Writing Update, November edition

Sadly, I have very little update to give. With one thing or another, October has passed without me making much progress on any of my current projects. Spending a week in the hospital was merely the lame icing on an unproductive cake.

About the only news I have to report is that Ships of My Fathers is no longer in the KDP Select program at Amazon which means it should be rolling out to Barnes and Noble as well as Kobo sometime this month.

So, back to editing Debts of My Fathers

NaNoWriMo: Why I love it, why I hate it, and why I’m not doing it this year…

As October winds down, new writers across the globe are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month of November. The challenge is to start with a blank page and write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. It boils down to 1667 blood-soaked words every day, and at last count, more than 125,000 wordsmiths are gearing up for it this year.

squirrel-winner-100I love NaNoWriMo! After piddling around for twenty years with outlines, back-stories, and world-building – and barely three chapters of actual novel – NaNoWriMo got my butt into the chair for some serious work. In 2004, I put in 51,000 words on a novel that was something like Pinocchio’s tale but with androids. I never did actually finish off the plot for that story, but by the time I finally gave up, I had more than 65,000 words of a novel. The story has its problems, and it was on target to be a bloated 150,000 words, but damn it, it was more than I had written in any single tale I had ever attempted. It felt good, and it made me the dedicated pantser that I am today.

And NaNoWriMo has done more than clutter my closet with unfinished drafts. My first published book, Beneath the Sky, started with my 2005 NaNoWriMo win. I finished it off in the summer of 2007. My upcoming entry into urban fantasy, Hell Bent, started with my 2010 NaNoWriMo win and was finished off the next September. And Ships of My Fathers, the start of the Father Chessman Saga, was my 2011 NaNoWriMo book, actually completed in December immediately after the rush of my fourth NaNoWriMo win!

2005_nanowrimo_winner_largeI love the camaraderie, the constant updating of my word-count spreadsheet, and even the crazy rush as the week of Thanksgiving rolls around. It takes one of the loneliest tasks in the world and turns it into a party. The success and failures of those around you gives you both inspiration and cautionary tales. So, if you have ever thought about writing a novel, I encourage you dive on in and make NaNoWriMo 2013 your path to wordsmithing glory!

But I also hate NaNoWriMo! Yes, I know… it’s great for getting you moving, for getting a lot of those glumpy words out of the noodle factory between our ears, and for daring you to even make the attempt. It’s not quite Steal Fire From The Gods Month, but sure, it taps into stuff only the immortals can handle. Yep, great stuff… in November.

The real problems show up on December 1.

First of all, you very likely don’t have a novel on December 1. I know that e-books and the liberty of self-publishing are shattering the preconceived notions of proper book length, but the reality is that readers are used to books of certain lengths in different genres. Light romances and quick mysteries might squeeze down to 50,000 words, but most start at 60,000. Sci-fi and urban fantasies like to play in the range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. And then there are a number of weighty tomes across those genres that flop down on the beach with 150,000 to 250,000 words.

nano_10_winner_120x240-6Even apart from word-count, did you actually get to the end of the story? Have Bilbo and the dwarves defeated Smaug, or are they just now leaving Rivendale? When I bailed on my 2004 effort (the unnamed Pinocchio tale), I was barely past the 40% mark of where that story was going. On December 1, 2005, Beneath the Sky had just dealt with the pirate attack. That pattern carried through on both Hell Bent and Ships of My Fathers. I was proceeding at the right plot-pace to get to 80-100,000 words, but I simply hadn’t gotten there yet. No one wants to read a book that ends in Act II.

But even once you finish a novel-sized draft – truly, an accomplishment even greater than a NaNoWriMo victory – you’ve only just begun. If your first drafts are anything like mine, what you have is a bucket of words. I say bucket because if this is your first NaNoWriMo, then you will be vomiting forth a fair number of those words, and it shows. I don’t merely mean typos and sloppy grammar. No, I mean that there are fundamental problems with your plot, your characters, your… your… well, your everything. But that’s what editing is for, and NaNoWriMo at least gave you something to edit.

But it is not a ready-to-publish novel. In recent years, I have often heard that most terrible claim, “All right – just need to run the thing through spell-check and then format it for Kindle!” No. No, NO, NO!

So that’s the main thing I hate about NaNoWriMo. It suggests that you have won the race when in truth, you have only gotten off the starting blocks. The race is long, and it’s going to take a lot longer than a month – even one of the ones with thirty-one days.

