This week I started the second draft on book 6, and it has led to some very interesting research turn of events. One was relative to the elf gates themselves, so I’ll share it first and come back to the other later.
The very-ever-first-very-very-FIRST version of book 1 of this series, The Changeling (of which there have been many “first” drafts over the years, but I’m talking about the one I built from scratch, rather than the multitude of start-over revisions) was a sci-fi story. The elf gates started as portals that had nothing to do with elves, but they were built by a non-human, alien race. I remember using my dad’s encyclopedia set to look up tons of anything I could get my hands on about black holes, anti-matter, etc. This was my original idea for explaining how these portals between worlds worked. But eventually I threw in the towel because I was trying to understand quantum physics at a time when no such phrase had even been coined, and my despair at not having adequate information or understanding was stalling the story. My favourite sci-fi author at the time was Isaac Asimov, and frankly, I am NOT a mathematician or a physicist; so I just don’t have that depth of scientific knowledge to employ in stories the way he did … the way I wished I could to write really mind-blowing science fiction.
In other words, I realize now that back then I was trying to teach myself how to become a quantum physicist rather than being a story teller. Writing is about stories. And fiction, especially any kind of speculative fiction, is based on elements of the fantastic. So, if you’re an expert in some non-writing profession, and you’re watching TV, or reading, but you come across something that is just not true or in alignment with your expertise, you have to remember that writers are not all these other hats their characters have to wear, or that their plots explore. Their true profession is constructing plots and characters to entertain you. Writers are accountable to do a reasonable amount of research to make certain concepts, places, or characters credible. But beyond that they can’t be held accountable for not having the same expertise as someone like Stephen Hawking. The point of a story is to open the imagination to alternate, even impossible realities, while exploring the human condition. But perfectionist-me wanted to be as correct as possible, so writer-me was having a hard time progressing with the story.
Eventually, I waved the white flag of surrender on science fiction and rewrote the entire thing as a fantasy series. As soon as I switched the story’s genre, I knew I had come “home” to my niche. The novel and the entire series blossomed after that. But eventually I hit another bump — this time I was distraught to realize I didn’t have enough medical knowledge to handle what I wanted to do combining medicine and magic. (Sounds silly, right?) I can remember talking to my neighbour, who was an ER nurse, about a scene in which a character was shot with a bullet. And I asked if I wrote the scene realistically, or if I needed to change it. Her words of wisdom have stuck with me ever since. She said, “Just write what you want to write. Medical professionals who read fiction know what they’re getting into when they pick fiction. The lasers used in the majority of sci-fi books are nothing like real lasers, but we accept that because fiction isn’t real.”
This blew my mind! Her answer made me realize I could give myself permission to NOT have to know everything, if I wanted to explore a concept as a writer. In fact, the reason science fiction literature appeals to me, and so many other people, is because, like fantasy, it’s an escape from reality. And probably more than any other genre, science fiction and its various sub-genres have contributed an amazing amount of inspiration to real life science and social change. Remember when Captain Kirk’s Star Trek communicator was something stupendously marvelous that looked nothing like a flip-phone because no such thing existed yet? Yeah, if you’re old enough to remember life before mobile phones, you remember thinking how amazing it would be to talk to people in a space ship while you’re on the planet … no wires, not even with that huge distance between them! … Aw, it seems quaint now.
So, here I am, decades later, with book 6 of the Elf Gate series, which delves into familiar, although somewhat dreaded territory for me, in the sense that I am back to researching black holes and worm holes and all kinds of other mind-bending theories and discoveries for the sake of my fantasy book. Sure enough, I started to panic after a certain point. I began to feel like an inadequate fraud writing about something I myself couldn’t fully grasp. What if my way of weaving these concepts together is unrealistic? What if what I’m proposing is stupidly impossible? What if someone who understands real quantum physics shreds my book with a one-star review because it’s obvious I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about! (GASP!) … And then I remembered my neighbour’s words. And I realized, if someone expects me to have a Ph.D. in quantum physics just so I can write about dragon-created portals into the fae realms, maybe I’m not the one with issues about unrealistic expectations. 😉 Fantasy is fantasy … after all.
