Tuesday, January 31, 2017

WRITING YOUR NOVEL: Part 3- Slash & Burn (Editing Your Brick into a Book)

Editing your novel
Cut those unnecessary pages and let them fly!
So you've written a novel. Now what? Time to slash and burn....

There once was a photographer who continually submitted the same photo to a magazine despite repeated rejections. Finally, the editor wrote her back and asked, "Why do you keep sending us this photo even though we've told you over and over we aren't going to publish it?"

"That one?" she replied. "Because I had to climb a mountain to get it."

I was taught this anecdote in Creative Writing 101 and it still creeps into my mind every time I sit down to edit. Sometimes you work your ass off on a particular chapter or scene. The idea of just tossing it away like it never happened is almost unbearable. But if you are honest with yourself, and you know it isn't good enough for your project, you just have to let it go.

Slash. Burn. Move on.

Already in this blog series about the novel writing process, I've established that naming yourself a novelist is one of the official symptoms in the American Psychiatric Society's DSM defining insanity, that pre-writing is crucial (and even fun), and that the ultimate goal of your first draft is to write without abandon, to hell with how it sounds.

Now comes the real magic: editing.

Editing is the stage where the chicken scratch that was your rough draft starts to become the calligraphy that will be your finished novel. It's exciting, really, as you get to watch your masterpiece improve every time you open it up.

People ask me how many drafts I go through when writing a novel. It seems non-writers have this idea that you write through a novel beginning to end once and its done. It goes to the publishers as is and hits the shelf a month later. What most people don't understand is that the actual writing, the first draft, is but a mere crumb of a much-larger process, and a writer really shows his mettle during the many overlapping stages of revision. It is hard for me to say how many "drafts" I go through because each pass through the book often entails layer upon layer of editing. Instead of singular drafts, I like to call them "draft cycles."

Here is an example of the draft cycles I endured during my last manuscript:

1. First Draft
Plowed through it and didn't stop to look back. (see part 2 of the series: Surviving the First Draft)

2. Character-by-Character
Since this novel was multiple point-of-view, I broke apart the chapters and flattened it according to character, combing through each character's entire plot arc before moving on to the next. The result was quite shocking. It exposed holes like vast canyons and laid bare how I was using certain stronger characters to prop up weaker ones. I wanted each character to be equally textured, and each of their narratives to force the book's pages to flip like leaves in a howling storm. I took notes about what I liked and disliked on a big picture level and ruminated extensively on how I could maximize the good and minimize the, well, not so good. I expanded their backstories, which helped bring greater depth to each of their stories. Then after implementing my new ideas, I went through and polished their story from start to finish.

3. Chapter-by-Chapter
Putting the book back in its proper order, I focused on each chapter, individually, first reading straight through then sitting back and reflecting and taking notes. What was good about it? Not so good? I forced myself to come up with five "bold ideas" that could make the chapter better. No idea was too crazy or too experimental. Though more often than not only one (or sometimes none) of these ideas ended up landing in the chapter, pushing it to at least five forced me to consider possibilities that hadn't yet occurred to me. After this "brainstorming" session, I went back and implemented the best ideas and followed that with another polishing copyedit from start to finish.

4. Paragraph-by-Paragraph
This was a tedious one. I split the book up by paragraphs and turned the entire text red. I then analyzed each paragraph individually in random order, turning completed paragraphs back to black. Looking at each paragraph randomly ensured I was focused only on the writing from a sentence and paragraph level and not thinking (at this point) about big picture issues, like plot and character, things I should have already fixed. I made a goal of 20 paragraphs a day and created a spreadsheet so I could enter how many paragraphs I completed and watch it spit out a slowly growing percentage of how much of my novel I had edited (yeah, my brain works like that). Once my whole manuscript was black again, I put it back together and went back through the whole novel yet again from the beginning and polished it off so the newly editing paragraphs flowed together smoothly.