Winner_120_200_whiteSo, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but not because of the reasons I hate it. Nor am I dead set on never doing NaNoWriMo again in the future. It’s just that I’ve gotten past the point where I need it to be November for me to pile on in and write a new novel. Since 2011 I’ve written two other novels, neither of which were in November. I plugged away with NaNoWriMo intensity – typically shooting for 2500 words per day, not a mere 1667. I think I’ve mastered the process of getting that first draft out of my brain and onto the page.

But what I’m still struggling with is the process of turning that bilious bucket of draft into a publishable novel. Right now I have three novels grinding their way through the editing gears. The furthest along is Hell Bent, but the highest priority is Debts of My Fathers. Shattered, my attempt at a mystery, is going to wait for a while.

And here it is, the closing days of October, and believe me, the adrenaline rush of NaNoWriMo is calling to me, but I’m not going to do it. I certainly don’t need an unfinished draft distracting me in December, and even if I finished it off in November, I don’t need to have a fourth novel cluttering up my editing queue. No, what I need is the month of November to work on the novels that are already written and fighting their way towards publication. I know this sounds lame, but I’ve got to make the grown-up decision and work on edits this November, and that means I don’t have the hours in the day to do NaNoWriMo.

But somewhere down the line, I will find myself gearing up for another draft in late October, and when I do, I will almost certainly put on my NaNo hat again and ride off to do battle with the 1667.  In the meantime, I salute those of you heading into the fray this year.

Beta Readers

In my self-publishing process, I don’t hire story editors or developmental editors. I do hire a copyeditor, but that’s for after the story is already fine-tuned. Instead of these earlier editors, I use beta readers.

As I explained in an earlier post, I do my own alpha reading and fix up what I can, but then I reach a point where I need an outside perspective. That’s when I turn to my beta readers. They don’t provide everything that a professional story editor – particularly one in a publishing house – would provide, but in some ways, they provide more.

But first, who do I pick as my beta readers?

The common wisdom going around is that these should not be your friends and family. The logic behind that is that these people won’t understand what is required to make a story work, and besides, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they won’t speak up about your book’s problems. While I think that can be true, I don’t think it’s always true. Certainly not all of my friends and family are qualified, but a few of them are quite qualified. And some of those qualified few are also emotionally invested in my success. They actually read the damn thing, make notes, and give me good feedback.

What makes them qualified? Well, ideally, I’d love to three or four uncles who have spent a lifetime as professional editors in my genre of publishing, but that hasn’t happened. I think the key though, is that my beta readers need to be well-read in the genres that I’m writing in. If all they read is chick-lit, they won’t be able to give me good feedback on my space opera. And when I say well-read, I don’t mean half a dozen books. I mean hundreds of books.

Also, they should know what they like and why they like it. It’s not enough that they really enjoyed Old Man’s War by Scalzi. They should be able to talk about what parts really thrilled them, what parts were only okay, and why they reacted that way. When the end of my book doesn’t work for them, they can have some idea why, whether it be plausibility, character motivation, or emotional satisfaction. This kind of feedback is easier to get if the beta reader is also a writer, because writers think about these things a lot, but it’s not a requirement. I’ve also gotten this kind of quality feedback from people who never write fiction.

And finally, they need to show a track history of giving me honest feedback, especially when that feedback is bad. I may not know this until I first try them as a beta reader. They may come back and simply tell me it’s wonderful. That’s nice and all, but it didn’t get me any further down the path. If they come back and tell me it was great until page 212 when the navy showed up and solved everyone’s problems, then I’ve gotten some great feedback about my ending. These are the kind of people who will say, “Yes, those jeans actually do make you look fat.”

Some good feedback I have gotten from my beta readers have been things like:

  • You’re telegraphing the main conflict in chapter one. I would have enjoyed it more if it had developed over time.
  • Hank is a real dick at the beginning, and you never explain why.
  • I really liked Walter until 2/3 of the way through, and then he just went nuts for no clear reason.
  • Bob reacts to everything by being angry, and that got a little annoying. Is that all he can do?
  • The scenes with Susan were kind of boring to me. I didn’t stop reading, but I wanted to skip ahead.

These were great because they were specific, they reflected how they reacted as readers, and they were not suggesting radical changes like, “I think Frank should be a vampire.” They were giving me a measurement on whether or not I invoked the kind of emotional response in readers that I was attempting. Did I make you cry, or did you blow a great big raspberry at the page?

Of course, beta readers are not a complete replacement for a story editor or a development editor. They won’t tell me that New Adult is a big thing right now, and this story could be redone with the protagonist five years older or five years younger to fit that market. They won’t tell me that the paranormal horror market is oversaturated and showing signs of shrinking. And I doubt they’ll tell me that my mystery-horror crossover will be hard to market.