Anyway, having said all that, I wrote this article because the kid-author in me is super excited to be digging into this kind of research again from a whole new angle, especially since I have infinite resources at my fingertips through the Internet and technology has advanced exponentially on the subject matter since then. And I wanted to share what I think is the best ever “layman’s terms” article on the differences between black holes and worm holes. If I had found this article when I was writing that very first draft of Changling, perhaps the entire series would have remained science fiction. But of course only time travel can take me back to that “What if?” Meanwhile, there is fantasy … and wyrmholes … and ley lines … and elf gates … and magic and imagination.
This article is from the Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist blog and was written by “The Physicist”. … Enjoy. 🙂
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. ❤
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.
In my last post, I shared how I draft my novel ideas in terms of notes, research, and other inspiration. If you missed that post, you can find it here. But this week, I’d like to share part 2 of this series on how I craft my books: outlining.
I use Scrivener as my writing software of choice because I love its flexibility when it comes to organizing and keeping everything in one place. This is especially important for me as a writer of serial novels. But some of these ideas may be adaptable to other software or organization methods.
Let me start by saying Scrivener has an outline mode. It works just like the other modes in the sense that you create index cards with topics, arrange them in the order of plot flow, and then break the topics down into subtopics either on the index cards themselves or by creating new index cards and grouping them within or under the folder of the topic. But it lines everything up in tiers so you can view it like an outline.
To be honest, I don’t use outline mode much. I’ve tried, and it only confirms that my creative process is not linear enough to outline a book from a list of topics from start to finish before I start writing. But I’m mentioning it in case someone else can use it. I sometimes use outlines for non-fiction writing, but for novels, I have to start in right brain mode with free-flowing inspiration and imagination, without worrying too much about structure or how it’s going to end. However, all books do eventually need structure, so I’ll show you how I move from one style of writing to the other with something similar to outlines.
When I start a new writing project, I go into Scrivener’s binder (which is like a regular notebook binder with folders and files). The binder itself can be set up a bit like an outline, so I usually look to it if I need a quick visual of topic flow.
I usually work in a split screen, but it can do one full-screen, too. I click on corkboard mode for one of the windows and create index cards based on my notes. I love the corkboard and index cards because it mimics how I learned to write in the first place, using idea cards that could be freely arranged and rearranged as much as needed during the pre-writing stage.
I open the other screen to the page or text mode so I can open my loose notes for reading and start by grouping them into folders created for similar ideas. For example, I have a folder named “Civil War” for all of the notes dealing with the elven civil war topics that need to be resolved in book 6. If a note is about Erys fighting Trizryn, it goes into that folder. If a note is about Trizryn meeting Aija’s parents, it goes into the “Aija Home” folder.
Inside each folder, I create an index card for collecting most of those notes into a sequence of events or time line. A time line is similar to an outline, but is based on a sequence of events rather than point “I” having sub-points “A” and “B”. I open the index card in text mode and cut and paste my notes into a list. Sometimes it helps to arrange the note cards into a flow of events before transferring them to the list. I go through all of my loose notes grouping similar ideas like this. But I don’t number anything.I use bullets or asterisks and spaces to separate notes because I cut and paste frequently to rearrange a better flow of events, and it’s a waste of time renumbering everything.At this stage, it doesn’t matter how I get from one event to the next, or even how it ends. I can figure that out as I go along. What’s important is that the story flows toward something — a chain of events that steadily progress toward an objective. I colour-code my time lines yellow and place them in front of everything else in the folders, so I can find them easily.
I delete some of my note cards after transferring them into the time line. However, for some I copy and keep the originals because they may contain more details than I care to copy on the time line. This is often the case with scenes from the old manuscript that I deconstructed, which I mentioned in the last article on drafting. If I have a large scene that has been butchered for reconstruction, I have to summarize its main ideas for the time line, rather than transferring the entire thing.
