Recently, my mother has been clearing out her home to prepare for a move. In the near future I will have to do the same. Letting go of precious memories and treasured objects is both a blessing and a curse. It creates space, but parting with items which we’ve attached significance to sometimes hurts. Yet this is periodically part of life, regardless of whether we move frequently (as I have) or stay put at one address.
When my mother asked if there was anything I wanted to keep — I answered that since I would be downsizing soon, too, I couldn’t take big items or a lot of items. I said I wanted the family photos and maybe a few small items I have specific memories of … like the little, ceramic lamb she bought when she lived in Washington D.C.
A few weeks after this discussion, I received a package in the mail. It was the little lamb, but three of its legs had broken off. I shed a few tears upon seeing it because all I could think was, “Well, this is a metaphor for my life if ever there was one.”
The definition of metaphor (according to Google) is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” I love metaphors in writing, and I see them all around me.
This little lamb was purchased by my mother when she worked for the FBI in Washington D.C. in the 1950’s. It was the first big job she had after graduating college. It was her first time living as a single woman in an apartment with her sister in a big city far away from home. And it was a time in her life when she actually smiled for photos. My mother has had a hard life in all the years I’ve known her, so my first impression as a teenager upon seeing those photos was a sense of wonder. Once upon a time, she seemed truly happy and confident. That was something I rarely saw in the woman I knew.
I first saw this little lamb on a shelf when I was about four years old and wanted to play with it. I became so attached that I asked to keep it in my bedroom, which was pink with green accents just like the roses on the lamb’s neck and legs. I put it beside one of the collectible dolls my babysitter gave to me: the one with the pink dress, which I named Mary. Get it? Mary had a little lamb, and now they stood on my shelf above my bed, looking like they totally belonged there, together.
In spite of the fact that the lamb was ceramic and old, and in spite of the fact that Mary was a collector’s item, I played with them. “Collector’s item” means nothing to a child, who only sees the raw materials for creativity. One day the lamb’s leg broke. I was upset and took it to my mother, thinking I would get in trouble for breaking something that belonged to her. But she glued it back on, and I carefully set the lamb back on my shelf. From then on, I had a new respect for it and learned the meaning of the word fragile.
Over the years, my family moved a lot. I kept that lamb with me, and it broke again. And again. … And again. A leg that had not broken before would break. The previously fixed legs would fall off. The lamb just wasn’t meant to take that kind of a beating. I was constantly gluing it back together and putting it back on the shelf. But I never considered throwing it away just because it was fragile.
For one thing, it wasn’t mine. Even though it was a useless knick-knack probably bought at a five-and-dime store for no reason other than to decorate a young woman’s apartment, the thought never entered my mind to get rid of it. After seeing the D.C. photos, I guess I saw the lamb as a metaphor for my mother’s life before she got married and had me — a time when she smiled, before life became difficult. How can you put a value on that?
When I went off to college and started my own life with my own family, I gave Mom back her lamb. I have no idea why I kept it as long as I did. I forgot about it after that. I have no idea what made me mention it when she asked what I wanted to keep. But for some reason, an image came to mind of that lamb on my bedroom shelf when I was four … before my life became difficult due to an abusive dad, too many moves alienating me from any sense of home or friends, extremist religious indoctrination, and multiple other factors that have led to a lifetime of depression and anxiety.
Receiving the lamb in the mail, with its three broken legs made me cry because at a time in my life when I’m far away from family, children are leaving the nest, and a pending divorce is creating unplanned, unwanted changes that will turn my life upside down, it symbolized how my heart felt. Will those legs NEVER stop breaking? Why does it have to be so damned fragile?
But, I studied the lamb closely once the tears passed. The old glue had turned yellow. Bits and pieces of the edges had broken off multiple times, which meant tiny pieces were now holding it together in some places. It was dusty. It was faded. It has taken too many years of abuse as it moved from home to home, never really having a home — never having a safe, permanent place where someone would love and protect it … never having a place where it truly belonged. This symbol of happier times, promising beginnings, and childhood play belonged in a dumpster. And yet … I set the pieces carefully on my counter and went to the store to look for more glue to once again put it back together.
I sanded off the old glue. I made sure the pieces still fit against each other. And then I set to work with the glue pen. I’m not sure why I keep fixing it. Maybe it’s habit. Maybe it’s because I wish I could fix things for my mother. Maybe it’s because I wish I could fix my own life as easily as gluing my legs back underneath myself.
They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; I say what doesn’t kill us leaves too many people broken in too many pieces to stand alone ever again … not without help from someone who is capable of accepting and loving us because we are broken. Is this lamb more beautiful because of what it has been through? To me … yes. Its story gives it “character” … value and depth. The same is true of developing characters for fiction. The same is true among real people. We live in a society where people are disposable, and only a few rare souls with patience and compassion are capable of seeing a broken person’s worth, rather than thinking they belong in a dumpster.
A metaphor for my life, the lamb now sits on the shelf of my writing desk. Mary is gone, but the lamb is in the company of the ram I bought at a music box store in Otaru, Japan during the year of the goat/sheep/ram because that is my Chinese zodiac. It plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” … a song that reminds me not to lose sight of my childhood dreams and ambitions for working with publishing books and art. It sits between Koshka’s gargoyle kitty (for whom this blog, my publishing imprint, and new business are named) and my black faerie dragon on a vampire’s skull (which is an item that inspired a similar jade-dragon-and-vampire-skull statuette in my Elf Gate novel, The Dragonling).
Together this cluster of metaphors forms the book ends for my divorce literature, helping me hold everything together. Because life is not rosy. It is cold and cruel. And we are often left alone to put the pieces of our broken lives back together, because we have no choice but to try to stand once more. This lamb and I … we are fragile, but we are getting ready to move again. Because we are survivors.
As always, I’ll throw out the reminder that Scrivener is my software of choice for organizing and drafting novels. But my methods may be adaptable to other creative organization helpers, as well.
In this final segment, I’d like to cover publishing. I have never taken the traditional publishing route, so the only experience I have to offer here is self-publishing. But first things first … final edits.
When I felt there was nothing more I could for my book on my own or with the aid of beta readers, I hired an editor to help with final edits. Editors come in two varieties: content and line. They are different from proofreaders. Let me explain.
Content editors look at the content and context of the story overall and suggest ways to improve it. When I wrote my first book, I hired a content editor because the thing I was the most insecure about was whether or not it was a good story. Her feedback was invaluable overall, but in the end, since I am self-publishing, I had the final say on what to change and what not to change. She gave me tips on things like setting development, parts of the story that could be cut out, what didn’t work for her in terms of concepts, and advice on word count vs. story telling for fantasy novels. If I had any questions about plot holes or character development, I could consult her about that.
Line editors look at the script’s technical aspects. This includes proofreading for grammar and spelling, but they can also offer editorial advice in terms of what did or didn’t work for them, raise questions about clarity of wording or style, and suggest ways to make the script tighter and more efficient. I will admit I have never hired a line editor, due to my limited budget. But between my own expertise in English, the multiple eyes of the beta readers, and the content editor, most of the technical errors get squashed during the many revisions. What a line editor will not do is help you develop your setting, characters, or plot.
Finally, there are proofreaders. Proofreaders are not editors. They are not there to help you with the content or development of your story in any way. They are there to find your spelling and grammar errors, and that is it. It is not their job to give opinions on context, characters, style, word count, or suggest rewrites of any kind other than technical errors.
It’s important that you know what you are paying for when you choose professional revision services. And it’s important to remember that in self-publishing, the author has the final say. Always.
When I get the final feedback, revisions are usually quick because there is usually little left to correct. The book is now almost ready to publish.
The next thing I finalize is the cover art. I usually do my own because I used to be an art student. But there are loads of extremely talented artists for hire out there who would be happy to design a good cover for you. Pay them well! People really do judge a book by its cover.
The basics on cover art are simple. The thumbnail design needs to be distinct at a distance. The cover needs to look like the genre(s) it fits. It needs to be relevant to the topic of the story. And it needs to be as professional as possible.
I pushed the boundaries on the “thumbnail” rule with my own books, but that’s because I personally love detailed art. Plus, I wanted Aija and Trizryn represented either in part or whole because of the ambiguous relevance of the titles. They are both changelings. They are both fledglings. They are both having to confront some dark themes by book three. They are both heirs to the royal bloodline in book 4. And they are both in some way responsible for the saving dragons in book 5. … I knew the rule. I broke it anyway. Meh. I’m happy with my designs. But I can always change them later if I change my mind because I am in control of those decisions, rather than the publisher.
To get a feel for good cover art in any given genre, browse the top-selling books in that genre on-line or in a book store. Don’t copy ideas. But pay attention to what might grab the reader’s attention about the designs.
