Category Archives: edit

As I sit here, waiting….

…for my beta-readers to digest Princess of Fire (and I stand by with antacid), I’m going forward with further changes that I know need to be done. These are the kind of fiddling corrections I thought the third draft would deal with– the small inconsistencies and errors that creep into any lengthy work of fiction. Want some samples? I thought you’d never ask–

1. Where’s Kathy’s glasses? Believe it or not, whether or not Kathy’s got her glasses on her nose is important (this was particularly true in Princess of Shadows, where they were a major plot element).

2. At the moment I have Kathy telling two different people to do the same thing in three different places in the narrative. If you don’t straighten that sort of thing out, at the very least your protagonist looks, well, challenged.

3. At different locations in the book I call a certain physical space a situation room, an operations room and an operations center. I think Emerson said something negative about consistency, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what he was thinking of.

4. Throughout the book I have three sets of running numbers that anchor much of the action. I have to do a find on the critical word for each and make sure they increment correctly and come to the right total at the end. Normally, I’m not this anal, but I have a terror of some reader coming back and saying “On page 321 you said fifteen thousand and sixty-three, and on page 425 you said fifteen thousand fifty-three, can’t you count…?” C’mon, authors are only human. No, I mean it, we really are.

So, this is how I’m keeping myself occupied while I sweat out waiting for my beta-readers. This is always a nerve-wracking time for me– my baby is being looked at by strangers for the first time. Well, not actually strangers, but eyes other than mine. It makes my hands shake, especially since I’m not too sure the little tyke is actually that appealing….

Later.

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Boy, am I glad that’s over…The third draft of Princess of Fire

I have finally, by the grace of Almighty God, finished the third draft/punch-list edit of Princess of Fire, and copies are going out to my beta readers. As with every other aspect of this novel, this phase of editing turned out to be a lot more arduous than I anticipated. So much so, in fact, that I am questioning my usual editing process.

My normal way of editing a story or novel, which I have discussed before, is to draft the novel and then perform successive read-throughs and make changes and corrections until I have a coherent story and a clean narrative. Over time I have added a punch-list edit and beta readers, but it’s the same basic process– re-reading the manuscript and winnowing out the problems. The theory is that, by the time I get to the third and fourth drafts, I should be dealing with mostly minor issues.

This time around, however, reading through the novel for the third time, I found myself stumbling over all sorts of serious problems– bad grammar, passive language, convoluted sentences, inconsistent place and proper names, dialogue that did not serve the purpose I intended, repetitious information and, most critically, issues with the action in the middle of the book, in which important events did not link together properly. If I didn’t know better, I might have sworn that I hadn’t even touched the manuscript.

But of course I did, and I’ve got the ink-stained pages to prove it. At a later date it might be productive for me to review the red-pen changes and compare them with the third draft changes, to see if I can discern what I did catch and what I didn’t, and why. Short-term, such a review will not help me much with getting Princess of Fire finished and launched out into the world.

Aside from the distinct possibility that I am just a terrible editor, I think a large part of why the manuscript was still so infected with problems may lie with the haphazard and disjointed way the first draft came together. There were parts of this story I attacked four or five times, from different angles, trying to get it pulled together, and I think that left its mark on the draft.

On the other hand, it may be that my initial read-throughs were ineffective because I knew that I would be reading the novel much more closely on the third pass and I didn’t push as hard as I should have. Either way, it may be that I need to seriously rethink my editing process. More on that in future posts.

The positive aspect of all of this is that I am confident I have now created a very clean, close-to-final draft. Assuming my beta readers find nothing major, I probably will need to double-check a few items, and possibly tweak one minor character, and then I will be ready to publish, probably at the end of this month or in early August. For a novel that has gone through so many ups-and-downs, that is a very happy thought.

Editing truths

I am waist-deep into the next phase of editing Princess of Fire, in which I work up a punch-list of errata. As this basically entails re-reading the novel for the third or fourth time, it is also another opportunity to catch remaining text errors and lingering bad grammar that I somehow missed on my first two passes.