When the time line is done, I create a new index card and put the main idea on the face of the card. Then I open it as a text file and transfer any notes from the time line that pertain to that main idea so it can be developed into a scene. If I see no obvious sequence of events yet, it’s enough to have the notes for one scene together on one card. For note cards kept from deconstructed scenes, keeping them close to their corresponding main idea cards helps me find them easily when plotting or writing. Or a lot of times, I just go ahead and combine them. Eventually, they’re going to have to be combined anyway.
Sometimes I pause on an idea because I’m inspired to start writing the scene, or bits of the scene. If that’s the case, I take it as far as I can on its own. It’s a “strike while the iron is hot” move to get my ideas down while they’re tangible. When the creative fuel starts to sputter, I don’t force it. I go back to organizing, knowing I can come back to crafting that scene at any time. In other words, writing does not have to happen in a linear fashion. For first drafts in particular, it’s more important to have good ideas than good structure. It’s good to have structure early on, or it can be one hell of a headache to correct later. But structure doesn’t have to be done before you start creative composition.
For me, “pantsing” the beginning of a new story typically plays out to about three scenes or chapters before it sputters. That’s enough to introduce and get a feel for the main characters, the setting, the atmosphere, and at least one point of conflict or problem that will need resolving. When I can’t push the initial drive much further, I look back at what I’ve done and go back to organization. This back and forth movement between writing and organizing avoids wasting time on writer’s block and enables me to “learn” from what I’ve previously written so that I can keep building on it.
If I have a scene in progress, I colour code which character pov is relating it, so I can tell at a glance whose narrative I should be locked into. If necessary, I can change pov later, but colours remind me to stay in one character’s head at a time. I might also include a note on time or place on the card’s face, if I already know those details.
If I have a main objective in mind, I’ll note that, too. A main objective is different from a main idea. The main idea might be “Kai’s Tears” to let me know that’s what the scene is about. But the main objective is an action, such as the steps Aija and Gaellyna would take to collect Kai’s tears. This is a subtle, but important difference because, in the end, all stories are about characters doing something to affect their circumstances, whether it’s creating a change or responding to it. Objectives will eventually become plot points.
This is how the bulk of my story crafting is done. I collect notes into time lines, arrange them for optimal flow, then transfer the arranged flow of events onto main idea cards. If I’m inspired to pause and actually write the scene or bits of the scene then and there, I do it. If not, that’s fine. I keep organizing, a bit of pantsing with a bit of structure, back and forth, back and forth … I do this until I run out of notes.
As I divide events into main idea cards, I delete them from the time line. I don’t worry about how I will reach the end of the story. I may not even know how the story ends yet. I’m just giving myself a trail of bread crumbs to follow based on what inspired me to write the story in the first place and any research I may have picked up along the way.
When I reach the end of my notes, I will have reached the end of my “outline”; the result is a blank time line card that can be trashed, a few scenes or chapters already in first draft format, and the remainder of my notes will have been sorted and arranged into a plot-like flow onto individual index cards ready to be turned into scenes. I say “plot-like” because there’s probably gaps between events and there may be no end in sight yet.
That is where actual plotting comes in. Outlines are nothing but skeletons, so it’s okay if something feels missing. Plotting can flesh-out the rest, bridging the gaps between time line events or disposing of material that doesn’t serve the story. At this stage, I have enough of a structure to act as a road map for the story’s journey, but I’ve also allowed inspiration to have a hand in the process, rather than saving the fun for last. And structure developed hand-in-hand with inspiration is not so rigid as to be inflexible.
Plotting can now fortify this basic foundation as the project evolves toward composition. I’ll cover that next time in part three of this series.
As I near the end of final revisions in The Dragonling, I’ve decided it might be fun to share a few thoughts about the process of how I write my novels.
