Writer’s Improvement hell – No helicopters in High Fantasy

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Another random thought while I avoid making my word count on NaNoWriMo. I’ve finished a draft of a high fantasy and I’m most of the way through a humorish urban fantasy (do I really have to put a genre label on it?). I’m having a much easier time of the urban fantasy, in part because the set-up of the adventure stays in one city. A city with cars and trains and stuff. So the events can happen all over the city and a reasonable distance outside of it over the course of a few hours. To simplify things further, the MC is actively searching out witches – providing immediate conflict with very little set up.

In a high fantasy, you might go from one city to the next, but that trip is going to take some time and require supplies, like food and gold and stuff. Not only that, getting all of the characters together in the right spot at the right time takes a bit of work. Then, to give the complexity wheel another crank, the MC is probably trying to save the kingdom or the world, or possibly the universe or a multi-verse. In any case, you’re not just going to get a phone call there and drive off to the evil emperor’s house to have an encounter where somebody just barely escapes with their life and someone else plots revenge. Nope, ‘ol MC’s gotta fight his way through the labyrinth to the goblin city then tell the goblin king “you’ve got no power over me – now give me that staff you weirdo and put some real pants on.” At that point the world will shatter and all of the plot holes will be filled in with unicorn pee and cement. See? Hard.

I will concede that you can pants your way through a good high fantasy, but there are so many moving parts that an average reader is going to spot a plot hole from a mile away. If you’re like me, then this is going to cause problems. In no way am I going to claim I’ve got an answer except to say that writing high fantasy is a hell of a lot harder than folks give credit to and writing a novel is already hard. At some point I’m going to explore this topic with a little more gusto because I need to solve it or my precious high-fantasy series will die on the vine.

Now, back to NaNoWriMo!


 

photo credit: helicopter engine via photopin (license)

Anatomy of a re-write

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I usually re-write my chapters once or twice immediately after I first draft them. It doesn’t make for a final draft, but it cleans things up. The last five chapters of my current project are still fairly rough and need quite a bit of work. Right now, I’m focused on chapter 17, it kicks off the final action, and introduces a new character. I’ve rewritten this chapter dozens of times, a few times it’s changed a lot. In the most recent versions, the action and setting of that chapter have started to settle and now I’m chipping away at issues of character, dialogue, and phrasing. I often see folks enumerating their re-writes, you know -I had to re-write my book eighteen times before I published it. This is something I could never quantify because I usually go back and revise as I’m working along. Even now, with a full draft, have yet to attempt revising the entire work. That will happen, but not just now.

What I don’t often see is a synopsis of what happens in these re-writes. How does one approach it? Is there a strategy? What the hell exactly are you re-writing? A new writer might even ask: After two or three revisions, what are you even doing? By that point you can’t be doing more than just shuffling around words.

Nope.

There are a lot of things that happen in each iteration. I’ve got a thousand or two words of rewrites here to illustrate the evolution of the story. This is the first couple of pages of chapter 17.

Earylish draft

Neoth awoke just as the sun broke over the buildings of the city, sending a shaft of light into the narrow window of his room. Some sort of noise had awoken him, but now he couldn’t tell if it was real or just part of his dream. He had been dreaming about standing on the top of the cliff with Althea again. This time, she had not attacked him. Instead, something in the distance taunted him. It was too far to be seen, but he felt as though he had to get there. A few birds twittered somewhere outside, and he thought he heard the faint crowing of a rooster. Again the noise came, it was a soft rapping at the door.
Neoth sat up, focusing on what was outside of the door. He could feel his brother, Erthrec out there.
“Come in.” Neoth said, getting to his feet.
“Good morning brother.” Erthrec said, slipping quietly into the room, and giving Neoth a big hug. “I am so glad to see you, I had thought Lord Feorun had gotten you.”
Neoth stepped back to look at his brother. Erthrec was dressed well, his shoulder-length hair tied back smartly, and his mustache and goatee neatly trimmed. Except for the single golden ring on his arm, he fully looked like any other merchant. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes. There were, dark rings under his eyes and worry lines etched on his forehead. Neoth could feel the genuine sentiment of relief in his brother. He really had been worried.
“I didn’t think you would be able to get here for another day.” Neoth said.
“The news of your arrival reached me early enough to make the trip.” Erthrec said, taking a seat on a chair next to the window. “Though, we will need to leave very soon after breakfast, I must return to the estate by mid-afternoon.” Then, changing to a much more somber tone continued, “I expect you’ve heard father and Aldredh are missing?”