5. On Paper
Now that I had spent a staggering amount of time first looking at big picture problems, then gradually focusing on smaller and smaller portions, it was time to put it on paper and see what it looked like. Using a print-on-demand company (I used Lulu.com this time, though I've used others in the past), I designed a cover, formatted the book and printed a single copy just for myself. For the next week I waited impatiently as FedEx updates tracked the book's slow progress across the country. I was so excited the day it arrived, like a kid succumbing to the wondrous joy of Christmas morning. Holding the book in my hands, I felt closer than ever to seeing my idea a reality. I loved holding it, smelling it, flipping the pages with my thumb. But the joy was short lived and the time to start the next phase was upon me. I did something that felt like blasphemy: I wrote in the book. One page at a time, I read through, filling the blank spaces with ruthless marginalia. I slashed out extraneous lines, circled mediocre words, and generally exhumed a staggeringly numerous amount of problems that I was shocked still existed.Once the read though was complete, I went back and made the necessary changes. Then it was back to the beginning for yet another tedious copyedit to polish my changes.

6. Put it out there
Back to the POD company. This time I printed five copies and bribed five friends to read my work and give notes. Voracious fantasy readers were good, writers were better. People with editing experience were best. It was worth a small budget for Amazon gift cards or some other incentive (like beer) to ensure my editors were happy and well taken care of. As a starving artist, I hated spending money but I had to remember that if I were to pay a professional editor it would cost hundreds, probably thousands, of dollars. Once I collected this invaluable criticism, it was back to computer to implement the necessary corrections. I added scenes, slashed ruthlessly at what needed to go, and ended it all with, you guessed it, another cover-to-cover round of polishing.

7. The deep copyedit
By now I hated my book. I knew huge portions word-for-word, even caught myself quoting them at parties, only remembering after seeing the blank looks on my friends' faces that nobody besides me knew what I was talking about. I wanted nothing more than to be done with it and to submit it to the world and let the royalties pour in. Nope, still not ready. It's time for yet another draft cycle: the deepest copyedit yet. This was my last chance to polish it for the world. Knowing that prospective agents and editors would soon be reading the words, I found myself looking at it differently. How did I not see how cliché this section was? Or how prosaic that chapter had turned out? Verbs that needed to be sharp as a poniard were as dull as a butter knife. I performed a broad pass through followed by sickeningly time-consuming sentence-by-sentence edit.

This is just an idea of what I went through with my last novel before I started worrying about queries and agents (a process still in progress). You may find that some differing variation of this type of editing works much better for you. I would be happy to hear your ideas, things that I might be able to experiment with on my next process.

So how do you know when it is done? A great book on the novel-writing process called How to Write a Damn Good Novel said (and I'm paraphrasing), "You know you're done when you're so tired of your book even the very thought of opening it makes you physically ill. Any changes you make at this point won't make it better, just different."

So basically edit until your book actually makes you sick....

Thanks for reading this part of my Writing Your Novel blog series. If you enjoyed it, found it useful, or just plain want to hate on me, consider commenting or signing up for my weekly mailing list. Not only will I love you forever if you sign up, but I will reciprocate by reading, signing up for and actively commenting on your blog as well. I blog about everything from the novel writing process to horse gait and more.

All posts in this blog series:

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Writing Fantasy Taught Me About Horses

I come from a family rich in ranching history but I'm terrified of getting bucked off a horse.

Or kicked. I've seen the roped muscles of a horse's legs flexing and bulging as it marched along a mountain trail. There's more power in just one of those thighs than in three of me. I can imagine, with the full verisimilitude that is every writer's curse, how it would feel if that steel-shoed hoof directed its full angst into the fragile architecture of my knee. With an audible split of bone and sinew, my day, week and probably month would be thoroughly ruined.

Needless to say, I don't know squat about horses.

Of course, horses play a key role in almost every high fantasy ever written simply because, since some form of pseudo-medieval setting is essentially a requirement of the genre, they are the only non-mechanical, non-magical means of relatively quick transportation. Working on a project with the goal of a realistic portrayal of fine details requires a painstaking degree of research. Obviously, some whetting of my non-existent horse knowledge was required. Most of this research was centered around horse gait.

what writing fantasy taught me about horses
A horse in a four-beat walk gait (PD US)
What follows is a basic understanding of the specific types of horse gait. Perhaps it can augment the realism of your writing project as it did for mine:

A walk is a horse's slowest pace. It is a four-beat gait that averages around 4 mph (about 6.5 km/h). There is even a specific sequence to a horse's walk: left hind, left forward, right hind, right forward. A horse's head will also bob up and down to help it maintain balance. See the gif to right for an illustration.

