Finding the end and going back to the beginning.

Well, the first 1 ½ pass is finished for last November’s NaNoWriMo project. And, as always, I’ve learned a lot!

Starting with the1 ½ pass method has had a distinct benefit. By reading and noting on the whole thing before I started making edits I could make better decisions than I have on the first pass for early books (I really wish I’d known about the 1 ½ pass technique back when the first edition of Johnson Farm came out…).

This first editing pass has led to major changes. As things stand now, the end of the book in the first draft is actually the end for the second book. I realized I was rushing events in my “third act” far too much. It didn’t work because I wasn’t letting it develop. The natural ending for the first book was actually about 100 pages earlier.

I still love the events of those 100 pages, and by putting them into a second book I can give them the space and development they really deserve. I can also develop my former “1st” and “2nd” acts (the real story of the first book) to perfection, because I’m not sweating the upper word limit my intended publisher has set for a mid-grade book.

I know. I know. Even I’ve said we should cut when editing. And, in the first pass, I did some serious cutting. Besides moving “Act 3” and a few necessary bits of “Act 2” to the second book, I burned a whole unnecessary chapter, which allowed me to divide another chapter which was really two concatenated together. Which satisfied my intent for the unnecessary chapter better and more naturally.

Elsewhere I’ve cut a whole page (or two… or three…) where a tighter and better reading version of the text needed to grow.

Cutting is important, and I recommend cutting the dead wood out of any story. But you have to build out the parts that need expanding too. Make sure you have all the right pieces in place before you worry about finishing and polishing them.

As of now, my first “1 ½ pass” pass is done. And, believe me, I’m celebrating my success. I’ve improved my story. Now (actually… Monday), it’s back to the beginning for the second 1 ½ pass. This time the changes should be smaller. The parts cut will be smaller. Anything added will be smaller. It’s time to move from the rough work to a refining step.

Now that I really know where the ending is, and where the next book goes, I can make sure the beginning points to the right place, that my promises will be kept, and that the dreaded middle of the story will support the journey.

And then, once this pass is done, I can move to doing some polishing work (I hope). And then… It goes to the publisher (who will trigger another round of refining and polishing before the book goes to print and I can get on to developing book two).

Each book has its own quirks, challenges and rules. The rules for this book aren’t the rules from the last book. And they aren’t entirely the rules for the next book either. Our stories develop, and we grow and learn as writers. That means every project should have new challenges. And at every ending, it’s back to the beginning.

Good luck in your own writing dear reader. And I’ll see you next post.

Reading bad books…

I’m a lucky guy, my wife supports me in my writing endeavors. Recently she brought me a couple examples of recently on the market novels for the audience I’m writing for at the moment. Neither one was one that I would have picked up myself. And both taught me something.

One book, the one I’m reading is good. There are things that I wouldn’t do. But, then again, the world I’m building isn’t the same either. If I was working in this author’s world, I would make some of the same choices. I like what the writer’s doing and I’m learning a few things.

The other book, which I read first, taught me a lot about what I shouldn’t do. I’m not mentioning authors or titles here because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s “feelers”, but let’s face it: the book really wasn’t all that good.

Some mistakes were simple. Some of them were complex. Some of them were in world, some of them were in story/audience interaction. There were a lot of things wrong and a lot of things I learned slogging my way through the book. For example:

  • If you’re going to use the word soon in the blurb on the back… Make sure soon isn’t page 260 of a 280-page book. Even if you intend to have sequels, 90+ percent of the way through the book isn’t soon…
  • If your story is based on what happened in your Dungeons and Dragons campaign that one time, I can tell that (and so can other readers).
  • Timing on ending a chapter really matters for other chapters when your writing from multiple perspectives. If you want your reader to agonize with a character about the fate of a sibling, it’s a bad idea to tell the reader the sibling is safe before your character hears about what’s going on…

The book also highlighted some mistakes that I kind of knew about but was glad for a reminder of:

  • If you have more than two characters, and half (or more) of your characters have similar names (same first letter, same except for the first letter, etc…) you will confuse your reader. (in fact, if you have exactly two characters with similar names you can have problems). There are exceptions, but messing with similar names is playing with fire!
  • You need to think about the history and technology of your world. If you’re working in a medieval Europe type setting, your bad guys shouldn’t be running around with shotguns… (again there are exceptions but this book wasn’t one of them…). If you are in a world with no electricity or computers, why would anyone’s chief servant be a ‘comptroller’?
  • Avoid generalizations about a group or gender. Sorry, not all males are stupid. Not all females are powerless. Not all villains are rich. And you don’t have to orphan your hero or heroine to make him/her a hero or heroine.