I rely heavily on Scrivener software for all of my writing projects. I’m not offering a tutorial on how to use Scrivener. There are already loads of blogs out there that do that, and the software comes with tutorials. Instead, I’m offering a little insight on my organization and creative progress.
If you’re a fan of the Elf Gate books, you might be curious to see how they are shaped. If you found this article because you’re looking for new ways to organize your own work in Scrivener, maybe some of my ideas can help. If you’re trying to decide what software to write with, or have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t normally do promotions for products, but I’ll make an exception in this case.
You can find Scrivener here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php at the Literature and Latte website. I like Scrivener because it makes compiling chapters into one script very easy. It has index cards I can physically rearrange. And it’s very flexible, meaning it’s easy to personalize according to my own organizational style. (Which I have come to realize changes from book to book!)
I’m going to offer this article in seven parts:
So, let’s get to it, shall we? 🙂 Drafting …
Writing a novel is a lengthy process. Keyword there: process. I hear back from people who have read one of my books in a few days, or who have polished off the entire series so far in a couple of weeks. To me, that’s quite a compliment, considering how lengthy each book is. But it’s also quite shocking, considering each book in my series has taken a year or more to craft! The series itself has taken, literally, decades to develop.
But all books have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the extremely simple act of observing, imagining, and then taking notes on my ideas. Inspiration strikes everywhere for me, so I try to keep my phone handy for jotting notes in Evernote. Or, if I’m reading, I’ll mark up my Kindle book with highlights and notes. Or, sometimes it’s just good old pen and paper. Ideas fly away quickly, so whether it’s a song, camping trip, reading history, watching movies, playing games, or real life conversations, I am in the habit of writing down ideas as soon as they hit me. I don’t have a “writer’s notebook” per se as some authors and teachers recommend. So, admittedly, my notes are scattered. But so are my thoughts and observations. So, at least I’m consistent in that sense. 🙂
Notes happen when I’m cutting the grass and suddenly I can envision how Sáskýa-Ól hits Reznetha’ir where it hurts in the elven civil war. I repeat the idea to myself over and over, sometimes aloud, in a bizarre attempt to keep it from escaping as I march to my phone and pound it into Evernote as a jumble of key words. After I shower, I will open that file and decode my previous thought into coherent English as clearly as I can in Scrivener. Because if the note isn’t coherent, when I come back to read it later, I might not understand what I meant. My notes are always as fleshed out as I can possibly make them, even though they’re just notes.
If the note is related to my current project, I transfer it to one of three places.
1. An idea folder, colour-coded yellow, is placed at the end of my current script to catch miscellaneous ideas by topic. Each sub-folder topic carries index cards that are colour-coded orange. These colours are bright to warn me they are not part of the story, but a temporary reference. I use a few keywords on the index card to let me know the resource or subject matter. Then I flesh out the full idea in the text file of the index card. The idea folder notes are for scenes that have yet to be written, so I don’t know where else to collect them. I just know it needs to be part of the current project.
2. The notepad is a window where I cut and paste anything of immediate reference to an otherwise already written scene. I’ll come back to the notepad when discussing revisions.
3. The research menu is where I store all notes that blossom into research for the entire series.
Research notes are more detailed than idea notes. Research is needed when I need a castle layout before I can storm it. I’m not a castle architect. But Google can point me toward people who are, or at least people who appreciate Medieval architecture topic enough to share diagrams to inspire my own castle layout with names for things I otherwise might not be familiar with. Research for one book might be useful again in another book, so I hang onto all research unless I’m absolutely positive I will no longer need it.
Therefore, the research menu section of Scrivener is reserved for notes that apply to the entire series. And this is extremely important if you are writing a series! Your books must be consistent enough to be credible. So, my collection of notes from every book in the series ends up looking like an encyclopedia for quick re-referencing previous information. You could say it’s the Elf Gate Wiki!
