January 25, 2024 / 4 Comments

Get It Done

Okay, I want to bounce one of those “seems obvious in retrospect” things off you. Some of you may already understand this. For others this may be a bit of an “Ohhhh…” moment.

I’ve talked here a few times about drafts and different ways to approach them. One thing I tend to do in my first drafts—and maybe you do, too—is to skip over things. Maybe it’s a story beat I haven’t quite figured out or a plot point that needs some more research. I freely admit, every now and then it’s just that I know the next bit is going to be really fun to write so maybe I’ll just skip ahead a little bit. It’s 100% okay to write this way. It’s a first draft. Nobody’s going to see it.

But at some point I need to go back and fill in those blank spots. For me, it’s usually what I call my second draft. It’s my cleaning-up to make a complete manuscript pass. Some basic edits and tweaks. Weird notes to myself get answered (“WOULD this work like that???”). All the gaps get filled in.

There’s also another point stuff like this gets added in, and that’s during/after edits. I realize this chapter needs a little more description. This fight needs a few more beats. This conversation should be a lot longer. Hell, maybe I need a whole new chapter. All of this would honestly work so much better with a big flashback right here. Or maybe an interlude to see how Phoebe’s doing with that ancient translation.

That’s what just happened with GJD, the book I just finished a second round of editing on. I cut four whole chapters out of the book—pretty much a whole day of story I realized was ultimately just slowing the whole thing down. But I also realized there was stuff the story needed. So I wrote three all new chapters and worked them in.

Where am I going with this?

There’s a frequently-recurring joke in Hollywood– “we’ll fix it in post.” Sometimes used to lighten the mood, sometimes used… a little too seriously. The idea is that if we can’t make something work here on set, we’ll make it work in the editing room with a few careful cuts. Or maybe CGI. Or in reshoots. Or maybe… look, did we actually need that shot?

Now, the reason this is a joke is because most filmmakers (above and below the line) realize you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist. If I didn’t get the shot I needed on set, it’s not going to magically appear in the editing room. If I don’t have the shot, my options for fixing the shot are very limited.

And the same holds for writing. I can’t tweak and clean up a chapter if I haven’t written the chapter. I need to have it all there, on the page, for me to be able to work on it.

BUT… here’s the catch.

When I go back through during that second pass or maybe even later in the process, I need to be aware that I may be editing everything else, but I’m creating this. In the middle of my second or third draft chapter is this first draft page. Or maybe a whole first draft chapter in my fifth draft manuscript (like I was just dealing with). I can tell myself I just finished the fourth pass, but really some of this is first-pass material.

Y’see, Timmy, if I wait until the very last minute before scribbling out that transition or that action scene or explaining exactly how Phoebe figured out that ancient translation… there’s a chance these bits aren’t going to get all the attention everything else did.

And I want to be sure they still get the same amount of love and polish the rest of the manuscript did.

Like I said, might be obvious to some folks. Might be a lightbulb moment for others.

Next time, I’d like to talk about some of that stuff you were going to throw out

January 18, 2024


Okay, one last start-of-the-year post. I promise. I won’t ask you to think about anything else writing-related.

Well, not until next week. But that’ll be different stuff.

Last week I talked about process and diminishing returns. That maybe the way I’m doing things right now—no matter how long I’ve been doing them—might not be the best way for me to do things. Maybe just for this project, maybe… overall. Sometimes we just need to look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and figure out if there’s room for improvement.

The catch here, of course, if I have to be willing to improve. I have to acknowledge there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Or at least a rough spot that could use some sanding or lubrication or something.

And like I mentioned before, that can be tough. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been doing things wrong or that they’ve possibly wasted a lot of time beating their head against a wall when the door was right over there. I mean, it even had a bright red exit light over it.

So look… here’s four things I should be willing to graciously acknowledge about my writing.

1) My first attempts at writing aren’t going to be good
When we first start writing, it’s tough to admit something we wrote isn’t good. We put in the time and the effort (okay, maybe we only put in one of those) and ended up with a solid three pages that were… mediocre, maybe. Possibly just bad.