There are certain truths to editing any long work–

1. Spell-check is a problematic tool. It’s basically stupid– you have to tell it what’s acceptable (mine doesn’t recognize words I consider perfectly correct– e.g., “snockered” and “annal”), and then fight off its attempts to correct grammar that is just fine (thinking in a regional dialect is a hindrance here). On top of that, it will fail to catch correctly spelled words that are out of place or used incorrectly. I cringe when I hear new writers talk about spell-check as if it’s the beginning and end of their editing process. Nope, not even close.

2. Instead, you have to re-read and re-read and re-read your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore, and then re-read it again. Read it to see how it flows, read it to see if the plot holds together, read it word-by-word to see they make any sense whatsoever. Each time you do, you need to find some way to see it with different eyes, even if it’s just hanging upside-down off the end of your kitchen table. Read it out loud, or sing it to the tune of “My Favorite Things”. Anything.

Personally, I’ve found that making a Createspace digital proof PDF of the manuscript really helps me spot lingering text errors and weak sentences–

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Apparently seeing the novel in something resembling book format is helpful for me. No, I haven’t analysed it– I just know it works.

(By the way, in the latest edit, I’ve fixed the justification on the Robert Burns quote. No need to yell at me about it.)

3. In that same vein, it is essential that at some point you get someone else’s eyes on the work– and not your mother, nor your spouse, unless they are the sort who can tell you the unvarnished truth and not care that they’ve left you a pitiful, blubbering wreck on the living room couch. In an ideal world, those eyes would belong to a professional editor. In the real world I live in, most professional editors– in other worlds, editors who actually know what they’re doing and charge accordingly– would be competing for my money with my medical insurance. And that means they’d lose. If you can afford a professional editor, by all means, hire one, and then seriously consider their advice. But not everyone has that kind of wherewithal.

Instead, I have to rely on beta readers. I have a couple of very good readers, and I’m recruiting more. It’s not a perfect approach, but it’s considerably better than nothing. One way or the other, there just is no substitute for the feedback of someone who has not read the novel five times and whose familiarity with the text doesn’t exceed their familiarity with their own spouse.

The point– other eyes multiply your success.

4. Be merciless. Even in the later stages of an edit, you will find material you don’t need, or which can be cut down to size. Kill or shrink as needed. Trimming excess from a text, even late in the game, should give you a warm fuzzy. If it doesn’t– if you get sentimental and defensive about every word you’ve written– then, Grasshopper, you have a serious problem as a writer. Please, please, re-thunk your thinking.

5. Eventually, you have to quit screwing around with the damn thing and either send it out to an editor or agent, or self-publish. Here’s a hard truth– it’s never going to be perfect. There are authors who fiddle and fiddle and fiddle with a work, and never overcome the terror of being imperfect. Eventually, you have to surrender to the fact that your piece falls short of what you had in your head. Embrace that short-fall– it just means you’re human. Send your work out into the breathing world scarce half-made up, if you have to, and move on to the next project.

That’s being a writer.

A not-so-short note re: Princess of Fire– a milestone passed….

I have finally, finally, finally finished inputting the hard-copy changes for Princess of Fire. This should not have taken three weeks, but it is done. In the process I re-wrote a major piece of action from scratch, and substantially tightened another section. Net word count didn’t change much– about 134,000 to 133,000– but the end-product is, I think, a good deal tighter. The book is now, essentially, in its final form.

There are a few formatting issues I need to deal with before going to the next step, chief among them removing all hard-returns I inserted as breaks between sections. Such extraneous hard-returns cause problems with Kindle formatting, so I have to go through and remove them, and use after-paragraph spacing instead. It’s a tedious task, but it has to be done.

(Why didn’t you do it while you wrote the story, Mr. Daniel? Because when I’m writing I’m flying too low and fast to worry about precise formatting issues. Besides, I generally don’t know exactly where section breaks are going to fall before the red-pen changes are done. So there.)

Once that’s done, I will create a paginated PDF via Createspace that will allow me to pin down lingering issues (“eek, a soft-return!!!”). From the PDF I create a punch-list of errata for correction. There may also be a couple of small additional scenes– a couple of hundred words each, at most– that I may want to insert, if I decide they enhance the story. This phase will essentially constitute my third complete read-through of the novel. As far as I’m concerned, reading your own work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore is essential to getting it right. Easy? No. The life of a writer is never easy. Give up that delusion right now.

