Finishing

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?

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Revisionland

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.

discipline_cover_blog
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
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.

styles
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?

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

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.

zoo_kids
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

Done.

Dragon_Fire_II_by_jokermanDragonFire

Boom. Done.

Time to revise.

Chaos demons and the madness they inflict have crept into the world, spreading strife and fueling war. Only one great wizard stands before the darkness that threatens all the world like an all-consuming storm–the very same wizard that fourteen-year-old Braith has vowed to strip of his power.

Driven from her mountain home by the demons, Braith finds an inhospitable welcome in the strange new lands she finds herself in. Enslaved, she’s forced to work tending to magical creatures destined to slaughter. Braith has a way with animals who, unlike people, don’t find her need for routine strange and don’t overwhelm her with talking and emotions. When she comes across a baby dragon who needs her help, she realizes why the once mighty dragons are being hunted to extinction-–they’ve lost their fire.

Braith sets out to restore the dragon’s fire, collecting an unlikely army along the way: a clever dog, a lost elf-child, a failed wizard’s apprentice, and an exiled princess with a penchant for tavern brawls. The path puts her and her friends up against the most powerful and beloved wizard in all of the five lands along with his army of heroic knights. Of course, she also has to deal with pirates, slavers, and the king of Gallavar who sees the wizard as their only salvation to hold back the demons. Perhaps most difficult of all she has to deal with her own difficulty communicating with people.

Nobody wants Braith to succeed and bring back the dangerous beasts’ greatest weapon, but if she doesn’t, then the world will learn that the dragons have kept more than the chaos demons at bay. The demons are only one half of the threat, and the other half is secretly on the move.

It’s always good to get that rough draft done :) mdance

Posted in Writing | 4 Comments

Am I a Writer?

Of course I am, right? I’ve written two novels and am nearly finished with a third. I have a fourth outlined and started. That’s a lot of writing. Except, I don’t like say I’m a writer.

When is your 'writer' ticket stamped?
When is your ‘writer’ ticket stamped?

The problem is that I don’t have anything published, and that’s the first question I get if someone finds out that I write novels. A big reason I don’t have anything published is that I’ve yet to have anything submitted to a publisher. I’m in the middle of revisions with my agent to get my second novel ready for that big step. Incidentally, it’s awesome to have an agent who puts in that kind of work. My first novel is in the shop, getting a major rewrite. One day it’ll be totally finished… one golden day.

In the meantime, I still have my reluctance to claim that title of writer.  Maybe part of that is that the word writer means a couple of things. Here’s what it says when I look up the definition on Webster‘s:

Writ – er  noun

: someone whose work is to write books, poems, stories, etc.

: someone who has written something

And here is the crux of it for me. I feel like calling myself a writer is a claim to the first definition and how can I claim that if I don’t get paid for it? The second definition is absolutely true, but it’s that first definition I think of.

The ironic* thing is that it’s a business already. I have a contract with a literary agency and my novels will be put up for sale. It’s rather like a start-up before that first big client. You wouldn’t call that start-up a hobby if it’s serious. That contract makes it feel serious to me, my agent is making an investment in me in time and effort, like a venture capitalist making an investment in money for a tiny software company.

So what am I? Am I a writer or not? By one definition I am, by another… maybe. ‘Course if WordPress is right and computer code is poetry, then I’m definitely a writer :).

Do you feel you can call yourself a writer?

*Some may feel this is an incorrect use of the work ‘ironic’. If so, I refer you to The Oatmeal.

Posted in Publishing, Whatever, Writing | 7 Comments

It’s that Time Again

Since October, the month of Halloween, is here. I thought I’d re-post my Halloween flash fiction.

Halloween Night

Image by Adhi Rachdian
Image by Adhi Rachdian

The headlight beams reveal Jackie waiting for me as I pull up in my Mom’s convertible. I don’t know what Jackie’s costume is supposed to be, but it doesn’t cover much. I’m dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow—Jackie has a thing for Johnny Depp and I’m not above taking advantage of it.

“I like the costume,” she says with her trademark half-smile.

“I like yours too.”

When we drive past Hoover High, she turns to me. “I didn’t think you actually wanted to go to that lame party in the gym.”

“I had to say we were going there; my Mom was in the room when I called.”

I park the car on a grassy overlook, and open the top to the stars. Jackie is on me in a flash. Wow, I thought I would need to at least break out my smuggled Keystone Light. When I cop a feel, she just presses in closer and kisses me harder.

“Damn, you’re sexy in that outfit,” she coos when she comes up for air.

A bundle of hissing black fur flies out of the back seat like it’s being shot from a potato cannon. It clamps onto Jackie’s head like an alien face-hugger, and Jackie bolts into the night, screaming.

The black cat trots back to the car from where Jackie disappeared. She hops into the passenger seat, and transforms back into a woman—Mom.

“Home.” Her voice is colder than liquid nitrogen.

It’s hard being a son of a witch.

Happy Halloween Season.

Posted in Whatever, Writing | 3 Comments