But this isn’t anything to be bothered by or ashamed of. It’s normal. You didn’t expect to make a perfect three-layer cake the first time you tried. Didn’t think the first time you started jogging it’d be as effortless as some runners make it look. Why would writing be any different?

None of us like to be the clumsy rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts. Especially in the arts. People love to tell stories about those gifted prodigies who won awards and prizes with their first attempt at something, but the truth is most of them are just that—stories. It’ s folks cherry picking (or ignoring) the facts to create a narrative that helps them push an idea. Sure, there’s a few actual gifted amateurs out there—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.

You noticed I said “us,” right? Lots of folks think of Ex-Heroes is my first attempt at a novel, but it wasn’t. There was the very clumsy early work Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth, a super-derivative sci-fi novel called A Piece of Eternity, a puberty-fueled fantasy novel (embarrassing on a number of levels), some Star Wars and Doctor Who fanfic, The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth… and then Ex-Heroes.

And I can tell you without question that most of those sucked. In many different ways. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try to sell some of them (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I couldn’t improve as a writer until I accepted that I needed improvement.

2) My first draft isn’t going to be good
There was a point where I ‘d fret over my writing. I’d worry about individual words, each sentence, every paragraph. I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to rewrite the first paragraph. And then I’d get to the bottom of the page and rewrite it again. My productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.

It was a very freeing moment for me when I realized my first draft was pretty much always going to suck. And that’s okay. Everybody’s first draft sucks. We all have to go back and rework stuff, no matter how long we’ve been doing this. Everyone. I’ve seen some folks argue that they don’t technically do drafts, per se, but if you look close even they admit they rewrite a lot.

Once I could admit that and shrug off all those worries about word choice and sentence structure and dialogue and everything else… well, it became a lot easier for me to finish a first draft. Which meant I could do a second draft and a third draft. And then maybe even sell something.

3) My writing’s going to need editing
Okay, this seems like an obvious second half of the last admission, doesn’t it? If my first draft is bad, clearly it’s going to need some editing. Thing is, there’s a lot of folks who hear “it’s bad” and immediately move on to the next thing (I’ve got a whole school of thought about why this is, but that’s a different topic). Because my writing is perfect, so you saying it’s bad must mean there’s some inherent flaw in the plot or the characters that would mean rewriting the whole thing and who has time for that?

Look, we miss a lot of stuff on a first draft. On reflection, that character may be a bit of a stereotype. That dialogue could be a little sharper. I use that one turn of phrase a lot. I mean, seriously, it’s in every chapter.

And holy crap. Chapter nine? What was I even thinking? That’s just gone. Deleting the whole thing. Best if nobody ever sees that. It seemed like I needed it at the time but now that we’re doing this whole “admitting” thing… yeah, it should go. Doesn’t matter that I spent three days writing it. Gone. Remember to fix all those chapter numbers now…

Truth is, the editing is where we actually start to get better. It doesn’t happen by going to seminars or reading how-to books, it happens by sitting down and working on the writing until it’s better. And sometimes, yeah, it takes time and effort and multiple tries to make things work. Worse yet, no matter how much we learn, we’ll always find new mistakes to make and new things we can mess up.

Ha ha ha, you say. Well, only for so long, right? Eventually I’ll hit the point where I’ve figured it all out and writing holds no more mysteries. I will solve writing, yes?

Ehhhh, not really.

One of our goals is to come up with something new. We’re going to try these characters in that setting, this plot with those characters, maybe even some types of characters I’ve never tried writing before. And all these new combinations mean new things to learn and new mistakes to make in my early attempts. Running some quick and kind of horrying numbers, I can safely say I’ve been trying to tell stories for over forty-five years now (which is really weird when you consider I’m definitely still in my late thirties) and I really wish I had this down to a science. But the truth is I just finished a major rewrite on a book that’d already gone through four drafts. Because… well, it needed the editing.

