Book Review: Mrs. Saint and the Defectives

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I’m taking a brief break from my articles on how I craft my novels to offer a review for the book I just finished reading.  🙂

Book: Mrs. Saint and the Defectives
Series:
Author: Julie Lawson Timmer
Genres: Literary

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Markie, a fortysomething divorcée who has suffered a humiliating and very public fall from marital, financial, and professional grace, moves, along with her teenage son, Jesse, to a new town, hoping to lick her wounds in private. But Markie and Jesse are unable to escape the attention of their new neighbor Mrs. Saint, an irascible, elderly New European woman who takes it upon herself, along with her ragtag group of “defectives,” to identify and fix the flaws in those around her, whether they want her to or not.

What Markie doesn’t realize is that Mrs. Saint has big plans for the divorcée’s broken spirit. Soon, the quirky yet endearing woman recruits Markie to join her eccentric community, a world where both hidden truths and hope unite them. But when Mrs. Saint’s own secrets threaten to unravel their fragile web of healing, it’s up to Markie to mend these wounds and usher in a new era for the “defectives”—one full of second chances and happiness.”

 

Notes of Interest:

I found out about this book via Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited. I chose it because I’ve become very keen on reading fiction about single and divorced women, now that this is a personal topic in my own life. Perhaps it’s a need to see how other women solve their problems, even if it’s still framed in a fictional, happily-ever-after-as-a-strong-independent-woman or new-love fairy tale. Or perhaps it’s just instinct to want to know I’m not alone. Or to know there is a light at the end of the “long, dark dungeon with no music,” as one friend so aptly described divorce. The story is not really about divorce, though. It’s about coming out from under the rock after a life-altering event and learning how to put the pieces back together. More specifically, it’s about learning how to open your mind and heart to reconciliation and new relationships after being in a broken state of retreat, for whatever reason.

What could have made it better for me:

I had absolutely no complaints about this book. The character of Mrs. Saint did get under my skin a bit at first, and not liking certain characters can make a story difficult to stick with. But that is entirely what Mrs. Saint is supposed to do. She gets under Markie’s skin. Since her persistence and insistence is a personality type that usually irritates me in reality, the author succeeded at making Mrs. Saint very real in that sense. In other words, this isn’t a complaint, but more so a congratulations, and a reminder that I need to be more patient-yet-firm myself when it comes to well-intentioned people who tell me what I should do to “fix” my life, whether I asked for their opinion or not.

What I liked about it:

Besides the relativity of the subject matter, I liked the warmth and personality of the writing. This includes Mrs. Saint’s “French-Canadian” accent, Markie’s inner dialogs, and the narrative voice itself. The characters are all unique in their presentations and personality quirks. And I love that the theme of this story is flawed character traits and the fact that everyone has them. It demonstrates that no one is perfect, so accepting people as they are without expectations can save yourself and them a lot of grief. I started off focusing on Markie and her narrative, but a few chapters later I found myself wanting to know more about the defectives and wishing they lived next to me. (Of course, that is where I remind myself to balance fiction against reality. When real people with character flaws antagonize each other, conflict resolution may never happen.)

The author had some wonderful nuggets of wisdom in her narrative. The two I’ll remember are these: “She had a past to reconcile and a future to sort out, and she couldn’t do either without solitude,” and later, “The thing about setting your life up so you could be completely alone was that you ended up completely alone.” To me, this perfectly sums up what it’s like to need time to lick your wounds and heal. By the time you’re ready to face life again, everyone else has left you behind. This is true of any life change that drastically alters us and requires a period of transition to settle into a new and very different normal.

As the story unfolds further and some of the secrets truths about the characters are told, it truly does go from being a story about a divorceé and her son, to being about the defectives and their nosy, stubborn guardian. In the end, I was lead to question the balance between my focus on healing myself and helping others. We all wish someone was “stubbornly” there for us when we’re imperfect, flawed, and hurting, but few people have the patience, time, or compassion to be available to others in those situations. In the end, Markie realizes she has as much to learn from her defective neighbours as she does about them … particularly Mrs. Saint. And that is a universal lesson for all of us.

Recommendation:

This book was an easy read, but has a literary genre quality to it. It has a wonderful, light sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, but is also rich with drama, past and present. The writing is clean and textured. In a word, it was a delight. I’m glad I took a chance on adding it to my collection.

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How I Outline My Novels

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.

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Scrivener’s outline mode can arrange your scenes and chapters in a linear fashion to outline by topics. You simply click on the file or folder you’ve created, and the page/ text mode can show further content. However, compare it to the binder mode on the far right. The binder can also line up your chapters and scenes as a list of topics. (The green indicates folders, or “topics”. The blue indicates scenes, or “sub-topics”. I could use other colours or number them 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 if I wished.)