I usually start working on cover art somewhere around the third draft and give myself plenty of time to finish it before the final draft.
Keep in mind good art is not cheap and takes time. Also, remember the cover artist cannot read your mind. Provide as much reference as you can if you have specific ideas, and answer any project communications as soon as possible so they can get right back to work. The longer you delay communicating with your artist, the longer your finished cover will take to produce. Make sure the cover art is absolutely finished with the correct size recommendations for your chosen publication site before beginning the publication process.
Choosing a Publisher
I’ve already said I cannot offer advice on querying a traditional publisher. But I can offer a few thoughts on how to choose a venue for self-publishing.
Determine the size of the audience for your particular genre. Amazon’s self-publishing services have the most “reach” in terms of sheer numbers of readers. But that is also precisely why a lot of authors don’t want to publish through Amazon. They feel Amazon is monopolizing the market. And if authors feel that way, readers can feel that way, too.
I publish through Amazon AND Smashwords. Smashwords will distribute various formats including mobi to various sellers and libraries. So, people who prefer not to shop at Amazon can find my books through alternate distribution and formats. One thing to be careful of with this approach is exclusivity clauses. For example, if I sign on with Kindle Unlimited, I will have to unpublish from Smashwords because Kindle Unlimited requires exclusive rights. That means fewer formats, which might mean fewer readers reached.
Decide whether you wish to publish in digital or paper or both. The publisher you choose will determine options available. I have chosen to go with digital-only versions for now because I can more easily update the previous books as new books in the series are done. When the series is finished, I will pursue print versions. But for the sake of cost and time, digital is all I can afford right now.
Finally, choose a publisher that will return the royalties you wish to receive. Generally speaking, self-publishing royalties are higher than traditional, but you have to do all the marketing footwork yourself. (Actually, I’ve heard from people in traditional publishing that either way, you’re expected to handle your own marketing more often than not.) Print will be more expensive to produce than digital because of cost for paper and ink, and that price increase will be passed along to the consumer. The size of the book, therefore, will determine a large portion of that price. Otherwise, digital books can sell from .99 and up. My books are priced at $2.99 because 1) I am an indie author, so it’s unlikely people who have never heard of me will want to invest much more than that into something unfamiliar, but 2) my work is worth something. Dragonling took two years to write and some very, very long days and nights.
Pricing is a very controversial subject among authors and readers alike, but generally a book should not be given away as a freebie unless it is the first book in a series, or unless it is part of a special marketing event. Don’t be afraid to ask a fair price for time and effort spent crafting the product.
The actual process for publishing will depend on the chosen publisher. Amazon’s submission requirements are very different from Smashwords’ because Amazon seeks to streamline whereas Smashwords seeks to diversify. You can hire someone to do this for you if the process feels too overwhelming, but I have always done it myself.
When I’m finally ready to publish, the first thing I do is create the front and back matter, if I have not already done so. Front matter includes title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents. On-line sellers usually preview a certain percent of the book, so you don’t want to clutter the front matter with a lot of extras. The table of contents is the most important part of the front matter because in digital readers it needs to be interactive and work correctly. Back matter generally contains any series information, author information, marketing information (like web pages or other books by the author), and extras like maps, appendices, and acknowledgments.
When everything passes one final inspection in Scrivener, I double-check my settings for exporting the files into Libre Office, then hit the collate button. Other than the index cards, collate is my favourite feature in Scrivener. I write scenes separately for ease of reference, but without collate, I used to have to copy and paste ALL of my scenes together in the end to form one long script. Now collate does that for me by taking all of my scene files and chapter folders and squishing them together into one script. I have a checklist to follow from here on out.
First, I make sure I export collated copies of the whole script for each publisher. For me, that means one is labeled for Amazon, and another is labeled for Smashwords. I also note the version of the story. I edit the copyright page to say “Amazon Digital Version” or “Smashwords Digital Version”. I add an updated copyright if I’m revising a previously published version. (I believe Smashwords now requires their name on the copyright page.)
The next thing I check is formatting. I will not go into detail here; it’s too complicated for this article. But generally, I check the book for strange spacings, margins and alignment, font styles and sizes, blank pages, too many pilcrows before or after chapter headings, etc. With Amazon Kindle, Word’s “Headings” can auto-generate an interactive table of contents. But for Smashwords, I have to program my own headings. That’s because Smashwords’ distribution engine, known as the meat grinder, needs specific simplicity to chop the script up and spit it back out in a variety of different formats. In general, the rule of thumb for digital publishing is the simpler the better. The more fancy the layout, the more likely it will have problems transferring between various file types and devices.
If the formatting check passes inspection, I sigh with relief/grab a snack to celebrate/dance around the room/squeeze my cat with unwanted hugs and kisses. If it doesn’t, formatting can be a nightmare to correct. … Just saying. Too many times I’ve had my italic and bold fonts completely stripped from the script while trying to fix something with formatting inconsistencies. Considering I use italics for a lot of telepathic dialog, foreign dialog, flashbacks, and emphasis … to lose ALL italics for the sake of a minor formatting correction is gut-wrenching. But as a last resort, there have been times when I had to nuke the entire script of all previous formatting and start over from “default”. This is why formatting is usually my most dreaded task of all.
Digital books require an interactive table of contents. For Amazon, this means highlighting each chapter heading as a “Heading” in Word, and then creating additional headings for front and back matter. For Smashwords, this means creating my own bookmarks for each heading, and then going back and creating hyperlinks for each bookmark. Tedious does not begin to describe this task when you’re talking about books with 30-50 chapters.
Finally, I check the front and back matter for any interactive links that need connecting to the web.
When all is said and done, I put the finished publisher-ready edit through a “homogenizer” like Calibre or Amazon’s Kindle Previewer to see how it looks in phone, tablet, and e-reader screens. I check the table of contents to make sure it works. I check other links to make sure they work. Then I do a quick skim to make sure there are no weird formatting issues I might have missed. If there are errors, those errors must be corrected; then the script goes through the homogenizer again to be sure the fixes worked.
All of this used to take a few days for Kindle and about a week or more for Smashwords. This year, however, I had to learn how to make my books functional with the newer Kindles, so it took 3 weeks. (sigh) … Hopefully, next time I can get it done faster, but this time I hit a lot of obstacles in the learning process and finally gave up on using Libre Office and switched to Word. My main problem was figuring out a way to put invisible headings on pages that didn’t have visible headings (like the dedication page) without the Kindle add-on nuking all of my previous formatting! Ugh! Live and learn. … For Smashwords, it took the usual week. (I cannot believe I actually preferred formatting for Smashwords this time around.)
The Home Stretch
The rest of the process is easy after that. You upload the script. The publisher skims it for errors and spits out anything it thinks should be double-checked before publication. It’s usually just spelling errors and uncommon words mistaken for spelling errors due to the setting being in a fantasy world.
I correct what should be corrected, check the ignore box on what I want to be ignored, and resubmit the revised script. The publisher will notify me when it is approved and ready for publication.
If I haven’t already done so, this is when I fill in the details for the book’s royalties, formats, genres, credits, availability, and ISBN code. I update my tax information and upload the cover. This is usually quick and painless stuff.
The final element is the copy writing and blurbs. Again, I do this myself, but the option is there to hire someone else if it’s not your thing. Copy writing is very different from creative composition. It summarizes the story using journalism methods and marketing language to encourage people to buy the book. So many authors might prefer someone else to do it. The blurb, in particular, has to be short, pithy, and enticing.
Copy writing is usually limited to three to five short paragraphs. This is what we usually see inside the book cover in print versions and in long descriptions on the page where the book is sold. The blurb further condenses those paragraphs into three to five sentences. And that is what you normally find on the back of the book cover in print versions and in short descriptions when using a search engine.
When all of that is done, all that’s left is to hit the publish button! The publisher notifies the author when the book is “live” so purchase links can be shared on web pages.
I usually give it about a week before considering the publication done, just in case something goes wrong and needs immediate fixing. (Marketing is a whole other topic for a different discussion.)
On a final note for this article series, I’d like to add that when I publish the newest volume in the series, I also update previous volumes. This is me taking advantage of digital format at no cost to reprint anything for both myself and my readers. This means I proofread each of the previous books one more time to catch any errors previously missed, cut down word count, or clarify minor edits, so the quality of each book is improved. It means I had to go through the mind-numbing process of reformatting each book all over again after updating front and back matter. It takes time to read, revise, and update four books that are over 100K words each, while also handling the initial publication of the fifth book in the series. But I do this because I want the books to be the best that they can be. There is always room for improvement, and I am committed to this series and to giving my readers the best that I can offer.
