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Write. Revise. Repeat.

Last week I explained my process of moving on from an old project, so this week I figured I’d write about my current project: revising my new novel. It’s something I’m going to try to accomplish within a year, but even that might not be enough time. Revision can be a tough process. It’s more than spell-check, proofreading or even sending your manuscript to friends and family. Instead, revision is a process spanning many, many drafts (from four to six to upwards of nine or ten). It’s something I’m still, well, revising, but here’s what I’ve got so far.

Step One: The Writing Group

A writing group is a group of writers who meet to critique each other’s work on a regular basis. They could meet as much as every week or as few as once every few months or so. There are even some writing groups who are completely online. (My writing group is on the Reading Excuses sub-forum of Writing Excuses.) Regardless, there are a numerous advantages to writing groups. They provide in-depth critiques on a range of chapters which you probably wouldn’t get by simply handing someone your manuscript. They also provide several different perspectives on your work, allowing you to weigh criticism based on how many people are running into the same problem. There’s are quite a few things to keep in mind about writing groups (see some Writing Excuses episodes here), but here’s two big ones. One: you get what you give. Try to give good criticism instead of just demanding a critique while offering nothing in return. Two: Be civil and complementary when you give a critique. Being rough and heavy-handed isn’t going to do anyone any favors, even if you think you are just being “honest”.

Note: If you’re like me and you’re able to mostly turn off your inner editor, you might want to do this step second or even third or fourth. This was the first time I ran my novel through a writing group from start to finish, and my manuscript was rife with grammar mistakes and typos. It might be better to wait until you’ve had time to do a surface proof-reading first.

Step Two: The Alpha Readers

Alpha readers are your first line of defense (well, after the writing group anyway). There are fellow writers whom you trust. They could be part of your writing group (in which case you could skip this step altogether.) They may even write for a completely different genre, but they should at least know what you are going for. In any case, you send them the complete manuscript. Some writers have trouble sending an entire manuscript, but honestly, that’s where the trust part comes in. There’s a time and place to be protective of your ideas and work, but you need feedback on how the entire narrative works from start to finish.

Step Three: The Beta Readers

Betas and alphas are often used interchangeably, but I consider beta readers to be readers of the genre you are working in, whether its science fiction, mystery, young adult or all of the above. They could also be writers, but need not be. Beta readers are invaluable because they are knowledgeable of your chosen genre. What twists did they coming? Did this work remind them of any story they’ve seen before? What was their experience reading your work? Betas are very good at answering these questions, providing another layer of criticism.

Step Four: The Gamma Readers

Gamma readers are ones who are neither writers (alphas) nor readers (betas) of your chosen genre. Many times, they are friends, families and other supporters of our work, and despite their unfamiliarity, they can provide valuable insight by sharing a newcomer’s experience to your writing. What confuses them? Have your built your world enough to explain all the necessary details? While gamma readers are definitely important, they are sometimes over-utilized, especially by new writers, who don’t look for criticism outside of their immediate circle. While friends and family can provide a very important support network for one’s writing, they can’t always provide the necessary criticism to improve one’s work completely. However, they can be a very important supplement to ensure everything is working right in a narrative.

Closing Thoughts

That’s what I’m looking for as far as revisions go. Keep in mind a professional writer probably uses a very condensed version of this. They may only use a trusted writing group, a few alphas and a gamma reader or two. If they are working for a publisher, they probably already have an agent, an editor and several others reading their work for quality control. When you’re trying to break in to the industry, however, you need all the eyes you can get. Also be patient – it might take readers a few months to get through your manuscript, so make sure you have other projects to work on while they are reading. Revision is a process, and all processes can be improved. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “great art is never finished, only abandoned.”

What about you? What’s your process for revisions. Feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

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Moving On and Keepin’ On

I don’t think any writer ever thinks about moving on from a project when they start it. Instead, I think we focus on the positive, whether it’s the possibility of getting an agent, getting published or just selling more books. The ugly necessity of moving on never really sets in, but moving on is just that – a necessity.

Imagine you have a sculpture. You’ve been working on it for a long time – maybe even several years. It’s pretty much finished, but you’ve been tinkering with it to ensure it’s perfection. Inevitably, there comes a point where you can’t really change the sculpture – at least without completely starting over. That point happens to writers – and it comes as we need to move on and start fresh. You could feasibly start out over, but even then, the mold has been set and you are limited to just how much you can change the narrative. You could write “the sequel”, but I don’t think this is a great option either, since you are still informed by the characters and events of the previous narrative (and besides, you can’t sell “the sequel” until you’ve sold the first book.) Moving on isn’t about failure – it’s about refusing artistic stagnation and growing as a writer.

