February 10, 2022

How Long Did It Take…

I’d already planned this week’s topic and then the writing discourse, as some call it, veered toward length anyway. So call it happy coincidence. Or serendipity.

Okay, granted, they were talking about how long a manuscript should be, and we’ve talked about that here before. It’s old news, right? This week, when I’m talking about length, I wanted to talk about time. How long some of this takes.

I’ve blathered on before about how easy it is to follow your favorite writers on social media these days. So many of them are active to some degree on one platform or another. And they toss out advice and updates about their work. Plus, we can find authors at our own level, people who are going through the same struggles and frustrations.

Not surprisingly, we end up comparing ourselves to these other folks. Yeah, there’s dozens of reasons not to, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s human nature. We’re curious how we measure up. Has she written more than me? Does he write faster than me? How did their career take off so much faster than mine?

And a lot of the time, the answers to these questions are a bit intimidating. Maybe even discouraging. I mean, I’ve been working on this book for over a year now and she just pumped one out in eight weeks? What the hell? I know other writers aren’t my competition but seriously… how am I supposed to compete with that?

So the point I wanted to make is that… well, art’s a little subjective. It’s not like a construction project where we can say we broke ground last May and people are moving in this month. A lot of the starting and stopping points of art can be a little fuzzy. And some people… well, play with that fuzz. So to speak.

Like, we’ve talked before about how long it takes to write a book. Some folks consider the starting point when they started outlining. Some consider it when the idea first struck them. And others say they started writing when they typed Chapter One.

Let’s consider my first published novel– Ex-Heroes. When did I start writing it? Well, I made up a lot of the characters before I hit high school, so that was the early ‘80s. I jotted down my first rough notes in the summer of 2006, but I didn’t start actively working on it until mid-2008. So when did I start? Depending on how you want to look at it, we could say it took twenty-five years or about six months to write.

That’s not even considering most traditionally-published novels go through an editing process that can be a few months, and it might be even more months before the book’s actually out there in the world. So when are we saying the book’s done? When I turn it in? When the publishers edits are done? When the layouts are locked and it goes to print?

Or how about this one–a common yardstick people like to look at. How long was it from when you started writing until your first novel? But again, both of those points are kind of debatable. Yeah, I sold Ex-Heroes in late 2008, but it didn’t actually come out until early 2010. And there were a couple novels before it, but they didn’t sell. The first full novel that I actually completed was started in early ‘93 and finished in 2001… but then I spent about three years editing and rewriting. So when was my “first” novel?

And when did I start writing? When I was eight and blocking out original Star Wars stories in my Kenner Death Star playset? When I started using my mom’s massive electric typewriter? When I first started submitting stuff? When I started writing the first novel I actually finished? When I quit my film job to start writing full time? When I quit that job to start writing fiction full time? Any of these is a valid starting point, but they cover about thirty years.

Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. I can easily—and truthfully—say I started writing anytime between 1979 and 2010 and give solid justifications for why that’s the point I chose. Likewise, I can manipulate how long it took to go from “starting to work” to “first sold novel” and make it look really fast or really slow. I mean, we’ve talked once or thrice about the overnight success with a decade or more of work behind them.

And there’s a lot of reasons people might give these different figures. It could be a marketing thing. It might just be what they think counts as actual “writing.” Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to fudge the numbers to try to make themselves look more impressive. It might be how some MFA professor taught them to do it and they’ve never shaken that particular habit.

My point is… don’t worry about these numbers. I shouldn’t worry abut how long it took to write my book. I don’t have to freak out because it feels like my career hasn’t taken off yet. My speed is my speed. Yeah, we’re all going to compare ourselves to other people’s numbers, but just remember… those numbers may have a bit of range to them.

Next time…

Actually, before I talk about next time—if you happen to be of the reviewing type and have access to NetGalley, my new novel The Broken Room is now there and can be requested. For the rest of you… holy crap, only eighteen more days!

Anyway, next time let’s talk about… the unknown.

(cue spooky music)

Until then, go write.
June 10, 2021 / 2 Comments

Five Years Later

So, I talked about prologues recently, and I wanted to toss out one more thought on them. Well, y’know, one more for now. This one’s an easy warning flag to look for as I’m trying to figure out if my prologue is worth saving or not. It’s not a guaranteed catch, but I’d bet at least three out of four times, that flag’s popped up for a good reason.

If you’ve ever followed along with my Saturday geekery, you know a common B-movie complaint I have is the opening where everyone dies. A bunch of people show up, have some bare bones character development, maybe flash some skin… and then die horribly. Usually by monster, but sometimes it’s a serial killer. Or lava.