Once the punch-list is complete, the novel will go to my beta-readers. Assuming they are not completely revolted and demand massive changes, it will be a few short steps from inputting the beta-corrections to publication. One lingering task that will need to be completed before-hand is for me to write an excerpt from Princess of Stars for inclusion in Princess of Fire. I’m in the process of pulling that together right now. Once it’s done, I may post it on WordPress for feedback.

Whew. To sum up, I am probably more than eighty percent through a long, painful process. There are a few more miles to go, but considering that there were points last summer when I thought I would never finish this novel, I’m feeling pretty good. If the Lord tarries and aliens don’t invade, Princess of Fire should be online on Amazon sometime before September.

Hopefully….

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PS– already found a soft-return in the process of removing extra hard returns–

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These hidden little disasters play merry hob with e-book formatting, as they insert a generally unwanted line-break. They must die….

It’s ALIVE!!!– well, almost….

I have been a little delayed actually creating the hard-copy of Princess of Fire for my line-edit. In trying to tidy it up before printing I realized that there were a couple of remaining gaps, and, more critically, that the action at a particular point in the story had all the tension of a well-cooked noodle. I took a few days to try to ratchet the suspense, and while I’m not yet perfectly happy with the solution, it’s good enough for me push on ahead.

And here it is–

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and, what the heck, a sample page–

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(My apologies for the picture quality– my digital camera is lousy, not to mention bad).

The trick of printing the manuscript out in landscape, arranged in two columns with a smaller font than the final draft, is a trick I learned years ago in my over-the-transom days, to save both ink and paper. Makes it a little more convenient carrying it on the bus, as well.

The hard-copy edit has always been important to me– for some reason I catch most of my weak grammar and cliches here. Reading it through in hard copy also helps me locate and think about remaining weak spots.

It’s also a clear sign that I am making real progress toward the final product. That’s always a serious morale booster.

Now all I have to do is locate my red pen….

Bad Habits- a short Princess of Fire update

I am more than halfway through Pass One on the second draft of Princess of Fire. “Pass One” consists of my first read-through of the novel, in which I locate gaping holes, timeline inconsistencies, and such-like major structural and narrative problems. My progress has been slow, but I seem to be getting there.

Pass Two will consist mostly of fixing the larger holes and inconsistencies (many smaller ones I’ve fixed as I’ve gone, which has contributed to my slower pace). Once that is done, I will buy a new ink cartridge for my printer, run off a hard copy, and perform the line/red-pen edit. A lot of work still ahead.

Before I create the hard-copy version, however, I must conduct a complete, thorough, and utterly merciless search-and-destroy mission for the word “felt”. I use it entirely too much. Likewise adverbs, adjectives and “was”.

I am, in fact, at war with a host of my own bad writing habits. One of the problems with starting to write in a serious manner later in life is that you have to unlearn a mass of stupid/wrong/bad ideas and habits that inhibit good writing. Or, at least, I’ve had to. And not only has the learning process been slow (I mean, c’mon, I started doing this when Shrub’s father was President), but most of the habits are still automatic to me– especially that “felt” four-letter word. This is probably an indication of my native writing talents (low to “is the needle moving?”).

Thank God for find and replace.

More bulletins to follow.

Editing is a wonderful thing, even when you find icky stuff, or, a few thoughts on exposition

I am now about two chapters into the second draft edit of Princess of Fire. That’s around 13,000 words corrected for gross deficiencies, inconsistencies and obvious grammatical crimes, which, for me, is the main purpose of the second draft. In all, those 13,000 words represent about ten percent of the whole book. A fair piece of work for a couple of days.

But I have already turned up one major problem. Somehow, without intending to, I basically turned Chapter Two into one of the most blatant info-dumps in the history of sci-fi– and, brothers and sisters, that is saying something.

