Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…
Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.
But then…wait. No! Not that one…
And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.
This is not the first time it has fallen.
Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…
It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.
And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.
So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.
Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?
But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.
Your Novel is Like a Tree
This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.
But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?
And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.
So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.
Perhaps another little cut.
No, still not right.
And so it goes.
I am currently in the fourth draft of a novel. What this should mean is that the novel is nearing its final state – I have the plot figured out, the character arcs established, and it’s just a matter of pacing and sticking it all together. Except, well…I’m not there yet. The first few drafts of this beast didn’t go especially well (damned book’s first act just doesn’t want to gel!), so what this means is I’ve written this book three times now in three slightly different ways. I’ve got deleted scenes coming out the wazoo. I’m a guy who’s lost the instructions sitting in a pile of Lego bricks that he knows is supposed to make the Taj Mahal, but for some reason he can’t figure out where it all fits.
This is what I call “the Frankenstein Stage.”
The term is inspired by a tweet from Chuck Wendig from a couple years back which went like this:
Editing is frequently standing over a corpse with a hammer, a scalpel, a car battery. “I WILL MAKE YOU BEAUTIFUL. I WILL MAKE YOU DANCE.”
The analogy is apt. Right now, this novel is an ugly, dead thing. It isn’t dancing…yet. Right now, a lot of what I’m doing is taking big chunks of scenes from other drafts and copy/pasting them into the new draft and then altering them so they fit with the flow. It is a *lot* like stitching together pieces of a dead corpse and hoping, at the end, to get a living one.
This stage of novel writing is a very dispiriting one. Part of this is because you don’t always hit it – sometimes the book comes together much more cleanly and evenly and the edits are clearer and you feel like a million bucks. When you don’t, therefore, you feel as if you’ve failed and that your book is crap.
But it isn’t.
I know the book I want to write is contained within some combination of the elements I have already laid out. It merely remains for me to find that combination and, possibly, see what needs to be added or subtracted to the final framework to make it sing. Writing, I must tell myself, is not a mystical process full of muses and fairy dust. It is work, as methodical and rational as any other kind of work, and merely requires sufficient time and attention to be made good. This is another way I think the Frankenstein connection is a good one: gods and angels did not fashion Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – a man did. The monster is the result of hard work, intelligence, and dedication with just a sprinkle of inspiration to get it all rolling. And, while Dr. Frankenstein came to regret his labors, you sure can’t say the thing wasn’t a success. I mean, not everybody can manage to get their whole family murdered by a series of body parts you stitched together at medical school – that is, on the whole, pretty damned impressive.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. There might be a lightning storm coming in later, and I want to be ready.
Igor, get me more rising action! We’ve got a climax to ascend!
I am residing in an odd form of editing hell at the moment. I’m trying to write a flash piece (on a deadline). It can be no more than 700 words. It will be in a professional publication with a very wide circulation (much wider, I’d wager, than most of the genre magazines I’ve been published in), so I really want to make absolutely certain it’s my best work.
But it’s only 700 words. And that’s killing me.
I am not a sprinter. I am a long-term, slow burn kinda guy. I like complexity, depth, backstory and I like to make all that complicated stuff look simple. Trying to strip down a story into its barest components leaves the story feeling naked to me. Like, if I can’t include the occasional witty tangent, then why bother, right?
Flash Fiction (i.e. stories under 1000 words) has always been a mystery to me. I mean, I understand poetry (even prose poetry), but how does something that short have a beginning, middle, end, an interesting character, a developed conflict, etc? I mean, I’ve seen it done, I suppose. Most of the time, though, they don’t feel like stories to me. What’s more, the story ideas I have naturally land somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 words. That, for me, has proven to be the minimum amount of space I’ve been able to tell a story I’m satisfied with. Even those sometimes feel like a sprint to me.
Being a good writer, though, is not about spinning your wheels in the same ruts. It’s about expanding your capabilities, deepening your craft, and welcoming challenges. So this is my challenge: tell an interesting, compelling, complete story in what amounts to 2 standard pages and some change. Not a vignette, not a mere scene – a whole tale.
Here’s some of the strategies I’ve decided to adopt:
Three words: In Medias Res
There is no time for beginnings. We start in the middle, dammit. I can’t hand-hold the audience through pointless exposition. No time, kids! Keep up!