Anyway, there’s a slight offshoot to this, and I’ve seen it in book manuscripts too. It’s when our main story doesn’t start until


You’ve seen this, yes? I’d guess 83% of the time that opening scene’s about someone dying. Or doing something vague and “mysterious.” Or maybe it’s really clear what’s going on but it just feels irrelevant because, seriously, who are any of these people?

And then we flip the page and see that header right under “Chapter Two.” Or maybe it got a page of its own. In the movie, they probably did a fade-to-black and then maybe a little chyron at the bottom of the next shot—Two Years Later

Like I said, this isn’t a guaranteed problem. Not so much a red flag as maybe a safety orange one.

And also, just to be clear, the problem isn’t the timestamp (so to say) itself. Just like with prologues, the problem doesn’t magically vanish just by saying “Okay, I won’t tell the reader it’s four months later, I’ll just let them figure it out.” This isn’t going to take care of anything and it’s probably going to cause more problems.

Y’see, Timmy, that tag is a warning to my reader—and it should be to me. It’s making it clear just how disconnected this opening is from the actual story on the temporal measuring tape. And if it’s that set apart from my main story… how important is it?

Seriously, look at all the different rules and conditions we’ve talked about before when it comes to prologues. No, go look—I linked to most of them up above. I’d bet you four out of five times, if the story opens with a scene or chapter that gets followed with SIXTEEN DAYS LATER (or something similar, don’t get pedantic), it’s breaking a bunch of those rules. Which means I’ve probably got an unnecessary opening. Heck, my manuscript might be a lot stronger without it.

Sure, this isn’t an absolute. There are lots of examples of stories that start here and then jump days, weeks, or months ahead. But there’s also really solid reasons why those examples work with those stories. We can break down exactly why that separation between then and now is so important for this book or movie.

So if you find out you’ve added that flag, maybe take a moment and give that opening a good look. Does that separated beginning really add anything? What does the big distance between them bring to my story? What does pointing out that distance add to it?

So says the guy who just started a new book, and the only thing on page five is


Next time, there’ll be some more experience to share with you.

Until then, go write.

August 20, 2020 / 1 Comment

An Old Favorite…

It’s Thursday morning and it struck me that I don’t have anything ready for the ranty blog. I’ve had a few different ideas rattling around in my head for posts about endings and comedy and jargon. But they’re all kinda big things and a bit… delicate? I don’t want to be giving bad, half-thought-out advice, and I’m not 100% sure that I have good advice on these precise topics quite yet. Thus all the rattling around in my head.

Or maybe those are LEGO bricks? Might be. Really, anything goes in 2020.

Hey, speaking of years and what’s possible and what’s acceptable, I realized I could babble on for a minute or two about a topic that pops back up every four or five months.

See, I recently watched an adaptation of something I loved many years back. And, being a proper nerd who read and re-read the original and then read it again a seventeenth time, I picked out little changes here and there. I mean, yeah, it’s an adaptation. Things are going to change. They always do because they need to. But these were different changes. A lot of them were in how people were addressed. How other people reacted to them. Nothing gigantic, but it stood out to me because—as I said—I was a big fan of the original.

Okay, fine, I was nitpicking.

Anyway, I can’t remember at what point in the movie it clicked, but it hit me that the movie had updated a lot of the original story’s views on sexuality and gender. Just little tweaks, nothing that affected the plot in any way. But the movie was a bit more modern, inclusive, and—in a few places—a little less mocking.

I thought Good on them.

But then, shortly afterward, I had another moment. Because, hang on a minute, I’d read this many, many times back in those formative years and I’d never noticed any places where people were excluded or mocked or anything like that. The book was fine. Was this movie overreacting? Were they just changing things in the adaptation to please a tiny, vocal minority?

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized ohhhhhhhh no. No they weren’t. I just didn’t notice because, at the time… I was cool with all of that. My views then echoed a lot of the views of, well, then. Just like the book did.

This book was big for me. If someone asked me, it’d probably end up on my personal list of “twelve most influential books/authors” or something like that. But… yeah, it’s got some flaws. The book is a fixed artifact of thenand there are aspects of it that the world has moved past. And, thankfully, I’ve moved past.

It’s a rough thing to go back and realize things you loved in the past don’t quite measure up anymore. Sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in… well, really big ones. I re-read a classic sci-fi novel a year or two back and it terrified me with some of its views on sex. Re-read another formative series to my partner when she was really sick and discovered wow was there a lot of casual racism in it. Just a few weeks ago I watched one of my favorite comedy movies from my teens, one I must’ve seen this at least a dozen times (yay USA Up All Night) and holy crap that was just full-on, no question sexual assault, arguably attempted rape from the main character. That was seriously uncomfortable to watch.

