Well. Here we are. One last time.

This is the final part of the A2Q, and I think this last topic is the thing that gets overlooked the most when people give out writing tips. In fact, a lot of writing advice dances quickly around it. Because it’s not a pleasant thing to think about.

That thing—the last part—is this.

Eventually you have to stop.

A lot of you’ve probably had someone tell you“writing is rewriting.” It’s one of those maxims that gets tossed around a lot. And it’s true. Sort of.

But the part they probably didn’t tell you is that rewriting is also a trap. It’s a rabbit hole you can fall down, working on draft after draft after draft. It becomes constant revisions, always finding something else to tweak, a better word to use, a more dramatic place to break those paragraphs in. It can keep you stuck in place, doing lots of work for smaller and smaller returns.

If you’ve ever followed any sort of exercise routine, you know that a key part of it is that you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to increase the weight or the reps. You have to run an extra mile, or get your time down by two minutes. If I keep doing the same thing again and again, the benefits of it begin to drop off. Eventually I plateau and I’m just here at this level. Not advancing in any way.

Weird as it may sound, writing is a lot like this. We need to keep pushing ourselves. To make our mental muscles flex and stretch and try new things. If we fall into a rut, we’re never going to accomplish anything.

I say this from experience. During the A2Q—and a bunch of other times here on the ranty blog—I’ve mentioned my first completed novel, The Suffering Map. It was my “just moved to California” novel and there’s a fair argument to be made that I spent close to twelve years working on it. Hell, most of those years were just the first draft (although, in all fairness, for almost seven of them I gave up on it and focused on screenwriting). There are nine different versions of it currently in my computer.

In the end, it got me some mild interest from a few agents. And that was it. Nothing else.

So around late 2006 I put it aside and started working on something new.

And this can be scary. It’s borderline terrifying to think we’re going to take this werewolf manuscript that we’ve been pouring all our great thoughts and clever ideas into for months (or years)—that we’ve put all this energy and effort into—and forget about it. It seems like a huge waste, doesn’t it? What was the point of doing all this if I’m just going to put it aside and move on?

Which is why sometimes… we embrace the trap. We might not admit it out loud, but sticking with this manuscript feels safe. Because stopping means we either need to risk rejection or admit it needs to get put away. Either of these can be a huge punch in the gut. But if I keep working on it, if I keep telling myself it’s just not quite ready yet… I can put off that moment.  I mean, it’ll happen soon, absolutely. As soon as I can do one more draft

And again, I’m saying this from experience. When I set The Suffering Map aside, I think I spent a week wondering if I was making a mistake. Should I give it one more look before filing it away? Maybe try one more submission? Was I giving up too soon?

But I finally embraced the truth. I’d done all I could with this particular manuscript, and it  wasn’t going to get any better. And neither was I. I needed to work with new characters in new situations. I had to follow some different paths, not the ones I’d walked back and forth on a dozen times and beaten down so nothing could grow there any more.

That’s where we are now with this book we’ve been writing. My werewolf book, your whatever-it-may-be book. I can’t tell you exactly when you’re going to reach this point, but it’s important to realize this point exists. Reaching it is good. It’s a normal part of the book-writing process—moving on to the next book.

What happens with this one? That’s going to be up to you. Maybe you’ll acknowledge it’s not quite ready yet, stash it away on a jump drive or in the cloud (maybe both, just to be safe) and move on. Maybe you’ll send it out to a dozen agents or publishers. Perhaps you’ll decide to publish it yourself. Again, it’s up to you to decide what’s right for you and your book.

Whatever the decision is, though, it’s time to say goodbye to this thing we’ve been working on and move on to something else. To let our brains shift into new patterns. Get them working on some different concepts, something new and exciting.

Because if we don’t, we’re just going to stall out.

And that, m’friends, is all I’ve got for you as far as how to write a book. How to take that tale out of your head and put it down on the page in the best way possible. Even at 110 pages on this end, I know it could’ve been a little denser in a few places. But I tried to keep this to easy-to-digest chunks and included links wherever I could. Plus, y’know… pandemic. And I was trying to finish an actual book of my own.

Anyway, I hope it was semi-educational and at least partially useful for some of you.

Next time… well, we’ll see what we’re all up for.

Until then, go write.