Forget your scouts and messengers hauling ass across the kingdom at breakneck speeds, this is as fast as your riders are going to travel (unless of course you have one of the Mearas, like Shadowfax, with wizard-like wit and stamina). A trot is known as a horse's "working gait" as they can sustain it for very long periods of time. It averages around 8 mph (13 km/h). It is a two-beat gait, as the horse moves its legs together in diagonal pairs.

The canter is like a slow gallop, except it is a three-beat gait that averages 10-17 mph (16-27 km/h). Like a gallop it cannot be sustained. The term canter is thought to be short for "Canterbury gallop." It would behoove you not to make the mistake I once made and interchange this word for its homonym "cantor," which has a very different meaning....
a horse's 4-beat gallop
A horse's 4-beat gallop (PD US)

It is a common trope (and complete falsity) of Hollywood that a horse can sustain a gallop for long periods of time. In fact, like a human sprinter, a horse can only gallop in short intense bursts. This is exactly why the track for the Kentucky Derby is only 1.25 miles long. The gallop is a four-beat gait that averages around 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h) with the fastest ever recorded clocking in around 55 mph (88 km/h). The gif to the right illustrates the gallop clearly, showing the four-beat pattern and the moment of "suspension" when all four hooves are off the ground.

There it is, the basics of horse gait. The things we learn in the labor of our books! If you are a thorough researcher, you probably knew all of this already. Or perhaps you didn't care. It's fantasy, after all, why would it have to be accurate? For me, however, a bit of realism in certain aspects of a novel helps suspend my disbelief for others.

I have other rambling, barely coherent blog posts on things like pre-writing for your novel, surviving your rough draft and more. Sign up for my weekly email updates and I will love you forever (or least reciprocate by checking out and signing up for your blog!)

BONUS: Here is a video of a cat who spent too much time around a barn watching dressage horses:

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

Friday, January 27, 2017

WRITING YOUR NOVEL: Part 2- Surviving the First Draft

The first draft of your novel
This is the second part in a blog series about strategies for writing a novel. Having already established in part one that the very fact you have chosen to write a novel calls into question your sanity, your social life, and your prospects for the future, let us move on now to the process itself.

Now that your pre-writing is accomplished, it's time to get down to real business: your first draft.

Writing your first draft can be a source of great joy or of terrible anguish. Many aspiring novel writers get a few thousand words in and fall apart. It's harder than they thought. It takes too much time. They don't know where to go. If you find yourself struggling constantly with moving ahead and constantly write yourself into a corner, perhaps you need to take a step back and return to pre-writing. Pre-writing can help you make your characters more vibrant, more complicated, and can throw you into an ocean of ideas as limitless as your vast imagination allows.

My first, and probably best, advice on the rough draft is simple: just write it. Don't worry about your verbs, your sentences, your chapters. Don't go back and edit. Push on all the way to the end. Be creative. Be bold. Be experimental. There is nothing you can't go back and fix later in editing. And believe me, you will be doing a LOT of editing.

A few bits of advice that work for me and might just work for you.

What to do when you get stuck
Spinning the tires in the quagmire happens to me with some frequency during the first draft of a novel. You know what I mean, you're cranking along, producing page after page of brilliance then all of the sudden it's like rounding a corner on the highway and a rockslide has come down ahead of you. Aaack! Do you back up? Do you get out the shovel and start clearing the mess? That depends....

For me, the best strategy for dealing with this scenario is to put the novel aside. No need to force it. Close your computer, put down the pen. Tiptoe backwards away from the scene of the crime. Go about your day. Take a hike. Even go to your day job if you have to. But as you plod though your regular life, keep your story and where you are stuck in the back of your mind. The perfect idea or detour to get you back on track might just come to you by surprise. You know it when you feel it, that perfect solution to your problem. It makes you buzz from toe to head. Keep a pocket journal with you (I almost always do) so you can jot down the idea(s) before they slip away.

As soon as you can, get back to the writing.

Another suggestion that sometimes works is a simple change of venue. If you always write in the same place, your office or bedroom, move to a different location. Go to the library or even just to a different room in your house. Amazing how a fresh setting can change your attitude. Sometimes I just have to put aside the computer, and take out a pen and paper. A quiet place next to a creek or copse of quiet trees can recharge that flow of ideas.