Dramatis Personae? NO: Dramatis Persona
I’ve got space for basically one actual character. There can be other people, but there just isn’t time for anybody else to be developed.
I can cheat, especially on that last one, by using characters and places my audience is already familiar with. The more I can get the reader to fill in the blank spaces themselves, the more space I can have to developing plot.
Pith Over Wit
Being clever takes words and space to accomplish. Being pithy just requires the right jab at the right moment. You can’t tell a raft of jokes – maybe one or two. You can’t build great towers of words – you have to lay foundations of just the right ones, and let the audience do some of the building for you.
…and that’s what I got, folks. We’ll see where it takes me.
And, for the record, this post is 507 words long. The whole damned story would only have 193 left to play with.
Today, in a discussion with fellow writers over Tor.com’s decision to close to unsolicited fiction submissions, I said the following thing:
Well, they’ve got a story from me that they’ve been sitting on for seven months, so here’s hoping!
No less than eighteen seconds after saying this, I went to my e-mail inbox and found a rejection from Tor waiting for me. For some people – perhaps some of you reading this – this seems like some kind of cosmic karmic response to the vocalization of my hopes. “Ah-ha! You should never have said anything! Then it wouldn’t have happened!”
Now, as I’m presuming most people are (loosely) rational creatures, I think most of us understand that the real world does not operate like this in any way, shape, or form. My decision to speak or not speak some combination of magic words does not alter space/time; that rejection was coming to me one way or another. Still, it is very tempting to think that way. “If only I did X and not Y! If only I hadn’t told anybody! If only I had told more people! I should have crossed my fingers before I answered the phone!”
“Rejectomancy,” or the collected term for the superstitious habits of authors seeking to make sales and avoid rejection, happens all the time. It happens because publishing is a world predicated on failure – for every successful submission, there are dozens of rejected ones (probably). For every author that “makes it” there are a hundred who don’t. This process is hard on the ego. If you want to be a writer, you need to face rejection and failure with two unblinking eyes: it’s coming, so figure out how to deal with it or find a different profession. The thing is, rejection letters often seem so arbitrary and you so often seem to have no power over them. We authors are victims of the capricious whims of editors the world over! Woe is us! If only there were some mystical way we could feel that we have agency!
I know! Wear those lucky socks! Don’t start a story with rain (ever)! Only check your writer e-mail on Wednesdays! Only submit stories on a Tuesday afternoon! NEVER WRITE IN ANYTHING BUT COURIER! Etc., etc, etc..
The thing is, though, all that stuff is total bunk. It does not, in fact, give you any power. If it makes you feel good, fine, but don’t go around pretending the world operates on supernatural principles that orient themselves solely around the arbitrary choices of one individual. We merely write fantasy, we ought not live there.
If you want to feel like you have some control over your writerly destiny, the first thing to do is work on getting better at writing. That story that got rejected? You can do better. You should do better. Go out and learn how to do better. Write a new story. Send that one out. Repeat.
Also, just because some editor didn’t like your story doesn’t mean that story is bad. Not in the least! Once you get to a certain level of skill (what I would loosely term “professional quality”) – once you are writing stories that are on the same level as the stories you read in the major publications – well, then, sometimes it’s just plain old luck that decides the rejection or acceptance. Sometimes the editor isn’t grabbed by the ending – not that it was a bad ending, they just didn’t really like it. Sometimes the editor just bought a story very similar to yours. Sometimes you’ve caught them on a bad day. Sometimes they have in mind a theme for the next issue and you don’t really fit. From our end, there is often no way to tell if this is the case.
So, if you get rejected, by all means give the story a once over. Ponder on whether or not you can improve it. If you can’t – if you know this is your best work (at the moment) – send it out again. Turn it around. Rejections might sting, but that’s a sting you need to learn how to deal with. Now, if wearing fuzzy socks every time you send a submission helps you, then go right ahead. But always remember: publishing isn’t magic, it’s a business, and a tough one. The best way to win is to keep playing and up your game, and no superstition will ever trump that.
When you have to cut a 124,000 word manuscript to something closer to 95,000 words, you are past the point where little line-edits and cutting the occasional paragraph of description will actually make much of a difference. To cut those 30,000 words, you need to actually make substantive changes to a novel. Plotlines need to be dropped. Characters need to disappear.