I distinctly remember feeling uneasy about the chapter when I wrote it, but under the principle of getting the first draft down without regard to its quality, I wrote the damn thing and moved on. Now, revisiting it, I can see it’s a blatantly clumsy attempt to tie up loose-ends from Princess of Shadows. Worse, for the most part it’s Kathy rehashing the past six months in her head, double-clumsy. It’s the sort of thing you read, and then afterwards, mentally, it’s as if you’ve been eating chalk.

The problem of conveying information to the reader, exposition, is a thorny one. Novelists have it a little easier than screenwriters, but it’s still an issue. There is nothing sillier, or more deadly to the story, than two characters sitting around telling each other what they already know– the dreaded “As you know, Bob” approach. This is generally considered the mark of an amateur, but I have seen published novels by big-name authors doing variations on this (one certain sci-fi author, not to be named, basically has his characters sitting around agreeing with one another– three or four books of that sort of thing and I was ready to drive nails into my head with a ball-peen hammer. I no longer read this author, out of self-preservation).

Having a character who’s a stranger to things is one solution to this problem. In the first Divine Lotus book I got away with a lot of direct exposition because Kathy was new to the Jauthur universe and had to have a lot of things explained to her. Peter Weir used this technique rather artfully in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World by the presence of Stephen Maturin, ship’s physician, who keeps having to have nautical terms explained to him (and thus, the audience).

Another technique is “incluing”, which undertakes to weave the needed information into the narrative in bits and pieces and by techniques other than stopping the whole story in its tracks. I favor this approach, as it seems far more artful– but, obviously, I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

And then there is the idea that it is okay to leave a certain amount of information to the imagination of the reader. Readers can and will fill in many gaps, and doing so will invest them more deeply in the story. You just have to make sure the gaps you’re leaving open don’t involve really critical information, for example, the gender of your protagonist (unless, of course, their gender has no bearing on the story. If so, have at it). However, many writers, and not just newbies, don’t seem to trust their readers at all– which says more about the writers than the readers.

As for Princess of Fire, I’ve already have an idea of where I can shift some of the information, and there’s probably more that’s actually non-essential and which I can leave out. What remains will, I hope, constitute a legitimate flashback. I should be able to straighten this out without too much difficulty.

But in the meantime…chalk. Bleech.

Another self-critique of “Horse Tamer”

Horse Tamer is now at about 60,000 words. If this were a normal novel, or even a normal first draft of a novel, I would be deep into the main action of the story at this point. As I’ve previously noted, however, this is not a normal first draft, and it’s getting weirder by the chapter. I have, most incontinently and without a trace of proper narrative discipline, allowed myself to luxuriate in the process of building out the world and my cast of characters, using an inordinate amount of time to do what would, in a finished novel, take perhaps one-third the number of words. I have one or two important characters I haven’t even introduced yet. And poor Ana, who is to be (I mean it) a major player in the overall story, hasn’t even been seen in the last nine chapters! If I were to present this mess to an editor, they would not only be justified in rejecting it, but in having me shot at dawn. Without a blindfold.

Fortunately, the saving grace here is that this is a blog, on which no one has to pay to read my ramblings. The freedom the blog has given me to take my time constructing my narrative has, however, allowed me to indulge a very bad habit– blathering on without regard to pacing. Complaints have, in previous times, been lodged against certain other of my novels with regard to their pacing. With Horse Tamer, so far it appears that pacing is standing out in the snow, shivering and holding a tin cup. Obviously, if I were ever to submit this for actual publication, that issue would have to be rectified.

In terms of specific issues, I continue to worry that I am not conveying Mankin’s emotional conflict adequately. However, more than just trying to find a balance in portraying his grief, it belatedly occurs to me that I should be giving him more emotional colors, so to speak. Grief comes in many shades– sadness, rage, depression, addiction, promiscuity, violence. Aside from his initial attempt to turn himself into kitty-chow, Mankin showed a bit of rage toward his grandfather in Chapter Two. Since then, however, he has been distressingly monochromatic. I need to think about how to fix that.

In addition, I don’t think I have very adequately conveyed the fact that Mankin has more going on in his noggin than just the loss of Alektl and their daughter. He’s experiencing a certain amount of PTSD, but more than that, I’ve had it in mind that Mankin is haunted by one thing in particular that happened in battle. So far, however, I haven’t dropped more than one or two hints about it. Ideally, all of this should be going on at the same time, so it doesn’t feel as if I’m tacking on issues. This would be a problem for a second-draft correction.