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.

The Beginning

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.

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I prefer organizing my pre-writing using the cork board mode and index cards to create time lines and a sequence of events. My real time lines are already ditched, but here’s a sample of how I did them. After dropping notes on similar topics into one folder, I created a time line card. Yellow makes it stand out, and keeping it in the front makes it easy to find. (Any other colour indicates some writing and a pov have already been chosen for that scene. White means nothing has been plotted for those notes yet.) Then I open a note card and summarize the content in the time line card’s text mode. If the content is brief, I transfer it completely, then trash the card. If the content is extensive, I save it. I arrange both the time line notes and the note cards kept as a sequence of events as I go along.

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.

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I mentioned deconstruction playing a major role in rebuilding the manuscripts for these series. Here is an example of a note card from a deconstructed scene. I’ve blacked out most of it, but you can see from that first paragraph that this old scene is WAY off from the current revision of the work. For one thing, Trizryn doesn’t summon dragons. For another, the entire thing has double-spaces between sentences, which tells you how old the original script is. But you can see which objectives I decided to keep because this is still a good dragon fight scene that can still be used against the green dragon of Min. It just needs a LOT of reconstruction, so I kept this note card and simply said something like “Fight the green dragon at Min,” in my time line, then moved it into the flow of events where I think it should be done. But that could change. :3

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.

The Middle

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.

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Here you can see how the main idea and objective are two different things noted on the face of the note card. You can see the notes collected and arranged into a flow of events in the note card’s file or text page. This scene has gaps moving from one event to another, so it’s not ready to be written out as a scene yet. But it’s close. I have to plot how I’m going to close those gaps first.

The End

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.

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If my creative brain worked based on lists of topics, perhaps my outline would look something like these numbered folders and files. But I can’t work like that on creative projects, so if you feel you have to start writing to get into a project before you line things up, don’t feel bad. Writing doesn’t have to happen in a linear format. These folders contain files that were written based on collected notes and inspired scribbles arranged into a sequence of events. No numbers, no chapters, no outcome yet. But this story is already well on its way to writing itself now that my skeletal foundation is in place.

How I Draft My Novels

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:
1. Drafting
2. Outlining
3. Plotting
4. Writing
5. Illustrating
6. Revising
7. Publishing

So, let’s get to it, shall we? 🙂 Drafting …

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Scrivener: 1) Index card text files for notes without scenes. 2) Notepad for already-written scenes. 3) Research folders for every book in the series.

Notes

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.

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Research Menu … a.k.a. Elf Gate Wiki … is where I keep detailed notes on every book in an effort to keep each book in the series consistent with the others. The research files are massive and take a lot of time to update, but they are well worth the effort come writing time.

Research

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.

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Orange index cards are nothing but research notes collected from various references, which are linked through the “references” window/tab. I often keep note cards within the folders of my first draft and shift them along as a write. Their colour alerts me to the fact they are not part of the story. When I’m done with them, I store them in the appropriate folder in the research menu.

Unrelated Notes

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!

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I reserve the notepad for notes related to scenes already written. I’ll have more to say about this in the outlining, writing, and revising parts of this series. Right now, it’s just storage for an idea I’ll come back to that should be in this particular scene, or one close to the beginning with this character.

Deconstruction

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! 🙂

The Worry About Word Count

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“Bad Cat Sleepy Books” by Melody Daggerhart Medium: digital art, Corel software Hours: 7 All copyrights reserved.

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

Derivative Works and Dream Casting

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Dream Casting anyone? … Singer and actress Hanna Spearritt’s portrayal of Abbey on the BBC series “Primeval” comes close to being a good Aija in both looks and personality.

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.)

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Source image: “Heath Ledger ROAR Tribute” by mldrfan. … Could you see him as Shei, the adorably blond-braided, quick-witted bard?

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.

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Nichole Galicia’s role as Kindzi on the American TV series “Defiance” was a stunning throwback to my own Íenthé. But with longer ears and fangs. 😉

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.

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This amazing painting “Zi” by Heise (check out more of this artist’s work at the link shown in the corner) made me think of Trizryn while under his light elf illusion, but his skin would have to be even more pale than this. Graphic arts or computer graphics definitely have the advantage in bringing fantasy characters to life, imo. (Maybe a dream cast drawn up from art works would be a fun thing to do later, too!)

Freelance Publishing Services

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Bad Cat Ink

I’m back! 🙂 And I have added a new page to my blog. As part of my grass-roots publishing business, Bad Cat Ink, I am now offering a few simple freelance services by contract. Right now I’m offering copy typing, proofreading, beta reading, editing, content writing, and small illustration. I hope to expand my offerings as the business grows.

You can find the tab at the top of the site, or go here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/services/ , for my contact information. Describe your project to me, and I’ll get back to you with a quote on the price; and we can work out the rest of the details from there.

Unless otherwise specified, my planner is now open for new clients.

And speaking of freelancing businesses …

I read this article today from Inc. by Melanie Curtin: “In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours”. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait for you to come back. It has some good information on the history of the 8-hour work day.

No time to read? Summary: the average worker pulling an 8-hour work day is productive for only 3 hours. THREE! I remember reading once that the average student in school actually spends only 2 hours learning anything because the rest of the time is spent waiting in lines, transferring to different classrooms, shuffling papers, etc. Also, I am aware that some countries in Europe have cut their work days to 4 days a week, or cut their hours to 6. Or they now allow time for workers to take naps, or do other things between tasks … like hit the gym or meditate.

I think the reason for these new, relaxed shifts is the ever-increasing numbers of people suffering from depression and anxiety, from over-scheduling their own lives and the lives of their kids, and from not being able to carve out time to even take care of ourselves anymore with basic necessities like cooking healthy meals, finding time to exercise, or getting enough sleep. We are burning our candles at both ends trying to multi-task, yet studies tell us there is no such thing. The human brain can do only one task at a time, so when we try to do more, our chances of making mistakes increase, productivity slows down, or we drop the balls we’re trying to juggle. We set ourselves up for failure trying to do the impossible. And then we beat ourselves up for not being perfect enough to keep the pace going. So that makes us feel even more like failures.

What does this have to do with freelancing? During my time off, I felt guilty for not working, even though I have been working on other things in my life that needed attention. I still planned my days from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. I still had to-do list items that did not get done. I was still very stressed trying to push things into motion that seemed to be going nowhere. And on top of that, I lost a pet and was grieving while trying to carry on.

But even before taking time off I felt guilty for working only 2-4 hours a day this summer (because I work at home and have seasonal chores I have to do during early morning hours, and I’m trying to force clearance in my days now to take care of my mental and physical health). I kept thinking, “What kind of loser am I, that I’m clocking only 2 productive hours a day?” But I wasn’t looking at all the other “tasking” I was doing around and that, which now includes taking care of my mind and body so that I can be less sleepy, more creative, and not have health issues influencing whether I can accomplish my tasks, or not.

I have pulled my share of 17-19 hour days … through weekends and holidays. They suck. I have worked through all three meals (which consisted mostly of bowls of cereal, instant noodles, and cookies), fighting sleep over my keyboard, to try to finish edits ASAP. I have worked on multiple big projects simultaneously, and it never fails that one-by-one they fall away, until I realize I have worked on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. But then I feel guilty that I’m not doing five projects at once, when the truth is there are not enough hours in the day to keep that pace going. The result is I get sick, I get stressed, I suffer burn-out and depression, and eventually it becomes a struggle to get out of bed. So, how is that in any way even remotely productive?

I would love to see 4-day work weeks and 4-6 hour work days become the norm. Freelancers around the world would probably feel less like anomalies compared to their commuting peers to realize the average worker is only good for 3 hours. But the main problem I see with putting this plan into action is that hours can’t be cut without also boosting pay. Living wages, especially for non-salaried or part-time workers, are hard enough to come by working the 17-hour shifts through weekends and holidays. So, unless we can simultaneously cut hours and boost basic income rates (which has been done before and has been successful when it was tried), I don’t see this “drive yourself into the ground until you are insane” pattern changing for modern society any time soon. Still, it’s nice to see some countries are aware of the problems and thinking outside the box to try to find solutions.

What do you think? How many hours a day do you believe you are actually productive at your job, compared to how many hours you are paid to work? Do you think we will ever see a more balanced labor plan for the labor force as a norm?

 

 

Temporary Hiatus

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Vintage photo of Stonehenge, or mysterious and otherworldly elf gate into other dimensions of the multiverse? Hm … 😉

I have been butting heads with my blog schedule for the past couple of weeks, due to dealing with a few personal matters, and I have come to realize I can’t write a good draft this week or next week, either. So, I’m going to wave the white flag of surrender and put this blog on a temporary hiatus to relieve myself of extra “shoulds” for the next few weeks — as in that tiny voice in my head that says, “I should be writing my blog post for this week, especially since I’m behind schedule for the past two weeks.” You all know how heavy those “shoulds” can get, right? They distract you from what you should be doing by making you think of other things you should be doing. And then it just goes on and on and on shoulding until you’re overwhelmed.

So, pardon me whilst I disappear through a mysterious and otherworldly portal for a short time. As of right now, I plan to be back at blogging some time in August, which is also when I plan to start the final edits for The Dragonling.

See you then! ^_^