April 30, 2020 / 2 Comments

A2Q Part Eleven—Revisions

Getting close to the end now.

I want to talk now about incorporating feedback. I know to some folks this doesn’t sound like a vital part of “writing my first novel,” but I personally think it is. One of the reasons my “college novel” (Trinity) crashed and burned was that I got really hung up on early feedback. I tried to figure out how to please everyone because I gave everyone’s thoughts equal weight. I still see that happening today—people who want to somehow listen to every voice and incorporate every note. Even contradictory ones. I’ve seen people spend years trying to do this.

Also I know it may also seem a bit weird that this part and the last one have been split into two posts. It might seem feedback and revisions go hand and hand. On one level, yeah, they do, but I think the criticism half of it is important enough to warrant its own focus for a bit. Being able to accept feedback from knowledgeable sources is a big thing for a writer. It’s taking a huge step forward. And I think it’s really, really tough to write a good book if I can’t take that step. So it really is a separate, important step in the process.

Plus, splitting them up this way gave me an even twelve parts for the A2Q.

All that said, let’s talk about incorporating notes

The first thing we need to talk about is sorting the feedback. Not all criticism is created equal and valid, despite what that guy on the internet shrieked at you. We need to take those fifteen page packets of notes, and the copies of your manuscript with notes up and down the margins, and figure out what’s what. You can do this on the fly, break it all down before you actually start the revisions, or whatever works for you.

I think the overwhelming amount of feedback we get is going to fall into one of three categories—opinions, advice, and facts. Being able to figure out which one’s which is going to be tough. It’s also going to be a skill you can use forever. It’ll help you throughout your writing career, and probably in other parts of your life, too. A lot of folks think their angry opinions are facts. Some folks think they’re offering advice when it’s just an opinion. And some writers (yeah, it’s on us too) hear facts and advice and think they’re just opinions.

Let’s go over them.

First up is opinions. An opinion is someone’s personal thoughts about a topic (in this case our clearly flawless werewolf manuscript). Opinions don’t need anything else behind them. They can just be a gut response. They’re super-subjective and they can carry a lot of baggage.

They’re also, by and large, the first thing to toss. If someone’s just scribbling “that’s stupid” in the margin or “werewolf stories are so overdone,” I tend to ignore them. I once had a beta reader cover The Suffering Map with red ink because they decided everything in the manuscript was wrong  because characters made decisions they didn’t like.

Now, I’m not saying opinions have no value. They do, but only in a “general direction” sort of way. An individual opinion really doesn’t mean much, in this instance, while a dozen identical opinions have a bit of weight. Maybe. If only one person thinks I telegraphed Luna being the werewolf too much, they’re probably just reading too much into it. I know some folks who have a bad habit of retroactively adjusting their awareness/expectations, so they “always” saw that twist coming (because if they didn’t, it means they got tricked like everyone else). But if most of my beta-readers (and agent and editor) think I telegraphed it… maybe I did.

Next is advice. In pretty much any sense, this is thoughts and ideas that have an actual rationale behind them. A big difference between advice and opinions is I can almost always explain the reasoning behind my advice in an objective way. I’ve mentioned this little factoid before—anyone can say “this sucks” but it’s a lot harder to be able to explain why something sucks. Sometimes advice is self-evident, other times it may need a line or three of explanation.

For example, one setting in the werewolf book is the bar Phoebe works at, and some reader might point out “Should some people be wearing masks here at the bar? It’s your most crowded location, and even optimistically when this book comes out it’s probably still going to be a very common sight.” It’s the reader’s idea, but we can all see the logic and the chain of reasoning behind it. Or they might get halfway through the manuscript and point out “Wow, Phoebe is coming across as kinda dumb,” and offer a few examples that have happened so far.

Last are the facts. These are, well, I mean, they’re facts. No alternatives. If you tell me I spelled Jake Gillanhall wrong, it’s something we can both look up pretty easily because there’s a definitive answer. If the last words in my book are To Be Continued and you tell me there’s no ending, you’ve caught me dead to rights. If you tell me the full moon doesn’t actually last five nights and we traveled there in 1969, you’re absolutely correct.