So, I hope you’ve enjoyed a little insight into the stages of how I create my novels, from beginning to end. At the very least, I hope I’ve offered some insight into the work involved in creating a novel and self-publishing. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s not pretty. But for me, the end result is worth the effort. I write because I am a writer … because I love telling stories. If other people enjoy what I’ve written, that adds even more depth and meaning to what drives me. And I thank my readers from the bottom of my heart for sharing the journey with me. ❤
Book: The Woods Out Back
Series: Spearwielder’s Tale
Author: R.A. Salvatore
Genres: fantasy, adventure
Synopsis (from Amazon book page):
“The first in the Spearwielder fantasy adventure series–from the author of the New York Times bestseller The Legacy. In a magical spot in a forest, Gary falls asleep . . . and wakes up in a dangerous realm of elves and dwarves, witches and dragons. There he discovers he is the only one who can wear the armor of the land’s lost hero–and wield a magical spear.”
Notes of Interest:
I am a huge R.A. Salvatore fan via his Forgotten Realms books with Drizzt Do’Urden. But I never heard of this series until I came across it by accident. I was surprised to find it’s quite old: 1993. But it was on discount, so I decided to see what he would write outside of a familiar setting.
For me, this book brought up the controversial topic of author “brands”. A “brand” for an author or other creative professional is when fans come to expect something specific from the products offered. It’s controversial because marketing gurus say the best way to sell your work is by having a niche. A narrow scope of expertise tells the audience what it can expect from you, and niche fans are more likely to return. Case in point: I’ve read many of Salvatore’s D&D novels in the Forgotten Realms setting, so the reason I purchased this book was because I loved those books.
But creative professionals sometimes feel caged by “branding” their work because it limits their creative expression. The niche market becomes a trap, so that they can’t do anything else because experimental projects in different genres (or whatever) might not fit expectations of established fans.
Anne Rice became famous for writing about vampires. But she has also written about angels, Jesus, and (under a pen name) erotica. She is perhaps unique in that each of her niches has a wide following, depending on which books led that particular subset of readers to become fans. Somehow she manages to handle the broad scope of differing (often opposing) opinions well. But I for one will only ever be interested in her vampire books. I can’t really explain why. It’s not like I have anything against her writing other types of literature. I feel authors should be free to write about whatever they please. But from that spectrum, vampires are the only topic and style that suit me. So that is where my expectations, or reader bias, exists.
J.K. Rowling was a huge success with her Harry Potter series. But her other works have not measured up to the same success, not because the other books aren’t good, but because fans expect more of the same. The world of Harry Potter is Rowling’s brand.
So, this quickly became my dilemma with The Woods Out Back. When R.A. Salvatore is mentioned, the book that comes to mind is Homecoming. It’s one of my all-time favourites, therefore I have come to expect more like that from him. I tried not to let my expectations get in the way of my impressions while reading something completely different, but they intruded anyway. I couldn’t help it.
In the review that follows, I acknowledge my bias and will try to work around it as much as possible. Opinion pieces, which is what all reviews are, will always have a measure of bias shaping those opinions. In this case, I admit brand reared its ugly head, but I am 100% supportive of authors and artists having the freedom to explore different venues with their works. Moving away from a brand might not win over loyal readers from one subset to another, but doing something different can win a whole new subset of readers. And there’s no good reason why an author shouldn’t be allowed to do that, as long as they understand brand expectations can work against new, experimental projects.
What could have made it better for me:
The story starts off well enough with Gary, an average Joe at work in a modern setting, then turns into a portal story. I love portal stories. But because I was expecting characters like Drizzt Do’Urden to come to life in a D&D-type setting, the introduction of a leprechaun, complete with Irish accent and snarky attitude, felt … cartoonish. A more typical D&D-type elf showed up after that. So, of course, I loved him. But then there was a goblin who was a typical “grunt” laboring to please his queen in all the wrong ways. The evil queen dressed in black with her shape-shifting skills, spies, and minions made me think of Snow White’s wicked step-mother. And there was a dumb giant who had a vocabulary of “duh” in between dialog of a little more substance. In other words, what came to mind was every major stereotype for every fantasy archetype.
I do have a good sense of humor, so it’s not a matter of taking the story too seriously. But I think I was expecting a little more in terms of unique character development versus tongue-in-cheek placeholders for archetypes. For example, I loved the idea of a dragon named Robert! How could you not love a dragon with such a mundane moniker following in the footsteps of dragons with such legendary, exotic names like Smaug, Falcor, Draco, and Paarthurnax? But in the end, Robert was a typical, blustery dragon who hates to lose and hoards treasure. Robert had such potential to be something utterly unexpected, but even he was predictable. But it seems that was the goal for this tale: writing about magical creatures using the typical archetypes the way everyone expects them to be.
I think I could have found iconic mascots coming together for a tongue-in-cheek tale like this more enjoyable had I not been expecting the more individual depth and persona that is a given in settings like Forgotten Realms.
What I liked about it:
Since I am a fan of many kinds of fantasy, I don’t dismiss fantasy intended to be taken less seriously. Therefore, in spite of what I said above, seeing a blatantly stereotypical group pursuing a very typical quest actually turned out to be something different. The whole thing had a very tongue-in-cheek approach that made me think of Terry Pratchett’s books, but with more action/adventure and a more subtle humour. Salvatore is a master of writing fight scenes, so the writing itself was bold, vivid, and moved at a good pace through each chapter along the quest.
Gary—the average Joe protagonist—felt very real. His down-to-earth personality becomes spasmastic in a way most people could relate with after having been transported through a fairy portal … being funny, frustrated, frightened, and courageous in all the appropriate places. In my opinion, he was the best developed character of the bunch. And because he is new to magic and myth, his naivety is something I don’t usually get to see in Salvatore’s writings. That would be the major difference between a portal story and a story in which the characters are already expert swordsmen and mages; so it was interesting to see how he handled that difference, and he handled it well.
Technically, the book is a clean and easy read. The plot’s objective and action is straightforward and classic, rather than intentionally complicated with deep, controversial themes or gritty ambiguity. Because of that, it does not have a lot of the dark matter some of his other books do. So, it makes for a lighter read, too. I love both dark, deep literature and fun, light literature, depending on my mood. So, this balanced out the darker, more serious nature of the other book I’m currently reading. Variety is good.
If you are a fan of Salvatore’s more serious works, go into this one knowing it’s meant to poke fun at fantasy stereotypes. Don’t compare it to his D&D works if at all possible; it should be enjoyed as something completely different. I have not yet decided whether I will be purchasing the rest of the series. I enjoyed it enough that I might return to it. My expectations will be different for the second book after reading the first, so that should help. It’s a good book for anyone wanting a light read about a portal story or a classic hero’s quest.
November is National Novel Writing Month; and while I can’t participate because I really need to finish this series before considering any new projects, I’ve been sharing my method of novel writing. This fourth part of the series is on revising.
If you missed the previous articles, you can find them here:
And I’m throwing out yet another reminder that my writing software of choice is Scrivener, but these ideas might be adaptable to other writing software or means of organizing the writing process. What’s important is that new writers understand it IS a process. Writing well-developed stories, especially lengthy stories like novels or series, takes a lot of time and at least some amount of planning.
If you are participating in NaNoWriMo, you are probably currently doing one or all of those previous four steps, so the following article won’t be as relevant until the end of the month when your stories are finished. So I will share one always timely piece of advice: one method of creation should not be touted over another, not only because creativity works differently for different people, but also because both structure and freedom are essential to the creative process. If you are an “outliner”, you will still need bursts of inspiration and imagination to create an objective and flow. And if you are a “pantser” you will eventually need a structure and plan or your story will not make sense … or worse, it will never be finished.
So, as with most things, balance should be the method to the madness. Instead of beating yourself up because creativity isn’t working, take a break from the muse who is ignoring you and do some more planning. Likewise, if the plans aren’t working, try scrapping them and seeing where your muse flows on her own. It’s okay to go back and forth … many times … in all stages of development. It’s good and necessary to go back and forth!
Just had to throw that out there as something to keep in mind because I’m already seeing a lot of frustration from friends who are “behind” in their writing goals for this event. Both structure and freedom are necessary for creative composition. But only the writer knows the exact balance that works best for her.
The bulk of my writing process lies in revisions. I revise as I write — always. Flow is like a tic in my subconscious, so I automatically reword, delete, or add as I work. But I don’t go looking for edits to make (unless it’s something dreadfully important) until the second draft.
When I finish the first draft, I usually celebrate for a day (or a week, if near a holiday or in desperate need of a vacation). During that time, I don’t do anything further on that project. I might work on marketing or other publications business, but I allow myself to take at least one day away from the initial draft.
I’ve heard of people stuffing finished manuscripts in drawers for weeks or months before they look at it again. For me one day is all I can afford. What’s important is clearing your head enough to pick it up again with a beginner’s mind. You will never be able to view your own story as a new, unexplored thing the same way a beta reader can. But coming back to the project with a fresh perspective helps with noticing things you did not notice before.
