Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Surprise Productivity

The other night I was reflecting on how busy I've been this year, and lamenting the fact that I have not yet gotten a serious start to my next novel - nothing beyond a few exploratory beginnings.

Then I remembered that so far this year I've written two novellas. And most of a third. And a couple short stories. If I really want to stretch, I've also done major revisions on Twixt which - while cutting 35k words, probably resulted in roughly 3k new words.

All told, I'd estimate conservatively that I've written 70k words so far this year. That ain't half bad. True, not all of those projects are finished, but that is better than I thought I'd been doing. I focus too much on novels as the real indicator of progress, I think. All this writing, and what I've really been thinking is "I've only got one novel."

However, I've got almost a novel-length's worth of new material. That is a pleasant surprise considering I wrote in what (scant) free time I had. Perhaps I've been reading too many blog posts and articles lately on the value of being prolific. Of course, they're talking about full-time authors writing two-to-four novels a year. A part-timer like me needs to keep things in perspective.

I just need to remind myself that I'm playing the long game, here. A novel (maybe 1.5 novels) a year, and a couple short stories and novellas, is plenty to add to my mass of work. Let it build, let it build... and eventually develop - as Dave Robison put it - a "literary gravity"...

... and eventually, maybe I'll catch fire.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Short Fiction

I've never been especially good at writing short fiction, because my ideas tend towards expansive. The smaller ideas, which might take less time to articulate, usually end up getting folded into one of my larger ideas in order to enhance it.

I recently finished a short story that was originally intended for that very fate. It sprung into my mind, then I reworked the idea to be a scene in a novel, and now I've taken it back to stand-alone short status. First draft ended up pretty well, and now it goes into its metaphorical drawer for a few weeks before I edit it.

I'm already wondering what else I could include, or what bits might be expanded on. It is very short, about a thousand words. However it is also tight, and probably doesn't need anything beyond the scope of the story itself expanded on. Better to let readers wonder. Still, my urge is to tell more, write more, give more. Another reason I'm not so good at short fiction. I don't necessarily like leaving so many mysteries, or details, unresolved.

On the other hand, it is always fun to finish a story, and shorts give a little "shot" of that feeling. A friend of mine also raised the fact that yesterday's short story can become tomorrow's novel.

On a somewhat related note, my (free) released short story "Le Morte d'Arthur" has seen some additional success, cracking the top 25 Ghost stories on the Kindle boards. It seems the rapid increase in downloads coincided with the story garnering its first review. Correlation != causation, but I can't help but suspect the former influenced the latter.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Level Up In Editing, and Twixt To-Do

I finished the first draft of Twixt Heaven and Hell in August 2010, if memory serves. My first edit took until some time in November to complete - it was fairly substantive. It had some story changes and some definite improvements - but what it did not succeed at was cutting extraneous words. I only lost about 3k words off the 161k first draft in that first edit.

While there have been a number of edits in between then and now - mostly focused on rewriting particular scenes or expanding on a character's role - I have just finished the second major edit of Twixt. From the previous word count of 158,000 words, the book now sits at 138,000 - a loss of 20k words, and a gain of a much tighter narrative. It makes me wonder what I was thinking during that first edit.

I still have a couple decisions to make before arriving at the final version of the book. There is a chapter I'm not sure belongs in there - though it's a good chapter, and illuminating for a couple of minor character and some of the world, it has little bearing on the primary plot or any prominent subplot. If I decide to remove it I'll likely put it somewhere as a "Deleted Scene" sort of thing.

I ended up re-removing the epilogue I had written (and it needed to be re-written as well). The final chapter of the book ends exactly the way I want it to, and I don't want to change the mood of the ending with an epilogue. That, too, will be put up for free consumption.

I'm still on track to publish later this month or very early in July. The incredible Graham Hanks, who has done the covers for two of my earlier releases, is hard at work on the cover for my first book - the early samples look awesome.

Here's the work that stands between me and the publication of this book:
  1. Make final decision on that pesky chapter (Leaning towards cutting it)
  2. Finalize Cover Art (on track)
  3. Draw a map (I like books with maps in them)
  4. Finalize copy (long and short summaries for Amazon and Smashwords pages)
I would almost include the final version of the epilogue as #5, but that can arrive after the book itself.

I'm not gonna lie. I'm excited to finally put this out there.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chatting about Chapters

Chapters are a funny beast. Unlike... oh, I dunno, every other aspect of writing, there isn't much in the way of guidelines or rules held up by those who have come before. Long, short, titled or no, labeled with POV or no, etc etc. Everyone just does what they please and nobody tries to claim any one way as a general standard.

At first that was a bit unsettling. Years ago when I went hunting for that exact advice, I couldn't find much. Heck, I couldn't find anything at all. What? A topic that no visionary had expounded on? Is there nothing in the Chicago Manual of Style that could be of use here? WHAT DOES FRANZEN WANT ME TO DO?

In the absence of internet-approved guidelines, I had to formulate some of my own. The breakdown comes in three general flavors: Chapters with Titles, Chapters With POV Labels, and Chapters with Neither Label Nor Title.