Worth mentioning, sure, maybe those mistakes are there on purpose. It might be a clue that someone thinks we landed on the Moon in 1955 and there could be a good reason why I have a bunch of spelling mistakes. But (as I’ve mentioned once or thrice before), it should be very clear to the reader that these are deliberate mistakes, not accidental ones. I’ve always been very leery of “journal” books that have a bunch of misspellings and use the excuse of “it’s the character making mistakes.” I know this kind of thing gnaws at editors, too. So if my beta readers don’t get that this is deliberate, if they think it’s an actual mistake… I may want to think about that.

Now that I’ve got them sorted, the next step is weighing them. This is one of the reasons it might not be bad to have more than one person reading your manuscript. I still don’t think it’s good to get ten or twelve or more folks, but having a well selected five or six can still give me a lot of viewpoints—and possibly some opposing ones.

Then I just start going through them page by page. Personally, I like to do it all at once. Here’s everyone’s thoughts on page one, everyone’s thoughts on page two, everyone’s thoughts on… you get the point. Yes, it’s a bit slower to go this way, but it also lets me get reactions all at once rather than getting Reader A’s responses on this page right now, Reader B’s responses in three days, and Reader C’s sometime next week. This also saves me from spending a lot of time rethinking the page because of A and B’s thoughts, only to finds out later C, D, and E all really liked it. And so did I, hopefully, because I wrote it.

That’s how a lot of this will go. Weighing how people respond to different things. Everybody likes Phoebe and dislikes Luc (just like they’re supposed to). But everybody also thinks the description of Phoebe’s armor is just… bad. The unanimous ones are the easy notes to get. Everyone hates this, everyone loves that. The big thing is to actually read them, to not give in to that instinct to just brush the bad comments aside.

Sometimes, it’ll take a little more back and forth. If one of my beta readers thinks there’s a little too much sex and innuendo in this werewolf book, but two others have no comment and the fourth keeps adding comments saying “Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhh”… that’s kinda evenly split, arguably positive. One thinks it’s a negative, two don’t seem to mind either way, and one likes it. I should consider that and weight changing it appropriately

Likewise, if three of them hate it and one likes it… well, maybe this needs some work. Sometimes I just need to accept that sometimes things just don’t work the way I’d hoped they would. It sucks, but it’s better that I’m learning it from three or four people I know rather than a potential agent or publisher. Definitely better than hearing it from the two hundred people who decided to leave reviews.

A few other things to consider. If a lot of readers are suggesting something doesn’t work, they’re probably right. If they’re telling you how to fix it… they’re probably wrong. This is your project. Your art. People can suggest whatever they want, but the only person who knows what it needs is you. Don’t get bullied down a path you don’t actually want to go down. Look at the notes, look at your manuscript, figure out what’s going to make it work.

On a related note, yeah, sometimes we also just need to put our foot down and say “the space cantina stays in!” Because this is art (our art, anyway) there are going to be things that might not be totally logical. They may be a bit more excessive and flowery (or violent and horrific, or sexy and scandalous) than they arguably need to be, but in my mind this moment or this character or maybe this chapter needs to be there, Maybe it’s not necessary for the narrative or dramatic structure, but it’s important for the world. So even if everyone thinks it’s unnecessary and/or a bit distracting… I’m keeping the space cantina.

I do need to keep track of how often I’m putting my foot down, though. If there are dozens of instances where my readers are pointing out logical, reasonable things about the manuscript and I think I need to put my foot down on every single one of them… maybe I’m not as open to feedback as I’m telling myself. Might be worth taking a few steps back, having that stiff drink we mentioned last time, and starting over.

Like I mentioned above, this whole process can take some time, but I really think it’s worth it. So much of writing is done alone (and let’s face it—a lot of us tend to lean toward the introvert side) that our internal empathy scale can drift a bit. It’s good when we’re starting out—and honestly, I think, even after we’ve had a degree of success—to have someone we trust help us recalibrate that scale.

Also worth mentioning… Your mileage may vary, but after I do all of these revisions, I try to do one more line-by-line read through. I’ve learned (the hard way) with all these tweaks and revisions, something often slips by. Just a little thread I didn’t snip or tie off. Like maybe at some point I gave a bunch of Luc’s dialogue to Quinn, but I forgot to change some pronouns and now trying to follow who’s talking is a mess. Or at one point I decided Luc would be called Etienne (to cut down on any possible Luc/Luna confusion) and missed a few here or there. Or maybe I cut a whole awkward (on many levels) discussions about safe sex between Phoebe and Luna from chapter four, but they still refer back to it in chapter fifteen. This is a big house of cards and it’s not hard for something to get overlooked when those cards get shuffled.

