Saturday, April 20, 2013

Writing like Ken Ken - The iterative process.

So I finally finished my first novel, Avarice's Hoard, and originally set out to write a single blog post about all the things I learned in the process. That turned out to be as insurmountable a task as writing the book in one a single attempt. So I am going to share the things I have learned in much smaller bits and pieces over the next few months.

At one point in the writing process I was laid up with bronchitis.  (Not something I would wish on my worst enemy ... OK maybe I would, but that is beside the point.) Between coughs, I worked on completing an ancient KenKen calendar with a puzzle for each day.  (If you don't know what KenKen is, it is very similar to sudoku but with mathmatical operators determining the blocks.  You can see examples at

So now you ask, "What does that have to do with the writing process." Everything. The key to creating a good story isn't just typing up a good story. The key is iterative revision just like solving KenKen. At first you have an idea of how things are going to fit together. You even know the contents of large blocks of the puzzle even if you don't know exactly how the contents fit together. So you start with what you absolutely know and solve those small bits. This sheds new light on other parts of the puzzle until finally the puzzle is solved. You can't solve the puzzle all at once, trying to do so is crazy making, just like trying to sit down and hash out a story in one sitting.  Unless your plot is as thin as a super model and your characters as shallow as the tabloids that cover those same models, it is going to take some time and more than one iteration to finish a story.

As an example here are some of the iterations I went through with Avarice's Hoard, all of them AFTER the initial version of the book was complete.
  • Plot Revisions - They say that people fall in love with books for one of four reasons: the characters, the plot, the setting, or the prose. For me the most important aspects are plot and characters. Once I finished the initial draft I went back through the story focusing on what the characters not in the scene were doing. I had to know what the antagonist was doing every moment even though I didn't include it in the story. Thinking about that revealed minor problems with the timeline that completely changed the conversations the main character had in school. And of course revising one part of a book has a ripple effect on every other part of the book.
  • Character Consistency - After fixing the plot issues I went back through the book to make sure the behavior of my characters was consistent. One of the secondary characters in Avarice's Hoard provides the comic relief and loves to annoy everyone with little quips. I discovered that there were sections of my initial draft where I focused on the drama of the situation and completely left out his comments. Revisions that added his insights and mischievousness not only changed the dynamics of those scenes but the ripple effect required yet additional changes to the plot timeline. In some cases the changes do not require such major revisions. For example, another character does not use contractions and there were places where I mistakenly included them just because they come so naturally to me.
  • Scene setting - I'm not big on extended descriptions of the scene like Tolkien but I wanted the setting to feel like a character in the book. Harry Potter, The da Vinci Code, Ender's Game all have a unique setting that draws you into the story and I wanted to include that in my story.  Avarice's Hoard  is set in New York, where I lived and worked for nineteen years. I discovered that my descriptions sometimes lacked the detail required for someone who is not as familiar with New York. So I had find a way to revise the book to include enough descriptions without breaking the flow of the book.
  • Eliminate weak verbs. Verbs are where the action is. The top mistake I see from my fellow aspiring authors is the use of week verbs. My book is written in the first person past tense. When I went hunting for weak verbs I found sentences like "I saw her scowl at him." Why did I write that? I have no idea. It takes a perfectly nice verb like scowl and hides it in the adverbial clause. The reader already knows the main character saw her scowl. That sentence should be "She scowled at him." The other common mistake I made was writing something like "Joe was standing by the door" as opposed to "Joe stood by the door." The second is much stronger. Taking a thesaurus to your verbs is like taking your body to the gym; hard works reduces the mush and creates strength.
  • Eliminate repetitive sentence structures. If all the sentences in piece are the same length and have the same structure the reader's head will exploded (I bet we could find a grad student somewhere to prove that scientifically). I discovered that I overused dialog tags with dependent clauses. It is not necessarily wrong to write something like - "Let's go," she said, heading for the stairs. - but trust me if you have 5 sentence like that on one page your ear drums will pop from the pressure building your head. Only slightly less annoying is a paragraph where every sentence starts with "I ..." Finally, sentence length matters. If you are in an action sequence you need to use short, punchy sentences. When things are moving slowly the sentences should be longer and cover more story time in each sentence. I'm not a big fan of effusive prose (I believe most books renowned for their prose are only used to torment students). But if you don't get your structure right it detracts from the story.
OK now that I have completely bored you with the revisions I have to go through when trying to finish a book let me remind you that this is all done before I subjected my victims beta-readers to the story. Once I got their feedback there were changes I had to make and all the above iterations were required again. Just like with KenKen. It doesn't matter how many times you have looked at one box, when you find the answer to part of you puzzle you have to make sure it fits with the rest of it. Over and over and over again.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Coming Back

It has been a long time since I wrote here.  I took the advice of someone I trust and started working on getting a degree again.  Unfortunately, I let that get in the way of writing and many other things I love to do.  It has been a rough road. I got in the habit of letting others dictate what I do. I let the societal norms get in the way of my dreams. Yeah, I know. That isn't a new story. It happens all the time. I just hate that I let it happen to me.

