Wordcount Nightmare

wordsLast night I had a dream in which my manuscript for DRAGONFIRE suddenly had a wordcount of 103k. Yikes. That’s a lot for a middle-grade fantasy, really too much for a debut author. The fact that I dreamed about it tells me that I may obsess about wordcount a little too much.

Wordcount is a real concern for writers with an eye toward publishing since publishers don’t want to gamble the higher expenses of a long novel when the author is an unknown quantity. Exceptional novels might get away with lots and lots of words, but exceptional novels are just that, exceptional. A novel also has a minimum length, otherwise it’s not really a novel.

So I fired up Word and double-checked the wordcount of DRAGONFIRE to find out that the typing elves haven’t been at it, and it’s still the same 63k words as it was when I last worked on it. I’m very happy with that final tally, but it took a good amount of outlining work to make sure I’d have a plot that would end in the right range of words.

Meanwhile, I’m finding that I’m moving through my outline of my latest manuscript, DARK HUNTER faster than I expected to. I may find myself obsessing on the other end of the spectrum and coming up with a story that’s too short. That could mean doing a lot of reworking to make the plot longer without simply adding fluff. What gets added has to matter. I could also write it with more details to stretch it out, but that affects the pacing.

Ultimately a story should have as many words as it needs. I work hard, with varying results, at structuring the story to have a need in the right range.

For MG and YA writers I’ve found this blog article to be very informative on the subject of wordcount and what wordcounts fits the desirable range.

Wordcount Dracula

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First Steps

Since I’m starting out with a new idea, I thought it might be interesting to blog my process as I go through it. Of course, maybe it’s just interesting to me :).

The Rough Outline
The Rough Outline

I have a new idea and I’ve written a pitch for it. Now it’s time to get to work on it. The first thing is to think about and visualize the story. This part all happens in my head, and I spend a lot of my commuting time working on it as well as other spare moments throughout the day. I’ve already done a lot of thinking about DARK HUNTER while coming up with a pitch, but not enough to write an outline. Maybe it sounds silly to call this a step in my process, but it really is. This step is done, or at least there’s enough done to get to the next step. I’m not going to stop thinking about it.

Mapping out the characters. There aren't very many yet.
Mapping out the characters. There aren’t very many yet.

The next step for me is the rough outline. In my case it’s like a washboard road in the Outback kind of rough. Basically, I puke out all that thinking into a list of events in the story. DARK HUNTER’s outline doesn’t even have the correct character names as I scribbled it out before I have the character names figured out. The only job of my rough outline is to give me direction for the real outline. This all gets typed into a single Scrivener text thingie that I just call a card. This part is also done.

It’s not time for the real outline yet. Now I move onto the main characters. Each character gets a card in the ‘character’ folder. Then I type the general description of the character. By general description I don’t mean physical description but rather the role in the story. This is also the time I have the dread task of coming up with names. For that I usually use 20,000 names for inspiration. As I write the story I paste in passages about the character that I need to remember for continuity. This is where things like physical descriptions go along with bits about backstory, personality, whatever. As I introduce new characters, I’ll add cards into the list so I have a quick place to look up what I need. I have this done for the main characters.

The Real Outline
The Real Outline

Now I’m finally ready to start on the real outline. For this outline I create a card for every section in the novel. Often times a single section corresponds to a single chapter, but sometimes a couple of short sections might get combined. Interestingly, DARK HUNTER has ended up with 23 sections which is exactly the same as my last novel DRAGONFIRE. Apparently, I’m pretty consistent. This part is also done.

Within each section I make notes on the events that happen and the scenes in that section. Also I like to add notes on how the section moves the physical and emotional plots. If I can’t figure out something for one or the other, then I know I’ve got a problem. So far I’ve made notes for the first section and that’s where I stand.

No part of the outline or character notes are set in stone. Sometimes I get a great idea and have to rework them, or I go off the outline because that’s what makes sense while I’m writing. Still, having everything mapped out helps me stay productive when the time for pounding out that first draft comes along.

What kind of process do you have when starting out on a new novel?