During the revision process, because it takes so long, it’s important to make yourself stick to a regular writing schedule while balancing the work with physical activity and life happening around you. That may seem like an unnecessary thing to say, but trust me. I know my share of writers, myself included, that get glued to the chair and keyboard due to intense concentration during this period. And not eating, sleeping, exercising, or taking breaks to do fun things can stress you out and wear you down. I have pulled 16 and 17 hour days, through weekends and holidays, trying to finish this book ASAP, and it only worked against me, leaving me very tired and not doing a very good job at first-pass edits. So, do yourself a favor and take care of yourself during the revision process. Balance work with play when you can. Schedule it if you must. 🙂
When it is time to revise the first draft, everything I mentioned before about how I work in Scrivener comes into play: where to find the most immediate notes, where to find the research and previously published wiki, where to find the comments, the highlights, and the in-line annotations. The first thing I do is check for these mark-ups and hold them in my head (like a clipboard) while I reread their accompanying scene.
A lot of times, I can make those changes while reading. But sometimes I need to make more notes and come back to it later or move notes to other parts of the book where they are more relevant. As with previous steps (and the introductory advice), there is a balance to moving back and forth in revisions. Start at the beginning and progress forward, but expect to regress for reference checks and rewrites as you go along, too. Something you find in chapter 3 might need to be checked and revised against what you said in chapter 1, but you won’t know that until you were further along in your alpha reading. “One step forward, two steps back,” is how I handle everything after the first draft.
I also reread my collections files separately because they help me make sure subplots flow together as their own mini-stories. Small plots can easily be obscured and go astray — or worse, end up forgotten. There is nothing worse for the reader than a bunch of questions that have no answers because of a dropped plot thread. Collections can help make sure every issue raised is eventually resolved.
Edits to Consider
Some things to look for and consider when revising …
1. Point of View — Correct it now before it bites you in the bum. Pick one point of view and stick to it. This doesn’t mean you’re stuck seeing everything through the eyes of only one character, unless you choose to write in first person. I love getting into different characters’ heads! But make sure whatever pov you choose is intentional, and that there are notable cues to the reader when pov switches — a double-space, a change of scene, a change of chapter, etc.
When choosing a pov, opting for the character that is most vulnerable in that scene can often create the most tension (and therefore the most interest) and relativity with the reader. But it depends on the effect that you want. When visiting a new place in the fae realms, I often choose Aija’s perspective because her lack of familiarity is the closest pov to the reader. But I have also written Trizryn’s impressions of her first impressions just to offer a different perspective. He has been puzzled, amused, and impatient at her “newness”, whereas she is just gobsmacked like a kid in a candy store. So, it depends on what I want in terms of mood and tone.
2. Details — Now is the time to start thinking in terms of making that dark and stormy night a little less cliche. Now is the time to describe the pattern on the dishes. Now is the time to make the character sit in a particular way to express body language or mood. She can sniffle while speaking. He can brush the red hair out of his azure eyes. This is when I pay attention to refined elements that bring the story to life.
I rely on my five senses to do this. For each setting’s introduction, I consider what the characters might see: colour, form, light, shadows. Is it creepy and scattered with bones? Or is it comforting like the light of a campfire? What might they hear? Birds, bats, dogs, traffic, distant thunder, rain on the tent, someone snoring, a teakettle whistling … Scent is one of the most powerful memory triggers we have, so don’t neglect it in describing settings. Does the dungeon smell like musky mold? Like rusty iron or coppery-sweet blood? Home-cooked food could fill taverns. Smoke should be prevalent during dragon attacks and wars. What about that “lovely” dung smell of newly fertilized fields in spring that makes you roll up your car windows just when you were looking forward to some fresh air? For touch, think in terms of texture, temperature, or internalization of bodily sensations: warm wool, smooth porcelain, tingly fingertips thawing after being in the snow, slippery horse fur and a muddy ground during a cold rain, scratchy throats, gritty sand in teeth, nausea, etc. And for taste, name specific foods. Describe their scent and texture. Foods that aren’t of this world can be described as being like foods of this world. The five basic palates are bitter, salty, sweet, sour, savory; experiment with combinations just like a cook. And remember food isn’t the only thing we can taste. Perfume or smoke are often so strong we taste them as much as we smell them … and choke on them. Could you “taste” decay if surrounded by it? What about snowflakes? Ocean water?
Be specific more than vague. Slow down and get poetic. Be an artist and paint with words at this stage. Don’t get too flowery because ordinary words convey meaning best. But this is where you can and should be playing with prose.
3. Stage Acting and Props — Characters are actors performing on a stage only the author and the reader can envision. I took several drama and speech classes during my school years, and as an actor, one thing you never want is to end up on stage with nothing to do while speaking. Hands will start to fidget or body language in general will look awkward and unnatural. Empty-handed speakers often pace to naturally offset this emptiness because of the need to be doing something. So, directors usually give their actors stage directions and props.
While speaking, the character can move to the center left of the room. She can pick up a vase, but study it without interest. Then, she can set it down pensively, or throw it in anger. Pull out the action verbs, no matter how small. Use them more often than tag words. Use them in place of tag words wherever possible. It’s more interesting to know a character is cleaning a fish tank during a conversation, than to be told she said something. (And, really, readers can see dialog, so they already know she said something. Unless it’s for clarification or pacing, saying someone said something is often redundant.) Actions give the reader a more tangible character moving around within a more tangible, interactive setting. It also is an inadvertent way of giving us more information. Now we know her mind was elsewhere while handling that vase, or the vase upset her, or she was upset. We know that she owns fish and has a knowledge of how to care for them. These actions become pegs to hang personality traits on that further develop the character.
While I’m here, I’m going to say something about tag words. Tag words act like speech bubbles to let the reader know who is talking; they “tag” dialog onto a character and vice versa. Tag words help identify and clarify when different speakers are speaking in multiple-character dialog scenes.
Some writers and editors are of the opinion there is only one tag word ever: said. They feel everything else is pretentious or doesn’t make sense. Some writers get bored with the same old word and branch out: explained, propositioned, surmised, queried, cried, shouted, whispered, etc. BOTH of these perspectives are grammatically acceptable. They are differences of opinion on style, which is also acceptable, as long as there is agreement between the writer, editor, and publisher.
What is not acceptable is using actions in place of tag words. Tag words must be something that can be done with words. Try to “laugh” a sentence. It can’t be done. You can laugh before or after you speak, but laughter actually interrupts and cuts off speech. You can’t form speech with verbs of expression, like smiling, either.
A simple test can help with determining whether a verb makes a suitable tag word. Ask yourself, “Can I ‘sing’ words?” Yes. Sing can be a tag word. “Can I ‘express’ words?” Yes. “Can I ‘smile’ words?” No. Smiling is a physical action that has no ability to produce words. Your smile will be lost as soon as your lips change to form a word. The smile happens before or after the words, but it is not a manner of speech or sound creation in itself. Don’t smile or laugh words in dialog.
Some words could go either way: growling, hissing, and sighing are commonly used as tag words, though sometimes they shouldn’t be. An angry person could literally growl or hiss a word. Whispers can sometimes be considered hisses. And depending on what’s being said, it could literally be sighed with speech, but that only works for one or two words. It would have to be a very long sigh to accommodate an entire sentence, let alone a paragraph. People usually sigh before or after speaking. Sounds may or may not form words in speech. Try saying your dialog aloud in the manner of speech you tag onto it before deciding whether it’s logical.
Better yet, remove tag words when possible and give your characters plenty of body language and props, instead. Dialog flows more naturally when broken up with living, breathing, fidgety characters who bite their nails, pick at the corner of a piece of paper, avert their eyes, sneeze, cross their legs, or itch their ears because they’re allergic to the earrings they’re wearing. More action, more information, fewer tag words, logical tag words when necessary …
4. Pacing — This is two-fold. First, you don’t want to use more than one or two small paragraphs for descriptions. Descriptions a page or more in length permit the reader’s attention to wander. Introduce the person or setting or object, but then break it up and sprinkle a little more detail throughout the rest of the scene, so that the reader’s attention can absorb it in smaller bites.
Camera panning is a good allegory for visualizing and pacing descriptions. In my film literature class, we learned the attention span of the eye lasts about 5 seconds. That means the camera has 5 seconds to feed information to the viewer before the eye gets restless and attention wanes. For linguistic learners, reading is better at holding attention than visual mediums. (This may not be the case for visual, tactile, auditory, or other learning styles.) But it’s still not a good idea to keep one “camera angle” for an entire page. Pan the focus liberally around the scene in short sequences interspersed with dialog, action, and reflection, and attention will more likely be retained.