I don't mean that I am going to stop pursuing my degree. I have learned a lot and believe it s a worthwhile endeavor.  But I am not going to let it destroy my dreams or keep me from doing what I love most ... writing.

I had always intended to go the e-publishing route on my own but gave in to others who thought I should try traditional publishing.  Not any more. I have been through my book a ton of times and found a great many errors. I have had some great feedback from some wonderful beta readers who have really helped me refine the story and the writting. I simply cannot wait another year to see it in print. Look for an announcement of its availability in the next couple weeks. I consider that a critical step in coming back from the cold abyss I have been wandering in for the last 9 months.

It feels good to be headed in the right directiom again.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Official Book of BS - Last Words

 It has been a long month filled with bronchitis, school, job hunting, family dramas, and very little writing.  So for this month the official book of BS is a quick tidbit elicited from a friend of the family.  He’s in his early teens and the youngest boy in his family.  He and his family were in our home for dinner one evening when the topic of conversation turned to unbelievable antics perpetrated by various family members.  Without hesitation this young man said he wanted his last words to be, “Hey mom, watch this.”

Brian quite agrees.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Official Book of BS - Allergies

It's been a tough month for Brain.  He seems to be struggling with some severe allergic reactions - never a pleasant thing.  So I thought I'd give him a break and pick on one of my other children this month.

Like most teenage girls, my daughter is a master contrarian. I don't mean that she's unpleasant.  She's not like Katie Kaboom.  In fact, she is much more reasonable than most girls her age. But, sometimes she still argues points of such minutia you'd need an electron microscope to see them.

The other day, while my wife and I were out, she had a rip roaring argument with all three of my sons. It ended when my middle son told her, "You're allergic to feedback."

"No, I'm not," she replied.

Much laughter ensued.

I guess sometimes allergies don't have to make you miserable.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Writer’s Slush Pile

Just like other aspiring authors, I do my best to follow the publishing industry. If check some of the blogs I follow you will see that the slush pile is a perpetual burden of tedium under which agents and editors labor. I only recently realized that, as a writer, I have a slush pile of my own.

I hate losing good ideas. I try to carry some type of notepad with me wherever I go so I can write down ideas as they occur. I keep a stack of 3x5 cards on my nightstand so I can write ideas that pop up in the middle of the night (I find the 3x5s work better because it lets me easily separate ideas by the story to which they apply). The problem is that I have too many ideas, concepts, and partially written scenes. The pile of paper on the edge of my desk is now four inches tall. This is my writer’s slush pile.

 I could spend a whole week just getting the ideas I’ve scratched out into an electronic form. Who wants to do that? There is too much to do. I’m between jobs so need to put some time into that. I need to finish some final tweaks on Avarice’s Hoard. I need to finish the outline for the new project I started to get a break from Avarice’s Hoard.

And yet the pile of ideas sits there taunting me, challenging me to dig through it, to remember those moments of inspiration. I have yet to find a satisfactory means for addressing this issue.

If you have found a way of dealing with your writer’s slush pile please share. I need ideas for managing my ideas.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: The Girl in the Steel Corset

I recently read The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross. I selected it because it was what the library had when I went in search of my first steampunk novel.

I love the world imagined by Ms. Cross and I like the characters (even if they are a little cliché). However, the wonderfully diverse world is not enough to carry the plot, which develops as quickly as a thundering herd of turtles. By the time the stakes of the disappointingly shallow plot are revealed you are 359 pages into the 473 page book. Mix the plot from Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective with the characters from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and you’ll have this book nailed.

I hope the slow start and ridiculous amount of time spent on character development are just setting the stage for future books. I like the concept and world enough that I'm going to try the second book in the series, The Girl in the Clockwork Collar. But, if it starts off as slowly as this one, I probably won’t finish it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Improvement or just Change

There’s a difference between change for improvements sake and change for change’s sake.

As most of you know, Blogger recently changed the user interface. They say it is an upgrade. But in truth it is just a change.

 Does the new interface give us something we didn’t have before?


 Does it use less computing power?


So how is it an upgrade? They’ll say it makes the interface “cleaner.” What it really does is remove the convenient buttons and make us click through a menu to find what we want.

Microsoft did the exact opposite with the Microsoft Office suite when they changed from menus to ribbons. Was it better? Maybe. If you ask me they killed corporate productivity because all the training on the old system was lost. I know people who went to open office because the menus were closer to the old version of Word.

Techies will remember how small the original versions of Word were and they worked great. Then they added … and added … and added. Some “upgrades” added a few nice features but most where just changes. Now we have an application that does pretty much what the original did, but takes up more space.

If you’ve been following this blog you probably know that I love finding new tools for writing. In fact, I love finding new tools for dealing with any part of my life. I think it is important to constantly learn new techniques to improve whatever you do. Be careful though. If you have a great relationship or a great manuscript, throwing a new approach into the mix might not give you the desired results.

Consider carefully.

Make sure the change is actually a change for the better and not just a change.