The excitement builds. The whisky is poured. Draft two is complete. It is a relief. The first run, you see, doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel like the end product. It’s almost as if the first copy is a grainy image of what is to come. It can be lax. It can be unstructured. Things don’t necessarily need to follow or make sense. Great slabs of story are missing. Other flabby bits are hanging off the sides, waiting to be cut out.
What a mess! What a disaster! How can we clean this thing up and get it into something readable? Well that’s where the second draft comes in. Still on the machine, I read through it all, start to finish, and cut out what needs to be cut out and put in what needs to be put in. I correct obvious errors or grammar and spelling and correctness. I think whether the timing makes sense, the locations, the people and the settings.
Is that what this character would do? Is that really the best way to describe that? Bit by bit I massage the story out from its amorphous shape and, with a pinch here and a cut there, it becomes a story with a purpose. Great. That’s the point I’m at now. That’s the moment of ‘woot’ where I can take a breather and fix up the garage or fly a kite with Joey.
That’s not the end of it, though. For now comes the nasty part – the Red Pen.
The Red Pen is ruthless. The Red Pen cares not for fancy constructs, nor for passive tense. The Red Pen spots that naughty comma and herds it into the right spot. It scrawls its thoughts down in haste, it draws arrows and brackets and, when it gets really steamed, it draws thick lines through words, sentences, even whole paragraphs!
That’s what happens when you leave a Red Pen in a cup for half a year. It gives it time to plot and scheme. I only hope there’s something left after it has had its fill.
You get to write what you want to write. The subject matter is up to you. You don’t have a big bad corporation leaning over your shoulder, shaking its head saying, “No, no, no. That won’t do. You need to have more werewolves. Vampires are so 2014. This won’t sell.”
Who cares? It’s your book.
Pfft! Who cares…?
If you want to kill off your main character, go right ahead! If you’re stuck for a plot point, deus ex machina is a viable option. Who cares? It’s your book.
Pricing and distribution is fine, too. With facilities like Smashwords and Lulu, you can push out your book at pretty much any price that suits you to pretty much any distributor. Do you care? After all, it’s your book.
There are no deadlines except for those you impose upon yourself and, hey, if you’re out by a week or a year, who really cares? It’s your book.
Tell you what, it’s easy being an independent author.
No, really, who cares?
Who cares? Who cares? The audience cares. They care a lot.
If you are writing the book for yourself, then go right ahead and do whatever. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation and spelling. Ignore typos and editing. Ignore those tics, those cliches, those repetitions. Chuck everything into one great big sodding sentence, no breaks, and be done with it.
Writing for others means obeying conventions, like grammar and spelling, and it means putting a lot effort into editing, refining, sweeping, checking, double-checking, proofing, making sure the damn thing is what it’s supposed to be.
Sure, it’s your book, but it’s written for someone else and, when they’ve bought it and read it, it’s their book, too. That’s why they care.
Deadlines become real: If you say you’re going to have a book out by December 2016, then that’s what the audience expects. Sure, the audience can’t sue you or fire you if you don’t deliver, but they can get miffed if you keep pushing the date of release back.
Being an Indie means many things, but one of the main things is that the thick layer of abstraction between you and the audience is not there. It means you have to be the big, bad corporation. You have to be the one whipping yourself to get things done. You have to exercise self-discipline, take any issues on the chin, handle complaints and emails.
All marketing falls on your shoulders. You don’t get to have the big, bad corp telling you what’s currently trending, nor do you have banner ads, and YouTube videos, or sponsorship, or endorsements, or reviews, or Oprah.
All you have is you. And even if everyone else in the world doesn’t care, you should care.
This time, no mucking around with silly plots. What am I talking about? Well, if you look back a fair few posts, Hampton Court Ghost started life as a train-wreck. There was a mangled plot and a weird premise that just got worse as it developed.
If you can call a descent into silliness ‘development’.