The book wasn’t one I would read for entertainment (if I was reading just for entertainment any of the items on that second list would have given me serious reason put down the book and not pick it up again). But I did learn a lot from reading it.

There’s another book I’ve read, in which the writer was trying to pick up someone else’s world and tell stories there. No, it wasn’t fanfic, fan written fiction would have been better. This author did not understand the world he was writing in. I learned something from that one too: know the world you’re working in at least as well as the average fan before you try to publish anything!

Bad (as in poorly written) books happen. I don’t advocate writing one. But when you find them, read them! Learn from other author’s mistakes (even mine (if I had a problem with that, I wouldn’t be doing this blog…)). If you can recognize and solve problems in someone else’s work, then you are that much closer to being able to recognize and fix those mistakes in your own work (and even Steven King has had problems in his writing).

When you’re a writer, and even if you’re not, reading is at least as much about learning as it is about entertainment. As writers, reading the bad (poorly written) books can help us improve our books.

Well, I should get back to reading, and so should (No. Wait… Your reading this, so you are reading…)… Good luck in your reading and writing dear reader, and I’ll see  you next post.

Blowing out and reading up…

When I’m not writing I’m occasionally known to do metal work. Among my favorite moments is the moment where I safely (yes, I hear some of my old teachers yelling) plunge a hot lost wax mold into water. It’s one of the most exciting, rewarding and sometimes gut-wrenching moments. It’s the moment you get to see your design realized in metal… Unless something went wrong. And then, you’re working at a lump of metal that was supposed to be your project but didn’t work out.

Once your metal comes out of the mold, even if your piece comes out well, you still have a lot of cleanup work to do. The sprue has to be cut. The scar from the cutting has to be filed down. The whole thing needs to be sanded. Pits may have to be filled.  And after all of that you still have polishing, and stone setting and inlay tasks that may be waiting.

There’s a point in the writing process that’s almost the same, and as I write this, I’m in the middle of it… If you’ve finished a first draft there comes a moment when you have to go back to the start and edit that first draft. Instead of discovering a successful casting we hope to find a good manuscript, but we still have a lot of cleanup to do.

The processes are similar.  True as writers we rarely attack the project with saws, files, scrapers and sand paper. We rarely worry about literal pitting and porosity. But we still have cleanup and fixing to do.

It’s just that we cut words instead of oxidation and roughness. We polish words rather than surfaces.

We still face parts that didn’t quite fill in the way we wanted. bits that don’t look as good as we thought they did when we started, and parts that will take more work than we thought they would.

It’s an exciting part of the process and, just like with metalwork, it’s a good idea to look over (read) the whole thing before jumping in and working on stuff. Some bits will need to be moved. Some parts will need to be reworked. If you’re like me, you may have a section that needs a different point of view (or was just plain in the wrong place).

Reading through and looking over can be depressing and hard… There’s so much to do! But by completing a read through we can make an actual plan that saves time, effort, and heartache in the long run. I’ve written about the “1 ½” pass editing technique before , and this represents the first ½ pass of the technique. it might seem like you’re not getting a lot done. But, by getting a look at the whole thing before you fiddle with parts you can cut out one or more whole editing passes because you have a better idea of what you need to do and why.

Those of us who “won” NANOWRIMO, and anyone else with a first draft manuscript in front of us have a lot of work to do, and a first read through will make the whole process a lot easier.

That’s it for this one dear reader. I’m on my way to finishing my read-through, and I suspect some of you probably need to get back to writing too (you know who you are…). So, I’ll see you next post.

Scrivener… after NANO thoughts (part two)

Last week {link} I started my after NANOWRIMO review of my experience with Scrivener. This week we’ll pick things up where we left off and start with the things I really appreciated about Scrivener during the first draft process.

Chapter titles and finding stuff (organizational help)

Last week I mentioned that the way Scrivener handles documents and folders can cause some headaches in dealing with titles and finding things. But there’s positive power in Scrivener’s.

Because of the way Scriver handles document, folders, and chapters, it becomes easier to go back and insert that piece you know really belongs between chapter 2 and chapter 3 but you didn’t come up with until you were working on chapter 9.

Because of the way Scrivener works, it is easy to move parts and pieces around. I find I’m much more willing to move things to where they should be because there is less effort involved. If I decide that Chapter 14 should really be chapter 3, I drag and drop. I don’t have to worry about changing all the chapter numbers because that will happen later during a compile (and without me having to lift a finger or click a mouse!). It is also easy to combine or split up parts of a chapter (even when you’re importing that chapter from some other program…).