 

Aside from the fact that I don’t really care for how this is written. There are lot of things that need fixing in this early draft. The MC (Neoth) was dropped out at a little farm by his family, who are a part of the nobility. The brothers immediately greet each other as old friends without the tension and resentment the MC would almost certainly feel. There is a good piece of foreshadowing here, but I can put that elsewhere. When I’d written this chapter, it was originally chapter 8, not 17, and so the circumstances were quite different with respect to rising action and plot. I think in its first iterations, this chapter may have even been 5.

A middle draft:

The soft knock at the door, set Neoth’s heart hammering in his chest. He sat up in bed, disoriented, and groping around for a weapon. The door creaked open slowly. A shaft of weak light broke into the room. Neoth moved so close to the edge of the bed, he nearly fell off. He cursed himself for having left his sword so near the door. As the light grew slowly, he groped around for something, anything to use as a weapon. A face peeked through the crack.
“Erthrec?” Neoth asked.
Erthrec slipped into the room. “It is.”
Even in the weak lamp light Neoth could see that Erthrec was well dressed, his shoulder-length hair tied back smartly, mustache and goatee neatly trimmed. He had always presented himself impeccably. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until sometime tomorrow.”
“I came as soon as I heard you were here,” he said as he turned to set his lantern on a side table.
The door swung fully opened to reveal the cook, carrying a tray with a pair of cups and teapots. She bustled into the room around Erthrec, and set it down on a side table.
“An’ there’s pot ‘o coffee for you ‘ere then,” She said to Neoth, before hurrying off, shutting the door as quietly as possible.
Neoth watched Erthrec pour from one of the pots into a cup. He handed it to Neoth. “I seem to recall that you don’t take cream in this,” He said.
Neoth took the cup. The smell of it was a powerful. Coffee was a soldier’s drink. He’d taken a liking to it when he was with the king’s guard. Erthrec returned to the tray and poured himself a cup from the other pot. When he was done, he took a seat on a chair near the window.
“I’m surprised you remember such a little thing,” Neoth said holding up his coffee. “Or would care to after I was kicked out of the family.”
Erthrec sighed. It was a shuddering gesture full of sadness. “It wasn’t quite like that you know.”
Noeth took a sip of his coffee. It was powerful stuff. “What do you mean?”


This draft was initially drafted about a year ago, just after introducing a major sub-plot and expanding a few early chapters that were just too thin for plausibility. It covers roughly the same scene as the early draft, but takes into account some of the things missing. I also tried to get at some of those things I didn’t like early on. That said, the language and dialogue are still clunky and don’t quite get me where I want to be with respect to tension – or at least it doesn’t set it up as I’d like it to. In this draft, the topic of the MC’s exile comes up fairly quickly, but still feels weak to me, not only that the brother doesn’t really respond to the MCs dialogue as he ought to.