I have folders for books, beasts, characters, history, culture, languages, places, and magic … among other topics that need to be consistent from book to book. It takes a lot of time to maintain an encyclopedic collection of information on an entire series, but it is SO WORTH IT! I do not skip this stage of the writing process, although I do tend to wait until a book is finished to transfer the information. Otherwise, the link may change with revisions, or the information may change with edits.
I use the Scrivener link to connect research topics to chapters relevant to the them. I use external links to connect research I might need to check again.
There is one final place for taking notes in Scrivener, and that is the scratch pad. It’s a separate window all by itself, as opposed to being part of this set-up. You can move it all over the scene and keep it open independently, rather than having to switch between tabs in designated windows. It’s just a yellow notepad. Nothing special. But it’s fantastic for jotting down ideas that I can’t file yet because my mind is currently working on something else. So, if I’m revising chapter 1, scene 1 about Brinnan burning to the ground, but something suddenly reminds me of a correction I need to make regarding Aija’s discovery of the gate in chapter 49, I pull down scratch pad and write, “Remember to correct what Aija sees about the gate in the dive scene.”) And then the pad stays open until I can either transfer that note into chapter 49’s notepad, or until I make the actual revision before closing up shop for the night.
If an idea is not bound for my current project, I keep a desktop writing file, divided into folders for my blog, other stories, other people’s stories I’ve helped with, etc. Typically the blog or “other stories” folders catch the miscellaneous ideas for other projects. However, I do have one folder strictly for writing advice.
If an idea is not used, I keep it until it is used. Ideas are usually very recyclable for other projects. Is this hoarding? Probably. But at least it’s gigs instead of shelf space!
The final stage of my pre-writing process is actually disconnected from it. Deconstruction isn’t really a pre-writing process; it’s more of a reconstruction or revision process. But since my Elf Gate books are reworked versions of previous scripts, I’m including those stages of the process here. I had to be able to deconstruct my old manuscript before I could create a new one.
The seed for the core plot in the Elf Gate series came to me in high school. I wrote it during study hall, journalism class, and after school for my friend, who insisted on seeing a new chapter every day. I continued writing it through college and kept revising it multiple times after my children were born, so that I was spending nights, weekends, and holidays determined to get this thing suitable for publication. Finally, after blowing through three computers one muggy August in Japan, I had something I felt confident enough to submit, only to find out that my three months of re-formatting to fit the publisher’s submission guidelines was worthless because they changed their submission guidelines! UGH!
That was it! I had had it! The manuscript was shelved indefinitely, and I gave up on being a published writer. But most writers know that a writer can’t just STOP being a writer. It’s not so much what we do as who we are. So, I started writing for role-playing games, forums, and fan fictions. Then I met a friend who (GASP!) was also interested in writing. I’d never been friends with another writer before. This was interesting. And inspiring.
I opened my abandoned manuscript to look at it again for the first time in years. It was crap. I will not lie. It was bury-my-face-in-shame awful! But was it salvageable? Maybe.
For the past five years I have been salvaging. And the changes I’ve made are so drastic in some cases that they’ve changed the course of the story or characters. I started with five books. I now have six or seven, depending on what kind of word count I end up with in drawing it to its conclusion. So, I’m grateful those first attempts to publish didn’t work out. The story is better now because my experiences in writing increased and my technical skills improved. Now I have the series this idea was always meant to be. But it’s thanks to a LOT of deconstruction.
Basically, I had to read through each book, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. In the process, I would start rewriting, but then delete entire passages, cut and paste passages onto index cards noting the main topic, and then loosely group pasted passages together by plot events.
Sometimes the only thing I liked about a page was one funny quote. So, I would save it in my research menu under a more general ideas folder labeled as “camping” or “Shei on Trizryn’s handwriting”.