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A New Idea

idea_bulbI was struggling with my idea for novel. I had a description of the novel, but I couldn’t put it together in my head. Getting from point A to point B felt contrived, and I just never thought of another way of doing it. Stuck in the mud. Then recently I came up with an idea which is a middle-grade version of an adult fantasy tale I had floating around in my head for awhile. It’s a good feeling to have something new brewing. Here’s what I have, though I don’t consider it of query quality.

The world is a fearsome place with monsters roaming the lands between warded cities and towns. In the wild lands between are the sorcerers who summon these creatures to do their bidding. To protect the people are the Dark Hunters, specialized warriors who root out the sorcerers and destroy their fell beasts. Though they’ve never organized before, the sorcerers have formed a mysterious council called the circle to rise up against the Dark Hunters and penetrate the protective wards. After a failed mission, apprentice Dark Hunter Kuro and his best friend, Reina, are abandoned in sorcerer-infested lands. When they discover the secret of the circle, it challenges Kuro’s beliefs, and the hunters become the prey of sorcerers and Dark Hunters alike.

Now that I have a pitch of sorts, it’s time to put my process in motion. First comes a rough outline of the plot and notes about the characters and the world. The next step is the slow process of mapping out my scenes. I like to have all my scenes figured out before I start writing. My working title is DARK HUNTER. I’ll see how it goes.

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A key skill in writing a novel is finishing it. I call it a skill, because seeing an entire novel to the end is not an easy thing to do.

Finish LineFirst, there’s seeing a novel through to the end of the rough draft. That means figuring out an ending and, perhaps even more important, creating a middle to get there. The middle of the story can be a quagmire where story ideas go to die. With the momentum from the beginning gone and still far from the exciting conclusion, it’s easy to run out of ideas. I try to combat that by starting off with something big for the beginning, end, and middle before I start pumping out words. Everybody is different, but I find coming up with a big event for the physical and/or emotional plot at the middle of the story keeps me from getting stuck.

That’s not to say endings are easy in comparison. Coming up with a good and satisfying conclusion is no simple task. I’m not sure how you start a novel without knowing the ending, but I’m sure some people can pull it off.

Reaching the end of the rough draft is an exciting moment, but what makes a good ending? I like an ending to be challenging for the characters. I like it when the lead-up is to something that feels near impossible to overcome whether the obstacles are physical or emotional. But I also like solution to not be cheap. I think cheapness can be a real weakness in the fantasy genre where the hero pulls out a new ability or power that’s never been hinted at before. Like if Evil Overlord person strikes a fatal blow at Hero Dude only to discover that Hero Dude’s pet cat is really a mystic being that can heal any wound or something–ugh.

So you put together beginning, middle, and end to make a rough draft. That’s far from the end of the novel because revision looms ahead. Here lies the trap just waiting for perfectionists. How the heck do you decide if you’re done revising?  Right now that’s where I am, attempting to finish up my novel Dragonfire. I still have some feedback to collect and still have some things to fix, but I feel like I’m coming into the final stretch. I know it isn’t perfect, but I also know I could go through it a hundred more times and always find something to tweak. If I let my perfectionist tendencies take over, then I’ll be forever stuck. Revision is the dangerous area for me.

So when is the right time to let go? I suppose for me it would be when I can read through it and decide that it’s equal to a book I’d pick off a shelf, and I don’t find too many tweaks I feel need to be made. Too many and I’ll need to read it again after fixing them. Just a few, well I can fix them, and call it good.

So, if you are a novel writer, what’s the hardest part of getting a novel done for you?

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I’m deep in the land of revision with my new novel Dragonfire. Dragonfire is the third novel I’ve written, so I knew I’d be here after I finished that rough draft. Revisionland is sort of like Candyland with no candy and a lot more work and caffeine. But it’s where most novels go to become good novels. Revisionland is where the magic happens.

So what happens in revisionland? Well, it’s going to be different for everyone. Sure that’s a cop-out answer but it’s true for almost everything relating to writing. Maybe it’s a bit like parenting, there are a million books with advice out there, but for the most part it’s finding out what works for you since children are individuals and so are parents. Similarly, every novel is individual (even if the ideas aren’t original) and so is every writer. Okay so much for the wishy-washy stuff.