Current draft:
A soft knock at the door set Neoth’s heart hammering in his chest. He sat up in bed, disoriented, and groping around for a weapon. The door creaked and shaft of light broke into the room. As the light grew, Neoth struggled with his tangled blanket, nearly falling off the bed. He cursed himself for having left his sword so near the door. A face with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee peeked through the crack.
“Erthrec?” Neoth asked.
Erthrec slipped into the room. “It is.”
“You could have announced yourself,” Neoth said, trying to catch his breath.
“I did knock. Don’t you think an assassin would have just slit your throat and been done with it?”
Even in the weak lamp light Neoth could easily make out Erthrec’s fine clothes and smartly tied back shoulder length hair. He had always presented himself impeccably. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until sometime tomorrow,” Neoth said.
Erthrec turned to set his lantern on a side table. “I came as soon as I heard you were here.”
“After years without a single word, you rushed here?” Neoth asked before he could stop himself.
“It wasn’t by choice,” Erthrec said.
“Someone forced you here then?”
“No, of course not,” Erthrec said in exasperation, “It wasn’t my choice not to visit.”
The door swung fully opened, and the cook bustled into the room carrying a tray with a pair of cups and teapots. She set it down on the side table next to Erthrec’s lantern.
“An’ there’s pot ‘o coffee for ya then,” She said to Neoth, before shuffling out and making a production of quietly shutting the door.
Erthrec poured a cup from one of the pots and handed it to Neoth.
Neoth took the cup. It was coffee, a soldier’s drink. He’d taken a liking to it when he was with the king’s guard. Erthrec returned to the tray and poured himself a cup of tea from the other pot. When he was done, he took a seat on a chair near the window.
“I’m surprised you remember such a little thing,” Neoth said holding up his coffee. “Or would care to after I was kicked out of the family.”
Erthrec rubbed his eyes in exhaustion. “It wasn’t quite like that you know.”
Noeth took a sip of his coffee. “Why didn’t you visit then?”
“I did try, but I couldn’t find you.”
“It wasn’t like I was very far off, and anyone in the village could have told you Neoth the Rogue lived there.”
“Had I known what village to look in, yes, I would have expected as much,” Erthrec said.


 

The current draft reads a bit better, but still needs some polishing. The brother is a much stronger character here. I’d say that this bit of text is fine for the moment. What this revision doesn’t do is address some of the character issues. I may need to play up certain reactions or sections of dialogue in order to really paint a clear picture of both characters, additionally, I may need to mess with tone a bit. This chapter starts out the final action of the book, and I can’t tell from this granular level whether or not the characters are taking a breath, digging a latrine, or should actually be subject to a slightly more intense situation. The important thing here is that the amount of work required to address any of those issues is fairly small now. In any case, once I finish revising this chapter, I probably won’t do much to it aside from a little grammatical clean-up before sending off to friends for review and commentary. Once I have a broader perspective on the story, I can once again launch into polishing, because I’ll have a better idea of what didn’t work for a reader. This will also help me work out mechanical things like confusing sentences and descriptions that don’t resonate.

There is a progression of my revisions. The general process that I follow looks like this:
1.) Revise for plot, hitting the high points and making sure there is adequate set up for other story elements. (tweak setting as needed). I typically remain stuck here for a long time, and repeat until the plot starts to settle.
2.) Revise for scene/plausibility – if a scene isn’t working I shift it around until I find a place it does feel good. Plausibility also comes in here. The scene can lend credibility to certain events in the plot. Early on I write things as I’d like them to happen, but to the reader, it may not feel authentic, or seem at odds with character or action to that point.
3.) Revise for character – this focuses on dialogue and body language (tweak setting as needed)
4.) Revise for ‘feel’ – tension, sadness, intensity. For example if this needs to be more intense, I’ll need to drop that into the dialogue somehow and consider shorter, punchier sentences.
5.) Revise for theme – is there a point I might be able to work in that addresses some of the themes I’m weaving it. I should be following this all along, but this is the opportunity to highlight it.
6.) Copy editing – I’m trying to catch obvious problems throughout, but I don’t spend a lot of time referring to grammar books, only the first few chapters have gotten this treatment, and still need another repeat or two of 1-5. Not only that, they’ll still need to have a legit editor roll over it.

So, there it is, the revision process of one writer. How do you approach revision?

Deflating (how the hell does a new author get published?)

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You might expect that I danced around the house beating my chest and being generally insufferable after finishing my first draft. Nope. I barely got warmed up before my ego was popped like a giant over-inflated balloon. While I may have been insufferable for a good fifteen minutes, I hadn’t quite gotten to the ‘beating my chest’ stage of things before sitting myself down with a nip of whiskey. Just as I was about the raise the glass and salute myself for being awesome, my wife looked over her own glass and said, “Congratulations. So what’s your next step?”

I really can’t think of a statement that is at once so supportive, non-critical, and utterly deflating.

The amount of work remaining is mind-boggling. In total, the book is 21 chapters long. There’s every bit of editing and revision you can imagine and more. On the bright side, I’ve already been sharing some of this work with friends and so the first half of the book is pretty well polished. I’d put the number of revisions on most of those chapters at somewhere between 1 and 2 dozen full rewrites. These are at the point where they really just need a bit of polish before going off for another round of beta-reading. Then, I get into the technical editing.