People will tell you that this is hard because you are so attached to these sequences, and this is true. With practice, though, that isn’t the part that bothers you so much – what needs to go, needs to go. What bothers you is how you can replace what was there without taking up the same space. You need to figure out how to stitch together the remnants of the work so that everything still works. You need to build a smaller, sleeker Frankenstein, but one that can still rip down houses and bellow warnings about fire.
Book 3 of The Saga of the Redeemed is undergoing the cut I mentioned above. Right now, I’m really sweating getting it to come under the 100K maximum limit, since I’m finding a lot of the stuff I take out still needs to be put back in somehow, and doing so while making everything shorter is worrying me. I plan (plan) to have this draft done by the end of the week and then have it sent off to beta readers (who hopefully will read it in short order). This edit has been a brutal process, and so I wanted to pause for a moment to memorialize the people I’ve deleted to make this edit possible.
Aeschen O’Deva, Devious Ihynish Trader
Aeschen used to be a major villain in the book until the editing shears came for him. He was cartoonishly short, indulgent of all vices, overly fond of slurping sardines, and afflicted with a wildly unsettled stomach and, possibly, an ulcer. He walked around with a deathcaster up his sleeve and had a bad temper. Fond of insulting and humiliating his henchmen, he was to eventually come to a bad end.
Aeschen was hard to cut, if simply because he was so central to the plot and much of what he did needed to be replaced by others. Sadly, he had to go. Too many scenes of him plotting in coaches while hitting people with his wig. Alas, you will never get to hear him call his underlings “mud-sucking shit goblins.”
I know. I know.
Uwin Voth, Thostering Mercenary
Voth was O’Deva’s hired muscle – a mercenary of such quality that his asking price was astronomical, but his loyalty and honor was without stain. Sadly, he was stuck working for the greedy, underhanded O’Deva, whom the mercenary himself referred to as an “arse-stain of a human being.” Voth was a match for Tyvian’s formidable dueling skills, as good a hunter as Hool, and a consummate professional. A man pitted against our heroes, but one whom demanded respect anyway.
Sadly, there just isn’t enough space in the novel to watch this noble creature get belittled and wig-slapped by O’Deva over and over again. His final vengeance, likewise, is now lacking. Too bad, too – he had a damned fine moustache.
Hemrick, Saldorian Famulus to the Reldamars
What is an ancient sorerous family without a live-in assistant (or famulus)? Hemrick was supposed to be the Alfred of the Reldamar family – loyal, hyper-competent, fittingly sarcastic, and appropriately mysterious. The thing is, though, that he was a bit part, ultimately. We just don’t have time for such clichés, do we? Why would Lyrelle Reldamar employ a living, breathing famulus when she can summon djinn and daemons to do her bidding, instead. Blame sorcerous out-sourcing, but Hemrick had to be let go. We thank him for his service and hope he will send us a note when he lands safely elsewhere.
Honestly, I don’t miss this guy. Neither will you.
Anyway, there they are, together comprising a *lot* of words that are now not in my novel. Hopefully it will be enough and perhaps – just maybe – these fellows will work their way back into the series at a later date.
Well, all except for Hemrick. Sarcastic butlers are sooo done. Shame on me for even putting one in.
While I get increasingly excited about The Iron Ring being released in a mere two and a half weeks or so and wait for my editing notes for Blood and Iron to come through so I can get that in the can, I have a whole other book to worry about. A book that is not done and that must become done by May 1st. That is Book 3 of The Saga of the Redeemed, and it is called All That Glitters.
The book is currently in its fourth revision. All plot pieces are pretty well in place, all the character arcs are established, and the whole thing makes sense. There is, however, a problem: it is 124,000 words (445 pages or so, for you uninitiated). My editor has informed me that, in no uncertain terms, the longest they will accept is 100,000 and they’d really prefer 85K. That’s between 24K and about 40K words. This is not a matter of trimming vocabulary or cutting the odd paragraph. My book needs to go here:
This represents and interesting (and rather terrifying) new problem for me: I do not have the time to write an entirely new book, but the book I have needs to be about 100 pages shorter. So, can I, Auston Habershaw, loquacious chatterbox extraordinaire, find a way to trim fat from a book that, honestly doesn’t have a hell of a lot of fat? Also: can he do it while teaching four university courses, reading thirteen novels (needed to teach those four courses), and read/grade about 20-30 pages of writing from each of my 100 students?
You watch me.