What does revisionland look like for me? Well, it two major cities, beta-reader-ville and read-through-berg, and a bunch of connecting roads.

There's still a lot of work left after roughing things in.
There’s still a lot of work left after roughing things in.

Beta-reader-ville is hugely important. Without somebody else taking a look at your work you end up being like a team that you’ve only watched scrimmage against itself. Maybe it’s a good team, but maybe the offense and defense are equally bad so the scrimmages don’t reveal the weaknesses. When the team is subjected to another team, then the weaknesses come to the forefront. My rough drafts are never without weaknesses so I need these kind and wonderful people to read it over and reveal the problems.

Read-through-berg is also important. While beta readers are important, my own opinion is ultimately the judge of my novel. Read-through-berg is where the government is. After every round of revisions I visit it to read through my latest manuscript and decide what stays, what goes, and what needs to be changed. It’s also where I go to pull the weeds of grammar errors and typos.

Sometimes I employ the use of robot minions to help me out in the form of a text-to-speech reader and my e-reader. I find having my computer read to me helps me find problems that just reading the text doesn’t. Somehow, I also find using an e-reader to help me read through my manuscript seems more effective. Maybe reading it without sitting in front of a computer screen makes me go slower and pay better attention.

Finally, there are the connecting roads where most of the work takes place. All those beta-reader comments need to get processed into manuscript changes on the way to Read-through-berg. Sometimes those changes are easy and straightforward like a clear freeway. Other times the changes domino, clogging up the road with lots of corrections. And then there are those times I need to put out the orange barrels and replace whole sections of–okay, maybe I’m overdoing the analogy at this point.  It’s those changes where I need to rip out multiple scenes or even whole chapters that are so daunting to me. Inside, I want to scream, “I’ve already written it! Don’t make me go back and write it all over again!” In the end, though, I slog through and end up happy I did–hopefully happy.

Those roads run both ways though and my read-throughs send changes back to the beta readers. The paths become well-traveled before I reach my final destination at the pinnacle of final draft mountain.

So that’s what revisionland looks like for me. What does your revisionland look like?

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments

A Short Story

When I sit down to do some writing, I want to work on a novel so short stories aren’t really my thing. There’s something about the complexity and scale of a novel I find appealing in a way that a short story simply can’t fulfill. However, I do have a few on my blog and this particular one was the first real short story I wrote.

I had to come up with a cover since I made it available on Feedbooks.

So why did I write this one three and a half years ago? Well, a couple of reasons. Off and on, I toyed with the idea of a science fiction story set on a tidally locked world in orbit about a red dwarf star. In my head was a place where two civilizations developed on the day-side and night-side with a hostile strip of twilight between them. The two sides developed different philosophies and the story comes from an individual crossing over. So that was the idea lurking in the back of my head that wanted to get out somehow.

Then came the prompt, literally. A website I frequent had a short story challenge that fit my idea, so I decided to write a short story. At a smidgen over ten thousands words, it isn’t all that short, and even then the ending can make some readers wanting to know more. However, I had to find an end or write a novel, so I picked a moment of change for the main character. It doesn’t really satisfy the idea I had, so maybe one day I’ll write a novel based on what I’ve started with this story.

Sigh, even when I do write a short story, I tend to think novel.

If you’d like to read this story, it’s available on my website here or in various e-book formats from via Feedbooks. Some people like it and some people don’t. I’m not afraid to share it, but it does have it’s weaknesses.

When it comes to reading, I can certainly enjoy a good short story. Still, it’s not something I go seeking out. Maybe I like to get to know a character and stick when him or her through through more than five thousand words. Maybe I like a more complex plot than can be imparted through a shorter medium. There’s something about novels I really like.

So, maybe I’m not a short story kind of guy, but I do admire people who are good at writing them. It takes a special skill to draw in a reader with an economy of words and make him or her feel something in only a very few pages. I certainly wouldn’t mind having more of that ability.

Are you a short story writer or reader? What do you like about shorts that a novel just can’t give you? Or conversely what does a novel give you than a short can’t? I’d be curious to read some thoughts.