One note about fantasy and sci-fi literature here, though. There is a reason publishers give these genres more word count allowance than others. When a setting is too different from reality, we need more descriptions. Passages describing an elven village can and should be longer than passages describing a New York cafe. One of the reasons readers choose those genres is to imagine other worlds, so don’t be afraid to slow the pace and let the imagination linger a bit there. As my editor once told me, “Take some time to ‘live’ in your world, so you can share it with your readers.”
The other kind of pacing that matters is in the flow of the events. The pace or flow of the story is important to the overall presentation of the scene … and the entire book. For action scenes like fights or chases, words need to be short and full of power. For reflective scenes, words need to slow down and soften. There should be a balance between action and reflection. Too much action is exhausting and impersonal. Too much reflection becomes moody or turns into an information dump. Both can get tedious when they go on for too long without variety.
For this same reason break up lengthy dialog, lengthy fight scenes, and lengthy information scenes. Break up dialog and information with action. Break up action with opportunities for the characters to reflect and learn something from it. The Dragonling has a chapter in it that is nothing but Trizryn reading a letter from his mother. Sounds pretty boring, right? It could be. Hopefully it’s not because I broke it into “readable segments” to make it easier on the eye and the attention span. There are breaks where he shifts in his chair, mumbles to himself, or the reader is informed that he is shocked at what he reads. And there are double-space breaks between multiple paragraphs on the same topic to give the eye a rest from the heavy use of quotes and italics. I also wrote the letter in first person narrative, to make Ysmé’s experiences and thoughts feel more immediate to the reader. Preventing that part of the story from becoming a boring information dump was a challenge, but pacing it in different ways helped.
Combining different sentence structures and lengths is another good way to improve the pace of storytelling. Short sentences stand out more when used sparingly and paired with longer, more complex sentences. It’s okay to break the rules and have one-word sentences, or even one-word paragraphs. But remember their impact works best when used sparsely for important, shocking, rare events.
The story itself should unfold and flow evenly throughout the course of the book.
5. Research and Background Checks — Do this. I know it takes time and can get boring. But do this! It’s especially necessary when referencing something previously mentioned in the book or series. It could make a difference in whether your idea works or is full of holes.
6. Fill in All Blanks — If names, places, or other information was skipped over in the first draft, start filling in those gaps for the second draft as much as possible.
7. Edit — Now you can let your inner editor out of that trunk you locked her in while doing the pre-writing and writing steps!
After the initial draft, and for the rest of the revision process, you will need real, honest-to-God editing skills. Be picky. Correct spelling, grammar, formatting and anything else in the technical field of writing that might cause problems. Use your dictionary. Use your thesaurus. Don’t know the proper use of ellipses, look it up! Learn about typesetting for those pesky punctuation situations that your high school or college handbook never mentioned … like how to punctuate telepathy. Be familiar with the differences between style guides and formats, and if you intend to publish traditionally know what your editor and publisher prefer.
Check the beginning words of each paragraph. Avoid repetition there (and elsewhere). Don’t skimp on character names when multiple characters are present; the reader needs to know who is speaking or acting. But try to begin each paragraph with different parts of speech and different words. This is especially true if you are writing in first person, when every paragraph has the potential to start with “I”.
Finally, weed word count. I know I’m not one to talk about overshooting word count recommendations for traditional publishers. (Insert cheesy, guilty grin here.) But clipping unnecessary words is just part of the editing process. Don’t use four words when two will do. Check for redundancy: if someone is handling a wet fish while in water, most people would assume water makes fish wet. Handling the fish in water is sufficient. The word “that” can be removed 90% of the time without harming sentence structure or meaning. Use contractions if applicable; this isn’t a formal paper, although a character with formal speech “would not do it”.
Cut out entire sentences or paragraphs, if they repeat or offer nothing of substance to what’s happening. Where possible condense a previous action or information as a summary if it needs to be repeated. Cut out entire scenes or chapters if they do not serve the overall course of the story. Learn to recognize the difference between scenes that are random “fluff” and “fluff” that is important to character growth, relationship development, or upcoming plot material.
Some authors recommend that adverbs be removed without mercy. There are some adverbs in particular that are often wastes of space. The word “very” comes to mind, as an example. But I’m in the camp of loving word play, so I love adverbs. I think they add texture to verbs and adjectives, so I leave many adverbs in my text. I cut the ones that double-up or over-exaggerate. But especially in dialog, if my character is “very, VERY tired,” to say she is simply “tired” robs her of an impatient, whiny complaint. Do what works for the scene. Do what works for you. But be aware in general of what can be cut or reworded more efficiently.
Are We There Yet?
What I consider to be a true revision is going all the way through a work from beginning to end. The second draft doesn’t usually take as long as the first because organization, planning, and groundwork for the story is finished. When I finish my second draft, I do the same thing as when I finish the first. I take a day up to a week off to refresh my brain.
Then I begin this whole process all over again for the third draft/second revision. And the fourth draft. And the fifth draft, and so on.
Each time I revise the script, it takes less time to make one complete pass from beginning to end because there are fewer items that need correcting. I revise a minimum of 4 times before I share the script with beta readers.
Beta readers are important because they are the first set of eyes to see the story as something completely new. As I said before, it is impossible for the author to do this. No matter how proud you are of your finished script, beta readers are an absolute necessity to the revision process, in my opinion.
Beta readers don’t have to be English language experts or literary scholars, but they must as least represent the type of audience you are writing the books for. Don’t ask someone to beta your fantasy novel if they hate fantasy. They won’t like it due to bias, and therefore they cannot give you a fair review with constructive criticism.
Beta readers can be preliminary line editors finding spelling errors and missing words, or they can be preliminary content editors telling you which parts confused them or felt lacking. Listen — really listen — to what they have to say. I’ve found that 90% of the time my beta readers have very good instincts about what needs more work. Take all criticism constructively and with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone all the time, buy your gut instinct combined with their feedback will help you find the best balance for revisions.
Beta reading takes 1-2 months, depending on the length of the book and the beta reader’s schedule. Do not rush them, especially if they are doing this for you free of charge. You will not get the feedback you need if you push, and they won’t be able to enjoy the story if you’re breathing down their necks asking what they think. If a reasonable time has passed, you may offer a gentle reminder that you are waiting for feedback. Meanwhile, it’s a good time to start drafting the next project.
When all feedback is in, I take each beta reader’s notes, one at a time, and meticulously hunt down their suggested corrections in my copy of the revised draft. If something suggested doesn’t work for me, I let it go. In the end, it’s my creation; I don’t have to do everything everyone suggests. But most of the time the corrections and suggestions are spot-on. I follow my instincts when doing post-beta revisions and try to choose what’s best for the story. The final objective is to make this version the best version of the story that it can possibly be.
I continue to revise until there’s not much left to tweak. The final draft will never be perfect. I could probably tweak it forever trying to perfect it, but as some point it’s just time to let go. It may take 7 drafts or more before I declare a book finished. The Dragonling took over two years to complete because about half-way through the second draft I found a very big, nasty plot hole. Quality is more important to me than a deadline, so I took whatever time was necessary to fix those holes throughout the entire book.
At the point where I tag each index card with the “Done” label and switch from my colour-coded methods for drafting to Scrivener’s default green chapter folders and blue scene files, I know it’s ready for compiling and formatting. More on that in the final article of this series. Meanwhile, I get to celebrate having made it this far before digging into the mind-numbing, stress-inducing process of publishing. 🙂
At long, long last … after 2 years of drafting and revisions, 2 months of waiting on beta reader feedback, and 1 month of formatting issues, I am pleased to finally announce that the fifth book in the Elf Gate series has been published! The Dragonling is now available in digital format at the following links! Woot!
I have completely reformatted the previous four books for the formatting options of the newest Kindle e-readers. And I have updated all previous books to include minor error corrections, minor formatting changes, and an update to the series information pages. Please update your older versions of each book you have purchased. This is one advantage digital publishing has over print! It should be a simple matter of removing the old copy from your device and downloading it again. I will be contacting Amazon to notify them of the changes so they can email readers. And at Smashwords, you will always have access to the older version, but should select the most recent one available.
(Edit: In looking up Amazon’s update contact information I see that they now only notify their readers of changes that make the book difficult to read. They do not notify reader when authors correct minor content, add new content, or add new marketing content. Therefore, dear readers, you will not be getting notices from Amazon. However, you should still be able to go into the tab that manages your Kindle account and download the updated version of previously published books.)
Q: Why digital format only?
A: Time. I am publishing all of these books against the clock amid other life events that have been patiently waiting for me to finish writing this series. Dragonling took twice as long as the other books to publish, due to various delays. So my primary goal is to FINISH THE SERIES before time runs out.
Q: I don’t have an e-reader.
A: Amazon has a free Kindle reader app, you can download and install. And Smashwords has a web reader version available for download, as well as formats like PDF.