I had to rewrite the whole thing, razing it and starting practically from scratch. Not so with Jolimont Street! There are markers and placeholders and XXX’s pointing out where I know I need work, all those things, but all in all, it’s a story that stays with its premise. In short, I’m chuffed.
Now I’m going to leave it for a bit, concentrate on something else. After a couple of days I’ll revisit the document with fresh, critical eyes and then, after that, I’ll do the hard copy and red-pen technique. Maybe I’ll work on the front cover in the mean time. Something brooding, not too innocent.
Hot dog! You’ve finished the first, second or even third draft of your book. Kudos, congrats, and give yourself a pat on the back. Seriously, well done. Not everyone gets to this stage and it’s a big achievement, one that really ought to be celebrated.
Now take a deep breath and brace yourself, because you’ve only just hit the foot of the mountain. Yes, really. Do you remember when you first sat down and started to type? When you first decided, “Hey, I’m doing this, come Hell or high water”? Remember that? It seems so long ago, so surely this must be the end of the journey, right?
A draft is called a draft for a reason: It’s not the final piece. But it’s close. Just spelling, punctuation and all of that boring stuff. Uh, no. It is not necessarily, and necessarily it is not.
Fast-forward your life about a year, then revisit your book. Can you see yourself holding your head in your fists, cringing? Aw, geez. Did I actually write that? Wow, I could have made that paragraph more exciting. Ew, I’ve gone and used the wrong turn of phrase there, there and there. That smells very cliche. And I’ve gone and used the term ‘predetermination’ seven times in one paragraph.
Crud. That must mean you’re a terrible author, having all those things in there. No one wants to read that, you might as well never publish a book again. Yeah, yeah it would mean that unless you… Zzzzzip! Rewind a year and sit back down. Breathe again. You’re back in the present. That was a scary future, wasn’t it?
You see, you’ve done the hard yards. You’ve crafted your sculpture, it has the shape it needs, some part are very finely crafted, other bits have been slapped on, other bits don’t actually belong at all. And, what’s more, there are greater issues you might want to worry about now rather than later.
Continuity is a big one: If your character laments the loss of his parents in one chapter, then is chatting with his father in the next (and it’s not time-travel sci-fi) you’ve got a whopping hole in your plot. Other examples may be more subtle, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb to your readers.
Let’s say the city in which your protagonist resides is a sprawling metropolis, void of plant matter. It’s like this because you are demonstrating a futuristic dystopia, and it’s necessarily sterile. If your protagonist then hides from a rioting crowd by hiding up a tree or behind some bushes… yeah. “Oh, um, there happened to be a small park in the city I forgot to mention.” Too late. You’ve busted the concept of the stark city and you’ll have the reader scouring for anything ‘else’ that might be wrong.
But it’s not just the structure you should be looking at. The way something reads is equally as important. Just because a sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t mean that it’s the right one to use. Repetition and tics are just a couple of nasties that you don’t really get to see while you’re writing, but are glaringly apparent on review. A lot of these come from common speech, and they can be really useful in dialog to give realism to a character. I’ll get into these in a later post.
If a character always says, “Yeah, but…” at the start of a sentence, or answers regularly with “Um,” or is a highway patrolman who suffixes any statement with “real quick”, then that becomes a nice handle for the reader to know who’s speaking. And, if the text is an informal narrative, spoken by a local recounting a situation or in a casual manner, these tics can also lend credence.
Outside of this, they can become really, really annoying. If a character takes a ‘little’ bite and runs a ‘little’ way and pokes his head over the wall a ‘little’, the reader is liable to become annoyed. I recently read a book where everything was ‘almost’. The author was using this to an effect, to deliberately draw attention to the main character’s plight, but he almost lost me.
Can’t someone else do it?
Doing a review is tedious. After all, there isn’t any surprise for you. Not only have you read the book before, you’ve done it ten times, analysed the sentences until they lost their meaning, scrutinised the characters and places and underlying metaphors and the premise and the theme and the setting and…
You have a few choices. You can pay someone to do it. This is good, if you have cash to splash. If you don’t, you might consider asking a friend to help you out. Aroogah! It’s at this point you need to evaluate your friendship.