Daily Word Goals
Some writers hate the idea of a daily word goal, saying it makes writing too much of a chore and puts them at risk of giving up. If you find that to be true, don't do it. We write because we love to, and the last thing you want is to make yourself hate the process. Then you'll never finish. For me, however, a daily word goal keeps me on track. It forces me to write even on days when I'm "too tired" and probably wouldn't. At the end of each day, I write down exactly how many words I get through on a calendar so my progress is constantly staring me in the face. Days when I don't hit my goal, I force myself to make up for it the next day. Days when I go over, I congratulate myself but erase it from my head and start all over at zero when morning comes. One-thousand words has always been a useful number. With that, you can write a 90,000 word rough draft in three months. Some days I'll go over, even as high as 6,000 words or more on a great day. Others I'm stuck at 400 and can't believe how hard it seems. But taking it one small goal at a time keeps me from getting overwhelmed and keeps me from getting derailed and giving up.

That's it for part two of my Writing Your Novel blog series. To sum up my advice, getting through that first draft comes down to setting achievable daily goals and not letting yourself get bogged down in editing. Keep writing until you reach the end and don't let yourself look back.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

Monday, January 23, 2017

WRITING YOUR NOVEL: Part 1- Forging the Idea

Ideas for writing your novel
You chose to write a novel? You chose pain? Hardship? Agony? Months, maybe years, of thankless hard work almost assuredly doomed to end in heartbreak?

What were you thinking?

Okay, okay. In all seriousness, writing a novel can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your creative life. You get to feel the immense joy of forging a world, filling it with interesting people, and disappearing into it at will. You get to vicariously launch on an adventure that would almost certainly never happen in your normally banal daily existence. You get to feel like almost like a god, channeling a universe so real it's like you are grasping it out of the very ether. And if you are really good, your work, your world, your characters, could very well outlive you.

But there is a dark side. The things those who have never tried to write a novel could never conceive. The sagging social life. The hours writing, erasing, re-writing and erasing again. The torment of oscillating between knowing you are the next Tolkien, then coming to grips with the fact you are not. And then, once you think your hard work, your blood, sweat, and soul, is polished and ready for the world, you hit the rejections. Rejection after rejection like endless waves breaking on a storm-tossed sea. Hundreds of them. Beating you down until you start to wish you had never started this torturous journey in the first place.

Congratulations, writer, your epic journey has begun....

If you are like me, this curse started with an idea. It was powerful! POW! Like a crack of lightning it brought you almost to your knees! Probably in the most unexpected place: standing on the subway, walking to work, sitting on the toilet. Eureka! In a brilliant moment of unbridled inspiration, you suddenly became a novelist. And your idea was so potent, so real, it had to be fate. The tides of the world must surely have shifted to make way for you and your story. It was going to change everything.

That's great! Now what? How do you turn that blinding moment of ecstatic creation into the brilliant, bestseller you are sure it is destined to be? Blindly write on into the darkness with no map? Or like Bilbo Baggins, dragged from his front door towards the Lonely Mountain wishing at every step he'd just brought his damn hat? Perhaps that will work. But probably not.

Stumbling into the void with no guide, no compass, no Gandalf, is probably the quickest way to find yourself into the cook pot of trolls. Then the dream is over. No bestseller. No everlasting masterpiece. There must a better way.

I think there is.

It's called pre-writing. Don't skip it! You need a plan. You need a world. You need people in this world and situations thwarting their every step. It's time for your idea to hatch.

Don't fret. I know you want to get to the writing, the good stuff, but to me this is one of the most fun stages of the whole process. You get to create your world. And you don't yet have to worry about a thing. Not if your sentences flow or if your verbs are sharp or your chapters flowing. Just pure joyous creation!

Here a few suggestions for pre-writing that have worked for me and might also work for you!

Ponder your main characters in depth. Start with the basics. What do they look like? What are their strengths? Weaknesses? What motivates them? In a broad sense, how do you want them to change? It is not a bad idea to think already about your marketing, those future query letters you will one day write to agents and publishers. Readers (and editors by extension) want character-driven fiction. What makes this character interesting? What makes them unique among the thousands and thousands of other characters in the vast canon of literature? How can they stand out above all those others? I suggest writing several pages of description and backstory. Very quickly, especially when you get a few characters deep, ideas will pour in that you had never considered without your pre-writing. You'll discover natural tensions and plot points that seem inevitable when you put your now-complex character in your equally complex world. The deeper you mine, the richer the gold. You should always know more about your characters than you ever reveal to your reader.