(Well, no – don’t watch me. That would be weird and creepy.)
I’ve got a plan, actually. I’m going to hack some stuff from the beginning, I’m going to axe two major characters, and then I’m going to try and stitch together the pieces in such a way that nobody notices that it’s gone and I still have a kickass novel on my hands. The real trick is, though, that I need to pull this off in one try. The deadline is too close and I have too much work to do to have this plan fail and to go back to square one.
Accordingly, I am approaching this with all the methodical strategy of a general organizing a campaign. I’ve got the wall of my office covered with index cards representing each individual scene of the novel and, most importantly, that scene’s word count. I’ve never done this before because, prior to having a book deal, I’ve never needed to worry overmuch about word count. If I wrote a 124K book before, I’d say to myself, “Hell, I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels that were 450 pages!” Then I’d pat myself on the back and eat a steak. Now, though, I need to worry about things like contracts and editors and marketing and having a length of book that will fit well in the market and so on. So, no steak for me. Not yet.
Steak is for closers.
Much has come to pass these last weeks.
As (most of you) probably know, the first part of my debut novel is to be released this February by Harper Voyager. If you haven’t heard about this, check out this post explaining it all.
Now, things have changed a little since then. In particular, the way the books will be released and titled has changed. Initially, the first two books in my series (now titled The Saga of the Redeemed) were to be released as The Oldest Trick, Part 1 and The Oldest Trick, Part 2. This is because the first two books are really just two halves of the same book and the publisher wanted to keep the price point low for the initial offering (I assume).
Some time later, it was decided that this seemed confusing (two parts to one book that is part one of a longer series? Whhhaaaa?), so they decided to title them separately and sell them as parts 1 and 2. To this, I pointed out that this might be misleading, since readers would think they were buying a whole story when, in fact, it was only half of one. My editor concurred and Harper agreed, and so now it goes like this: the initial electronic release of the books will have a different title for each part, but they will be marketed as part 1 and 2 of the larger work, The Oldest Trick. Then, when the print release happens (by the way: THERE WILL BE A PRINT RELEASE!!), they will put part 1 and 2 together into one omnibus with my original title and, likewise, this will be available online.
Therefore, Coming Soon:
The Iron Ring (Part 1 of The Oldest Trick), February 2015
Blood and Iron (Part 2 of The Oldest Trick), June 2015
All That Glitters (Book 2 of The Saga of the Redeemed), Fall 2015
Hopefully any confusion will be overcome by the sheer awesomeness of my work.
As for the process itself, here’s where I am: I’m waiting for the final copyedit of The Iron Ring and will begin working with my editor on Blood and Iron sometime in the next month. Also within the next month, I will be getting another 1-2 drafts of All That Glitters in the can so that it is at the polishing stage and I can tinker with it until the deadline on May 1st. All of this can happen just as soon as I get clear of my workload for the Fall semester (lousy day job!) and before the workload for the Spring Semester ramps up.
So, yeah, a ton of writing and editing needs to happen over the next month. Accordingly, there may very well be another blog hiatus coming up. I will let you know and keep you posted, as doing so makes me imagine that what I’m doing here is of some kind of value to somebody rather than just the protracted ravings of a cubicle-bound narcissist.
The Iron Ring is getting closer and closer to publication. I’m going over my editor’s revision notes, putting on the final rounds of spit and polish, and soon this little dragster of a story is going to hit the road. You know, assuming there are no cataclysmic failures anywhere along the line. Obviously.
Anyway, I’ve had enough people ask me about this in the recent months that I figured I may as well write about it. “Auston”, they ask, “how do you write a novel?” This is a question that probably has as many answers as there are authors, and if you’re going about writing a novel, you’re probably going to do it differently than anybody else. Writing, as everybody and their sister will tell you, is a personal and solitary process and, as such, it is prone to idiosyncrasy.
This, however, doesn’t answer the question to anybody’s satisfaction. I must, therefore, answer it literally: how do I, Auston Habershaw, write a novel. I feel at this juncture it is important for me to note that nobody taught me how to write a novel. Nobody. It’s something I figured out myself, ultimately, and all the novel workshops I attended through my MFA program and before have mostly taught me how to write chapters, which is a very distinct thing from writing a novel at large. This should not mean my teachers were bad at their jobs by any means, but rather reflect upon the limitations of the semester-based (or workshop based) education system for teaching somebody how to do something that takes years to perfect. I’ve written about 7 novels to date, some of which will never see the light of day (and rightly so), but each has taught me a lot through painful trial and error.