The last half of the book, however, is another matter. It’s in mixed condition. For me, the first full draft for me simply means that I’ve finally got at least a full draft of each chapter in the book up to the end. All but the final two chapters have already been re-written at least twice. Chapter 16, for example, has been with me for more than two years, starting life as chapter 5. It’s undergone tons of rewrites, and reads pretty well.

Dave.

Yes?

I think you’re rambling.

I’m getting there.

Are you sure? I mean, if you’re not going to get to the point, perhaps I should move on to another blog?

Just be patient. You can’t rush a really good rant.

It’s not really the editing that was so much deflating, though it’s a major thing to deal with at this point. What’s got me twisted in knots is what comes after that. Beyond revision and editing, which I expect to dominate huge swaths of my summer, I’ve got to start thinking about publishing*. To be perfectly clear, my eventual goal in life is to become a full-time writer. I recognize this is not an overnight thing, which is why I’ve got a pretty damn good day job.

For now, I’m staring down the barrel of two equally daunting possibilities**: I can self publish or try to go ‘traditional’

If I were to choose the ‘traditional’ route. I can polish this until my knuckles bleed, without any real guidance as to whether or not the polishing is even making the damn thing shiner in the eyes of a publisher. Then, I get to spend weeks developing query letters and synopsis, and whatever the hell else agents and publishers want, before shipping it off. At that point, I get the joy of waiting for months and months hoping, and praying***, some magnanimous agent or publisher decides to go out on a limb and take it up an author without a platform. In the mean time, I’ll be waiting months for rejection letters before trying again. Provided most of the accounts I’ve read on this process are accurate, I’ll get to continue revising for months before receiving a little bitty advance, and if I work very, very hard on social media, I might actually get some royalties on top of that. Once I manage to finish book 2, I’ll have to repeat the process, hoping that all of the effort I’ve poured into setting this series up doesn’t go up in smoke.

Traditional doesn’t sound so good from this perspective does it?

So, what if I go the self-publishing route? I could do that. I just need some beta readers to start – we’ll just assume the advice they give me is in-depth enough to address issues of character, plot, theme, and setting in the work as a whole. Then, I need to hire an editor. I’ll just assume my decision here is the right one, I mean, what’s a couple grand *COUGH*. (No problem, I’ve got a spare kidney.) So, that’s line editing taken care of – I don’t really need the other sorts of editing do I? So, whats left? Ah, some cover art, That should roll in at around 500 bucks, (hmmm, do you really need two kidneys?) Once all that’s set, I can get a copy of indesign. Shouldn’t take me but a month or two to get myself professionally comfortable with that, and all that’s left is to work out how to navigate Amazon. Then I hit ‘publish’ and wait for the dollars to pour in right? No… wait I have to work very, very hard on social media, and quite possibly invest some cash in advertising, (people don’t have three kidneys do they?) to see a few copies sell.

You know, in looking back at that to-do list and the associated costs, I’m not really convinced on self-publishing either.

So, then what are you going to do Dave?

I’m extremely conflicted on this point. It seems to me that going through a traditional publishing house gives you a bit of a leg up on the platform building front. I’d like the opportunity to tap into that. To be honest though, I actually don’t think there is a real option for a new author. I mean, I could go through the process of submitting to agents and publishers, waiting for months for each painstakingly mass-printed rejection notice, containing a carefully crafted one-size fits all ‘no thank you’. Sure, new authors do get published in this manner, but many more very good writers do not. I have no expectation that I would somehow be amongst the lucky handful. Of course, I could self-publish, but this is another special version of an up-hill battle, and not one that I’m convinced will lead me to my goal.

Did you get to an answer in there?

No, but if you could help me find a thoroughly convincing argument to go either way, it might help.


* Yes, I know that I’m not done yet, but summer will come and go quickly.
** Don’t bother splitting hairs on indy publishing houses here, there’s no point.
*** I am not a particularly religious individual, but if I needed to pray for something, it would save it for something other than a book.


photo credit: The Gears via photopin (license)