Moving on from a project isn’t abandoning it either. I am just reaching this point with my first novel (after probably two years of work) and I’m not giving up – I’m still submitting it to publishers. But it can take some publishers four to six months (if not longer) to respond to unsolicited submissions. Based on this timeline as well as the response I’ve gotten from agents so far, I think my resources are better spent elsewhere. And ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: resources. As a writer, your time is a precious, nonrenewable resource.

Craft is also a consideration when moving on. The advantage of moving on is you can start one hundred percent fresh and experiment with techniques and elements you couldn’t attempt in your other project. My first novel was written in the first person; my new novel is written in third person with three point-of-view characters. I can’t say I’ve mastered the technique of multiple POV’s, but moving on gives me the freedom to start over and try new things I otherwise couldn’t in my other project.

What moving on shouldn’t be is an excuse to quit prematurely. Make no mistake: you still need to finish projects. You still need to make revisions. And you still need to send your work out to agents and publishers. Moving on shouldn’t be seen as a means of switching from project to project so many times you never actually finish a work.

Finally, moving in isn’t about burying or killing a project either. You can always come back to a project later. And like I said, I’m still sending my first novel out to publishers and agents, albeit at a much slower rate. The only thing I’ve burying this novel under is the other projects I’m working on in an effort to start fresh. For the time being however, I’m not putting my novel in the junk drawer – I’m just putting it on the back burner.

(For much better advice on this topic, be sure to check out the Writing Excuse episode on the issue of Moving On, which features not only sage advice from its hosts on the subject, but also many words of wisdom from the awesome Ellen Kushner.)

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Know Thy Genre

It’s less than a week from the release of the next Star Wars, and even though I still won’t see Episode VII for still few more weeks, I still can’t contain my excitement for the new trilogy. The Cantina scene on Mos Eisley was one of my first movie memories as a kid, and the franchise – from movies and TV shows to the comics and books – certainly played a big role in putting me on the path of a geeky science fiction writer. But in spite of my enthusiasm, I have to point out an obvious fact: George Lucas did not invent (or even re-invent) science fiction.

I say this out because a friend of mine once gleefully told me he had an idea for a science fiction story without laser guns or sword fights. And he’s not the first person to tell me they have an original science fiction story that’s not Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5.

No genre exists in a vacuum. Science fiction dates back to the works of Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Mysteries can be traced back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. The roots of fantasy can go all the way back to mythology and folklore. It is ignorant – and borderline arrogant – to assume TV and movies are accurate portrayals of genres in and of themselves.

Honestly, I think most writers know their genre pretty well. After all, something must have inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Whether it’s a healthy diet of space opera or cozy mysteries, beginning writers often have a solid knowledge base in their primary genres. It’s when they start to cross the border into a different genre – or subgenre – that issues arise. Fortunately, there are few ways to ensure a seamless transition from story to story.

First of all, if you want to write in a genre, you have to read that genre, plain and simple. Fortunately, there are many resources to point you in the right direction. Goodreads is an invaluable resource when it comes to genres. Probably the best way, however, is to just ask someone you trust. I recently started working on an urban fantasy. I asked a friend for some recommendations – not only did I get a better understanding of the genre with regards to audience and POV, but I also added a few new favorite authors to my list. Not a bad deal.

Secondly, don’t be quick to discard an idea if you find out it isn’t as original as you hoped. Originality can be highly overrated. Often times, it’s not so much an idea that matters as much as the personal touch a writer brings to a story. For months, I’ve been hard at work on a story involving the great-great grand daughter of Abraham Van Helsing – only to find SyFy Channel is also working a project involving such a character. But in truth, a female Van Helsing is nothing new – such characters have appeared in both Hammer films and Marvel comics. While I’m curious what the SyFy Channel comes up with, I’m continuing my own project because it gives me a chance to further work my particular vision, my individual voice on the subject.

Ultimately, writing isn’t about mastering a genre – it’s about mastering several different genres. Love him or hate him, George Lucas didn’t re-invent sci-fi – instead he combined several different genres a time, mixing together the pulp sci-fi of the Golden Age with Kurosawa’s samurai epic “The Hidden Fortress” and the works of Joseph Campbell into a wholly unique vision. Want to follow in his footsteps? Then find your voice across numerous worlds and infinite stories.