4) My writing’s going to be rejected
Look, not everything’s going to appeal to everyone. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just that people have different tastes. They have different moods. No matter how hard we try to be fair, we like and dislike things for random reasons. Maybe it was a good story but the main character has the same name as an ex things ended really poorly with. Maybe I’d just seen one too many journal-style stories that week. Heck, maybe I had mild food poisoning at the time.

Good stuff gets rejected sometimes. It’s just a fact of life. Heck, even with the list of publishing credits I’ve got now, I’ve had short stories rejected, book proposals, comic proposals, all sorts of stuff. Rejection got less painful once I realized it wasn’t some personal attack, just a person who didn’t connect with my story at that moment for some reason.

Also probably worth admitting the ugly truth. Sometimes we also get rejected because… well, our stuff’s just not that good. Two agents asked to see The Suffering Map and both sent me a polite “sorry, not for me” letter. And they were (in retrospect) 100% right to do so. It wasn’t a great book and it had a lot of problems.

Oh, and please don’t fall into the trap of thinking something’s automatically good because it got rejected. We’ve all seen the folks who see rejection as proof their book is too good for those agents and Big Five publishers. We’re being honest here and admitting the truth, remember?

Y’see Timmy, if I can admit some of these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer. These aren’t flaws I have to wear forever like a big red letter A. Really, if I look at the above statements and my gut reaction is “Well, yeah, but this doesn’t apply to me,” it’s probably a good sign I’m not admitting some thing to myself.

So as you step fully into this new year, take a good look at your writing, and be willing to acknowledge what’s there.

Next time, I may blather on about first drafts a little more. Or tabletop games. Or maybe something else, if anyone has requests.

Until then, go write.

November 30, 2023

In Conclusion…

And here we are, in the final hours of NaNoWriMo.

I didn’t actively (or even loosely) participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Too much editing to do. But it’s been a productive month, and in a lot of ways that’s what this is all about.

Well, it’s not exactly what it’s all about.

Back at the start of the month, I said “NaNoWriMo” is a bit misleading because we’re not really trying to write an entire novel in a month. We’re trying to write the first draft of a novel in a month. A rushed, mistake-filled first draft at best.

And really… even that’s kind of misleading. Because what NaNoWriMo counts as a novel—a 50,000 word manuscript—is so small most publishers wouldn’t consider it. Even books in what are generally seen as “shorter” genres (like horror, romance, and mysteries, for example) have a low end of around 75-80K words.

So if the goal’s to get an even slightly passable first draft this month, pretty much everybody would fail. I mean, just in general I’m betting most folks who do NaNoWriMo don’t hit that 50K benchmark. That’s a lot of words in one month. Said as a professional who knows a lot of other professionals. It can be done, yeah, but it’s tough.

I’ll also take the next step and say half the folks who do hit said benchmark… well, their manuscripts probably need so much work they’re effectively going to be rewriting the whole thing in their next draft. Correcting. Cutting. Improving. Expanding.

Hopefully they admit they need another draft

Anyway, this is sounding so let me share two points I hope you’ll take away from this month of manic writing.

First, don’t think of this in terms of winning and losing. Think of it more like one of those mud run/ obstacle course things where the goal is just to get to the end. Yeah, someone’s going to get there first and someone’s going to get there last, but the big thing is getting there, even if it turns out it might take me a little longer than that guy. A friend of mine just did one of those races and she was nowhere near first but she finished the course and she was damned proud. I keep telling myself I want to run a marathon one day, but I’ve got no illusions about ever winning a marathon. I’ll be nowhere near the front of the pack, but I just want to know if I can do it.

So don’t worry about benchmarks or schedules. If you wrote new words this month, you did it! If you managed to write them almost every day this month—damn, you’re amazing. You did something most people just talk about doing.

Second, how much did you write? How many new words got put down? Twenty-five thousand? Thirty? Maybe twenty? Maybe forty?

Y’see, Timmy, what I should take away from this is how many words I wrote this month. because now, for future reference, I know how many words I can write in a month. In a month with a big holiday weekend, no less. Now I know exactly how long it’s going to take for me to finish that 100,000 word first draft. I’ve got a solid, attainable goal, and I know it’s attainable because I just showed myself how much I can write in a month.