On the other hand, beta readers provide a diversity of feedback that no single editor will be able to match. If one beta reader complains about one of my favorite parts, I have to wonder if I’m on the right track or if I have to “kill my darlings” as the saying goes. But if the other readers all liked that particular point, I can safely set aside that single piece of feedback with the notion that I can’t please everyone all the time. On the other hand, if most of them complain about the same thing, I have to accept that the problem is real and haul that particular darling of mine off to the guillotine. With a single editor, I’d always struggle with whether or not to stick to my guns on things like that.

Would I like to have a developmental editor and a story editor as well? Possibly, but for now I’m making do with my beta readers. However, I will say that I’m looking for additional beta readers. Right now, I have a trio of ladies as my beta readers, and while I don’t want to throw down the gauntlet of gender inequality, I’d like another man’s perspective from time to time.

How about you folks… do you use beta readers? Have you ever been a beta reader?

Ships of My Fathers is off to the Copyeditor

Last week, I handed my next novel off to the copyeditor. If all goes according to schedule, she’ll have it wrapped up by the end of March, and I’ll be able to release it around the start of May.

BeneathSky_Chessman_ParallelShips of My Fathers is the first of a five-book series set in the same universe as Beneath the Sky, though it’s neither sequel nor prequel. In truth, it happens in parallel to Beneath the Sky and touches on one or two minor characters from that book, most notably Father Chessman and the Yoshido pirate syndicate. Chessman is not the central character, by far, but in search of a good-sounding tagline, this might very well end up being known as the Father Chessman Saga. I’ll say more about it as the release approaches, but until now I suppose it’s been nothing more than a title to everyone but my beta readers.

BloodOnThePageHanding it off to my copyeditor is a strange milestone for me because it marks the beginning of the hurry-up-and-wait stage. I still consider copyediting to be part of my polish process, but until I get those edits back, there’s very little for me to do. That sudden inactivity comes on the heels of a major push to reach that point, so in some ways I’m still hearing my writing-brakes squeal.

When I started the year, I set a schedule that called for an “editing” deadline in late January, but when February 1st rolled around, I was nowhere close to being done. Knowing that much of the rest of the schedule would be out of my hands (copyedits, bake time at printers and retailers, shipping time for galley proofs, etc.), I realized that if I missed my end-of-February deadline, there was no hope of catching up. So I doubled my efforts and did three different editing passes in February:

  1. I finished the story edits, incorporating the beta feedback. The book grew about 5000 words along the way.
  2. I did a word-crafting pass, beefing up my word choices, slaying weak adverbs, adding more colorful metaphors, and just getting rid of really annoying filler words like “just” and “really”.
  3. Then I did my own copyedit pass and found some truly awful errors that had amazingly slipped past every one of my own reads as well as those of my beta readers.

In the end, I missed my deadline by two days, passing it off near midnight on March 1st rather than my original February 27th goal. It now stands at about 85,000 words, and I think I’ve read it beginning to end at least four times. At this point, I’m strangely ambivalent about it. In some ways I’m sick of it, but in other ways, I’m reveling in it. This one bit towards the end still makes me tear up, even after that many readings. So, either I’m incredibly narcissistic, or the book is pretty good… though I suppose both could be true.

So now I’m edging into the publishing process, even as the polishing process is wrapping up. I’ll be doing a rough cut of the print formatting so that I can get an approximate page count. This is necessary to calculate the spine width, and I need that to correctly size the wraparound cover. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with it, image and text-wise, but I’m still toying around with fonts and such. I also need to think forward to the next four books and their likely covers, so that the series will have a more unified look.

And I’m also starting to think about other projects. I’m going to revise the cover of Beneath the Sky and get back to the edits on Hell Bent. Hopefully I’ll be handing that over to my beta readers about the same time I get my copyedits back on Ships of My Fathers. And then I need to start thinking about drafting a new novel from scratch, quite possibly the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer.

In the Copyedit Trenches

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. I’m down in the copyedit trenches now for “Ships of My Fathers”. I’m supposed to hand it off to my professional copyeditor today, but it looks like that deadline is slipping to Thursday so that I can finish my own pass first.

So, in the meantime, I thought I’d share a few bits that managed to slip past my two beta testers and my three editing passes. In fairness, those passes were for editing story and language and were not being paranoid about diction and punctuation, but still, I’m amazed these got through:

Monty put his shoulder on Michael’s and gave it a good squeeze.
He fished out as wallet as he walked.
“How do you suggest we help Michael making this adjustment?”
She went on the measure the girth of his knees.
He did night try to hide his frown.
She added a puffy white roll to his place.