One of the data views in Scrivener is note cards on a corkboard. And, it is just as easy to move your stuff around in the program as it is on a real corkboard (actually easier because it’s a drag and drop versus shifting all the cards).

Compiling and formatting (with stuff you’ve written)

As I mentioned, chapter numbers happen during the compile process (and happen mostly automatically!). There’s more to it than that. When you compile, you can compile to a standard manuscript format, just compile to print, or several other options (including an E-book format).

If you put in the time you can even create custom formats to compile to.

You need to learn what the different formats do, and maybe even tweak them for your purposes. But once you put in the effort to learn, formatting becomes fairly effortless. You don’t even have to worry about ordering those chapter numbers.

And, you can simply and easily create several versions in different formats; if you’re self-publishing you can create the print book and E-book versions at the same time. (Gee… I remember when I used to pay someone to make the E-book…)

Statistical information

Besides being a writer, I’ve got a degree in psychology and have a deep love of statistical information. Scrivener provides a variety of statistical information about your work, including things MS Word and other packages don’t…

Scriv example

As you can see you get a typical word count and character count for the whole project (the parts marked for compilation at least…). But you also get page counts both in standard manuscript and novel formats. You also get these statistics for the specific text document you’re working on within the project at the same time. That means all you have to do is open a document and get statistics on it, along with information for the project as a whole. No more “highlight the whole section you want a count on” headaches…

Seriously, the statistics options make it easier on writers who want to make their chapters relatively consistent, and give you a better feel for exactly how big your novel would be as a standard paper back. The information makes it easier to figure out where you are in some real-world aspects of your book.

Keeping it all together

I mentioned that things within a Scrivener project can be marked for compilation or not. This is powerful because you can tailor things for different packages and audiences. If I was using Scrivener for a business plan, I could do tailored sections and keep them all together in one unit while only printing the ones I want for the particular audience I’m providing the plan for. The money folks get more on the financials. The marketing guys get more details on how to sell what we’re making or writing. And I don’t have to have multiple versions of the business plan lying around and wonder which one is which.

Within a Scrivener project you can also add notes and research information, including PDF documents… That means those of us working on a well-researched book or a doctoral dissertation can include the research information we use and cite within the project. No more trying to remember which article by that one scientist is the one I quoted! There are also options to interface with research packages like Qiqqa.

Summing up the positives

Scrivener allows you real freedom in writing a draft. You can move things around and don’t have to be as focused on final formatting while you’re doing a first draft. You don’t have to stress about chapter numbers while you’re trying to focus on getting the order right. I found myself more willing write directly into my Scrivener project than I have been with MS Word manuscripts because I knew how easy it was to move things if I wanted to and I could just focus on getting the words right without having to fool with formatting questions in the first draft.

I can also fiddle with different formats without too much effort (which is more of an editing thing, but helpful in figuring out what the $%@#$@@!!! I’m doing…)

I can also include my research, notes, and reference materials in the same package as my actual text. In practice that means fewer documents and “stuff” to worry about keeping track of, which is helpful since I like to let things settle a bit between first draft and serious editing.

There is a lot of power to be found in Scrivener, and that’s just based on a first draft.

Summing up (the big one…)

If you make the jump to Scrivener, you will have some learning to do.  A lot of things look different in Scrivener as compared to MS Word and similar programs. You will have to break or change some habits and develop some new ones. But Scrivener has been created for writers working on books, screen plays and other big projects. It has powerful tools that can be helpful and worth the effort to learn about.

Those are my thoughts about Scrivener now that I’ve used it for a first draft. We’ll probably come back to Scrivener and Scrivener issues in March or April (after I’ve had some experience editing in Scrivener)

In the meantime, do you have any thoughts on Scrivener? Any questions? If so, leave a comment. And either way… I’ll see you next post!

NANO’s here…

Well, dear reader… NANOWRIMO starts next Friday.

As usual, I’m putting aside other projects to push my way through a new manuscript. So… I’ll be giving the blogs a rest until December. I’ve got the manager stuff handled. I’ve made sure the other characters and stories on my plate are safely locked away until I finish. (Umm… Zeek, check that door again… Geez… Let’s rounded ‘em up, again… This time make sure they don’t have lock picks ok…)

This year I’m working on a mid-grade/YA story (Planning for mid-grade but could skew a little older) about Ruby, the younger sister of a character in my 2017 project. Hopefully, this one will be a little simpler to do and get into print faster (Not really the sister’s fault she and her fiancé ran into people who got a little Downton Abbey into my fantasy story…).