Q: Will there ever be a print version?
A: I plan on doing a print version when the series is complete, but like the digital version, how soon I can accomplish that will depend on time allowance for writing.
Q: Can this book stand alone, or should I read the other books in the series first?
A: This book was not meant to be a standalone. Reading the other books in the series will help immensely with understanding what’s going on in this one. There are too many spoilers in this book for people who have never read the previous ones, and this book marks the beginning of the end for the main story arc of the series.
Q: I’ve read the previous books in the series. What can I expect from this one?
A: Just like the other books in the series, this one picks up where the last stopped. The main plot of this volume is about the protagonists protecting the only dragon they have in their camp, while the antagonists push everyone over the edge into a civil war between the dragons and elves. Readers will learn more specifics about Trizryn’s unique origins and the powerful, lost artifact his mother hoped to find through him. Aija continues to acclimate to living among the fae while seeking that ever-elusive gate that will take her back to the human world, and this time she finds an unlikely connection—another human. Reznetha’ir has to fortify the refugees in their new “camp” against two dragon factions at war after the true leader of the conspiracy is revealed. And Chizrae is harboring a very important secret about an obscure prophecy that could make or break the outcome of everything.
Q: I’ve never read the series. What is it about?
A: The Elf Gate series is epic, dark fantasy with elements of adventure, folklore, horror, action, romance, political intrigue, and comedy. It is a classic portal tale about a young English girl who is swept through an elf gate into the Other World of the fae.
These are not intended to be “Tolkienesque” elves. Nor are they intended to be stuck in dated fairy tales. These elves were referenced in the grim folklore of various human cultures, but have evolved into an industrial-steampunk/magical-technology society similar to that of humans … only differently.
This series is dark because it contains vampires, fantasy violence, strong language, and confronts controversial subjects like religion and politics. But it is not “A” horror book. It is epic because of its length and complex plot threads, but it is not necessarily “classic” fantasy. Good and evil are often ambiguous in these characters, yet this is not a gritty, Game of Thrones type of fantasy.
If you are looking for a light, quick read where good and evil are as easy to spot as the character’s fantasy race, these books might not be for you. However, if any of this sounds right up your alley, come along for the ride. 🙂
Q: What are the other books in the series?
Book 1, The Changeling
Book 2, The Fledgling
Book 3, The Darkling
Book 4, The Atheling
Book 5, The Dragonling
The Dragonling might be a bit slow showing on the author pages, but it IS available for purchase now! :3 I encourage readers to leave honest reviews so that other readers may decide whether these books sound like something they might enjoy. And I hope you enjoy The Dragonling as much as I enjoyed writing it!
And I’m throwing out a reminder that my writing software of choice is Scrivener, but these ideas might be adaptable to other writing software or means of organizing the writing process. What’s important is that new writers understand it IS a process. Writing well-developed stories takes time and some amount of planning.
In Scrivener, there is only one mode for writing composition: that is text mode or page mode. Because I put so much effort into organizing my time lines, index cards, and notes during the pre-writing stage, this part of the process should be so easy it almost writes itself. But that doesn’t mean the unexpected won’t happen along the way.
Since I usually “pants” the first few chapters of my story during the drafting process, I might need to review those scenes before attempting to pick up where I left off. I may do light editing as I go along if I notice something needs changing, especially if it has something to do with a change in important details, like suddenly realizing the character I have speaking isn’t available for that particular scene because he’s somewhere else at the moment. I can either assign his dialog to someone else and make those corrections now, remove his dialog and make a note to fix it later, or just make the note to fix it later. I can even rearrange things again if that’s what it takes to improve the flow of events. If something needs moving, it’s better to do it sooner than later. But I don’t go looking for problems to fix. Now is not the time to nit-pick misspellings or sentence structure. I’ll make time for that task during revisions.
When I have finished reading the beginning scenes I’ve already worked on, I open my first “To Do” index card to its text file and review my time line and notes gathered there to get an overview of what’s supposed to happen in the scene. In other words, I pay attention to my previous work before I attempt to build anything new on top of it. That’s the whole point of having done that previous work in the first place. Only when I have reviewed all the information the next scene needs will I turn those notes into sentences.
When I start writing scenes, I rely heavily on my imagination to provide major details. The setting should be described in order to set the mood and atmosphere for the characters. Character descriptions, especially for new characters, should be included in introductory scenes. I initiate dialog between characters as a means of “showing” rather than “telling” the story. And I might even throw in some character actions relevant to the dialog or plot events.
I usually also set up a calendar to chart how many days it will take for the characters to cover the chain of events. I do this by using the keywords tab and have a colour-coded chart for “Day 1”, “Day 2”, “Day 3”, and so on. This way, I can tell at a glance which events events happen at the same time, when Trizryn should be feeding (or how bad off he should be if he isn’t), or to be consistent in how long it takes to travel from one place to another. Any notes that pertain to time will now be added to the front of all index cards to be turned into scenes. I’ve seen J.K. Rowling use a cell chart for this. Some people use actual calendars to get the days of the week right, but however you choose to do it, keeping track of the time it takes for your events to unfold is a good practice for a story that takes place over a span of several days or longer.
At this point the text looks like a lot of he-said-she-said dialog with bits of physical stage actions while figuring out whether it’s the same day, next day, morning, or night. I don’t go into minor details or try to be poetic, unless something inspires my imagination to do so. If inspiration strikes, I go with the flow, but I don’t intentionally refine yet. There will be time for minor details, poetic passages, and further character acting during revisions.
Writing is a bit like meditation at this stage. I must be 100% present with the characters to get inside their heads and explore their thoughts, feelings, and responses to present actions and environments. To draw tangible feedback for the senses, I have to be able to virtually see, hear, taste, touch, and smell a different time, place, and set of events. I can’t afford to be distracted by technical matters because ideas come first. And this is where writing is the most fun, in my opinion. In spite of my plans, I don’t always know what’s going to happen next because I let my characters take the wheel. In that sense, it’s a bit of an adventure.
If unplanned events start going somewhere that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, I can edit them out later. But for now I keep going, knowing that even if I don’t keep that part of the trip in this part of the story, it might be a good addition for some other place in the plot. I can always cut and paste it into some other scene’s notepad for later consideration during revisions.
Sometimes I’m not inspired at all to write the scene in front of me. But I don’t let myself waste time on writer’s block. I keep the focus on moving forward in several ways.
1. Let’s say I have to write a fight scene, but I’m just not feeling it at the moment. I can use Scrivener’s in-line annotation to insert “Fight scene between Ilisram and Trizryn,” right in the text. It will show up in bright red, so that there’s no way I can miss it during revision. Eventually I will have to come back and write that scene, but another day could make a world of difference in how the creative juices are flowing. I use this most often when I need a name for a character or place and am dry on ideas at the moment, so I leave “(Name ???)” as a bright red place holder, and then keep writing. But I also use it for annotating important concepts or changes for revisions.
2. Another way to skip an uninspired scene is to insert a comment. Scrivener’s comment tab works the same way as doc.x comment tabs. You highlight the item you’re having issues with, then make a separate note in the sidebar. The highlight remains, and the comment is saved for later reference during revisions. I use this when I have more to say about whatever I’m skipping over, but it’s more relevant to a particular line or item than the scene as a whole. If it’s something relevant to the scene as a whole, the note goes in the notepad.
3. If the information I’m writing about is complex, I can highlight text in colours to separate different topics. Then I can make a note in the notepad about what concerns me and come back to it during revision. Or if one topic is resolved in one scene, but another is resolved in a different place, my eye will easily be able to separate the topics for reference.
4. For big delays — for instance if I know I want to do something, but have not figured out how to do it yet — sometimes it’s easier to simply label the index card for that scene as “To Do,” rather than “First Draft,” and come back to the whole scene later. I know I need to figure out an end solution for the gates, but too much needs to happen between now and the final part of the story. So, if I haven’t nailed my ending exactly yet, that’s okay. I’m still working on the conditions that will lead to that ending, so I’ve got time to work on those scenes later. What matters is that I’m holding a place for them, and always have them in mind while painting the rest of the story around them.
5. If there’s any scene in particular I’m dying to write, I permit myself to jump ahead and explore it. I write until I run out of steam on inspiration, then return to following my little road map of plot events wherever I previously stopped. The only caution I have about doing this is that skipping ahead often means more reviews to get back to where I stopped. But in the end, extra review work is good for the story’s consistency. The more I have to re-read what I previously did, the more I can remember and recall later as a condition to keep in mind for other scenes.
6. And finally, if worse comes to worst, I can always stop trying to force the writing and go back to working on organization. Remember that encyclopedia of research notes I mentioned during drafting? That is in constant need of attention! So, if writing isn’t happening, for whatever reason, organizing is a way to continue working on the overall series or current project, even if no scene is being created at the moment. It’s all good. That internal wiki is the foundation for consistency in the series.