And I get why admitting this sort of thing can be tough for people. To admit these early, formative works are flawed. That the people who made them were flawed. Because admitting this means opening ourselves up to the idea we might be flawed. We might’ve absorbed views and lessons that, in retrospect, were not good.  It’s painful to think the movie adaptation of our life might get that same horrified reaction.

The world always changes. It progresses, it moves forward, and hopefully… we move with it. We learn more. We understand more. This sounds really dumb to say, but I’m very happy my views have grown and evolved since I was five. Or fifteen. Or twenty-five. Not on everything, but on a lot of things. It’s not weakness to say I’ve changed my views—it’s growth.

This doesn’t mean we have to abandon those old, formative works or throw them on bonfires. But we need to be honest and acknowledge what they really are… even when it means a bit of apology and internal cringing on our part. I can say this book and that book are on my list of formative things because… well, they were. I can’t deny it. They’re part of why I’m a writer today.

But I don’t need to embrace them or constantly defend them. I can admit their flaws—some minor and some seriously glaring—even if it possibly means admitting some flaws of my own. Because in writing and in life, I can’t improve if I never admit that I need improvement.

Anyway… just some random thoughts. I know other folks have said similar things in a better way.
Next time…

Well, as always, if anyone’s’ got a specific question, feel free to drop it in the comments below. Or over on a Writers Coffeehouse videoif you want to get answers from better writers. And if not, maybe I’ll sort out some of those bigger ideas to talk about.

Until then… go write.

Here we are yet again. Welcome back, my captive audience. How’s everybody doing as we enter week… two? Three? How long have you been social-distancing at this point? Yeah, it sucks, but he way these numbers are going there’s a good chance you’re saving someone just by staying at home and… well, reading this.
Anyway, I know originally the A2Q was going to be an every other week thing, but we’re getting to some of the meatier stuff so I just wanted to continue with it. If anyone has any complaints, let me know down in the comments what you’d rather have me prattle on about. But for now… more A2Q.
It’s finally time to start putting things together. We’ve talked about plot, characters, story, setting, and theme. Now let’s talk a bit about how to put them all together and take a few big steps toward a manuscript.
Also, I’m going to warn you right up front… things are going to get a little vague here. As we get deeper into this it gets harder and harder for me to write out advice because you (yes, I’m talking to you, specifically) are your own person. You’re a writer with your own quirks and habits and preferences. And your story is your story. Nobody knows it like you do. Nobody knows how it should be told better than you. Which means a lot of this is going to be on your shoulders. I can offer you some general guidance, but it’s going to come down to you.

Think of it this way—and this actually ties in well to today’s topic. Let’s say you want to go on a road trip and ask me for advice. I’ve taken a bunch of road trips, but there’s only so much I can tell you without knowing about you, your interests, what kind of trip you want to take, in what direction, and for how long. My advice and experience might not line up with what you want to do. Doesn’t mean what your idea for a trip is wrong, and it doesn’t mean my advice is bad. It just means we all have different ways of doing different things

Also-also… this is kind of a huge step. It might not seem it, but it is. We’re going to take this huge pile of elements, arrange them, connect them, and try to do it all in a way so this contraption of words creates specific emotional and intellectual reactions from people we don’t even know.

Nervous yet? Don’t be. Well, I mean, you can be, but you don’t need to worry about it. We all get nervous at this point. Yeah, seriously. Everyone. Yep, even her. Him too. And her. Okay, no, not him—he’s kinda delusional. Nice guy, but take his advice with a grain of salt.

Also-the-third… speaking of fear, there’s one other really important thing to keep in mind at this point. Absolutely nothing we’re doing is set in stone. It’s not like once I put this element here and connect it to that it’s fused solid and they can never be moved or separated again. They can and they will. Nothing’s locked. We’ll be changing things now, and while we write it, and while we’re editing it. So I don’t need to stress out too much while I’m doing this.


I thought about this for a little bit, and I think there are four big pieces of advice I want to offer you at this stage. Plus a dozen or so links to earlier posts where I’ve talked about some of this stuff in much more detail. When the A2Q gets a book deal, I’ll make sure more of that stuff’s right here, but for now—links.

So, when we’re talking about arranging and connecting all these elements, there are four things I think we need to keep in mind.
—What parts do and don’t belong in my book
—The starting point
—The end point
—How I’m going to tell my story

Let’s talk about each of these and how they relate to that big pile of elements.