So maybe you didn’t write the first draft of a book this month. But you proved you can write it. And if you can write a first draft—even if it takes two or three or six months—that means you can write a book. A finished, polished, ready-to-show-off-to-the-world book.

And that means you won NaNoWriMo. Congratulations!

Next time, I’m going to answer a question from the comments and talk about plotting.

Until then, go write.

And serious congrats again on winning NaNoWriMo.

November 21, 2023

False Starts

Between holidays and my own work and life in general, the ranty writing blog’s suffered a lot these past two or three months. I kept starting things and then rethinking them. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I really wanted to get in one more semi-helpful post before the holidays kick in and it’s all Black Friday this, Cyber-Monday that.

And I figured a cool topic might be, y’know, starting things and then rethinking them.

I think a lot of the reason I struggled with outlines for so long was because having an outline meant I had to KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING. Yes, all caps. No, not in the sense of writing. I still don’t know what I’m doing in that sense. But in the sense of my book. An outline meant I had everything worked out in this story. I knew how it all fit together. That twist, this character arc, that cool scene. I knew it all.

I mean, an outline’s essentially a map, right? It’s were I start from, where I want to end up, and all the interesting places along the way. The more detailed that map is, the less room there is for deviation or change. In theory, the less room we need to deviate or change. Because we’ve got it all worked out, right?

And that’s why I didn’t use them for so long. Outlines felt like the exact opposite of how I tended to write. I like discovering things while I’m writing. Or maybe coming up with something all-new as I worked. I don’t mean that in some vague, artsy “how my muse compels me” way, just my general process. Outlines tended to make me feel like I had to do all the work first. And if I didn’t use all that work… well, I’d just wasted time, hadn’t I?

It took me a long time to realize that, no matter how structured and solid my outline is, there’s always flex room. Just because I’ve got a ten or fifteen page outline doesn’t mean I need to stick to it. I can always tweak things and adjust.

And the ugly truth is… sometimes we just need to toss the outline and start over. Things that made sense when they were three sentences in the outline don’t work as well when I actually write out the full two pages. It’s easy to write “then X happens,” but then I sit down and maybe… X doesn’t just happen. Maybe X doesn’t make a lot of sense after all. The characters might’ve changed a bit as they fleshed out. I might have a different sense of how things interact.

There’s nothing wrong with getting 10,000 words into something and realizing it’s not working. Or 30,000 words. Or 50,000. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re always going to need to rewrite. And there’s always going to be stuff we write that nobody ever sees. Lines of dialogue, characters, sometimes whole chapters.

And I know, this feels wrong. It feels like we’ve wasted time and effort. What was the point of doing the outline if I ended up tossing so much work?

Y’see, Timmy, the outline’s a map, yeah, but it’s only a map to my first draft. That’s why we revise. To find all the places the trip could go a little better. To find out if there’s a way to cut a few hours off the drive. Maybe, for example, by not letting Wakko drive. At all. Perhaps we didn’t need to spend that long here, but really could’ve spent more time there. And maybe now we know to always stop at this place for food and that we definitely shouldn’t‘ve spent the night at that place. Never, ever staying there again. And maybe we find out our trip had a better starting point—that we all could’ve met up there instead of here. And maybe we thought we wanted to go there, but it turns out, y’know, that’s a much better place.

I’m currently rewriting this book. It had a thirty page outline. I wrote and revised a 170K manuscript. And I’m doing another big revision right now because I stepped away from it, talked with some folks, and realized there were a few parts that ultimately just didn’t work. Some have been changed. Some have been yanked. I’ve cut over 10,000 words out of it so far and I’m barely at the halfway point.

But it’s the right thing to do. And there’s nothing wrong with doing it.

Okay, next time, as I mentioned, we’re going into the holiday season so expect to see Black Friday and Cyber-Monday posts from me, as you have in the past. And then after all that we should be back to our regularly scheduled whatever I think of. I think there was a suggestion about plotting tools and tips…?

Until then, go write.