In West African folklore, the spirit who embodies wisdom, skill, and storytelling goes by the name Anansi. And Anansi often takes the form of a spider. Why? Because spiders are skilled weavers. They know exactly where to place important anchors, then go around and around, back and forth, weaving amazing designs with tiny silk threads. I often wear a nose stud in the shape of a spider, and when people ask me about it, I tell them it is to honor Anansi the story weaver because I am a writer.
Like spiders, I weave my stories, traveling in layers, sometimes in lines, sometimes in circles. Sometimes I start at the beginning and work forward. But sometimes writing backwards is the best way to figure out what kind of foreshadowing needs to be done ahead of an event. I don’t necessarily go backward writing scenes I skipped over, but going back to place notes in the notepads for scenes that need changes accomplishes the same thing. I may end up not writing that back-track scene until the second draft. What matters is the event has a place holder in the overall flow of events.
Just like with my plotting, my writing has a very back-and-forth rhythm to it. And I keep working this way until I reach the end of the book. I still don’t need the exact ending yet, but I need to end in the general vicinity of possibilities. I may go back into previous chapters for consistency checks, inserted notes, or inspiration, but I do not let myself fall into the trap of starting over. The goal is to make it through the first draft from beginning to end. Only when I have reached the end can I call it the first draft.
The First Draft
The first draft will have horrible flow, bad spelling and grammar, missing information and scenes, and still have notes all over it. It will be ugly and illegible to anyone but me. But it will be a mostly completed manuscript of the story from beginning to end. It will have the first layer of the plot thread for that volume in the series. All of the subplots will be holding space to be woven into the main threads. And the overall arc of the series will be pushed closer to resolution.
There is only one true editing element I perform when the first draft is being composed or done. While it is all one big collection of undivided scenes, I ask myself if there are any plot holes. Like arrangement, plot holes are better off being solved sooner than later. I can do this by making notes or inserting new index cards for new scenes. But when I have reached the end and am certain there are no plot holes, that is when I consider the first draft done.
Now I can go back and revise all those notes, comments, highlights, and inserts. Now I can put on my editor hat and poet shirt. Because multiple revisions will be required before I can hand it to anyone for a test reading. But I’ll discuss revisions in the next article.
Today, I’m going to talk about the third stage of production: plotting. And I’ll add that my primary writing software of choice is Scrivener, but there may be ways to adapt these ideas to other processing programs or organization tools.
Plots in Review
There are two kinds of plots. The most popular type is conflict resolution, but there is also such a thing as a no-conflict plot. A conflict-resolution plot is one in which the characters face a problem they have to solve. This can be a quest to find a stolen or lost item, saving the world from destruction, saving a character from harm, or helping a character overcome his or her own personal challenges. Non-conflict plots are more common in Eastern literature, but Western literature has them, too. The Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook is my favourite example of a well-known, non-conflict book. There is no world to save, no item to find, no threat to overcome, no social issue that needs changing over the course of the story before it ends. The characters just live their lives, playing Pooh Sticks or whatever, and we observe the ups and downs of their existence and experiences. All of my novels so far are conflict-resolution plots, but someday I would like to try my hand at crafting a non-conflict plot. Maybe something similar to the Japanese anime Mushi-shi.
Working with conflict-resolution plots, there are only three kinds of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Everything ever written is one or more of those conflicts. There truly is nothing new under the sun, so I don’t worry about trying to create an original plot as much as I worry about whether I can create an original blend of details from the standard literary elements. In other words, it’s the minor, personalized stuff that makes each book unique.
To develop a conflict-resolution plot, there must be at least one conflict for the characters to resolve; but the more conflicts present (the more subplots and obstacles), the more complex the story. Number of conflicts also determines how long the story will be. Short stories are allowed only one conflict because you have to get in and out quickly. Novels generally try to tackle at least one of each type of conflict for one main plot and perhaps two subplots. (For example, Character A doesn’t get along with Character B, but a “natural” catastrophe challenges them to work together to find something that will restore order.) Epic novels layer multiple conflicts like an onion. Peeling back one plot reveals another.
My novels are epic fantasy, so there’s a lot of conflict. I have characters that don’t trust their own allies and multiple antagonists that must be defeated (man vs. man). I have natural disasters, bad luck, consequences of past behavior, and curses (man vs. nature). And I have characters that have issues with their own demons: temperaments, fears, addictions, bad habits, too little or too much confidence (man vs. self). To avoid making these plots too contrived, I keep my plot planning to a minimum. Then when conflict arises during the writing of dialog or something, I let it happen. I let the conflict write itself as much as possible by going with the flow of inspiration, even if I have no idea where an unexpected challenge or twist will lead me. That’s when writing is the most fun and surprising, even for the author. I can always trim it later if it feels like it’s too much.
The only time I shut down inspired conflict is if it’s illogical in terms of serving the rest of the story, or if I’m near the end of the book. I don’t like unresolved, cliff-hanger endings, so I try not to end books that way. I resolve the main plot of each volume. And I inch closer to resolving the overall series arc by hinting at what’s coming in the next volume. The final book in the series should leave no unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. Books should leave the reader feeling like she’s just eaten a very satisfying meal.
Outlines are the skeletons of plots. Plots are the fleshed-out versions of outlines. They’re often interchangeable concepts because they accomplish the same goal: they are a series of events that take a story from beginning actions to end consequences. The difference is that the outline is for seeing the big picture at a distance, while plots are the nuts and bolts holding the bones together.
By the time I reach this stage of writing, I usually have a skeletal time line of what I generally want from the book, along with several scenes already fleshed out due to detailed notes, spontaneous inspiration, and deconstruction. I say “nuts and bolts” rather than “sinew” because it’s a Frankenstein’s monster. I still have a lot of gaps to flesh out.
From this point on, creating the first draft is like a connect-the-dots puzzle. You remember those from childhood, right? Part of the drawing was shown, like an eye or a bee buzzing around something. But the rest of the drawing was only numbered or lettered dots. It’s up to the child to follow the logical sequence, drawing lines between the dots to finish the picture. This is what plotting will do for your outlines.
Something that can help when plotting, either from leftovers or from scratch are the six basic questions of journalism: what, who, where, when, why, and how. These questions can serve as guidelines as to which plot points are missing. Or, one thing I like to do is simply ask “Why?” And when I can answer my own question, I ask it again. “But why?” It makes me dig deeper for the cause and effect between a character’s background and his current actions, which can help immensely when fleshing out his story, past or present.
Plot points are the “dots” that flow in a logical sequence to produce the final picture. But plot points are also the lines between the dots. They are the transition events as much as they are the events themselves. Too few dots often resulted in blocky pictures, so I sometimes took the liberty of adding more dots to round out the lines more nicely. I also often coloured outside the lines to add my own details to the finished art. This is what fleshing out the plot can do for the flow of the story. If I feel something is missing, or I need to hop from one point to another, there are several ways I can go about creating events and transitions.
1. Time Line — The most glaring gaps will be the most visible on the time lines. If my characters need to travel from the southeast to the northwest over a great distance, how are they going to get there? The only transportation available is horses, but they don’t have any. I can insert an asterisk “bullet” and note that travel scenes should mention how they got horses since they couldn’t pack them in their bags and don’t have the appropriate currency. Or I can insert a scene summary where they attempt to buy the horses. Just a sentence or two will do. Since I don’t use numbers, I can cut and paste my little insert wherever necessary. Now my readers won’t be wondering how they whipped a bunch of horses out of their hats.
If I then realize language differences, as well as currency differences, would be an obstacle to buying horses, I can insert another asterisk between searching for horses and getting to Point B. I can call this one “Horse Heist”. Now I have them starting in the Southeast, but realizing they can’t buy a horse because they don’t have the right money or language skills for the transaction; so they steal them and leave an offering of reasonable value in exchange. I can now logically have them ride to the Northwest. But since they’re unfamiliar with their setting, why not have a little adventure along the way and make the most of being a stranger in a strange land? Aija has been telling her fae companions all about how horrible the Roman legions are, and they’ve been trying to avoid running into any Roman soldiers or allies. What if they run into a deployed regiment along the way and some of the soldiers witness fae magic? I can insert another asterisk note or scene summarizing the idea and rearrange events for a good flow as needed. As long as each insert advances the story in some way, I can keep inserting events and transitions like this to smooth out blocky main ideas until my characters reach their goal, which is arriving safely in the Northwest.
2. Index Cards — Since I don’t divide any scenes into chapters until after the first or second draft of the story is done, I can study the entire arrangement of my index cards to see the overall flow of events. If something seems missing or needs a transition here, I can insert a new scene by inserting a new index card.