Other times I couldn’t save the scene itself, but I liked the idea behind the scene. This is how most of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen were scrapped, saved, and rewritten. Originally, Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not, so she’s the one who tried to break him out. When I changed Draughbanir’s role in the story, I decided he needed to make a pact with Kethrei to free Ellen, instead. I wanted to keep the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial. I wanted to keep the atmosphere of how Englishmen in the late 1500’s would have regarded Kethrei as a demon, and how Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. But that was it. I couldn’t salvage anything else. So, I did huge block cuts on what I knew I didn’t want to keep, but saved the rest of the page and all of its gaping holes on an index card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed”.
Multiple cards with related topics got grouped in folders. Folders were arranged according to some semblance of a plot flow. (He has to be jailed before he can escape. That much at least is obvious.) But it was all “research” as far as I was concerned because it was too butchered to be of any use as-is. And I had no idea what book these events would show up in because the story had changed so much. Originally, Aija returned home in the second book, I think. Hard to believe now. During reconstruction, stuff shifted. So, if I had not been thoroughly organized, I don’t think I could have pulled the story back together as well as I did — certainly not as quickly … if you want to call five years “quick”. But five novels of 150-250K words in five years isn’t bad considering the extra work of deconstruction that went into it.
Bottom line, there are MANY ways to take notes and organize them in Scrivener. But however you do it, stay on top of it for drafting. Have a system and maintain it religiously, and the rest of your writing processes will be so much easier.
I’ll discuss reconstruction in the article on revisions. But up next: outlines! 🙂
I’m still cleaning out my old blog, and today an old article I wrote about word count caught my eye, so I’m revising it. At the time, I was writing the third revision of The Atheling. My first reconstructed draft was about 200K. The second finished at 180K. And at the time I was writing the article, I had brought the count down to around 179K. (179,856 to be exact, but that wasn’t the final number.) The book was still a monster, partly because it’s a middle section in an epic-length tale. But figuring out a good way to destroy word count was a major victory for me.
Today I was attempting to destroy word count in the fifth revision of The Dragonling. My first draft word count for this book was around 165K, but that was taken without even being close to finishing that draft. Second word check came in around 175K for the second draft. But that included a lot of unfinished scenes that I knew I would have to return to … and probably drastically rearrange. Third draft went up to 208K, and I started cutting scenes because of my panic that the numbers might be getting too high. But it was starting to look more coherent, at least. The fourth draft peaked at 239K. Jeeze! How much higher could this go? … The first fifth draft (a.k.a. the second fourth draft, weirdly named because of drastic revisions that ended up changing major sections of the book, but wasn’t necessarily a true revision with me scrutinizing every line from beginning to end) cranked it up to a tune of 250,537. 😦 … Obviously, it was time to start murdering my darlings, as Arthur Quiller-Crouch once famously suggested. (Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing”, 1914.)
Before I go any further, though, let me throw out a reminder I’m talking about epic fantasy series. And the word epic means … well, BIG! This genre is known for its length and attention to detail. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is actually one long story divided into three volumes. And perhaps you don’t need to know the exact words of the poems spoken or the definitions of translated Elvish or what someone’s lineage looks like down through the ages, but those kinds of “ornamentation” are exactly the kinds of details that give these imaginary worlds realistic depth. Also, middle and end books of epic series tend to be uber thick compared to first books or stand-alone books because it’s their job to bring all of those plot threads together toward an end. If the story is complex, it takes a lot of pages to follow each twist, complication, and obstacle encountered before that end is in sight. The alternative is to cut out scenes that could leave the reader thinking, “But what about this thing mentioned back in book 2? Whatever happened about that?” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of how heavily loaded plot closures can be toward the middle and end of a series. The last two books in that series were written as one ending, but divided in half for practical handling and purchase. (Something I might have to do for my own series if my next book’s word count becomes completely unreasonable.) If it’s a choice between thinner, quicker, cheaper books and a quality closure, most fans invested in a series would rather have a quality closure, I think.