Even if you are writing literary realism, conceiving of the world in which your book is set is vital to making your novel textured and believable. Deeply consider your setting. Is it somewhere you know? In contemporary times? If so, take a journal into the heart of it and observe. Notice details you never have seen before. How do the people around you react to them? Sit in a coffee shop and perk your ears to every conversation, one at a time. Be specific. And what if you are writing fantasy or sci-fi? Your task is even more interesting. You have to create a believable system of politics, government, currency, culture. It has to be deep. It has to be specific. If you want the reader to suspend their disbelief, to buy into the lies they know you are about to tell them, you have to sell it and sell it like a pro. You better be good! Draw maps, write a historical timeline going back to the dawn of time. Create emblems for nations, banners for competing Houses, family trees with twisted branches. Make yourself sick with detail until you can't stand it any more.

I suggest doing this last, because once you know your characters and know your world, ideas will pour into your book so fast you will barely be able to contain them. Some people like immensely detailed outlines, claiming it allows a controlled rough draft that will feel more polished when they get to that bone-chilling climax. Others, like Stephen King, prefer to shoot from the hip, hoping  that spontaneity will move their story in directions they could never have imagined otherwise. My advice? Blend the two. Keep your first outline vague, that way you have a map to guide your action so everything, every scene is unified in its aim of bringing your world to its appropriate greatness. Then, as you reach each new scene, a more detailed outline for the next few thousand words will help keep you from writing yourself into a corner.

That's it for this first post. Writing a novel is one of the hardest, yet most gratifying things you will ever do. One person's method will obviously not work for everyone, and you will without a doubt forge your own strategy and hone it with every bit of skill you possess. If you take anything from this essay, which has run far longer than I intended, I hope it is this: write because you love it. Write with passion. And write with inspiration. Even if the book does not become a bestseller, you will be richly rewarded by your wildest dreams.

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Read Part 2 in the series, Surviving the First Draft.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

Saturday, January 21, 2017

My Book Idea Hits #2 on the SOOP Hot List for the Week!

My synopsis for Denouement hit #2 for the week on Something or Other Publishing, LLC! Great start! Hope it keeps getting votes. Would be a great opportunity to get some exposure, build my author platform and perhaps get a publishing contract!

If you haven't had chance, please check out the website, the synopsis, (and if it strikes you as interesting) vote!

View and vote here:

You can check out my page for this book here including the prologue and some excerpts. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Manuscript on Something or Other Publishing for Vote!

One of my manuscripts is up for voting on Something or Other Publishing. I discovered this publisher via Twitter and found their idea of "democratic selection" intriguing. If the book synopsis gets enough votes they will give me a publishing contract! It's a long shot (it takes a lot of votes) but I thought why not? Vote for the idea if it sounds interesting to you! Anybody can vote, you don't have to be a member on the site or anything.

Here is the link to Something or Other's website and my book synopsis:


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Too Long for a Breakout Novel

Well no one ever thought getting a novel published was easy. Or at least, anyone who did think that had never actually tried.

After a few months trying to seek representation for my fantasy epic, I have learned one important lesson: word count matters! Yes, my manuscript is long (275,000 words) partially because that is what I thought was required of the genre. Compared to most of the installments of the Wheel of Time and all of the weighty volumes of A Song of Fire and Ice, 275K words seemed right in the ballpark.

Apparently, however, almost no publisher, and therefore literary agent, is willing to take on a manuscript of such length for a breakout writer. Everything I have read on agents' blogs and discussion forums suggests that a first time novelist should aim for around 100,000 words. Fantasy manuscripts, however, can be allotted a bit more, perhaps as many as 150,000 words. Still a far cry from the brick that I have created.

What now? After so much work I had begun to feel as if the end was in sight. But as I summited what I thought was the final hill, I discovered only many more miles of rock-strewn, treacherous terrain still in front of me.

So I am faced with two possibilities: edit it down nearly in half, or start all over with a new project and save that for once I have established myself.

Cutting my manuscript in half seemed like the most viable option, for after almost three years of work I couldn't fathom starting over from the beginning, but when I sat down at the cutting board, I just couldn't part with any of it. Which appendage would I most like to lose?

So now I have opted for option two: start over. But with what? The idea mill must churn once again.