I’ve already mentioned Ana being AWOL. That absence will be rectified soon (I hope). The one other issue I will mention at this point is that I have a growing sense I have spent too much time telling about, rather than showing, the internal conflicts between parties and classes in Venia. There is, indeed, yet more to show, and I need to think about how best to do it. In story terms, showing, as opposed to telling, is a matter relaying the information as an aspect of character and action, rather than just having someone blathering about it. I took a tentative step in this direction when I introduced Tacitus Plenor a few chapters back, but I need to do more.

Hopefully the reader will find some entertainment value in all this, despite its desperately unfinished state. This is, essentially, an experiment in the creation of a first draft, done in public, with on-going critiques as it happens. Certainly, I’ve never done anything like this before. Having said that, I confess I have been enjoying writing this story and finally seeing Mankin and all the other characters I’ve had in my head for so long come to life, however imperfectly. In and of itself, that’s worth something.

My own critique of “Horse Tamer”, so far

I just took a count and I am 41,000 words into Horse Tamer, which is fairly remarkable for a novel for which I am creating one comparatively short chapter every week or two, while I’m making progress on another novel. This is, in fact, the first time I have ever tried to essentially write two novels at the same time. (If anyone needs proof that I am basically fruit-loops, you need look no further).

Looking back over what I have done so far, I can see certain issues emerging with the story, problems which, if this were a normal first draft, would either be items to mark down for future correction or to be dealt with by means of mid-course changes. But this is far from a normal first draft. I am uncertain whether this story will ever proceed to a second draft. It may, in fact, never see the light of day beyond this blog. To put it another way, what “finished” will ultimately mean for this story is very unclear.

It may be necessary, therefore, for me to make corrections as I go and engage in periodic retcons. Since I am, rather arrogantly, presenting this tale to the public more-or-less as it flows off my keyboard, that means doing something in public– editing a draft– that should properly be done in private, like certain items of personal hygiene. My recurring instinct is to apologize, but I plow ahead regardless.

Issues to-date:

1. I am uncertain whether I am adequately conveying Mankin’s central conflict– his uncertainty whether he wants to continue living, whether, indeed, he has anything to live for. Finding a balance here is difficult– too heavy a hand and I have a maudlin, weepy character of which the reader will quickly tire. I have come, very late in my “career” as a writer, to an understanding that it is unnecessary to beat the reader over the head with emotions– you have to trust that the reader can comprehend a character’s turmoil with only a certain number of strategic indicators of their pain. I am unsure, though, whether I have achieved that balance. This would be something to return to in a second draft, to see what needs to be fleshed out or pared down– but, as I said, there may be no second draft for this story, and I may just have to forge ahead.

2. Crisonia. This is a new character, and I am beginning to think that I have put her in an impossible situation. She has sworn herself to vengeance for her murdered father, but I have left her without the means, in any conventional sense, to accomplish it. Edmond Dantès, at least, had the Abbé Faria’s wealth to fuel his vengeance. I also begin to worry I haven’t made her quite as obsessively vengeful as she needs to be. This could be a matter to be dealt with via a mid-course correction and a series of (possibly massive) retcons.

3. More critical than either item one or two is the realization that, this far in, I haven’t yet really begun to outline the overarching plot driver of this novel. I’ve laid out hints here and there, given out tidbits, but I haven’t really begun assembling the time-bomb that’s going to drive these characters together, and then into action. I’ve been taking my time outlining the characters and their situation, enjoying building the world and the city of Venia, but 41,000 words is a long way to go without setting the time-bomb to ticking.

The problem is that I still haven’t gotten everyone in place– heck, I haven’t even introduced all my main characters yet. I have a tendency to take my time at the beginning of a long story, building out the world, but this may be a record. Of course, what some people call leisurely world-building others call a problem with pacing.