That’s all in the first third of the book, plus all the boring little punctuation stuff I had to fix. I still expect my copyeditor to find some errors. I just don’t want to embarrass myself in front of her.

Editing from First Draft to Final Draft

Folks often ask how many drafts are necessary, or how do you edit a novel, and so on. Like most things, I don’t believe there is One True Way, but I thought I’d share my own method. This is as much to point other people at later as it is to document my own process to help me remember when I get to this point on the next novel.

barfbucketI already wrote about how I draft a novel, which is mostly an exercise in flying by the seat of my pants with only my destination and a few waypoints in mind. What I end up with from that is a mess. It’s not so much that the plot wanders all over – at least not so far – but that it’s filled with bad grammar, sloppy spelling, and a bucket-full of notes that look like this: [so, is the mom dead or not? need to fix this back in act 1] Character motivations are sloppy, major revelations are either broadcast too early or come out of nowhere, and the climax depends on something critical that I forgot to include in chapter three.

Clearly, it’s not ready for publication. It’s not ready for any kind of professional submission. It’s not even ready for me to show it to a friend. I call it my first draft, but even that is being a little too kind.  Instead, I refer to it internally by a version number: version 0.9.

calendarpagesThe absolutely first thing I do is nothing. I wait, typically at least two to three months, preferably while working on a different project, perhaps writing another draft of something else. It’s very important to get some distance from that first draft, because if I dive back in right away, I can’t really see it for what’s on the page. I still see it for what was in my head.

So, after waiting a while, the first real action I take is to make an edit pass all on my own. This edit pass starts with me printing out a copy. I take it to the local copy shop and get them to print it out on 8.5 x 11 sheets, single-spaced, but printed on only one side. I go with a spiral binding because that works out better for me physically. They put a clear front cover on it, and the first page has the working title, and the version history so far (since the initial vomit-draft may have been built up in stages of 0.10, 0.11, and so forth). I also make sure each page has the title, the version number, and the page number.

draftprintcoverI then go through with a bright red pen. I’ve been using a Signo Uniball gel pen lately. Part of me still prefers the feel of the older Uniball Micro, but there’s a key difference that actually impacts the editing process. The Signo lets me open and close the pen simply by clicking on the end with my thumb, while the older Micro requires me to remove and replace the pen’s cap. I found that this simple change in the motion required both sped up my edits as well as got me to flag more items and make more notes.

So, what am I flagging and noting? Well, what I’m not doing is trying to fine tune the language and catch all the typos. Certainly, if I see something, I’ll flag it, but that’s not the focus of this editing pass. Mostly, I’m looking for story and character problems. Did a cool character show up too late in the book? Is the protagonist’s major shift too predictable? Is that subplot boring? Does the climax really work as is? Remember that I’m doing this all on paper, so I’m not actually fixing anything. I’m just spotting problems. Some of the notes will fit in the margin, but longer notes go on the blank facing page – remember, I only printed on one-side of the pages. I’ll even go back and scribble notes like “This would be a good place to introduce the jailer. Insert a scene here.”  Keeping it on paper forces me to look at the novel as a whole and doesn’t let me start making fixes before I’ve seen the entirety of the problems.

rededitsThen, once I’ve thoroughly bloodied the printout, I open up the document and start fixing things. Awkward sections get rewritten. New scenes are added. In my experience so far, the book grows about 5-10% during this stage. And while I’m not trying to make it perfect, I’ll at least make a pass through it with Word’s spelling and grammar checker. Most of the errors it flags are to be ignored (unusual names, unusual but not incorrect grammar, etc), but I try to fix any true errors it gives me.

By this point, the story works and the characters are at least reasonable. I won’t say that this is the best I can make it, but it’s at least good enough to show it to someone. I call this version 1.0.

Then I go print out more copies of this one, just like the first one I printed. The history and version numbers are updated, but otherwise, it’s the exact same format. I pass these off to my beta readers.

I should say a thing or two about beta readers, but it would take up too much space. Suffice it to say, they know the genre, they know the difference between good stories and bad ones, and they’re not afraid to tell me something I won’t like. How you get those is probably another blog entry.

So anyway, I give the book to some beta readers. They get the physical copies of the book along with a brand new red pen. I make it clear to them that I want their reactions to the story, but they should feel free to mark up specific sections that need rework, identify typos, or simply jot down their immediate reactions in the margins. I give them a month.