But my first article on the worry over word count prompted me to do a little research back then. How big is too big when it comes to novels? When I first started writing, the standard word count for fantasy novels was 50-100K, which is bigger than most fiction genres because it takes into account that the author must use more words to build imaginary worlds. The average first novel published by an new author shouldn’t be more than 50K because big paper books cost more to produce than little paper books, and that cost is passed along to the consumer. Cost of digital production shouldn’t be as high, but word count still affects editorial fees, since they charge by the hour or word/page count, and marketing. Readers are also less likely to invest money or time in long, expensive books by authors they’ve never heard of.
And yet, when I voiced concern in the past about word count, the majority of responses from readers and writers alike was along the lines of, “whatever is needed to tell the story.” Though some people prefer short stories, nobody likes stories that feel rushed. So, while I’m still frustrated at how each book in my series gets progressively bigger, I have to remind myself that butchering scenes for the sake of word count simply is not the right approach for this particular series. The Hobbit is 95,022 words. Fellowship of the Ring is 177,227 words. But The Order of the Phoenix (from the Harry Potter series) was 257,045 words! And The Gold Finch was high on the charts during my first publishing of this article, making good sales in spite of having a whopping 296,586 words from a relatively new author! On the down-side, it’s also been rated as one of the least-finished books because people don’t have the time or attention to devote to it, for whatever reasons. I realize I might lose some readers if my books are too long, especially if bad editing or boring content comprises some of that wordiness. But I love long books, so I write what I would enjoy reading. And I take heart that I’m not the only reader who loves epic tales that continue bringing me back to familiar worlds and intimate characters. I’m not the only reader who loves stories so complex they simply take longer to unravel and play out.
Bottom line … Many writers, editors, and readers will drop a high-word-count script like hot metal. Word count matters because of publishing costs, marketing concerns, and reader preference and attention. But word count should never be the most important aspect by which we judge books. Words are merely the tools we use to ply our trade. “… it is up to the writer to say when the story is done.” [Quindlen, Anna (September 23, 2002), “Writers on Writing: The Eye of the Reporter, the Heart of the Novelist”, New York Times.]
Just for fun, here is a list of some of the longest novels ever written. I was not surprised to see that War and Peace was included. I was, however, surprised to see Les Misérables. And I felt rather pleased and proud to have actually read and enjoyed Varney the Vampire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_novels
Recently a few people I talked to brought up the pipe dream of my books being made into films. At this stage it’s definitely a pipe dream! But one thing I’m learning about this year is forward thinking: moving toward what I want, rather than wasting energy on fear or doubts. So, I’ve decided … why not dream for a bit. 🙂
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on our love/hate relationships with derivative works … such as turning books into a film or TV series. But there are other conversions, too, like graphic novels, anime, and one very controversial topic in itself: fan fictions. I have much to stay about fan fictions and derivative works in general, but here’s my two cents on derivative works based on MY writing.
I self-publish right now because my priority is to finish and publish this series while I have the chance. Ever since I was a kid stapling pencil-illustrated books together for my stuffed animals I have dreamed of publishing books. So, right now, I’m not interested in selling to a traditional publishing house. I want complete control of this project from beginning to end, right down to the cover art. This is MY vision.
Having said that, would I sell to a traditional publisher if they asked? Probably. But contract terms would play a major role in how I sell it. I can always write more books, but this particular series has been on my brain since high school. I can’t let just anyone have Elf Gate because I wouldn’t want to see it twisted into something I don’t recognize just to make it fit the mold of market trends. I will continue to be stubborn about that.
Would I sell to someone wanting to make a graphic novel? Definitely. Again, contract terms would make or break the deal for me, but these books are dark fantasy, so they are practically begging for someone to develop them into a high-quality graphic series. However, these stories are very complex. I’m not sure how much would be lost in translation, but I would be okay with that because it is the nature of the beast when switching from whole pages of text to speech bubbles. It would take great skill to reduce the content enough that the images say everything necessary, but to see the stories come to life either as manga or western-style comics … yes, I would love that.