So hopefully this’ll help you put some of that feedback in perspective and let you sift through it.

There is one part left to the A2Q. One final lesson to impart, my young apprentice. Apprentices? Apprentici? How many of you are even reading this?

Until then, go write.

April 23, 2020

A2Q Part Ten—Criticism

Welcome back everyone. Or welcome for the first time if you’re part of this ridiculous wave of new people following me around. Either way, glad to have you here.

I wanted to get back to the A2Q and wade out into the less-enjoyable parts of this whole writing thing. I know some of you thought the first draft was the less-enjoyable part, and for others of you it may have been the editing. But I’m willing to bet most of you are going to moan and grumble and gnash your teeth at this part.

It’s time to talk about feedback and criticism.

Now, if I don’t plan on showing this to anyone—if I just wanted to write a book to prove to myself I could write a good, complete novel—congratulations. You’re done. I hope all of this was helpful in some way. Feel free to follow along more if you want, but we’re definitely going to be leaning in a certain direction from here on.

The rest of you…

If my goal is publication—traditional or self—I’m going to need to deal with feedback. Or to put it another way, criticism. This is an essential part of the process. No, it really is. These days with people shouting at movie studios and directors and authors for every choice they make, it’s good to remember that actual criticism refers to an objective critique of my work from someone qualified to make it.

So let’s talk about criticism. Why we need it. Who we need it from. And accepting it. Well, some of it. Depending.

First off, why do we need it? Well, so we can improve. You’ve probably heard about people talking about “going blind to things,” and I’m a big believer in that. Sometimes we get so focused and invested on something that we don’t see problems—or solutions—that are sitting right in front of us. I’ve talked a couple times in the A2Q about “fresh eyes” on the manuscript, and the freshest are going to be the ones that’ve never seen it before.

The simple truth is, none of us are the end-all, be-all of writing. There will always be things we miss. Things we do wrong. Things we can improve. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just… wrong. No other way to put it.

I’ve been doing this for a while now, but my editor actually came up with the last line of Dead Moon after I went through at least seven or eight different versions of it. I’ve helped at least three writer-friends work through problems recently. And I’m kinda gearing up to show this new book to a few of my regular people. Cause it may be my book, and I absolutely get to write it the way I want, but I still need to be aware of how it’s going to appear to other eyes. Some folks might not get that joke. Others may not like that character. And it’s entirely possible I’m just doing something wrong and don’t realize it. Maybe not even wrong, but it’s possible I could do it much better.

Next would be, who do we need it from. Oddly enough, not from assorted unknown randos on the internet who want to tell us everything we’re doing wrong. If I’m going to get feedback from someone, it needs to be someone I trust, and someone I trust to be objective. And there’s a good chance that person isn’t RealWriter173643—“I’m bringing the novel BACK after twenty years of garbage from big publishers.”

(Don’t listen to that guy)

A fairly common thing is to get some beta readers. Nothing wrong with that, but I think they need to be chosen carefully. I’ve seen folks who’ll just desperately send their material to anybody willing to read it. And while I completely understand that need to be read, I think finding a beta reader this way is likely to do more harm than good.

A good beta reader, like I said, is someone I can trust to be honest with me. Brutally honest, if need be. Let’s face it—a lot of our friends and family and significant others have a vested interest in keeping us happy. They’re probably going to be overly gentle with the criticism, maybe even tell a few white lies. So we should be a little cautious before immediately handing it off to one of them.

They also need to be someone with a relevant background. Just because someone was a solid B+ English student back in high school and has read a lot of books doesn’t mean they’re going to understand the nuances of narrative structure and how it works. There’s a lot more to it than that.

And finally, my beta reader should actually want to help me. If you’ve ever been in a writing group, either real world or online, you know there are those folks who just live to rip stuff apart. They delight in showing you how you may have messed up, but rarely offer any actual help. They just think they’re scoring points for being more vicious and nitpicky than anyone else. Might be worth noting that—at least in my experience—these folks often think their opinions about a manuscript should be treated as hard facts. These aren’t the kind of people you need critiquing your book. I mean, you don’t need people like that in your life at all.