Before you go and thrust your novel underneath their nose with expectant eyes, put yourself in their shoes and ask, honestly:
Can they criticise your work, openly, without fluffing about?
Can you accept their criticism, openly, without getting defensive?
Have they got the time and motivation to read your first draft?
Are they ‘competent’ to make critical comments?
Very importantly: Are they a member of the target audience?
Don’t be offended if they decline the request. It’s work, after all. In terms of motivation, someone might be an avid reader, great, but they won’t be too happy if you offer them a Romance novel when their preferred genre is Zombie Horror.
Having someone read your book is a most useful thing – if they get it. You can ask things like ‘Did you get the underlying metaphor?’ or ‘Was Sally too weak at the end?’ or even ‘Not enough gore? Too much gore?’ and expect decent answers. Remember that they aren’t writing the novel, so they don’t get to dictate terms, and their advice might be completely wrong, but at least it’s a fresh set of eyes.
If they aren’t your target audience, you’re wasting your time: “I just don’t like this, Jez, the characters are too violent and what’s with all the blood? Can’t they sort out their differences with diplomacy and tact?”
“Grandpa, it’s called ‘Attack of the Killer Tentacles from Outer Space‘ not ‘The Diplomats of Venus‘!”
Hmm. I think I just found the title of my next book…
Great stuff, Max! You knocked out your draft, you managed to find some people to read over it and give you advice. You probably even went back and deleted a bunch of crud, reworked some bits, softened your metaphors. Come on! What are you waiting for? Now you’re ready to publish.
No, you’re not. What? Aw, come on! I’ve got to go through it again?
Yes. Yes, you do.
Don’t Rush It
One of my biggest mistakes when I was fumbling about in the dark, figuring out how to get Adaptation out to the big, wide world, was pushing too hard to see it online. In software terms, I released an untested beta version.
There were spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. There were issues with names being consistent (true story). I’d even left some markers in there. Wow. Bad. Very bad. Crawl under the bed and hide bad.
I had, as a dummy check, run the word processor’s spell and grammar checker over it. Didn’t pick up everything. I hadn’t managed to get anyone else to help proof it, I had different copies all over the place, and I was reaching the end of my tether trying to get hold of someone to talk to about publishing.
It wasn’t perfect, I knew it wasn’t perfect, and, wait for it… I pushed it out anyway. The reasons behind the rush was frustration, impatience and ignorance. The fact that it was digital meant that pushing out the update wasn’t as painful than if it was a hard-copy, but please, please don’t rely on that. That’s disrespecting your audience and it’s something I regret to this day.
Learn from my mistakes. Being an independent author is hard enough without having to lose sleep over a bungle let loose in the wild. Take your time, be patient and do it right the first time.
Doing it Right the First Time
Spell checkers are great. They can pick up little mistakes here and there. Grammar checkers have come a long way, too. You can tune them to your style and they can warn you about dropped words, poor sentence structure, and all of that cool stuff.
They are not perfect. Just because the spell checker passes, and the grammar checker is only complaining about the silliest of things, does not, NOT, mean that your book is flawless.
Having another reader run over it, either paid or unpaid, increases the likelihood that mistakes will be spotted and weeded out. Increase. Likelihood. We’re talking about probability here. If you’ve given your book to the butcher, do you think he spent his time cutting up meat and serving customers, or kicking around in the back with a red pen correcting your mistakes?
And this is what it comes down to: No matter what technique you use to clean up your act, no matter how fine your digital nit-comb, no matter how many people you pass your paper to, you are responsible for the end result.
There’s no use turning around, after the fact, and pointing your finger at someone else and saying, “You should’ve picked up on that!” Why not? Because your book is out there, being read by a bunch of people all around the world, and they aren’t going to give two hoots whether you or your spell checker or your editor or your butcher didn’t pick up a mistake.