Posted in Blog, Writing | 2 Comments

Manuscript Format

There are lots of good sites and blog posts to tell you about proper manuscript format. This post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide, but to offer some useful templates for getting started on a new project.

Now, if you’ve been reading the blog you might be thinking: hey, don’t you use Scrivener? While, Scrivener will output manuscript format doc files, I’m not a fan of the way it outputs so I’ll roll my manuscript into Word once I’ve gotten a couple of revisions done. I like Scrivener for getting those early drafts done, but I prefer Word for polishing things up.

Okay, so back to manuscript format. Odds are you know the basics, one inch margins all around. The font should be Courier or Times Roman set to 12 points. The first line of every paragraph should be indented. There should be no extra space between paragraphs. And the whole thing should be double spaced. Italic text used to be underlined rather than italic, but these days you can just keep it italic. Sections should be separated by a single, centered hash ( # ).

Chapter headings should be the same font as the rest of the document and centered with four or five blank lines following before the chapter text. If there is a chapter title it should come right after the chapter heading and before the blank lines. And finally the page number should be in the upper right header in the format “TITLE / AUTHOR / (Page Number)”

Normal manuscript page.
Normal manuscript page.

Opinions on the cover page vary, but something like the following should work just fine.

Manuscript Cover Page

If you have an agent then it will be different. Talk with your agent about how to format in that case.

To do all this formatting I like to use styles. I modify the “Normal” style to indent the first line of paragraphs, set the font to the Times New Roman 12 point, set left justified, and set to double spacing. The existing “Emphasis” style already is set to italics, so I use that instead of the italics button. For chapter headings, I modify “Header 2″ to the correct formatting and use it. By using a header for the chapter headings, the document map will show me where all the chapters start :).

For the cover page, I abandon styles and simply format it directly.

I’ve already configured the styles in the templates I’ve provided. In Libreoffice/Openoffice, the “Normal” style is called the “Default Style”, but the principal is the same. Using the “Emphasis” style is a bit of a pain with Libreoffice/OpenOffice so perhaps it’s better to just directly format.

With the Word documents, I’ve also modified the Style UI so that only the needed styles show up and have more intuitive names. “Chapter” should be used for chapter headings while “Title Chapter” should be used for chapter titles.

Spiffy customized styles UI

Here are the links for my templates:

Documents are regular files which can be opened and modified like any word processor document. Templates are special documents that create a new document when opened with the contents of the template. Template files are useful because they make it harder to accidentally overwrite your manuscript template.

Right click on the links below and select “Save Link As…” to download the files. In some browsers just clicking on them will download, but some might try to open the files instead.

Manuscript Document in docx format for Word 2007+.

Manuscript Document in doc format for older versions of Word.

Manuscript Template in dotx format for Word 2007+.

Manuscript Template in dot format for older versions of Word.

Manuscript Document in odt format for Libreoffice and Openoffice.

Manuscript Template in ott format for Libreoffice and Openoffice.

Posted in Resources, Writing | 3 Comments

Carts and Horses

Putting the query before the manuscript feels like putting the cart before the horse.
Putting the query before the manuscript might feel like putting the cart before the horse.

Way back in the beginning of this blog, I had a post about how my first step in a new project is writing the pitch. This time I’m going to post about why I think this is a good idea.

Writing a query isn’t the easiest thing to do. Just go visit Query Shark to see how much work it can be to put together a good one. I did a fair amount of poking around on Query Shark before writing my first query letter, and one of the queries really made an impression. I’ve forgotten the details, but it came down to QueryShark wondering why the book was even written at all.

It’s a nightmare to think about putting in all the time and effort writing and revising a book, then trying to create a query and not being able to figure out what to put into it. What if the manuscript has some brilliant scenes but a weak plot? What if the stakes aren’t that compelling? What if the descriptions are wonderful, but you can’t make the main character sound interesting?

Here’s where I think writing the query before the manuscript can be a help. You can shape the query from both sides of the equation. If the brief summary of the plot doesn’t sound all that great, then not only can you reword the query, but you can just as easily change the plot. If a few quick words can’t make the main character interesting, then you can change the character. Everything is flexible.