Personally… I think beta readers are a good thing. Even if it’s just one person I let read this before I send it off into the world. Especially if this is all new to me and my first time trying to put a novel together. I don’t want to have a weird turn of phrase or an obscure reference or maybe a line that can really be misread which suddenly makes me or the book look very wrong.

Look at it this way. This is a way to get feedback under controlled conditions. I’m picking the person who’s going to see this first. I’m making sure it’s someone I can trust, and also—not meant in a harsh way—someone who won’t matter. This isn’t making a first impression on an editor or an agent or a potential reader-who-likes-my-stuff-enough-to-pay-for-it. It’s somebody I know who already knows me

Actually, one last thought here. I probably don’t want too many beta readers. I think if I’m hitting double digits this manuscript’s going out to too many people. This is when it suddenly turns into that writing group or class where I’ve got a fifteen or twenty copies of my manuscript to go over, and maybe some of them also have additional documents. If I wrote a 400 page book, that’s almost eight thousand pages of notes and comments to go through. And the truth is, they’re going to get redundant fast. Get people you trust, get enough of them to be a good sample size.

At this point in my life, I’ve got four people I consider good, solid beta-readers. Two are men, two are women. Two are screenwriters. Two are novelists. Two are professional editors (there’s some overlap here, clearly). One writes comic books. All of them have different backgrounds and different fandoms and hobbies. I’ve known all of them for at least ten years, and I know them all (and they know me) well enough to be as brutally honest as they need to be.

And I know some folks think of this as “meddling” or a waste of time, but it’s not. Which brings us nicely to… accepting criticism.

This final part is where I think a lot of people crumble, one way or another. Some folks accept any and all criticism as evidence of their failures and toss their manuscript in the incinerator. Other people simply refuse to bend, not yielding an inch or admitting the possibility of a single flaw in the glory of their creative vision made manifest.

If I have good people reading my manuscript, there’s no reason to reject what they have to tell me. They’re trying to help me, right? We just said that. Why am I fighting it now?

Well, we all know why. It hurts. It’s scary to think we put all this effort into something, invested all this time, and it just wasn’t enough. It still needs more work. it’s enough to make you give up. Or maybe dig in your heels and shout “no, no, no, NO!”

But look, we’ve already done this twice, right? No matter how rough it was, we made a bunch of decisions and observations when we put our outline together. And then we did it again after our first draft was done, when we were looking at the overall plot/story with fresh eyes and seeing where it needed some tweaks. This is just one more pass from someone who doesn’t have any preconceptions about what’s on the page. They’re not going to see what I think is there… they’re just going to read what’s there. And it’s important I know that.

I need to be open to this criticism. I asked for it, after all. I wanted these people to help me find the weak spots and confusing moments and that one word I keep using that does not mean what I think it means.

Go over the notes your readers sent back. Really read their comments, don’t just skim looking for praise. Or for scorn.

And then… take a deep breath or two. Step away from the computer. Maybe have a drink. And a nice meal. And another drink. Just don’t sit there glaring at it.

Because I guarantee you, some of these notes are going to burn. They will leave welts. People aren’t going to get all your jokes. They’re going to be baffled by some of your word choices. Someone’s going to say that wonderfully cute and endearing character you spent so much time on is just annoying as hell. You will feel yourself ready to snap back like you were reading the comments section on a political article.

Let all those first responses go away. Resist the animal urge to strike back at those who’ve hurt you and yours. Accept that this is going to help you.

Okay, maybe have another drink. But I’m cutting you off after that one. You’re not going to be some flat Hemingway cliché.

And hey, speaking of having drinks…

As some of you may have noticed, WonderCon didn’t happen this year. One of the many, many cons that have fallen before our current pandemic crisis. I was going to host the annual Writer’s Coffeehouse there. I don’t talk about the publishing side of things much here, but that’s all we talk about at the WonderCon Coffeehouse

But now WonderCon is doing  a bunch of virtual panels, and Friday afternoon (tomorrow) I’m going to be recording a Coffeehouse with Kristi Charish, Stephen Blackmoore, and ML Brennan. But we need questions from you. So hit us up with your questions about publishing—any questions—and the four of us will try our best to give useful answers. Put questions in the comments down below, send them to one of us on Twitter, or if you feel a little self-conscious about standing up in front of everyone, you can send me a DM on Twitter or an email at peterclines101@yahoo.com and then when we talk you can just be “V” or “Crash Override” or “somebody else.”