Would I sell to someone making an anime or action cartoon? Same answers as above: definitely, depending on the contract. When I first started writing it, I actually kind of envisioned it as an anime, a bit like Record of the Lodoss War. I think it would be well-suited to an animated format because live-action fantasy films and TV series are still kind of hit or miss.
Which brings me to live-action TV series or film. I’ll admit I’m not as confident about this kind of conversion because, while computer graphics technology have done miracles for fantasy elements in the visual arts, overall fantasy genre film and TV have a reputation for sucking. 🙂 (I say that lovingly, believe me.) Either they invest all their budget into special effects and end up with superior eye-candy but a flat story; or they write a really good story, but can’t invest in the high-end graphics, so it ends up looking cheesy. In spite of continued growth, fantasy is such an “unrealistic” genre that the budget to make the impossible come alive with credibility can make or break the project in the eyes of the fans. As a fan of the fantasy genre, I would want the final product to be high quality. But once the rights are sold, authors have very little say in the production. (Usually. Some production companies will hire the author as a consultant on the set, but not always, and they don’t always agree on how the book should translate into performance art.)
Along these same lines, I was asked who I think should play the character roles. I honestly haven’t thought about that much, but I think I would prefer motion capture or otherwise animated graphics, rather than actors under make-up. The reason is I don’t want my elves to look like humans wearing rubber ears or blackface. My elves are black, white, and shades of gray … not shades of pink or brown. Their facial features lean toward Far East Asian traits around the eyes and nose. I’m sure I could come up with actors who might look the part, or be versatile enough to play the role, but in some cases we’re talking about going back a few years … such as Heath Ledger making an excellent Shei or Triz … because, yes, he was that versatile. I could see a young Hannah Spearritt as Aija based on the character of Abbey that she played in the BBC series Primeval. But the one character portrayal that caught me by surprise as looking and acting soooo much like one of my own creations was Nichole Galicia’s performance as Kindzi on the American TV series Defiance. In the right kind of light, she was the spitting image of how I imagine Íenthé. If I ever come up with a better “dream cast” than that, I’ll let you know.
And finally … there’s fan-fiction. I won’t get into fan-fiction as a topic here, other than to say as a writer and artist, I learned my trades by practicing with other works I admired. I think this is just how the untrained mind learns. However, copying already-published works without creator permission is theft. So, it’s where we draw the lines on what harms the creator’s earnings or perverts the integrity of the original work that form those conversations. In the end, it’s best to have creator permission when it comes to published works, or at least a link back to the source if it is not easily found via search engine.
Would I mind someone writing fan-fiction based on my original stories? I would like to think I would consider “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” as long as someone doesn’t actually infringe on my copyrights–by posting my stories on-line without my permission, by selling them for their own profit, by taking credit for the character creation on any fan art, etc. I prefer to see the best in people. And if I could spend more time world building, I could probably even be persuaded to participate in something like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, where authors allow fans to legally use their world settings and canon characters to write their own plots. Some role-playing game companies, like Wizards of the Coast, have long been “fan friendly” when it comes to such things, and they even have a web page where you can download the company’s logos to help give credit where copyright credits are due. (http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/fan-site-kit) Since a large part of honing my own writing came from writing game material as a dungeon master, I know what it’s like to be so inspired by a story I loved that I hated to see it end … or had my own ideas about using an old setting to create a whole new plot and characters. … If, however, someone abuses my creations or does infringe on my copyright to steal credit or profits I worked hard for, I admit it would be hard to continue being “fan friendly”. Since I don’t earn much as it is, it would probably make me paranoid to share anything self-published if I knew someone was intentionally robbing me blind.
So, there it is … my fantasies about the future of my fantasy novels. 🙂 Will these ever come to fruition? Only time can tell. Right now, it is enough to have good reviews and thoughtful feedback from readers. Hearing back from readers is often the only thing that inspires me to keep fighting to make this dream a reality. If nothing else ever comes of my scribblings, other than what I myself produce here at Bad Cat Ink, at least I can say I was fortunate for a short time to do what I felt I was put on this earth to do.