It doesn’t make writing a query easy, nor should it, but it does challenge your idea for the story. It’ll make you question how compelling the elements are and maybe stimulate some new ideas. You can run the query by other people and see if they find it compelling. Take it to a writing forum and let it get ripped to shreds to see if your ideas can hold up. Sure, everything might change as you write it, but at least you’ve established what makes that original idea compelling and use that knowledge even as the plot and characters get modified.

For me, I was able to take a plot I liked and made it even better. It might have made the difference in finding an agent who loved the manuscript. I’m now a believer in putting the query before the manuscript. I don’t really need a query anymore since I already have an agent, but I can still run that query-like pitch past her and others before I start pounding out the novel.

If you do need to write a query after the manuscript, then you already have a good starting point. At least for me, it made the constructing the query a lot easier when the time came, and the query worked.

Like anything, it isn’t for everybody, but I think putting the cart before the horse is something to think about.

Posted in Publishing, Writing | 3 Comments

Kid Beta Readers

So, I’ve got a middle grade manuscript I’m getting ready for sending to my agent. I’ve had one adult beta reader go through it, and I’ve got another one taking a look as well as an online critique group. However, I haven’t forgotten the kids. My daughter and one of her friends have read through it, and I’ve got another couple of kids in the pipeline. Hmm… kids in the pipeline, maybe that isn’t the best expression.kidbeta

In my case, I have it pretty easy. My daughter and son can help me find beta readers, but for people without kids in the right age range, I can see this being difficult. Without my kids’ help. I’ve recruited a friend’s kid, and I suppose I could see about kids in my extended family if I didn’t already have a good number.

I can’t expect kids to go into in-depth reviews, but they can definitely tell you if the story simply doesn’t work for the age group. I also like to directly ask if there was anything they didn’t like, so they can feel free to be critical. So far my manuscript, Dragonfire, seems to be doing okay.

Another thing they can tell you is if you’ve made some bad assumptions. For instance, when kids read my steampunk story, COG, I quickly discovered they didn’t know what an airship was. I had to beef up my descriptions to make it more clear what one looks like and how it works. I also beefed up my descriptions of pneumatic tubes, though I already kinda figured that wasn’t a kid-friendly reference.

It’s important not to forget your most important beta readers. What do kid beta readers tell you? How do you find them?

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Zoo Trip

We packed up the family and took a quick trip to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha Nebraska. Aside from some allergies hitting my eyes while driving, the trip went nice and smooth. Now one might assume that a zoo in Nebraska is not going to be all that great, but actually it’s one of the better zoos in the country. Sadly, we picked the one day the aquarium was closed for a private event, but we still saw their desert dome, jungle, nocturnal animal area, and more. We’ll catch the rest on other visit planned for the spring.

This is the kind of blog post that needs pictures, and I’ve got them. My daughter took several of the photos that follow with my wife taking the rest of the credit. For those who care about such things, my daughter used a Canon Rebel XT with a 28-90mm lens and my wife used a Canon Rebel T3i with a 55-250mm lens.

The kids taking a look at one of the first exhibits in the desert dome.

My son and my daughter, the budding photographer.

This is from inside the desert dome. In addition to the animals, there are some interesting and sometimes alien-looking plants in there.

The desert dome from the inside.
The desert dome from the inside.
Some of the many interesting plants.
Some of the many interesting plants.

We didn’t have any pictures of the nocturnal display since using a flash on nocturnal animals seems a bit too rude to our furry or scaly friends. However we moved on to the cat and bear section of the zoo to bet pictures of lions, tigers, and bears.

Relaxing Lion
Relaxing Lion
Tiger close up.
Tiger close up.
Polar Bear
Polar Bear

From there we went on to the jungle and fought foggy lenses.

Lots of plants.
Lots of plants.
Rope Bridge
Rope Bridge
Jungle stream.
Jungle stream.
One of the many, many monkeys.
One of the many, many monkeys.

It was a good trip :)

Posted in Life | 3 Comments