Writing Excuses: retrofitting structure

Writing Excuses is one of the only podcasts I listen to. I like to explain it to my friends thusly: “THEY JUST KEPT TALKING AND I WANTED THEM TO GET TO THE POINT.” My friends usually roll their eyes.

Most podcasts are about an hour long and make me want to tear out my hair. One, two, or occasionally three people will ramble on about some subject or another for the whole duration. It makes me want to eat hearts. I become Baba Yaga in the wood. I whirl about and grab the reins of my chicken hut and ride into the sunset.

Honestly, I hate podcasts. If I want to be talked at by people, I’ll go to work at my dayjob. Otherwise I’m just as happy to read a book. I guarantee I can read faster than you talk.

That said, I love Writing Excuses. What’s interesting about this podcast is that it is a) exclusively focused on writing and writing techniques, b) really short, which makes me happy, and c) is in a conversational format that allows for insight. All of the participants (regularly, the podcast includes Dan Wells, Mary Robinette-Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Johnson) come from diverse parts of the writing world. They have experience teaching the craft, but very different opinions about some parts of it. It’s not two people in an echo chamber, nor is it a boring interview. It’s a group of people having healthy conversation (albeit probably somewhat rehearsed) about what techniques they use to make their writing good.

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Gushing is now over, I swear.

Recently, I was listening to an episode from Season 12 entitled “Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft.” I always have a hard time with determining where a first draft begins and a zero draft or second draft ends. The finals are easy to clarify, mostly, but for the purposes of this podcast I think it’s healthy to disregard the “First Draft” moniker. Instead, the conversation is about retrofitting structure of your draft when you know something is broken.

Case in point: a few years ago now (wow, how time flies) I finished what I affectionately call The Zombie Book at a time when many were saying that the zombie genre was dead. Putting aside whether or not a genre can die, this book was my favorite thing. I loved it deeply. Nothing I have written since has filled me with quite as much joy, actually, at least of the maniacal kind. The main character is a rather unstable middle-aged woman who could easily be a supervillain but somehow finds herself helping out with a ragtag band of people saving the world from an apocalypse that’s sort of their fault. It was lots of fun to write, and I still hold out hopes that it will find a home in a publishing house somewhere. I hear zombies and their ilk are making a comeback. A resurrection, even.

Bad humor aside, I loved this book. I hated the ending. It felt like a good ending in that it set up some things for a sequel. It brought some of the various plots I had been playing with to a solid close and opened up some new ones. Sequel material, in other words. Perfect. But it didn’t jive. It didn’t quite feel right.

Listening to this episode of Writing Excuses helped me to figure out exactly why that was. I didn’t quite keep my promises to my readers. There was a tonal shift.

In any case, I’m very excited to perform the activity in this podcast and fix that problem. Hopefully listening to this episode will give you some insight as well.

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Daughter of Madness progress update

The subtitle of this blogpost should be: the good, the bad, the ugly, for reasons that will become apparent, but I didn’t want to bulk that up too much. Suffice to say, publishing a book, no matter how you go about it, is a complicated process. When you are self-publishing, that process becomes vastly more complicated.

I’ve talked on here previously about what exactly goes into publishing a book. This is a good chance to dig into some of that and really give you an idea of where I am and where I’m going. Stick to the end for a treat!

I started writing Daughter of Madness officially in August of 2015, so about a year and a half ago. In December, I printed out a zero draft when it became clear that, as written, DoM didn’t actually have an ending. With some major outlining and reworking, I was able to put together a functional blueprint, which I began writing to ASAP. On February 4th I finished what I would call the official rough or first draft of the long-awaited sequel to Mother of Creation. Over the next few days, I typed it up. Then I printed it off and cuddled it to my body.

This is where we take a moment to celebrate, because hell yeah. That’s right I finished that book. Damn straight.

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At this point in time, DoM stands at around 93,000 words, 61 chapters, or roughly 270 pages (before formatting). That’s a lot of pages and a lot of chapters for something that is, at this moment in time, largely a labor of love. Once my euphoria wears off, it’s time to buckle down. There is still plenty of work to do.

While I’ve been rewriting the draft, I’ve also been working with my cover designer. Every good book needs a cover, and covers are not created in vacuum. I use Design for Writers for all of my novel covers, and they are absolute gems to work with. In order to create a good cover for my book, these folks sent me a giant questionnaire. I’m talking about fifty in depth questions, many of which require multiple paragraph answers. I worked on this through the month of December and have continued to work on it in January. Once I finished the questionnaire, Design for Writers used it to create the cover art for my book, giving me marketing material for its eventual release. The first part of the cover is at the bottom of this post!