First, which of these elements do and don’t belong in my book. Which ones are part of the tale I’m telling and which ones are backstory or character details. I need to sift through them and figure out which ones belong in which pile.
Now, I know the first instinct is to say “it allmatters,” and in one sense that’s true. All of these backstory elements and little nuances are going to affect my character and shape the kind of person they are. But that doesn’t mean they all need to be in my book. Some of these things will just stay in my notes or in my head and shape things from there.

Also, we mentioned weeding them out earlier but even so there’s a good chance some of the elements we talked about before that just don’t fit anymore. They’re good ideas, they just don’t work for this particular book, or maybe the book it’s become as I gathered all the different elements and polished them off a bit. The werewolf being a cyborg from the future? Really fun, I bet I could do it well, but it’s not going to fit here. Part of doing this is realizing that and accepting it. Not every idea works for every book.

Don’t worry—if Tor picks this up for a series, we’ll definitely see the time-traveling werewolf by book three.
Second is the starting point. Where am I going to begin my book? What is page one going to be? I think this gets messed up a lot, for a couple different reasons….
One is that, as the writers, we know all the lead-up events, and the impulse is to put them all in. But this quickly becomes a trap, because there are always going to be earlier events that lead to these events. I don’t want to start with the police detectives at the crime scene, I want to start with the jogger finding the body. Except I don’t want to start with finding the body, I want to start with the murder. Except I don’t want to start with the murder, I want to begin where the murder was being planned. Except I don’t want to start with the murder being planned, I want to see the event that pushed her into killing him. Except I don’t want to see that event…

See what I mean? We can always go further back. So one of our jobs is to figure out where do things actually begin for my heroes.

Another way this gets messed up feeds a bit off the last one, and it’s the old “start with action” thing. I’ve talked about this at length before, but essentially it’s a piece of advice that gets misunderstood a lot by people starting out. They twist their outline to begin with exploding cyborg ninja conflict when it might just need two people arguing about laundry from different ends of their house.

Finally, feeding off both of the last points, I think there’s some other bad advice out there that usually takes the form of “get into it as quickly as possible.” Again, this advice isn’t wrong, it’s just lacking context. Which is kind of my point—if I dive into the story too fast I won’t have time to establish any sort of norm for my heroes. Without that context—the bar to measure everything else in the book against—things won’t have the proper weight and I’ll just be confusing my readers. So I don’t want to spend five or six chapters on my hero’s normal, day-to-day life, but I can’t neglect it, either.

Third is the end point. No matter what kind of road trip I’m planning, I need to have some idea where I want to end up. Maybe this is just a long weekend away and we’re going to end up back home. Maybe it’s a longer-than-necessary trip to visit a friend. Maybe I’m moving cross country.

Whatever kind I decide it is, it’s hard to have any sort of structure if I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t tell if I’m going the right way when I don’t know what direction the right way is. It becomes less a book and more of a firehose with nobody holding the end, just thrashing around and spraying water everywhere as it slams into things.

Keep in mind, I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. For road trip purposes, I can just say “I’m gonna drive to Los Angeles.” I don’t need a specific part of town or  a street address or the name of a nice restaurant for dinner. I can figure out the details when I get there. But I want to have enough sense of my ending that I can say “I need to head north-west from here.”
And also… there’s nothing wrong with deciding to change destinations halfway through. Maybe I’m going to shoot straight through LA and head for San Francisco. Maybe I’m going to veer off and spend a long weekend in Las Vegas. Or out a Joshua Tree. But at any given point, I should be able to say “I’m trying to get to there.”
Fourth and last of these key things is how I’m going to tell my tale. How am I going to arrange things in an interesting, compelling narrative that also creates ongoing, climbing tension? Do I want to use a straight linear narrative? A series of flashbacks? Am I going to have a completely non-linear structure?
All of these are big questions. In the past I’ve talked about structure and it usually covers three pretty big posts. I’m not going to go over them all at length here, but in my opinion it’s always best to make sure my linear structure makes sense before I try to work in lots of flashbacks, time shifts, or the like. There haven’t been a ton of studies that I know of, but I think readers always know, on some level, if a book doesn’t make linear sense.
But past that… a lot of this is going to depend on you and your tastes. It’s how you want to tell your tale, after all. Maybe you want to start simple, or maybe you’re going straight to the most complex, interwoven plot you can manage. That’s all going to be your choice, and you’ll need to think about it as you start outlining.
Speaking of which…
With those four things in mind, let’s try to make some kind of outline. Again, this is something I’ve talked about a couple times before, so I don’t want to talk too much here (look how big this is already). But let’s try to address a few things.