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The Myth of Exceptionalism

Let’s get one straight: being a writer is exceptional. It takes focus and determination to stay productive in the face of a day job, other commitments and an endless supply of rejection letters. Lucky for us, there’s nothing our culture likes more than an underdog, with names ranging from “Rock” to “Rudy”. But this also a danger a sense of exceptionalism – the notion that we are special enough to overcome anything on our path. This is what happens when we won’t take “no” for an answer – and “no” is exactly what we need to hear.

Exceptionalism happens when we are so determined overcome the obstacles in our path that we fail to recognize the only one standing in our way is ourselves. This could happen when we are so protective of our story, we refuse to send it to a critique group. Or it could be when we are dead set on publishing an unpolished work, as almost happened with me. And the other side of the spectrum, it can happen when we won’t let go of a project to move on to other things.

The myth of exceptionalism constantly urges us to move forward – a sentiment that really isn’t helpful in the middle of the crossroads. The problem is, it takes more than talent and determination – it also takes patience, discernment and a challenging combination of self-confidence and humility. And since every writer is different, each of us has a different blindspot bedeviling us somewhere in our attitude.

Had everything gone according to my master plan, I would have probably self-published my first novel by now. For a while, I was absolutely determined self-publish by the end of this year – until I realized my motives weren’t as clear as I wanted to believe. The problem wasn’t that I wanted to be a successful writer – probably all of us want that in some way. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, in and of itself. The problem was that I didn’t just want success – I wanted to be validated. I wanted notice and appreciation. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t in it for the right reason. After reviewing all the feedback I received from the Out of Excuses Writing Retreat, I knew this was definitely for the best. I just wasn’t ready. Yet.

The biggest myth of exceptionalism is that good writers are born prodigies instead of works-in-progress. In high school, I was always asked if I would write the Great American Novel when I graduated. To this day, I still don’t even know what the Great American Novel looks like. But one thing I have learned is that you never graduate from writing, even with a high school diploma, a Bachelor’s, an MFA or PhD. If you are still learning and you are still writing, then congratulations, you’re a writer. There’s just one fundamental rule to keep in mind.

Never ever believe your own hype.

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Characters Are More Than A Means To An End

So I spent a lot of Thanksgiving week binge-watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix as Marvel intended. One thing I loved about the superhero neo-noir was that no character seemed wasted. Every character, from the cynical hard-drinking Jones to her arch-nemesis, the all-powerful Killgrave, seemed to be more than just a plot point. All of them existed as well-rounded characters capable of surprising the audience beyond the demands of the plot.


Too often, characters fall into Checklist Trap. You need a protagonist, an antagonist, perhaps a sidekick or a love interest, maybe a henchman or two, all depending on the story you are trying to tell. It can be easy for a character to never rise above or veer from the roles you have set for them if you aren’t careful.


I recently read an article in which Aaron Sorkin said that characters aren’t people . . . at least not exactly. Real people don’t talk in snappy dialogue (especially outside of a Sorkin movie). Their lives usually don’t conform to a story arc the way a character does in a novel or TV show. But this doesn’t mean they have to be stuck in the convenient Protagonist or Antagonist box in either.


It’s already a good idea to give your characters distinguished voices to tell them apart. Dialogue can feel stilted if everyone gets along, has the same personality and talks the same way. But for your characters to truly live, it has to go beyond that. They need more than just voices – they also need lives – including relationships, likes, dislikes and hobbies – especially ones outside of the purview of the plot.


The opposite extreme is having characters hijack your plot altogether – something many a NaNo writer has fallen victim to. Once again, writers have to walk a tightrope between listening to their characters and sticking to the plan – even if the plan is to write by the seat of your pants. But either way, characters have to exist as more than a means to an end – they can’t just be a bunch of action figures you set upon one another. As both Jessica Jones and its predecessor Daredevil prove, a cast of compelling characters can be powerhouses on any line-up of any project.
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Ending’s Game

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he didn’t like movies where the main character died. He felt this was just the writer’s way at trying to be realistic. It was early, so my writing brain hadn’t sufficiently kicked on to properly argue with him. So here is my response . . . albeit a couple weeks late.