Anyway, the point is that my process might not work for you, but it is a process that seems to produce results, so here we go.
Part 1: The Rough Draft
The first thing I do when writing a novel is to write it. Well, not exactly – I do spend an indeterminate period of time thinking about it and getting the novel into a rough shape in my mind. Main characters, a central conflict, and a beginning/middle/end arc are all loosely defined, and then I start writing. I write the whole thing in one shot. I revise nothing (NOTHING). I don’t so much as fix a comma or proofread a paragraph. I learned early on that, if I did that, I’d get trapped in an endless revision loop of fixing what was, essentially, a tiny part of a large work that might just get cut, anyway. I don’t worry a lot about keeping continuity through the draft – if a character stops working and is messing with the story, I let that character drop and leave myself a footnote explaining why I did it to a future, very skeptical me.
The point of the rough draft is to toss as much junk on the table as possible. The plot usually winds up an ungodly tangle, there are all kinds of pointless tangents, and a lot of things make no sense. That’s okay – the objective is the generation of an entire book’s worth of raw material. It is very hard to tell precisely what will be useful or useless in the future, so I don’t worry too much about it. The point is to get the whole thing done.
Now, I realize there are people out there who extensively outline and, thereby, sort of side-step this. Well, in theory, I guess. Me, I’ve found extensive outlining at this stage hobbles the novel for me – it restricts my ability to improvise and allow the story to grow organically.
Part 2: The Chainsaw Stage
The second draft (and sometimes a third draft, too) involves chopping apart that pile of trash until you’ve got a workable plot and have the general pacing of the novel under control. I call this the Chainsaw Stage, as it often involved hacking out big hunks of stuff you wrote. Other people call this the “Killing Your Babies” stage, as it often involves killing things you love for the sake of the whole. It might be a lovely little tumor, but it’s still a tumor – hack it out.
Of course, once you’ve hacked a bunch of stuff out, you need to fill in those gaping holes you left. This involves writing new scenes that shore up and improve all the stuff you’re keeping. This very process – the act of hacking up and pasting back in – is why I can’t revise until I have a complete or essentially complete rough draft: until I see the story in total, I can’t make responsible decisions of what must go and what must stay. The Chainsaw Stage is only as successful as the Rough Draft is.
These two steps comprise, what I feel, is the lion’s share of the work in novel writing. The first part is tons of fun, though the result is disheartening. The second part is enormously difficult and painful, but the result is incredibly satisfactory. These two parts should (for me) solve all the major problems of the novel. After this point, I know what the story is, I have all the character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions roughly in place, and I have a draft that might actually be readable by outsiders (you know, if they forced me).
Part 3: Buff, Wax, and Polish
The last part (well, discounting what your editor wants you to revise and so on) primarily involves buffing out the stuff you’ve already got. Most of the new scene writing is behind you. Yeah, you might insert a little thing here or there, but generally all the bones of the book are firmly in place. This is when I start to actually worry about style and really start proofreading the thing. This is when I start fiddling with particular words or set rules for the spelling of certain specialized terms (I’m a fantasy author, remember?). I rewrite dialogue a lot (I know what I want them to say, but they can always say it better) and revise action sequences (Quoth George Lucas: Faster! More intensely!).
This stage takes a surprisingly long time, since it is very easy to fiddle. I put it off for two or three drafts prior to this, so finally indulging can be cathartic. I strive to keep myself under control, honestly. Stage 4 kills a lot of the point of fiddling sometimes.
Part 4: Professional Editor
By the end of Stage 3, the book should be about as good as I can possibly make it. At some point it becomes clear that all my edits are lateral moves – nothing is getting better, just slightly different. By then, it is time to submit it. If you’re very persistent and very lucky (as I have been), you’ll actually get a professional to look at the thing and tell you what to change. In my (extremely brief) experience, they are almost always right. You fix as directed.
This is the stage I am currently at. I know there are other stages, but all of those are involved in the professional publication end of this spectrum – copy editing, marketing, etc.. By that point, I obviously already have a novel (and have had one for some time), and the question was “how do I write a novel,” not “how does the publishing business work.” As far as that second one is concerned, I have legitimately no idea what I am doing.
Wish me luck!