Since I’m running with some younger characters and heading for a younger audience, this time I’m aiming for 50-60 thousand words. Which is a step down from the 75-85 thousand word manuscripts of the last two years. But, I’m also hoping less unexpected themes and subplots pop out at me…

I’m confident in getting the NANO win (it’ll be the 5th running win…). And I’m hoping to learn a few things.

I’m also inviting you to join us in the fun and madness of NANOWRIMO (if you haven’t signed up already (in which case see you in the trenches)).

And, either way, I’ll see you next post (in December…).

Soundtracks for writing?

Environment is important for writing. There are a lot of plusses and minuses to writing in different locations. There are also a lot of elements in those environments that can be hard to control. But, there’s one environmental element we can control, and even bring with us as we travel. It’s also been claimed to have the power to transport us to other places. It’s as simple as listening.

Music can tell stories. Music can trigger memories. Music can tap into raw emotions. Music is a tool that shouldn’t be overlooked in the preparation and process of writing.

There are also complications and problems. But many of those can be controlled by choices you make.

(Some of) the problems with music

Some of us like to write in public. And, it’s problematic to listen to our ‘writing music’ in public places. We don’t want to be offensive, but we also want our music. Can you (safely) wear headphone or ear buds where you’re writing? What about finding somewhere that has ambient sound/music that works for you?

A bigger problem, whether you’re in public or private, comes in the form of sensitivity to lyrics. I don’t mean the “I’m gonna shoot a cop then rape your grandma” lyrics (though there are problems with that kind of lyrics…). The problem we’re talking about is that for some of us, and in some processes, lyrics in music can be distracting.

This one is easier to cope with when you can choose the music you’re listening to (so… in your writing spot at home or using those ear phones/buds…). Choose music with lyrics that work for you, or just instrumental music.

It’s true that sometimes the lyrics you’re listening to get in the way. Sometimes that happens. For me it happens more in new writing. I like lyrics during the editing process. The answer (as usual dear reader) is to experiment a little, learn what works for you, and use it.

And music can work for you dear reader.

Music, emotion, and taking you there

Music (the sound portion) operates on a different level of thinking/feeling than the spoken word. It can convey emotion to us in ways the written or spoken word can’t. This effect can be amplified when you add the right lyrics. Because of this ability, music can be helpful for getting into the right headspace for a scene in a story, or for building up our courage for writing that difficult or scary part of your non-fiction (both my wife and I have finished graduate degrees we know about difficult and scary parts in writing fiction and non-fiction…).

Music can also be linked to a time and place. That’s both good and powerful.

It wouldn’t be too hard for me to get to some of the physical locations we call the old west (a lot of them are within a day’s drive). But, getting back to the time of the old west is harder. Music can help with that. I can find modern (recorded) performances of old western music to help put my mind in the frame of that time and place.

I can also pull out my Japanese, Pilipino, and Thai music to get me over to Asia.

Or, I can throw on some Bach or Telemann (You know… Just in case I need to get back to Leipzig in the 1840s and my TARDIS is in the shop…).

We have the technology to feed ourselves a steady stream of music that helps us be in the mental space to write and even to feel a link to times, places, and experiences near and far. We can use that music to inspire us and make writing easier. (It even helps some of us concentrate better!)

For me, developing a ‘soundtrack’ for a writing project is as useful, or more useful, than ‘teacher approved’ techniques like outlining. Thinking about and planning my soundtrack gets me thinking about what the themes of the story are, what the feeling of the story is. In its own weird way, planning my soundtrack is outlining the story on an emotional level… It can also count as part of my research if I’m doing a period piece.

What are your thoughts about soundtracks for writing dear reader?

Leave a comment if you like. And, I’ll see you next post.

POV and understanding

This week I finished the “1/2” portion of my 1 ½ pass editing pass for the Johnson Farm reedit and The Calm Inside the Storm. One of the biggest results is some serious thought about point of view.

Some scenes only get one point of view. Sometimes there’s only one character around to have a point of view. Sometimes only one character is trustworthy enough to give his/her point of view (and then unreliable narrators happen…), sometimes we’re trying to keep it simple and only use one POV throughout the work. But sometimes we can benefit from multiple points of view on a scene or situation, even if those points of view don’t all make it into the final work.