Next time… let’s talk about working through other people’s notes.

Until then, go write.

April 16, 2020

The Golden Rule

I’ve been doing the A2Q thing for a while now and I wanted to take a moment to talk about a related matter.
Since I started this ranty blog way back when, there’s one thing I’ve tried to be clear about. This is mostly all just advice. And the thing about advice is… you can take it or leave it. It’s not required and it definitely doesn’t fit every situation.
I do dabble in rules now and then, yeah. Lightly. I do firmly believe writing has some some rules and it’s important to learn them. Knowing them will only help me. Heck, knowing them can help me break them.
But overall, this is just advice. Some of it’s going to work for you, on this particular project. Odds are a lot of it isn’t. That’s how this whole writing-art thing goes. You get a huge pile of thoughts and ideas and advice dumped on you and it’s your job as the writer to sift through all of it and figure out what’s going to work for you and what isn’t.
It can take a while. Maybe even years. And nobody wants to think it could take years for them to figure out how to write. That’s why some people like the idea that this is all very teachable. That it can get broken down into equations and page counts and formulas. Do this, then this, then that, and BAM New York Times bestseller right there. Now give me $250 for sharing my secret method with you.

Because I mean it’s that or… doing the work. And none of us want to do that. Believe me, if there was an easier way, I’d be on it in a heartbeat. But there isn’t. That’s the Golden Rule I’ve been pushing here for… hell, over a decade now.

The way I write isn’t going to be the way you write. I know this because I have a lot of writer friends and I don’t write like any of them. They don’t write like each other, either. You can probably find some similarities, some common threads, but for most of us our process is our process.

And I know this might seem a little weird and hypocritical because this is exactly what I’ve been doing here for the past three months. The A2Q is one long ongoing series of “here’s how you do this…” How can I spend all this time telling you how to do things and then say none of it’s going to work for you?

Well, I’ve used cooking as an analogy for writing before, and I think that’s a good way to explain the A2Q. Don’t think of it as a book, think of it as a recipe that I’m teaching you. Maybe for pizza. And I’ll show you how I do the crust, the sauce, how I cut the veggies, what cheese and spices I use, oven settings, all of it. Beginning to end.

Yeah, there’s a chance you can follow all these steps and do it exactly like I do, even though you’ve never once cut vegetables or crushed garlic. But if you’ve never done this you’re probably going to end up making a few practice pizzas. And more than likely… you’re going to want your crust a little different, maybe a little thicker or more chewy (are you one of those deep-dish weirdoes?). Maybe you don’t want veggies, you want more sausage and pepperoni. Plus, it could use a lot more sauce and, heck, why am I even using red sauce when there’s perfectly good pesto to put on pizzas?

Hell, you might be one of those pineapple monsters.

So you’ll try my recipe once, perhaps twice, and then you’ll tweak it to work better for your tastes and preferences. You might decide there’s only one or two bits that work well for you (brush olive oil on the outer edge of the crust? Hmmmmm…) and ignore the rest. Or maybe none of this will work for you, because you and I just have some very different ideas of what makes a good pizza and how to make it.
That’s great, whatever you do. It’s absolutely fantastic. If my recipe gets you to a better pizza, than my work here is done—even if it just means realizing you don’t want to do it my way. Process of elimination is part of the process, y’know? Figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t.
The A2Q is me trying to give you a nice, easy recipe for a book. You’re supposed to fool around with it and change it. Maybe do things in a different order. Perhaps start in a different place. Some of my ideas and suggestions might not work for you, and that’s cool. The idea is to get you thinking and considering these different elements, maybe making you really aware of some of them for the first time. And then you’ll figure out how to use them in a way that works best for you and gives you the results you want.
That’s the Golden Rule.
I just thought it might be good to bring it up again.

Anyway… next week, back to the A2Q. There’s still more work to be done.

Until then, go write.