In a normal first draft this would be a matter for cutting and pasting, moving elements around, tightening timelines, and fleshing out characters. With Horse Tamer, I may have to be satisfied with some retcon placements of guns– or, more properly, long swords– on mantels, and a better focus, from this point forward, on where this story as a whole is going.

Hopefully identifying these issues and figuring out how to deal with them will, in the long run, help make Horse Tamer a better read for those of you brave enough– or tolerant enough– to slog through it with me. Bear with me. I think there is some very good stuff coming down the pike.

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And PS, full disclosure– a quick review of my previous chapters reveals that there are any number of fun little oopsies scattered through them– e.g. I called Nema “Rema’ in at least one chapter, and in another the rebel faction in the Attau civil war is referred to as the “Red Party” in one place and in another place in the same chapter as the “Black Party”. All the sort of fun little mistakes I typically make with a first draft, which I will have to comb out and fix at a later date (in my normal process, these are the kind of errors I catch with my hard copy edit). It’s almost reassuring how consistent I am…almost….

Sometimes you have to be merciless….

Seriously, there are times when you have to harden your heart and just do what is ugly, but necessary. Mercy, sentiment and compunction have no place in this business– you must be utterly ruthless….

I am, of course, talking about cutting your work in progress.

I have just cut about 10,000 words out of the heart of Princess of Fire. This is on top of earlier cuts to the tune of about 20,000. The poor little things were the innocent victims of my rampant pantsing of this novel earlier this year. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that with this project I let my normally healthy and productive instinct to write without an overall plan or structure in mind run out of control– at the start I was far too optimistic all the boss and utterly epic scenes in my head would fit together without major difficulties– surely I just needed a few transitions and a couple of patches, and everything would knit itself together into a glorious narrative that would set Kathy up for the finale, Princess of Stars, with some dandy, really big explosions along the way (gotta have explosions).

This delusion carried me to about 96,000 words. The beginning and the end were all written. All I needed to do was address the middle…and that’s when I started to slow down, and to doubt, and the whole project staggered and shuddered to a stop, in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.

The middle, unfortunately, is where the most intense action of the story happens (well, duh, thank you, Aristotle)– and I began to find it difficult to tie things together, and to get down the missing pieces of action. Worse, I started reduplicating scenes, as I tried to find some avenue through what increasingly appeared to be a brick wall.

In the end I did something I rarely ever do with a work in progress– I decided to start over. Not from scratch, but from about one-third of the way through the narrative, while also preserving the final third, or thereabouts.

And this is where the merciless part comes in– I had disjointed pieces that belonged to that middle third, some of them quite extensive, some of them duplicates, thousands of words that I now had to liquidate. I had to because I found they were actually impeding my progress– I kept thinking “okay, surely I can fit this piece here” or “I can retrofit this scene”, which was preventing me from starting fresh. So I cut them. Despite the screams.

Writers, it should be noted, are not completely rational. We are also frequently extraordinarily untidy. Our stories don’t always smoothly flow off our fingers, with the plot and characters all pitch-perfect and correctly structured. Usually, quite the opposite. Writers can, in fact, write themselves into serious corners– a particular danger with serial story telling, such as comics and TV (yes, I’m going to mention Lost, my personal touchstone of how to screw up a great concept). The effort to get out of some of the entanglements of serial story-telling has given rise to the term “retcon”, which is as ugly in action as it is to say.

For fiction writers, this is where the second draft is both a blessing and a necessity. It is the chance to change course, to correct the mistake, to find a better way of saying something. Anyone who publishes a long narrative without re-drafting is a either genius or a fool.

(Of course, this is essentially what I am doing with Horse Tamer, and since I am certifiably not a genius, then….)

So, despite the trauma of doing away with essentially a novella’s worth of words from Princess of Fire, I feel better, and I think I now have a clear path in front of me. Maybe– maybe— thirty to forty thousand or so words, done the right way, will get me across this stubborn wilderness of a middle I’ve been wandering around in for the last several weeks, and give me that genuine, unified first draft that is always my initial goal for any of my novels.

I hope so. I am getting pretty parched and sunburned out here.

There is a moral in this– if you pants, at least use a pair of suspenders. And for the love of God, put the damn things on one leg at a time….