Multiple points of view can make for a complicated scene and a complicated story. But:

  • Sometimes multiple points of view are informative. The reader can learn more about the situation and the characters. If your hero describes the scene one way and the villain another, you can learn something about the story from the differences, the things not said and the things that conflict. As a writer, you can “show not tell” by allowing your reader to extrapolate from multiple accounts.
  • Sometimes one character might “have the angle” and can see something another character can’t. if this is true for only one character and the information is relevant, then you want that character’s point of view on the page. If it happens for two characters, you should consider ways to get both points of view onto the page.
  • Sometimes you learn something from writing from a different character’s point of view. I have a case of this in my current work. Both John and Jamie have accounts of a particular scene and those accounts will be in their respective stories. But, Jamie’s mom is also in the room and I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around decisions she’s making. Solution: rewrite the scene from the mother’s POV. It probably won’t make it into the book, but the finished scenes will be better because I know what the Q%$@#!!! is going on in mom’s head while the teens are being teens.
  • Sometimes those points of view that don’t make it into the main work can be used in other ways. I just mentioned rewriting a scene from Jamie’s mother’s perspective. How hard will it be to turn that scene into a promotional short story to help advertise the book? (I don’t know because I haven’t written it yet, but it’s a possibility)

Alternate points of view can be a resource sink. But, sometimes the reader and the author learn something worthwhile. Writing from multiple perspectives can help you and your readers understand things that would otherwise be missed or require a bunch of story-slowing exposition. Multiple perspective take more work (sometimes…), but if they make the story better, they’re worth considering.

These are my thoughts dear reader. What do you think? Are multiple points of view good? Bad? Over complicated? Enjoyable? Leave a comment if you’re so inclined, and… I’ll see you next post.

The short (and the long) of it…

Years ago a writer I really respect told me I should start with short stories before I go to long fiction, that there was nothing I could learn in long fiction that couldn’t be learned in a short story. Well, over the years I’ve found that there are a few things about long fiction that are hard to learn in a short story, and a few things about short stories you can’t learn in long fiction…

Long fiction is something I love, there are lots of things you can do with it. But, a 50,000-word story doesn’t teach you how to get to the point, or how to have a complete story arc in two pages. A 50,000-word story is about as helpful in learning to write efficiently, and short, as running marathons is for learning how to sprint.

On the other hand, a two-page short piece will never teach you how to tell the long story. You can’t practice what to do on page 158 if you end on page two; that’s like thinking you’re ready for the marathon because you sprinted twice. Sure, you can think of chapters as individual stories or story arcs (and in some ways you should). But, in novel the stuff that happened in chapter two matters in Chapter 14. The magic reset button isn’t something to press between chapters (if you press it at all!).

Even larger short stories, even the big 20-30 pagers, don’t have room for the cast of characters a novel needs. You just don’t have space for all of those characters in the shorter story. But your long story might have several of them in different places doing different things and expect all those lines to link up somewhere around page 250 (or 350, or 475, or…).

Long and short stories have different requirements and are useful for different things. You may not fully understand the differences until you’ve finished a few (or at least one) of each. That said, there are some valid reasons for starting with short stories (or doing short stories if you’re struggling with that first big story…).

There are many things in common between the story types. You (usually) need characters, settings, a plot, and the other ‘usual’ pieces of a story (you just have more space to play with them in the larger story (and (usually) more characters and locations to worry about)). Working on short stories allows you to practice working on these before you try to assemble the 50,000-piece set.

Short stories also have the advantage of being shorter to write (again usually). It’s just less work to write 2,500 words than it is to write 50,000. This means it’s easier to finish the whole writing process in a relatively short time. You will probably go through the whole process in less time than it would take to write a 50,000-word first draft. And, that overview of the whole process is helpful in finishing that big story (trust me, you can get lost in there if you don’t know where you’re going).

Short stories also make a great ‘experimental space’. In Statistics we learn about a t-test, a simple two group test that allows you to determine if there is a difference between groups. Short stories are like t-tests. They don’t handle the big complicated things very well, but as a ‘quick and dirty’ test for a writing technique or a character interaction they work pretty well. Short stories can be helpful in developing the characters, places and things you need for your big story. In model building/construction terms short stories can be a way of ‘dry fitting’ parts before you get into the more complicated work.

I think my teacher of years ago was wrong, there are things you can learn in long fiction that you can’t in a short story. But, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the short story. Our short stories are useful for practicing a lot of things we need in our bigger stories. They give us a relatively cheap and easy place to experiment. They can serve as parts and models in the big picture. They give us ‘taster’ pieces we can hand out, put in our blogs, and enter contests with, without having to do the work necessary on that one big piece.

And, not every idea needs 50,000 words! There are some stories that just don’t need, and shouldn’t have, that much of our time.

Ultimately, I think we should write both long and short fiction. And, it’s probably worth starting with short stuff (maybe build a 1/700 scale kit before trying to build a full-scale, working aircraft carrier….).

That’s my thoughts. What do you say? If you disagree (or agree!) with me, leave a comment.

Either way, I’ll see you next post.