if reality had developed a feel to it, a weightiness, one he was only aware of now that he’d been outside of it. Standing beneath the falls, standing on the bleak emptiness of existence, he’d felt free, almost… clean.

That was the word he was searching for.

Reality was a shroud he was forced to wear. It weighed him down, connected him to the simulation. If he could break free of it, he would also break free of its feel, its smell and taste—just everything about it. He could shed it all.

But first he’d have to make it back to the underworld.

The Rogue sputtered, growled.

I could see another writer combining the first three paragraphs, just letting it all run together. But to have a single sentence on a line by itself imparts importance, a clear clue to the reader that they should pay attention, something interesting just happened.

Anyhow, I was just thinking about this today. I hope you think about it too.

Because if I preview your Kindle book and am greeted with a page with no paragraphs breaks, I’m probably not going to read it. I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo.