Tools of the Trade

Back at it! #amwriting #overalls #Carhartt

What writer doesn’t like talking about process? Let’s talk process! Specifically, the tools I use.

For years, I’ve been a dedicated OpenOffice user. My reasons for this, at the outset, were anything but high-minded devotion to the open-source software model. No, it was purely self-serving: Around 2003 or 2004, I was still using Microsoft Office for Windows 95, which was increasingly out-of-date and lacking in newest features. If I recall correctly, the feature Office for Windows 95 that bugged me the most by its simply not being there was support for a mouse’s scroll wheel, but I may be wrong. In any event, I decided that it was time to update my office software, and at the same time, I learned of the existence of OpenOffice. After reading up on it a bit, and determining that it would suffice for my needs and the price was right, I made the switch, and I’ve used OpenOffice as my main writing software ever since.

Until now.

And not only have I made the switch from OpenOffice, but I have now adopted not one but two primary writing programs.

Why would I do this?

In general, I have never been unhappy with OpenOffice, and I still recommend it to anyone looking for a free office suite. However, there were aspects of its functionality that I discovered weren’t ideal, especially as I started ramping up to the publication of Stardancer. Formatting is very important, and if you’re independently publishing, the task of formatting falls squarely on you. This became a source of a number of headaches – all minor, thankfully, but still not easy to navigate. First, most of the tutorials you find out there on how to format your manuscripts for Kindle Direct Publishing or for CreateSpace assume that you are using Word, and thus they provide instructions for Word only, which means that you then have to do some research to figure out how to get the same effect out of OpenOffice. That brings me to the second problem I discovered: the processes for formatting correctly in OpenOffice are often not nearly as easy as the processes to accomplish the same tasks in Word.

Here’s an example: one standard of formatting manuscripts for submission to publishing markets is that you don’t use “smart” quotation marks (the ones that curl one way at the start of a quote and curl the reverse way at the end of it); you use “dumb” quotes which are just little straight marks that don’t quote at all. This being the case, I’ve been in the habit for years of using dumb quotes in all my writing, and in fact, I didn’t even think about it until I got my proof copy of Stardancer in the mail, opened it up, and recoiled in horror from the dumb quotes in the book. I’m honestly not entirely sure why the standard for submission format is dumb quotes, but the fact is, that in print, dumb quotes look like shit. So I had to change the dumb quotes to smart quotes – every single one of them in the book.

Now, I remember doing this in Microsoft Word, years ago. There, it’s strangely easy. You change the setting to “Use smart quotes” or whatever it is, and then you do a find-and-replace, with a quote in the “Find” field and an identical quote in the “replace with” field. Somehow Word knows to go through and swap all the dumb quotes for smart ones, and it gets them right, putting the left-quotes and right-quotes where they should be. You then do the same thing with a single quote in the find-and-replace box, and Word goes through and swaps out every apostrophe of single quote you have. This is some terrific functionality.

Unfortunately, this functionality doesn’t exist in OpenOffice, so you have to engage a more cumbersome process of using the additional fields in the find-and-replace tool. You have to use “regular expressions” and you have to pretty much do a separate operation for every right-quote and every left-quote. It’s also easy to screw this operation up, which can result in some bad things that you then have to root out.

The quotes thing is one issue, but there were a number of similar issues with OpenOffice that made formatting for self-publishing a right pain in the arse. Now, moving forward, I’ve pretty much stopped using dumb quotes, but that doesn’t help the manuscripts that already exist which still need to see the light of day. But when most instructions for getting things done ignore the platform I’m using, and when a lot of these tasks are more cumbersome than I want them to be, something’s gotta change. I’m planning to release a lot more stuff into the wild over the next few years, and OpenOffice isn’t ideal for my needs.

Further, I’ve learned that OpenOffice will likely not be seeing as much updating and revision in the future, for various licensing reasons that I don’t entirely understand, while a newer open-source suite called LibreOffice, which is originally an offshoot of OpenOffice, will likely see a great deal more innovation moving forward. Here’s an article that explains the situation, and here’s an article that outlines some key differences in functionality between the two suites. I’ve already adopted LibreOffice as my office productivity suite of choice. Here’s what LibreOffice’s word processor looks like:

libreoffice screenshot

Now, thus far I haven’t noticed a whole lot of difference, since LibreOffice and OpenOffice share common ancestry. But there are some nice touches that I do like a lot: your word count is always visible in the bottom toolbar, for example, and the find-and-replace tool shows up as a new toolbar in the footer, as opposed to a pop-up window that obscures the work. LibreOffice uses the same file formats as OpenOffice, and to my eye, its Writer program has a much cleaner look. Sadly, LibreOffice’s quotes-fixing works pretty much the same way OpenOffice’s did, which is why I’ve adopted another program for writing and producing books and such.

That program is Scrivener.

[Insert sound of giant weight hitting the earth here.]

If you’re a writer, and if you share the fact that you’re a writer online and interact with other writer-folks on social media, very quickly you will start hearing about a program called Scrivener. Scrivener changes lives. It revolutionizes. It makes everything better. Scrivener is the Disney World of writing programs: it’s the happiest place on Earth, man.

Downloading Scrivener felt like the start of a long, dark path! #amwriting

At least, that’s what I’m told. I’ve been using it for nearly a month, which means that I’m about to exhaust my free trial of the program, at which point I’ll have to decide if I want to pony up $40 to buy the program outright. (You get a thirty-day trial with Scrivener. What’s cool is that the thirty days are non-consecutive; if you use it for the first time on Friday and then you don’t use it again until the next Friday, you’ve only lost 2 of your 30 days, not 7.) So, how’s it going?

Well, the first time I used it, I stared at it for five minutes before recoiling in horror and turning it off. Then, figuring that I needed to actually give it a shot, I launched it again and this time played with the tutorial it comes with. This helped, but not terribly much. I still spent the first few days of my Scrivener use staring at it and wondering how on Earth anyone could possibly use this program to do actual work.

I’m generally a start-and-stop kind of writer. I start writing, I write, and then I stop. I work in linear fashion, only retracing my steps when I need to: if the Muse tells me that I’ve made an error previously, either an error of omission or of simply writing the wrong thing. And I don’t outline. I just don’t, except for in certain very specific circumstances, and then in very limited fashion. I like to launch a writing program and start writing.

But here’s Scrivener, with its cork board and its “binder” and its “inspector” and…oh, the features, man! It’s like if you took someone who has only ever driven a 1975 Chevy Nova and then dropped them in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh with the keys to a 2015 Subaru Outback and said, “OK, get yourself home.” Sure, the steering wheel and the pedals and the shifter would look the same, but our marooned driver would almost certainly look around the dash and say, “Huh-whuh?!” That’s kind of how I felt about Scrivener, and even after nearly a month of getting used to it, I still find myself hopelessly confused by some of its features.

Here’s a screenshot of Scrivener, when you’re in its native writing environment:

scrivener screenshot

But that’s not all! Here’s the corkboard:

scrivener screenshot 2

Like I said, I really haven’t even begun digging into the various things Scrivener does. But I can say this: Scrivener allows a writer to take a more wide-angle view of their story’s structure, if they are so inclined. By use of the corkboard and the binder (that sidebar on the right that shows all the various chapters and whatnot), you can really see how your story is put together, and you can make changes thusly. Again, I’m not sold on all this as being useful to me, but then, I’m still very new to this program.

I do know other writers who are very much committed to outlining and who will produce detailed outlines of their entire novels (or stories or screenplays or whatever), and then they will write a scene at a time, and sometimes they will work on scenes in nonlinear fashion: ”Let’s see, what am I in the mood to work on today? Well, I need to do the scene where Our Hero confronts the villain in the Carbon-Freezing Chamber, without knowing yet that the villain is actually his father…I think I’ll write that today!” Scrivener makes doing that very easy, as you can lay everything out in terms of structure before you start actually producing copy, and then it’s all just bricklaying. This is interesting, but it’s not the way I work, at all.

However, this attention to structure does make it a lot easier to hop around for reference. Many’s the time when I’ll be happily writing along in, say, Chapter 16 of one of the Forgotten Stars books and I’ll realize I need to look something up that happened in Chapter 12. Scrivener puts Chapter 12 a single mouseclick away, which is quite useful.

Scrivener is also highly useful in that it will archive research materials and images and that kind of thing. For the Lighthouse book, I have a number of maps I drew and then digitized (by way of photographing them with my camera – the things we can do these days!), and instead of having to keep an Image Viewer program up and running, I just import those into the Scrivener project for that novel and presto! They’re available at a single mouseclick, too.

What I really like Scrivener for thus far, though, is the formatting. You can cheerfully write along and then have Scrivener automatically format your manuscript into submission style, if you want – or have it compile your manuscript into an EPUB file, which for independent writers like me is pretty dang huge. This is the main reason I got the program in the first place: because of a problem I noticed with the Kindle edition of Stardancer.

Every Kindle book is required to have a Table of Contents, so readers can get back and forth easily. And Stardancer has one. The problem is that its Table is in the book itself. This is because when I published it on Kindle, I used CreateSpace’s automated process whereby they take the files you uploaded for the physical book and base the Kindle MOBI file on them. This worked, for the most part, except for the Table of Contents. In most Kindle books, when you tap the icon in the upper left corner as you read inside a book, the resulting drop-down menu includes a Table of Contents right there, so you can access any chapter as you like. The original version of Stardancer doesn’t have this, and it bothered me. I tried figuring out how to solve the problem using OpenOffice, but this was simply not feasible. Hell, I’m not sure if the problem even can be solved using OpenOffice. Scrivener, however, is designed with the needs of independent writers at least partially in mind, and its compiler made an EPUB file which I was then able to easily convert to MOBI using another program called Calibre. (That’s all I’ve used Calibre for, which is why I’m not much talking about it here. It’s a pretty powerful program, though, and should definitely be in the indie writer’s arsenal.)

Scrivener is a powerful and impressive program. It’s also highly confusing at first, and using it effectively may require some writers to change the way they look at their own work. It’s not perfect for me, by any means. Sure, the corkboard thing looks cool, but I’m generally not one to move scenes around much, so I’m not sure how much mileage I’ll get out of that. The program’s autocorrect lacks one key bit of functionality, too: My most common typo is double-capitalization, like THis. Every other program I’ve ever used automatically fixes those, so I rarely notice that I did it. Scrivener doesn’t fix those, unfortunately; maybe a future revision will. (And maybe I simply haven’t figured out how to make Scrivener do that.)

But Scrivener does have a nifty drop-down menu whereby you can toggle every single dumb quote in your manuscript to a smart quote, and back again if you so desire!

HOLY SHIT SCRIVENER CAN DO THIS AUTOMATICALLY 😍😍😍😍😍 #amwriting

Hey, sometimes it’s the little things. And I really dig the Fullscreen mode, which really puts your current writing front-and-center:

scrivener screenshot 3

I’m not in love with Scrivener, but hey, who knows. So far I’ve been using it on pre-existing projects and manuscripts, and that’s a pattern that will remain in place for a while. Maybe my views will shift farther in its favor as I learn more about it, use it more, and most importantly, use it to create an entire project from scratch.

But at the very least, they will be getting my forty bucks.

You win, folks. Scrivener is acceptible. #amwriting #scrivener #ronburgundy #AnchormanQuotesFTW

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Ooooh! Exciting stuff ahead!!

Hey there, folks! Just dropping by (in what I hope will be a more frequent thing) to discuss what’s going on in my World of Writing.

1. I’m still preparing for my “relaunch” of Stardancer, which will take place later this month. The book will no longer be a Kindle exclusive, which means that I’ll be able to also publish in on Smashwords, and I may also post several chapters to Wattpad. It’s time to stretch the wings a bit.

1a. When I republish Stardancer, the book will now include a small snippet of The Wisdomfold Path, as a teaser. If you’ve already bought Stardancer, worry not — I’ll be posting the same snippet here at some point soon as well. Also, as I get closer to the Wisdomfold Path launch in November, sample chapters from that book will go up on Wattpad as well.

1b. I will, at some point over the next month or two, set up a mechanism for ordering signed copies of my books directly through this site, if such a thing is desired. It will likely involve Paypal exclusively. I’m kicking around the idea of getting a PO box for correspondence and such, but I want to see what kind of market exists before I go to that much trouble. I have also ordered business cards, and a small number of bookmarks to tease The Wisdomfold Path.

2. I’ve started going through the existing chapters of The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy. I still think this book is likely to take years to come to fruition — remember, my goal here is a long, convoluted, Alexandre Dumas-style adventure — but I’m dipping into it again. I’ve already completely rewritten the first chapter. Wheeeee! This is a fun book that I want to be as rollicking and fun as possible. I may serialize this one on Wattpad in its entirety, when it’s finished. I’m thinking that sometime in the latter half of 2017 might be a logical time for that to happen. (At this point I do not have any inkling as to the actual title of this book. I never let the lack of a title stop me from attacking a story.)

3. I’ve completed the first-round edits for GhostCop (not the actual title), and beta-readers will soon be having a look at that one. My early goal for publishing that one is Summer 2016. (I also don’t have a title for this one yet, and that’s more of a problem since I want to release it in less than a year. I did think up one possible title, but the problem there is that I don’t like that title all that much.)

4. This will get its own post, but I’ve recently switched my writing software. More on that to come.

Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!

 

 

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A Dispatch from the Hinterlands

Lots of red pen use on this one.... #editing #amwriting #overalls

Hey, everybody! Yes, it’s been a long time without a posting in this space. But not without cause! Here’s what’s going on!

1. I finished my second round of edits on The Wisdomfold Path (The Song of Forgotten Stars, Book II), and I am now having the book proofread. Progress is moving along nicely toward the book’s November 10, 2015 release date. And I cannot wait to see how readers respond to the continuation of the adventures of our Princesses (and their navigator) In SPACE!!!

2. Meanwhile, I am finally working again on a project that has been on the back burner for far too long: my supernatural thriller GhostCop (not the actual title), whose first draft I completed in November 2013, and which I have not touched since. Why did it fall off the radar? Mainly because of ongoing work on the Forgotten Stars series. Lots of 2014 was taken up by prepping Stardancer for release, and then I had to get the first draft of Forgotten Stars III: The Search for Spock (not the actual title) done. This was followed by the edits on Wisdomfold Path, because that series is top priority up until Book III’s November 2016 release date. I simply wasn’t able to find time until now to get back to work on GhostCop. But now I am.

And really, I’m not sure that I regret the long layover here. I am a firm believer in waiting a chunk of time — several months, at the very very least — between passes through a draft of a book. It can be less time than that when you’re proofing and gearing up for publication, but I firmly believe that a first draft should not be even looked at until a hard minimum of three months has passed. Distance helps make the parts of the book that aren’t very good stand out, and the longer it’s been, I find the less prone I am to seeing what I meant in the book and seeing what I actually wrote. In some cases, I can’t even remember what I meant, and when that’s the case, that means it’s time to cut. The result was that the manuscript ended up with a lot of red ink.

I enjoy this part of the process. #editing #amwriting #redpen

That’s not a bad thing! The book will be better for it, actually. I totally believe this. Every time I see a writer friend online saying that they’ve just finished a draft and are going to start editing immediately, I scream, “NOOOOOO!“, and throw myself across the room in slow-motion at them, as if I’m trying to knock the poisoned wine cup from their hands before they sip. (Yes, it’s dramatic. Sue me.) But really, the longer a first draft sits, the better.

As I worked through this one, I found passages I had no memory of writing, and I found other passages that seem to contain possible seeds for sequels. This excites me greatly, as GhostCop is intended to be the first book in a series. Unlike The Song of Forgotten Stars, this series will be intended as open-ended, and I’m hoping to work on a first draft to a second book sometime this coming fall or winter.

(Also, I’m not actually being coy about referring to this book as GhostCop. I literally do not have a title for it yet. I tend to just wait for titles to show up. One always does, so why worry about it? And if you’re wondering, I’m looking at sometime next summer for a release on GhostCop, so there’s that. It’s significantly shorter than the Forgotten Stars books, too, with a more ‘hard-boiled’ prose style.)

3. Finally, I’ll have more details as I get going, but I’m planning on releasing Stardancer on Smashwords sometime in late August, which means that it will be available for more formats. This also means that it will no longer be a Kindle exclusive title, and I will be removing it from Kindle Unlimited on August 15, when its current Kindle Select term ends. If you’re reading it via KU, make sure you finish by that date. (Although I’m actually not sure how that works, come to think of it — do KU books vanish from Kindles when their terms end? Hmmmmm.)

So that’s where we stand currently on things. So much time! So little to do! (Wait…scratch that, reverse it.)

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Six Months of Stardancing

So, I released Stardancer six months ago today! Time for a bit of reflection.

Obviously I haven’t begun to rival JK Rowling yet, but hey, they didn’t build Rome in a day either. All things in their time…and really, who knows? I’m still feeling my way through this whole process, and I’m quite certain that there are a lot of avenues for promotion that I haven’t even sniffed yet, so hopefully I’ll do better in the future. One thing I’ve always known about the writing gig, and always worth remembering, is that unless you’re basically the writing equivalent of a lottery winner, we’re all playing the long game. It’s about plugging away and hoping for connections; or, as Neil Gaiman put it, “putting messages in bottles and throwing them into the sea and hoping some of them come back”.

The most gratifying thing has been just seeing the reactions come in as people read the book. Every single review or mention I see, every comment I get, is another reminder that there’s this thing I created and I put it out there and people are reacting to it. I’m still at that stage where every single reader who reports back is a magical thing to me, and to everyone who has read the book and commented, Thank you very much! I hope you’ll all stick around for Book II.

And speaking of Book II, it’s almost time to get going in earnest on the final preparations for publication. I’m only a few days away from completing the first draft of Book III, and then it’s time to do another round of edits on Book II. Then will come proofreading and correcting, all in time for my November release date. My amazing cover artist is already planning that aspect, and I’ve got other things to do as well: a back cover blurb, for one.

One thing I can reveal right now, though, is the title. Here it is!

WE HAVE A TITLE!!! #AmWriting #sciencefiction #scifi #spaceopera #books #yalit

Hmmmm! To what does that title refer, and what does it tell us about Book II? Well, it refers to a single line toward the end of Stardancer, which should indicate a thing or two about the focus of Book II.

All right, I gotta get back to work! I have undertaken a “full radio silence” policy on my various social media outlets until I get the draft of Book III finished, so if you’re wondering why I’ve not said much on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, that’s why. I’m getting close, though! Onward and Upward! Zap! Pow!!

Because in my head I'm still twelve. #AmWriting #overalls

(Oh, and by the way, for just a few days only, I’ve priced the Kindle version of Stardancer at $0.99. Get it that cheap while you can! It’s good, I promise!)

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A few things

Just a couple of items about progress and whatnot!

1. I’m nearing the final stretch of PRINCESSES III.

Stay on target! Stay on target! PRINCESSES III should be done soon!

I’m not sure how my writing pace will keep up, because I have a couple of complex set pieces to write still, and Big Set Pieces always challenge me. Lots of stop-and-start, some doodling of the setting, back-and-forth, writing-and-deleting, and that sort of thing goes on before I eventually get it right. And then, inevitably, when I work through the manuscript later in the year, I’ll think the whole thing stinks anyway. But I really hope to get this draft done by May 15. (May 11 would be better, because that’s the 6-month anniversary of the STARDANCER release!)

2. My daughter (henceforth referred here, as in other places, as The Daughter) has been reading STARDANCER, and she has opinions on the direction of the series. Which she texts me. At length.

The Daughter has opinions on the direction of PRINCESSES IN SPACE II. #AmWriting

Her opinion has received some backing from other readers! Well, I like teen romance more than she does, apparently, but still, the point is well taken, and without getting too spoilery for my own books, for the most part she needn’t worry. The romance is a part of the overall story, but at no point will it take over and become the main focus. I will offer this much: there is a bit of teen love angst in STARDANCER II: MORE STARS, MORE DANCING (not the actual title), but not a whole lot. It is, though, front-loaded in the book’s first few chapters before other things start happening. I do hope and plan to avoid the trap of allowing love and romance to counteract a character’s agency, because it really does suck when that happens. But more on that this November!

3. I’ve decided that on May 12, I will reveal the Actual Title of PRINCESSES IN SPACE II: TARIANA AND MARGETH’S BOGUS JOURNEY (not the actual title). Stay tuned!

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Thoughts

As I write this, I’m entering the climactic part of the story in PRINCESSES IN SPACE III: PRINCESSES ON PARADE (not the actual title), and as the story starts to wind up, some things have been on my mind. As I’ve noted many a time, I only usually have the vaguest idea what happens in a book when I start writing one, and I half-pants, half-outline my way through it, figuring that an ending will present itself at some point, as will the story’s general flavor. At this point, just about everything that is yet to come is pretty much settled in my mind, and all I have to do is work it from my mind into the computer.

That said, I’m also realizing something else: that this third book in this series is not that much like the first two, other than being an extension of that story. In much the same way, the second book had its own flavor and focus that set it aside from the first book. I think and hope that the fact that I didn’t basically write the same story three times, and that I changed things up in terms of focus and style, will be good for The Song of Forgotten Stars as a series. More than ever I’m thrilled to see this tale slowly unfold!

And now, back to the Startrails….

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Progress Report

So, how are things going? Well, when I’m actively producing a first draft, I track my daily output in a spreadsheet. Here’s a photo of that spreadsheet, from the beginning of March:

Day 4: Fresh! Lots of fresh words going into Book III of late! #AmWriting #takentodaymarch15

Note that I started March with 106,522 words in the book.

As of tonight, here’s where we stand:

Off to a torrid start this month! #AmWriting

So in 36 days I’ve written a little under 45,000 words. Cool!

What does that mean, though , in terms of the book itself? Well, my goal on the first two books in The Song of Forgotten Stars was a first draft of 180K words. Stardancer came in a little under that (but not much), and Princesses II: Electric Boogaloo (not the actual title) came in a little over it (but not much). I am currently expecting Princesses III: Flight of the Bumblebee (not the actual title) to come in over the 180K target by more than Princesses II, but still not by a huge amount. Maybe around 190K. There’s a lot that happens in the final act, and in general, this book is turning out to be the most structurally complex of the series thus far.

Obviously I don’t want to say too much, but seeing the evolution of this book as it’s crystallized in my mind has been really interesting. I’m doing some things differently this time, in terms of narrative structure, that I didn’t do in the first two, and this one has a totally different flavor, as well. I like that each of these books goes to different places, does different things, and focuses on other characters and relationships. I wish I could say more, but you’ll all see what I’m talking about, in November 2016 when Book III comes out!

(But this is funny: when I started the book, I actually knew what the last scene was. Each one of these books ends with something like a Marvel superhero movie post-credits thing that sets up something in the next book, and I knew what this book’s ending cliffhanger was going to be, so I wrote it first, before even starting with Chapter One.

And now, things that have come to me since I started Chapter One have made it necessary for me to rewrite that cliffhanger scene! I love when my own writing surprises me.)

More updates to come! I’ll certainly announce when I’m done with this draft, because when I am, it’s time to start getting Princesses II ready for its November 2015 debut.

So, onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!

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Hank Speaks: How I Edit

(Crossposted to Byzantium’s Shores)

A fellow writer asked, via Instagram, how I go about editing as a writer who generally doesn’t outline at all. Generally speaking, my Inner Editor acts in different ways at different points in the process. Because I don’t feel like writing the phrase “Inner Editor” a whole lot of times, so he has a new name: Hank. Yeah, my Inner Editor sounds like a Hank. He’s an annoying and insistent fellow who is nevertheless always, always right. Seriously, Hank is always right. And even when I think I have him dead to rights, and I’ve caught him in a blatant error…he’s still right.

During the actual writing of the first draft, Hank is required to sit down and shut up, except for instances of the story going in the wrong direction. One of those happened just this morning! I was starting a scene, and for some reason I was badly stalling on it. Sometimes when this happens it’s just my mood, but other times it’s an indicator of something worse going on, and that was the case this time. I put Hank in the corner with a six-pack of beer and some DVDs of 1970s sitcoms, and he was happy for a while, only occasionally looking up to see what I was doing. But as I sat and sat, staring at the screen and then writing a few sentences and then staring some more and scrawling a few more sentences and just a-struggling along, Hank finally let out a giant belch, which is his usual signal that I need to listen to him.

“They’re in the wrong place,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Your characters. They’re in the wrong place. They can’t be there.”

“Why not?”

At this he rolled his eyes, because they answer should have been as clear as day…and it was. There’s a very prime reason why my characters could not be in that location at that time, without something else very inconvenient happening by virtue of one of them being there. The characters in question are looking for a third character who may or may not be a villain and who has certainly gone to ground. So they’re looking for this guy. Problem is, there is a very noticeable physical characteristic about one of these characters that can’t be disguised away, so it follows that they cannot be in this location.

“Thanks, Hank!”

“Whatever.”

That kind of thing is all that Hank is allowed to talk about when I’m writing a first draft. He’s allowed to notice when I’ve taken wrong turns, and he nags louder and louder and louder until I listen. One time, when writing Stardancer, it took me three chapters before I realized that he was right and that I was ignoring him at my book’s peril. Hank’s sense, in moments like these, is for the storytelling. Hank is not allowed, at this point, to bring up anything about grammar or word choice or characterization or scenes that should not be.

When I’m done drafting, into the desk goes the draft (or onto a bunch of electronic storage media), for several months. Then, and only then, do I let Hank have a look.

That’s when he gets out his tools: scissors, hacksaws, chainsaws, butcher knives, meat cleavers, and a fifty-five gallon drum of White-Out.

Yup, Hank’s second trip through the manuscript is a brutal one. That’s when he gets to complain about anything and everything. That paragraph is too long. That paragraph is too short. Using an awful lot of words to say something simple here; but here, what’s the big damn rush? You can get poetic there. Is there a need for that adjective? How the hell did that disgusting adverb get in there? Does this conversation really need to go on this long? You do realize that this character is acting like an idiot here, don’t you?

Those are all very essential things for Hank to spot, but what I like even more are the bits where he says things like: “Hey, this scene here? You don’t set this up very well.” Also, I dig things like when he points out things I hadn’t properly considered, such as random plot elements that don’t end up going anywhere. I tend to have a lot of these as a pantser, as a lot of times I’m writing along and I think, “Maybe this character ends up being important somehow, so lets draw him forth a bit,” and then he disappears completely; then, months later, Hank reads that passage and says, “Yeah, cut this fellow. You don’t do anything with him.” A good example of this is in the early going of Princesses In SPACE!!! Book II: Even Princessier (not the actual title), when I have a character show up who basically does nothing but glower at Princess Tariana. She wonders what his deal is, but he glowers at her a few more times, exits stage left, and…that’s it. Never went anywhere, so out he went when Hank got there.

Hank is also ruthless when he sniffs out passages that were obviously written when I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next, and thus was basically riffing to fill the day’s word quota. Hank ends up getting quite the workout on that second trip through the book…and then he gets another workout at proofreading time, when he’s even more ruthlessly seeking out typos and errors of that sort. Even then, he can’t stop entirely, and he ends up cutting even more useless, needless words along the way. Hank is very good at this, and he’s saved me a lot of grief. Sometimes, once in a great while, Hank will deign to drop me a compliment here or there. Hank is a pretty crusty guy, after all.

Hank is most ruthless, however, during dialogue passages. Boy Howdy, is he ever. He’ll gleefully cut a ten page conversation down to three pages, if he can — and sometimes indeed he can, because I’ve seen him do it. He’ll delete many words from characters’ mouths; he’ll strike down entire speeches. Long talking scenes frustrate Hank, which is probably good because I actually enjoy writing them — maybe a little too much, so it’s useful for Hank to come along and say, “Talk talk talk, that’s all your characters do.” Hank likes action.

Hank also likes clarity. He hates it when I’m vague and when he can’t picture something in his head as I’m describing it. He’ll drill the hell out of me if he’s having a hard time figuring out what I’m describing.

Yeah, I’d be lost without Hank.

What ultimately makes Hank – and therefore my own editing – successful, in my view, is how ruthless I can be when reading my own writing. I’m not sure where this “gift” comes from, but I’ve long had an ability to be very hard on myself, and I think this is essential in appraising one’s own writing. True story: a number of times in my professional career I’ve had a boss come to me, at Performance Review time, and give me a blank form with the instructions that I was to appraise my own performance and then we’d compare notes. Every single time I’ve done this, I’ve painted a much bleaker picture of my own performance than my bosses. Maybe that’s a self-esteem thing, or maybe it’s a perverse sense that if I can be harder on myself than they are, the actual discussion will go better. (Which is, I must admit, what generally happens.)

I don’t approach my manuscripts with the sense that I’m actually not good and that the books are terrible, because I simply don’t think that’s the case. I’ll likely carry to my grave my conviction that with Stardancer I wrote a good book. But I’ll never believe that it can’t be better, and to this day, whenever I peruse that book to look things up, I’ll hear a voice in the background, saying, “Dammit! I shoulda caught that.” It’s Hank, of course. He’s ever trying to improve, which he’ll need to do, assuming that I keep getting better at this for a while.

Whether that’s a good assumption or not, of course, is a matter for time to tell.

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Writing Outside the Lines: on outlines

(Crossposted to Byzantium’s Shores)

New writer acquaintance Briana Morgan has a nice post up about the evils* of outlining:

When I started using them [outlines], I felt trapped, bogged down, and nothing like myself. My whole process felt constrained. I suffocated. In my writing workshops, I was taught not to write without outlines. My professors frowned or scowled when I shunned the thought of planning. “You can’t write like that,” they said. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.” Well, they were half-right.

Outlining doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I tried to fit in with other writers who swear by it, but the process felt forced. I was sure that everyone knew I was faking. My productivity ground to a halt. I put so much pressure on myself to do what everyone else was doing, instead of focusing on what worked for me. Since outlining wasn’t working, I must have been doing it wrong.

I don’t outline either…except for when I do. Heh!

Generally, the writing community seems to have settled on two terms to describe the respective camps: Plotters, referring to those who outline (thereby plotting everything in advance), and pantsers, meaning, those who write by the seat of their pants (or overalls, as the case may be).

So, which am I? For the most part, I’m a pantser. I roughly figure out a starting point for the book, come up with a vague idea for what’s generally supposed to happen, and then I start writing. Sometimes I have an idea of structure for the book beforehand (the current Forgotten Stars novel, Princesses III: The Sequel to Get Equal (not the actual title), has three viewpoint characters after two in Book II and just one in Stardancer), but sometimes I don’t even have that much. How can I go on so little? Well…it’s pretty much what I’ve always done. In my experience, my characters will do things on page 300 that I have no idea are even possible on page 30. New ideas will come to be a third of the way through, and I generally find that those new ideas are usually better than whatever I had already planned. A good idea always trumps the plan, if I even had one.

Here’s the thing: when you write a lot, you come to deeply trust the process upon which you’ve settled. I’m such a pantser that I started writing Princesses III: The Wrath of Spock (not the actual title) without even knowing exactly who my main villain was going to be; then, when he suddenly showed up in a scene that surprised me to have a villain in it, I still had no idea just what he was hoping to accomplish. I had to get to know this guy as my characters did. No doubt this may sound like utter lunacy to many writers, but it works for me. My approach to all this mirrors what Stephen King says in the brilliant On Writing:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

I pretty much completely agree with this. I have a situation: Two Princesses from the planet Gavinar are on their way someplace else but something happens and they wind up on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants see them as fulfillment of prophecy…and they just might be. That’s it. Who are the Princesses? Well, I had to figure that part out. Where’s the planet and what’s the deal with the people living there? Those details showed up, one by one, as I wrote that book and got my Princesses stranded…and then I figured out the planet’s little foibles, some of which I’m still figuring out and being surprised by.

I never would have tried outlining any of that. For Stardancer, I actually did have an idea of how that particular book’s main conflict got resolved in the end, but not so with Princesses II or with Princesses III. I just charged full-speed ahead, because that’s the only way I can work.

Mostly.

Because I do occasionally turn to the outline. Once in a while. Not very often.

And here’s the key: not for very long, in terms of book length.

Sometimes I get stuck, like anybody else. Sometimes I genuinely don’t know what comes next. This actually has two “flavors”, as it were. The first is easy: I get an increasingly persistent sense that I’ve gone in the wrong direction someplace. The fix here isn’t to outline, but rather to backtrack to the most recent spot where I felt things were still going in the right direction and try something else. The second, though, is when I know that what’s happened to this point is right, but I’m just not sure what happens next. Then I might outline a bit, maybe the next few scenes, just to work through some ideas and get a notion of the direction I’m going. This isn’t even always outlining, per se, but mostly a jotting down of ideas.

When I actually sit down to straight-up outline, though, is almost always when I’m nearing the book’s final act and when things are about to get complex. Almost always by this point not only do I know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t do a lot of deviating, either, and if they do, it’s to do something cool that doesn’t really change the “big picture” of the ending. So I outline, very roughly, just to figure out the way the moving parts of the story have to line up: what happens first, what happens second, what this person is doing, how that person will respond, and so on. It’s the writing equivalent of how plumbers will lay out the sections of pipe on the floor, in order, before applying the PVC adhesive or starting to solder things together. That’s it: outlining the sequence, but never the entire story. That, I just can’t do. If I try outlining an entire novel from Chapter 1 to the Epilogue, I can quite simply guarantee that the story will change dramatically by Chapter 5, and the outline will be useless.

And besides…outlining doesn’t feel like writing to me. Outlining always vaguely feels to me like a writing-like activity that doesn’t necessarily lead to actual writing. It feels like all those times on The Brady Bunch when the boys were “fixing” their bikes but rarely riding them anywhere.

So that’s why I don’t outline, except for when I do.

* Outlining isn’t evil. It’s just a practice that some folks do and some don’t.

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Updating Progress!

I really need to make a better effort to keep new material appearing on this site, don’t I? Anyway, I’m trucking along on Book III of The Song of Forgotten Stars (unofficially titled Princesses In SPACE!!! III: More Spacier). This one’s been a bit of a struggle at times, because I had a very odd narrative problem to conquer that I hadn’t encountered before, and it vexed me rather a lot, I must admit. Now, though, I am pretty sure I’m on the way. As of this writing I have a draft of a little over 100,000 words, with my target first-draft word count being 180,000 words.

More to come on all that, but that’s where we are!

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