In the interim, now that the book is finished it will need initial rewrites. Then it will need to sit, unseen by me, for a couple of weeks while I try to forget all about it. Think of this as a time to let the book cure, as it were. At this time, I will send it out to my alpha readers, the people who typically read something that is essentially hot off the press from me. They will tell me if the book is a hot mess or not. I will attempt to fix any glaring issues they point out after they have given me their initial critique. Alpha readers are mostly family and friends in my world, so this is not designed to be a deep edit necessarily, just a “wow that thing was a mess” read or “oh no, you’re on the right track!” Good times.

Next, I will read the book one more time to make sure it makes sense. I will do read-thrus for things like: word choice and anachronisms; setting/climate consistency; timing of various events; consistency with the previous book in terms of setting and characters and plot. That part is actually not terrible, though it’s not super fun. Meanwhile I will shop around for beta readers or an editor – someone who doesn’t love me who will lay the hammer down. This person or persons will read for decent writing and plot consistency, world-building, and all the good things that make a book. Different writers use different methods for this bit, so this is what works for me. So far I don’t have a dedicated editor or beta team that I use every time. No doubt this piece of my process will evolve. Once comments come back on the semi-final draft in terms of edits or issues, those will be incorporated, or not, at my discretion, because that is how this writing thing works.

The least fun part is my last editing pass. This pass is for typos. I have a particular thing I do for this pass – I read the manuscript backwards. Aloud. It takes forever and it is miserable. I usually catch a metric boatload of typos.

At this point I hate my book, and also feel quite accomplished. I format it (this is also hard and mind-numbing, but, as is not always the case with other tasks, at least has clear signs of completion). The formatted copy goes into various epub proofing programs, which I then glance over one last time to make sure I didn’t screw anything up. I fix any issues with the cover (not the copy, but the print cover measurements) with my cover folks if I need to. Then, at last, I have a book.

At some point during all of that magic, I am marketing in some fashion (perhaps a blog tour, Facebook event, or signing, for example). For Daughter of Madness I have some cool graphics planned for Twitter and Tumblr, but that’s a ways down the road still. Right now I’m aiming for June/July as a release date, though given the wedding that may get complicated.

Hopefully I’ll have a couple of other small projects to release this year as well to tide you over, but dates are hard to firm up at this point given the whole getting married thing. Just trust that I am working away on all the things and that as soon as I have a date, you will have a date.

In the interim, I’m excited to see you all over the next few months as I travel to conventions! And no, I haven’t forgotten that I promised you a bit of cover. Are you ready?

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Ugh, I love it so much.

Tune in next week for part two!

Prioritization, the beast immortal

So I have a problem called spin-too-many-plates syndrome. Meaning I like to constantly be juggling a lot of stuff. “Like” may not be the best word, actually. Perhaps it would be better to say that I pathologically over-stuff my plate. Or that I get bored easily. Or that I am overly ambitious. Or am violently deficient at correctly estimating my resources.

Anyway.

This past weekend, I told you that the audiobook for Mother of Creation would be out. We busted butts to try to make that deadline, me and my producer both. Sleep was lost, stress was had. I cried for an hour or two when I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Part of me missing the deadline was that I was trying to do too many things at once, trying to work my day job, find a place to live, plan a wedding, write a book, and simultaneously review and publish an audiobook. It just wasn’t going to happen.

That said, we did get the book out, finally. You can get the audiobook of Mother of Creation on Audible, Amazon, or through iTunes/iBooks. If you start a free trial membership of Audible, you will get my book for free. I’m so excited to be able to offer you this opportunity and I hope that you will take advantage of it.

Focusing on one project and not deviating and meeting deadlines can be really hard for me. I’m very good on figuring out what needs to be done, but not so good on figuring out which thing should be done first. My single human form is obviously not an army, except maybe an army of bacteria. Bacteria does not write. All of this is probably the result of the fact that, like many authors, I am a creator. I am an idea person that likes to constantly be dreaming up new fluffy bubbles of magical rainbow transcendence to dazzle the world with. That makes it really hard to a) stick with one fluffy bubble to the end and b) realize which of the maintenance things need to take priority in order to preserve those fluffy bubbles so they don’t just pop and die.

I’m not apologizing for that weird metaphor. In case you were wondering about that.