 

As human beings, we look to fiction for a lot of different things – but realism isn’t one of them. We get plenty of that on the news. This isn’t to say gritty realism has no part in writing. No matter what the genre, a sense of realism helps ground the reader in the setting and plot. But it’s rarely the end-all-be-all driving the story. Instead, something else is at play.

 

Most people prefer happy endings.

 

I suspect most writers prefer happy endings

 

So why write otherwise?

 

It’s because, as Dave Wolverton once said, powerful trumps happy. Some of the most powerful moments in movie history are from otherwise unhappy endings. Just look at “Casablanca”. (Sorry for the seventy-four year spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it yet . . . shame on you). Bogart’s Rick Blaine ultimately does the right thing, even though it means saying farewell to the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman’s IIsa, leading to the one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.

 

But this isn’t to say the powerful ending is always the right ending.

 

Any ending, happy or otherwise, has to be satisfying in order to be effective. A happy ending can be undermined if the main character hasn’t developed or the plot’s resolution seems forced. Similarly. the impact of a serious ending can be marginalized if the reader feels cheated by a twist or feels the resolution is lacking.

 

Maybe all of this is why many good endings are a bit of both. Often times a character must make a sacrifice to achieve his or her happy ending, whether it is the loss of a mentor, the loss of innocence, or something else entirely. Meanwhile some stories end without a clear view of the resolution, offering a sense of ambiguity that prompts responses which vary with every member of the audience.

Ultimately, an ending is an culmination of a collaboration between both the the writer and the audience. As such, the ending, whether it be happy, sad or all of the above, is up to what you – and the reader – make it.

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The Importance of Being Lovecraft

Last week the World Fantasy Convention announced their trophies will no longer be based on the likeness of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Most known for the creation of the Cthulhu mythos and other cosmic horror stories, the famed writer also held disparaging views on a variety of groups – ranging from African-Americans to Irish Catholics. This recently lead the WFC to announce they will be removing Lovecraft’s likeness from their trophies next year in order to promote diversity and be more inclusive to writers of color accepting the award.

While some writers really do want to tear down the house Lovecraft built, doing so is both inadvisable and very much impossible. Lovecraft created a startling reality where alien gods, some indifferent to humanity and others extremely hostile, existed beyond human perception, often resulting in madness for the protagonists of his dark tales. H.P. Lovecraft has influenced many of our literary giants on both the page and the screen – including the likes of John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. And beyond that, his horrific creation Cthulhu has lived on in a way that Lovecraft could have never imagined – as an Internet meme.

However it’s important to note that the Lovecraft legacy can – and will – survive the WFC’s decision. After all, this decision has more to do with the future of the World Fantasy Convention – and the genre itself – than it does Lovecraft himself. That’s because the WFC’s choice of a trophy – in both its Lovecraftian past and TBD future – is a symbol of recognition and pride in the fantasy genre. But if the Confederate flag controversy has taught us anything, it’s that symbols can have multiple meanings, simultaneously existing as both benign and hateful representations.

Truth be told, using Lovecraft’s likeness for the World Fantasy Award has always seemed to be a weird choice to me, the author’s racial views notwithstanding. Critics have pointed out no one has complained about the Bram Stoker Awards, the John W. Campbell Awards or the Edgar Allen Poe Awards. But whatever their personal flaws, these literary figures represent their respective fields to a tee. Stoker, the author of “Dracula”, represents an award given by the Horror Writers Association. Campbell, the writer and editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” (better known as “Analog”), now represents an award for science fiction. Poe, best known for suspenseful tales like “Murders of the Rue Morgue”, now represents an award for mystery. And so forth and so on.

But having H.P. Lovecraft represent the World Fantasy Award is already a little bit of a stretch. First of all, he’s a horror writer, and while fantasy does overlap with horror in dark fantasy, having Lovecraft represent all of fantasy is oddly specific. However, the biggest conflict is having Lovecraft represent the World Fantasy, which is especially ironic since Lovecraft held the Anglo-Saxon race among many others. To put it bluntly, why have a xenophobe – even a highly talented, wildly imaginative, extremely influential xenophobe – represent all fantasy spanning the globe?

For my piece, I think the the face of the World Fantasy Awards needs to be bigger than one man. For all his flaws, Lovecraft conceived of a world beyond the veil of human intelligence. Whatever form the next World Fantasy Award takes, it should represent the fantasy beyond the veil of our dreams, bordered only by our own imagination.