The last one is the simplest, as you don't need to think about much when starting them. This is the only chapter type I've used thus far in my own writing. They end up breaking down roughly by POV and chronology, though there are exceptions. I admit it is a bit messy, though it allows for lots of freeforming with the chapter structure itself. Also, my chapters tend to gravitate towards a standard length, though I don't enforce this consciously.

Lately I have been thinking about giving the first option a try, and titling my chapters. This would the benefit of further 'focusing' a chapter on a specific plot point or event or what-have-you, and the hope is that the rest of the book would benefit from that focus. Plus, it allows me to think up interesting and evocative chapter titles. On the downside, thinking up lots of chapter titles would basically be like having to pick anywhere from twenty to forty titles for a single book, and I go through enough mental anguish just settling on one.

The very finest example I have seen of the chapters-with-titles tactic comes from Stephen Brust, in The Phoenix Guards. I will never forget one particular chapter, the title of which made me laugh my ass off even before I began to read: "In Which the Plot, Behaving In Much the Same Manner As a Soup to Which Cornstarch Has Been Added, Begins, at Last, To Thicken." (paraphrased, somewhat, as I do not have the book right here with me). 

The third option is less one of style, I think, and more of efficiency. George Martin beings the chapters in A Song of Ice and Fire by identifying the POV character for that chapter (though he has begun to give them more artful sobriquets than their actual names). This has the advantage of pulling the reader immediately to the memories of whats been happening recently with that character, and also eliminates the possibility of actual confusion - a very real benefit in epic narratives.

While I do not actively label the POV character at the outset of my chapters in Twixt Heaven and Hell, I do make sure to nix confusion by being very up-front about who the scene is centered on (except in rare cases when I want that to be a mystery).

A year ago or so, while working on some ideas for future novels, I came up with a slight variation to POV Labeling that I cannot wait to use. Sadly, the novels I thought it up for are awhile out in my project list,yet... the idea is that instead of simply announcing the POV, I will include some quote or other snippet that not only tells the reader who they are 'with' in that chapter, but also helps to inform the POV character themselves. If the character is a bard, then I might begin their chapters with a couplet or short verse. One character (who already exists in the notes for the novel) is a judge, and his chapters might begin with quotes concerning law and morality.

I think the device has premise, but much like thinking up new titles for each chapter it could get stressful. Setting apart a sentence or two like that means it really needs to shine.

I might have mentioned something about chapters that are divvied up entirely by length, but I can't recall any book where I've noticed this happening. I feel that most authors key their chapters to general events in the storyline and make them as long as they need to be. The above differences fall to style, but will still be guided by the relation between chapter and plot.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Prosaic Formulaic

I just finished reading this article, and I enjoyed it. Go check it out. I'll wait.


Amusing, isn't it? So many people writing How-To's for writing best-sellers and cracking the formula... and not a single one of them has actually written a smash-hit novel. One of them, Donald Maass, is a very successful agent - but not, to my knowledge, a particularly successful writer.

I'm not a statistics guru, but I believe one of the major failings of those experiments, which the author of the article referred to, is known to as 'selection bias' (Don't quote me on that). They picked only the best-sellers and located very general (in fact, too general - I'll come back to that) common traits.

They did not, however, locate these same traits in the books that didn't make it big. I love the description of Baldwin's grand flop (The Eleventh Plague). Could there be a more telling example? The authors studied the 'formula,' collaborated with the 'experts,' and even managed to convince the agents, editors, and big-wigs at the publishing houses that they had a sure-fire success, netting them a seven-figure advance...

... and Plague didn't even crack the NYT bestseller list, let alone become a runaway success.

I do have some theories as to why they so expertly fooled (if it can be called that) the pros of the industry, but I'll leave those for another post. Suffice to say that the most concerted research-driven attempt to find the formula was a huge failure.

How can I say it was a failure when it earned the authors a cool million each?

Because it is likely that the publishing house lost a lot of money on that investment. Whether or not Baldwin went on to publish anything else (a quick Google search reveals that he did), he did not impress the readers. He fooled the false prophets of the industry, and thus made money off them, but he did not actually write a book that millions of people loved.

All leading, of course, to the obvious conclusion: There is no formula. Just write your damn story.

As a final bit of fun, I looked at the ten elements that Baldwin apparently cooked up, quoted here for convenience:
1. The hero is an expert.
2. The villain is an expert.
3. You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the villain.
4. The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him, etc.
5. Two or more on the team must fall in love.
6. Two or more on the team must die.
7. The villain must turn his attentions from his initial goal to the team.
8. The villain and the hero must live to do battle again in the sequel.
9. All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group: i.e., never say that the bomb exploded and 15,000 people were killed. Start with "Jamie and Suzy were walking in the park with their grandmother when the earth opened up."
10. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.
My first novel has all of these to some extent. It lacks 5 almost entirely - but you could make a case for a weak instance. 10 sorta happened. 9 sorta happens. All the rest are slam dunks. I looked over some notes for other books I have outlined, begun, or conceived the general storyline for - yep, these ten are found to a large extend in them too.

Seems like writing the formula for a best-seller is a lot like writing someone's horoscope...

Thus, and let me repeat this for emphasis:

There is no formula. Just write your damn story.