Right now my list of weird half-finished projects looks like this:

  • Two projects that need edits. One needs being sent out to a beta reader group of some kind. One needs to be finalized and polished with already-received beta reader feedback.
  • A novella that needs major rewrites. This may be at the bottom of my list honestly. Another novella that also needs rewrites, final edits, and distribution.
  • Several sequels that need writing.
  • Several query letters that need sending out for various completed or psuedo-completed short story projects.
  • A short story I’ve never finished that might turn into a novella but I would like to see done regardless.
  • Several other short story ideas in the works.

That’s a lot of stuff that is floating around in my brain. Knowing which thing to work on next isn’t just about what I most want to work on next, but also about what I think I’m likely to be able to pitch successfully.

The other downside to all of this is that even when I decide on what I think will be successful and start to work on it, it’s often just as likely that I will hare off and do something else at some point that is not planned, or forget I made the plan in the first place and rehash the same tired conversation in my head a month later. I try to keep good notes, but don’t always go back through the notes that I do keep. This is general disorganization, but also a sort of pathological self-sabotage. It’s easy to point to things that you failed to do as the reason that you are failing, instead of accepting that sometimes the reason you are failing is just bad luck or lack of a complete picture.

I don’t have any tips for how to fix this, because it is something I am struggling with all the time. My only advice is to just continue forward in spite of yourself when these things happen and accept that it is a bit of who you are. Not the entirety of who you are. You are not in your entirety a being of procrastination, or you would never get anything done. Nor are you entirely disorganized, or entirely unable to follow through with projects. These are not fair descriptors any more than it would be fair to say that you always keep your work organized and complete everything you set your mind to. People are complex, life is complex, any creative work is complex.

It’s really easy to oversimplify the challenges we encounter, to see them as daunting, impossible beasts which can never be conquered. It is really easy to lose hope and never try. It can be very hard to both believe in yourself and strive to do better. After all, the first of those is a positive thing, right? Believing in yourself requires optimism and faith. Striving to do better requires some of that, but it also requires a certain self-criticism, an awareness of one’s faults. It’s very hard to hold your faults in your head and still love yourself. There are days where you might not be able to accomplish that.

On those days, I advise you to eat some ice cream, take a bath, drink some tea. And then get right back in your chair and write, write, write. Turn off the little voice that’s talking about what you can do better, and do what you can. Put another word on the page. You’re the only one who can write your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be yours.

My writing process: novels vs short stories

A lot of people have different ways they tackle writing, and I suppose there are a lot of places where best practices kind of deviate. Given that, I wanted to take a minute today to talk about my writing process.

I am not a pantser. For those unfamiliar, a pantser is someone who flies by the seat of their pants. I will not go into a story without and ending in mind – mostly because I can guarantee if I do so that I will not have an ending to my story. It won’t ever get finished. This doesn’t mean that I don’t improvise, because I do, and it doesn’t mean that I know everything that’s going to happen before it does, because I don’t. My characters can still surprise me, and do. It just means I need a target to be aiming for.

What this often means in novels is that I know the ending to the book, but I may not know the middle. Most of my rewrites in novels, which can be extensive, revolve around the meat of the story. While there are exceptions, for books I focus on adding scenes and otherwise filling in gaps that affect the world-building and character development going on around the main plot points in my re-writes.

For short stories I can say that it is a little different. My short stories often spring full-formed from the page. The edits that are made are usually semantic edits – changing the wording of descriptions and actions so that they come through more clearly. Very occasionally, I will adjust a paragraph to add some missing information that will help the reader connect to the character in question. In fact, my short stories either come through with almost no edits, or don’t come through at all and must be completely rewritten, with only a couple of elements surviving – maybe the setting, or a character, or even only a paragraph that I particularly liked. It’s a very different process from my novels.

I think this comes from the fact that, for short stories, it is a lot easier to hold the whole thing in my head. A novel has too many moving parts, and so I will use outlines and charts to try to keep things straight. A curve ball can destroy this architecture, requiring weeks of reworking outlines before I can start moving forward again. By the end of the novel, I’ve changed the plot points and reorganized them several times, and so the rewriting involves dragging my characters to where they need to be for it all to make sense. But for a short story, the whole of it pops into my head pretty early and stays there. Reworking the plot isn’t necessary, and so the character takes her time revealing herself, and I’m free to focus on the craft of the sentences, the tone of her voice, on perfecting the language itself.

Either task is daunting and fun and rewarding. I am so excited to share more stories with you.