For example, I originally planned for my characters to get a horse and ride to the northwest, but then realized someone in their party would probably question why they couldn’t use one of the elf gates to just teleport there, since they know of at least one gate in the region where they’re headed. Rather than having the reader be the one to say, “Why didn’t they just take the gate?” I decided it would be better to openly raise and answer that question among the characters. It needed to be done before they attempted the horse heist. But I had an index card with a scene discussing how the gates work planned for later. I decided it might save word count to combine the new question and the old discussion, and move that card to before the horse theft. Now that scene has a “Why can’t we use it?” and “Because of how it works” dialog inserted into the topics Trizryn needs to explain regarding the gates. Obviously the gates are not an option, so they must try to get the horses.
This is one of the reasons I love Scrivener. At a glance, I can literally move a whole, already-written scene by moving one index card. And I can do this as many times as I want until I have every scene exactly where I want it in the flow of events. Or I can split index cards or merge index cards, if necessary. I don’t worry about transition sentences between scenes at this stage. What’s important is that my scenes flow in a logical order.
3. Binder — Scrivener’s binder is a strip down the left side of the screen that behaves like a notebook binder in how it sections off folders with files, but it lines everything up neatly like an outline. Scrivener has default color coding to get an overview of chapters and scenes just by glancing at the binder. Since I don’t set up chapters while plotting, I’ll come back to this when discussing revisions. But I’m including it here because it’s another way of getting an overview of the flow of your story from start to finish. It condenses the index cards like an outline, and sometimes seeing the story through multiple filters helps double-check the logic of the flow throughout the creation process.
4. Collections — Above the binder, Scrivener gives you an option to create collections: multiple files from different folders that share a main idea. Collections can be saved from searches or manually grouped from index cards. I often use this feature to streamline my subplots and make sure everything is in order for them by themselves.
For example, in book 6 there is a subplot where Reznetha’ir sends Eisiden and Alderan back into Brinnan’s undercity to collect information on the city’s defenses, Erys’s return, and news of whether or not Shei’s parents managed to escape before the dragon siege. Every scene that shows Eisiden and Alderan achieving that objective is dragged into a collection. It begins with Eisiden’s departure from Castle Bloodstone and will end when he and his companions rejoin Rezentha’ir, having succeeded or failed at their missions. In the books, lots of other people are doing lots of other things with their own plots in between the check-ins with Eisiden. But collecting all the scenes from this subplot ONLY into one place allows me to read and write that thread uninterrupted, as if it was its own little story. Because it is. Every subplot should be treated as if it’s its own short story. Every secondary character should be treated like he’s the protagonist of that tale.
In another example, I can do a search for all my previous references in the past four books for “Edenites”. They will automatically be in order of publication, so I can re-read and refresh my memory on what I’ve already said about that topic. Then I can build a new conversation between Aija and Gaellyna about them for the next book and add those scenes to the previous collection.
If you have a lot of complex subplots, organizing them into one solitary, streamlined collection is a good way to block out everything else and focus on resolving them before fitting them into the overall story arc of the book or series.
5. Reconstruction — Finally, since I spoke earlier of what a huge role deconstruction played in the composition of this series, now it’s time to talk about reconstruction. After gutting five books and keeping only what I felt strongly about recycling alongside the new material, eventually I had to be able to pull it all back together. Honestly, it’s a bit like staring at a DIY furniture assembly sheet written in a foreign language. But all of the original manuscript’s leftover scraps should have been organized during the previous pre-writing stages. All that’s left is to acknowledge this will be a messy challenge, take a deep breath, and work on one remnant or concept at a time.
Let me return to the example I mentioned while discussing deconstruction of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen. As I said before, originally Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not. She was the one who tried to break him out. Draughbanir’s role in that version of the story was completely different, so he wasn’t involved in their dilemma at all. By the time I finished scrapping what I felt wasn’t worth keeping, all I had left was the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial in the 1500’s, where Kethrei would have been regarded as a demon, and Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. I couldn’t salvage anything else, and what survived was dumped into a mess of chopped up text with gaping holes and side notes on a card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed.” I knew I wanted Trizryn to end up jailed in a similar manner … to be walking in the footsteps of his past life, teetering on that fine line between destiny and free will, but everything else had to be rebuilt from scratch around that.
First, I had to show what happened with Kethrei. I used most of my scrap material for the setting (where) and the escape itself (how) to rebuild the original events with Kethrei and Ellen (who), but I twisted it to jail Ellen for witchcraft first, then added Kethrei’s pact with Draughbanir as a means to help her escape. (Why did they do this?) Next, the question of how to go back in time and see it was solved by having Aija and Trizryn enter a dream walk. The dream walk had to be introduced beforehand, as did the clues leading up to Trizryn’s discovery of his past life, so that this subplot wasn’t being dropped into the book out of the blue. I had to start weaving this thread as early as the first book in the series. Since I spent so much time deconstructing my original scripts, I had the advantage of hindsight, but outlines, time lines, and other pre-writing steps serve the same purpose.
The Dragonling further cements the connection between Kethrei’s past and Trizryn’s present, but it’s the following book in the series, The Teufling, that will challenge it. What I want is to hold up a mirror between Trizryn and Kethrei. But this time, I want Trizryn jailed and Aija on the outside — a return to the original plan for Kethrei and Ellen. See what I did there? I took what was originally one chapter with only two people and divided it into two chapters mirrored against each other between four people.
So for Teufling, first I need a reason to have Trizryn jailed. I inserted an index card called “Trizryn Jailed”. How Kethrei was jailed was never really explained, but when Aija arrived, she witnessed him putting up a fight while being cuffed and taken to the dungeon. So, how about baiting Trizryn into a fight? A public brawl in which he gets carried away and uses magic would be a sure-fire way of throwing his “demonic” butt in jail. And 16th century English people would eyeball anyone associated with him as a witch. (*cough* Aija *cough*) I already had an index card with the notes and scraps leftover from the originally gutted Kethrei and Ellen scene for after Trizryn arrives in jail and Aija tries to visit him. But whether or not he does actually follow in Kethrei’s footsteps by trying to escape and seek revenge against the village will have to be written from scratch, using the revised scene with Kethrei and Ellen from Trizryn’s dreamwalk. Therefore, the scene transitioning him into the jail will also have to be completely new. I inserted an index card before the “Trizryn Jailed” card and called it, “Fight with Ilisram”. Ta-da~! I just created a plot point that will pull two similar events from two different books together as one vastly different reconstruction for contrast and comparison.
Now, that I have my “what”, I need a “why” … an excuse for Trizryn to pick a fight with Ilisram. (Heh. As if he needed any excuses …) I can arrange for Trizryn to catch up to Ilisram in the village. Upon seeing him, Trizryn would immediately launch into “I’ll kill you, you bastard!” mode, especially if Ilisram eggs him on by saying something snarky about K’tía’s murder. But it’s too early to actually resolve Trizryn’s conflict with Ilisram, so the necromancer has to be free to escape this particular encounter, but Trizryn will be cuffed and thrown in jail as Kethrei once was. Aija and the rest of Trizryn’s companions would be left to angst over ways to get him out of prison without risking a repeat of what happened in the past with Kethrei and Ellen. Ja-jaa~! The other half of the reconstructed plot takes form. I can open the “Fight with Ilisram” index card, use asterisks to create a loose time line summarizing these events and add any other ideas as notes about what I want to continue fleshing out the scene. I’m done. If there are any remaining old notes that I won’t be using, I can trash them.
You may have to put on your thinking cap or pull out your idea generator to get the creative juices flowing for fleshing out a reconstruction, but keep asking yourself what, who, how, why, and where this event happens. Keep coming back to “why” and “how” in particular. Eventually you can create enough new dots to connect and smooth out old plot threads for a new story.
When most of the story has taken shape via plotting, it will probably still look like Frankenstein’s monster. It will still be a blend of notes, time lines, scenes, and deconstructed mess. But now it will be a well-organized, smooth-flowing mess! It will be a very ugly, almost-first draft. And the plot of this new book will breathe from one event to the next through a logical sequence of action and consequence, from beginning to end, no matter how sketchy that end may still be.
If my book was a connect-the-dots puzzle, the lines between the dots are now vivid and rounded. If my book was a road map, I would now have my trip planned with all the important pit stops and tourist attractions along the way. It doesn’t mean stuff won’t happen I didn’t plan on. I might get lost at a wrong turn, or maybe I won’t have time to see everything I wanted. But that’s exactly the kind of stuff that pops up writing the scenes, which can make composition an adventure.
So, next comes the fun part: writing the scenes based on everything you’ve drafted, outlined, and plotted so far! Further fleshing out the events with details, dialog, and atmosphere is what will make the story really come alive. We’ll talk about writing the first draft in part four of this series.