So what can you do? Give your book the best chance possible. The longer the story is unpublished, the greater the chance of finding those little flecks of mud that would spoil an otherwise golden scene. Hold off. Put the book down. Go onto something else. Get some well deserved exercise. Come back to it in a week, a fortnight, a month even, enough time for you to kind of forget about it so you can experience it with fresh eyes.
Another technique I’ve found works really good is printing out a hard copy, bulldog clipping it, taking out a red pen and sitting down to read. I’ll elaborate more about this approach in a future post, since it’s a bit more than just printing and skimming.
Lastly, even when you’re sure you’ve got it just the way you want it, print it out in PDF or create an ePub and pop it on your favourite reading device. You can get programs that will do this for you (Calibre – I’m looking at you), so you get to see a preview, including the front cover, of just how it’s going to be.
Then sit down and read it. If you need to give yourself another fortnight off before you start, do that. The book will be published soon enough, so relax about that, think long term: in six months, you’ll be sleeping easier knowing that you’ve spent some of your precious time giving your readers something you’re proud of.
I got to the end of my first draft of Hampton Court Ghost. I smiled, patted myself on the back, content that the hard part was over. I had started with a premise, refined it and wrote it down, got my characters in order, plotted out the various bits and pieces and cracked on with it bit by bit.
What went wrong?
What makes you say that, the title of this post? Yeah, well, good pickup.
I went back to read it the next day and, half way through, I’m shaking my head in disbelief. I had done it again. I had ignored that little voice inside me, that voice that tells me, “Dude, that’s not believable. It’s convoluted. Whoa! That’s just wrong.”
Now that voice was back, nattering like a parrot, “I told you so! I told you so!”
It is too hard to ignore now. And, what’s more, it is 100% right.
So I got to thinking about why I had ignored it while I was writing. If I had stopped and paid attention to it, back then, back when things were pliable and fresh, maybe I wouldn’t be in such a pickle. Maybe. So I was silly to push forward with an unworkable idea. Again, maybe.
Hindsight, my old companion! How do you do? Can you shed any light on this? Am I an idiot or was the a valid reason for attempting to defy the laws of common sense?
No, says Hindsight, for that’s just part of the writing process. You would be an idiot if you decided that, after the review, after the cringing and face-palming, you’d run with it anyway. That would be stupid.
But, I counter, wasn’t I silly to have gotten to this state when I could have nipped it in the bud all the way back at inception?
No, says Hindsight again, why, do you want be an idiot? That nagging voice is there for a reason. It’s your moderation. It’s your censor. It’s your doubt and disbelief. It’s your ultimate critic. Without it, you would have been very happy to publish that garbage and pin your name on it.
But nothing! (Hindsight can be quite rude at times) Quit interrupting and listen: When writing fiction there’s the creative side and the critical side. The creative side comes up with really cool ideas, “What about this? How about that? Instead of X why don’t we try Q?” It’s fun, it’s kooky and it’s insane. You cannot rely on it to come up with something purely sensible since its origins are abstract.
The critical side is that pesky, droll-voiced know-it-all that picks out flaws here and there as you’re going along, circling bad grammar, asking you politely, but firmly, to read that last paragraph before you go too far. It’s the voice of reason, keeping you on topic, on premise, on character. It’s boring and stiff.
The two work toward a common goal, yet are in opposition to each other, like bipartisan politics without the snarkiness and bickering.
So which one is to blame?
I must have given too much influence to my creativity, right? Or was it that my critical side spoke too softly and didn’t wield a large enough stick?
Boo! What a cop out! No, really, and this is why: The creative side did exactly what it was supposed to do. It came up with a weird, albeit unworkable, plot, full of holes and unwritten with a bold flourish of nonsense.
Still, it was interesting, not like that’s a good enough consolation. I’ve got to rip out eighty percent of what I wrote, think up a new plot and practically write it all again! Yeah, true, can’t deny I’m pissed at that.