You’ve probably got a ton of plot and story points piled up so far. Little snippets of dialogue, cool action moments, neat reveals, maybe some good character beats. For now, let’s just deal with plot and story elements. Try to get them more or less together in one document. What do you have, two or three pages? More?
What I generally do at this point is start rearranging things. I want to put all these in some kind of order pretty close to my story. I think a quick, easy tool here is basic three act structure. Beginning, middle, end. Grab any plot element out of your pile. Seriously, look at your list, close your eyes, point your finger at something.
Now, gut reaction, is this element from the beginning, the middle, or the end of your book? Is it one of those basic establishing/introducing/setting-things-up points? Is it one of the last big twists? Don’t think about it, just drop it where it goes. You’ve probably already got a sense of where these things belong, so don’t overthink it for now. Remember—if it doesn’t work, we can always fix it later.
Once you’ve got them all arranged, read through it. Does it make sense? Does it feel like it’s lacking anything? If there’s stuff you’ve kept in your head (there’s always a few things) feel free to jot those down now, too. If you want to swap a few things around, that’s cool too. Just poke at it for a day or three until it feels like a loose summary of your story. Not a complete one, but I want enough of one that I can see the shape of it.
That thing in front of you is an outline. A simple one, but that’s what it is. If we’re talking about a road trip, this is our rough map. Or maybe an itinerary? Little of both, really.

And this brings us back to another “up to you” moment. Maybe this simple outline’s enough for you. Your brain’s buzzing to get to work, to start writing. If that’s the case, go for it. But if you want a little more that this—if you want a more detailed map or a few more things locked down on the itinerary, that’s cool too. Start pulling in your character elements, maybe add a few setting details where they’d be relevant.

For my first book, Ex-Heroes, I barely had an outline. One page of random notes, most of them about characters, a lot of stuff still in my head. For my last book, Terminus, the outline was 23 pages long. And for this new thing I’m working on, I think I had three pages of notes when I launched into it. It’s going to be different for every writer and it’s going to be different for every book. So don’t worry if yours is “right” or not. Just work with it until you think it’s enoughto keep you on track from the beginning to the end.
All that said… let’s toss down a few elements of our werewolf story, move them around a bit, and see what we end up with. It’s going to be rough because it’s just for me. You’ll probably recognize a couple of these elements from earlier A2Q posts…

Start with Phoebe and Luna at home.  Both getting ready to go out for the evening, but Luna’s heading out to another party and Phoebe’s going hunting. So they’re looking for things, asking who borrowed what, warning each other to be safe, and so on.

Phoebe’s going to be out hunting and encounter the super-werewolf (although she doesn’t know it’s super yet, or who it is). She’s going to put a silver crossbow bolt in it and it’s going to ignore it and run off. This will also give her a chance to grumble about losing a silver bolt because they’re expensive. She can track it for a while, find the bolt… but no body.
The next morning Phoebe goes to the lodge and we meet Luc and talk about hunting last night, if he saw anything noteworthy. Maybe some one-sided flirting?
Intro. Andrea.  Maybe Andrea’s actually the head of the lodge. Warden? That sounds Masonic without going all weird with “master.” She’s willing to entertain the ‘super-werewolf” idea, and will pay an extra $2500 bounty for proof.
Down to check in with Quinn. Crossbow took a beating last night. One knife needs a nick ground out of it.
Gets a call from her job at the bar—she’s late, supposed to be there for deliveries.
Go to the bar, intro. her “norm” boss.

Work night.

After work??

Breakfast with Luna the next day. Talk about the bounty, using it to pay for college?

It’s very, very loose, but I think that’s eight or nine chapters right there. Into the second act, easy. It’s also very straightforward and linear. I’d write out more of it, but as I mentioned… this is getting ridiculously long.
One thing that immediately occurs to me—and I’ve come up against this before—werewolf stories have an inherent time limit built into them, especially if I want to go “classic” light-of-the-full-moon werewolves. And that is… the full moon only comes out every four weeks. So I’m looking at a lot of time here with, well, no werewolves in it. I’ll need to space a few things out and skip over some time. Which won’t be a huge problem since I’ve already said Phoebe’s stuck with a normal job and Luna doesn’t know she’s the werewolf.
What I might do, right now, is take the bit with Quinn and drop it down to the bottom of this little outline fragment. So that just became another day. Plus, now it means Phoebe’s getting that call from her day job while she’s in her meeting with Andrea, which can create some fun.
And at this point, forget about writing a book—I’m worried the sheer size of this post might be intimidating to some of you.
Get your elements. Organize them. Make your road map, and make it as simple or detailed as you like.

Next time… our first draft.

Until then, go write.