After the month, I sit down and try to debrief them. I let them go through their copy page by page, and let their notes remind them of any thoughts they had. Meanwhile, I’m taking notes in a separate notebook. Afterwards, I’ll ask them for any other feedback, and when they are done I may ask them specific questions. Did the big reveal in chapter 12 surprise you, or had you figured it out already? I was trying to imply that Jake is Bill’s brother… did that get through? Did you believe in Sam’s redemption? At no time in all of this do I try to defend the work, tell them that they should have “gotten it”, or discredit their reactions. I just sit there and take notes.

CalendarObliqueThen I wait. Yes, again.  It doesn’t have to be three months, but I like to wait at least a few weeks. Why? I have to let their feedback sink in. When I first get that feedback, it’s my instinct to defend my book. After all, it makes perfect sense in my head. The characters are quite believable. Justice is sweet, not contrived. So I sit on their feedback for a while, and think it over. After a month or so, I begin to see that there’s some truth to what they said.

So then I open up the document again, update the version number to 1.10, and start editing. I array all of the marked-up beta copies around me, and I go page by page, reworking problems that they identified. Some problems are too big for this style of editing, but as I go through, I’m reading my work as well, trying to see the bigger issues they found. Still, I keep plugging through to the end, fixing up the page-by-page stuff that I can.

And those big issues? There’s a reason for putting them off just a bit. You see, when I go through that page-by-page pass, I’m reading the novel again, and all the while I’m thinking about those big issues that the beta readers identified. For a lot of them, I’m kicking myself for not having seeing such a huge problem on my own. For others, I’m realizing that this was probably more about that particular beta reader than about my book. The rest are somewhere in between, but by the time I’ve read the book again while thinking about those bigger problems, I have an idea not only of whether they’re real but also of how to fix them.

So then I start hopping around doing heavier lifting. I add scenes. I rewrite dialog. I reorder events. This can be big and bloody, carving out organs and slamming new ones in their place. Depending on just how bloody this is, I may have to make a second read/edit pass to make sure I caught all the consistency issues. If I’m changing Bob’s gender, yeah, that’s going to take an extra pass, just looking for all the him/her stuff.

Then I think about how much I changed. Was it only a little? If so, then I’m pretty much done. But if the changes were big, then it’s back to the beta readers to get their feedback on the new version, 1.10. And that might result in even bigger changes, which have to go back to the beta readers as 1.20, and so on. Eventually though, I’ll either give up, or the changes will be small enough that I don’t feel the need to go back to the beta readers again. Thus, the answer to the question, “how many drafts does it take?” is “as many as it needs!”

And that is what I call my “final draft”, typically version 1.1 or 1.2. God help me if it ever gets to 4.5.

But what about word crafting and copyediting? After all, I kept saying above that I wasn’t worried about that stuff. Well, I push that off to a second kind of editing job that I call polishing, not editing. Polishing takes me from “final draft” to “final text”, and from there it’s yet another set of tasks of formatting, cover design, etc. that I call publishing.  So, as I finish up polishing and publishing this next book, look for those to show up as entries of their own.


Edits. Arg.

Right now I’m struggling through my own copy edit pass before handing it off to a fresh copy editor. Why am I struggling? It’s not the grammar rules or the spelling. Most of that is correct. Well, it looks correct. Maybe I’m actually a terrible copy editor, and I’m missing all manner of mistakes.

No, what I’m struggling with are errors in the next level up. That sentence is awkward. I have used this word too many times. No, he didn’t run quickly from the room. He bolted from the room. And ouch – that’s a point-of-view error. What am I doing in her head when this is clearly his scene? God, how many more pages left in this chapter… was it always this slow?

I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as all that. Perhaps more than anything it’s that I’m reading the text slowly with a critical eye. Then add the fact that this is at least my fifth reading of the novel. There aren’t many surprises left for me. I’m not wondering if they’ll survive the attack. I’m wondering when, for the love of God, is this bloody attack going to finally be over? And enough with the fucking split infinitives already!

It also doesn’t help that I’ve got two more novels under my belt that my memory tells me are much better. That’s natural, of course. The more you write, the better you get. But at the moment this feels like a night and day difference. Then again, these other novels haven’t gone through the kind of scrutiny that this one is getting.

This is probably the point where a lot of writers trunk that first novel, except I don’t know if I can really even call this my first novel. I’ve already trunked two incomplete novels, plus the trilogy that never got off the ground (despite about 30,000 words of world-building) and the 250,000 words of short fiction that came before that.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. Every writer goes through this as some point in their career. Not all of those that persisted made it, but none of the ones who quit did.

And so I persist.

Wait, was that supposed to be in first person or not?