But what if it worked? What if the gamble paid off? I could have had a really zany, compelling story on my hands. Like an artist being unfairly critiqued while laying down the sketches, the creative side needs freedom to experiment, to push the pre-defined boundaries and, of course, to make mistakes.
And when the juices are flowing, I make it a rule not to get in the way of creativity: Bad grammar, punctuation, notes to self, all of it takes a back seat when I’m on a run. When the dust settles, the red pen comes out, the Punctuation Parrot sits on my shoulder and the going is slower, but safer.
The lesson to learn here is that there isn’t a set formula: 1 hour creative, 1 hour critical isn’t going to work. Creativity comes in spurts, at random intervals, sometimes not for days or weeks at a time. Let it go, let it run free, let it make the biggest friggin’ mess you’ve ever seen BUT, after the fun, you need to get your mop out and start cleaning up.
If you’re a budding writer and you’ve found yourself in this situation, don’t lose heart. It’s all part of the process. Sure, it’s painful. Sure, it’s just doubled your effort for no perceived reward. Sure, it’ll delay the release of your book.
This is what defines you as an author: Are you willing to suck it up and revise your book, or even scrap it altogether, so that you only serve up fresh dishes to your readers?
Well that was certainly taxing. Using every last scrap of my lunch breaks, all the clusters of minutes between responsibilities, and right down to burning the midnight oil, Adaptation – Part 5 is ready for pre-release. It’s a hard trot reading over the same thing again and again, checking for grammar, looking at spelling, making sure sentences are formed correctly. I’m at the point now where if I never saw another computer monitor in my life, I’d be content. I can only imagine what the drafting, proofing, editing cycle would be like without a keyboard.
I looked up from my screen just now and realised that, come tomorrow, I’m not officially working on a book. It’s an odd sensation, liberating and scary at the same time. It’s like my engine is still gunning hard and I just dropped my foot on the clutch – zzzzing!
Even now I’m itching to think that there might have been a few things I missed in the proof, a couple of points that need emphasising or whatever, and that’s were I’ve gone wrong in the past: I didn’t allow for a cool down time, a bit of a mental break to allow myself to step away from the story, forget what I knew so that I could approach it again with fresh eyes some time later.
And so, to catch the free-wheeling energy that’s zinging around in my skull, and enforce my cool down with respect to Adaptation, I’m going to get cracking on the third installment of the Paranormology series. There are a few other stories that I’m really hoping to get writing on as well, but as I’ve only got two hands, one for each side of the keyboard, a decision has to be made. That is the discipline of a writer, I have come to learn: Jot down your thoughts as they come, expand on them if you need to, if a wild and exciting idea comes bounding your way, but don’t lose focus of getting those words down.
Don’t get me wrong: Letting one’s imagination run rampant is a necessary part of creativity, for sure, in fact I’d argue that without time to bust boundaries and think the un-thought, any creative exercise becomes stifled.
With that in mind, there is a time and a place for all things, a Balance, if you will. For while new, fun stories are great rolling around inside a skull, they simply cannot be realised until they worm their way out of a mouth, or transcribe themselves through a brush or a keyboard. If your mind is anything like mind, there are simply too many stories to play with (think minions) and, sadly, some will be neglected and forgotten. As a consequence, one is impelled to leave the wonderful, amazing and sometimes scary world that exists within one’s skull, and take with them a selection of the flora and fauna to share with the outside world.
This requires, too, respect for the reader. The ability to finish what one starts is an admirable trait, and while I do believe a book should take as long as it should, that mantra cannot be used as an excuse to fluff about on frivolous tasks. It can be so easy, believe you me, to have so many things on the go that even though you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you’ve not actually gotten any one thing completed. Which reminds me of a Scrum training session I visited recently…
Bah! Enough with the introspection! I’m off to celebrate with a well deserved coffee and a sit-down with a good dose of pulp fiction.