The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The Revision Process
So I’m in the middle of a fairly lengthy revision process for my latest novel, and it brings to mind a piece of advice a mentor once gave me. When I began writing short stories, I joined an online critique forum that in retrospect helped shape me in some crucial ways. It was a pretty tough, competitive space when it came down to it, and the other writers there didn’t mind (lovingly) tearing stories to shreds if it meant giving enough feedback to fix what wasn’t working.
There was a guy there called Gary, older than most everyone else who frequented the group, and I tended to see him as an authority, a friend, and a bit of a task master. Gary was fond of quick little rules and guidelines, notepad-like pieces of wisdom that could really set a young writer up for growth.
“Expect the revision process for any given story to last two to three times longer than it took to write in the first place.”
In other words, by Gary’s estimation, if you were to write a quick story in an afternoon, you’d expect to spend an additional two to three afternoons revising and sharpening it to an appropriate level. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how in-depth the revision process can be. Sometimes it’s pretty easy-going, but for the most part, if you’re not doing some cutting here, expansion there, general tightening of language on all levels, and if you’re not willing to kill your darlings, as the saying goes, odds are you may be doing it wrong.
So what if we’ve written a whole book? Does Gary’s piece of advice still hold up? In my experience, it does. Due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances in my life, my novel took about a year to write. So does that mean it’ll take me two to three years to finish it? Not precisely. I worked on it for a year, but in fact, I only wrote about 300 words a day for a grand total of maybe fifteen hours of actual writing per month. Fifteen hours times twelve months equals 180 hours, and 180 times two is 360. Bare minimum, that is the equivalent of fifteen full twenty-four hour days of revision. Maybe more like a month and a half if I plan on sleeping, eating, or ever seeing my wife ever again.
Now remember, that’s only the initial revision cycle. More work will likely need to be done in order to bring that book up to production quality. Realistically, once you add in the services of an actual editor, you’re looking at several additional weeks or months of back and forth nitpickery. It’s the nitpicks that save us, by the way. Make sure you get plenty of them at breakfast time. They’re like daily bowls of Wheaties. Nitpicks make writer big and strong!
It’s part of the overall level of dedication it takes to turn out a good piece of writing, right? And we all expect to have to work a little more after we’ve initially told a story, or at least we should. I’m not big on hard and fast rules. Really, I’m not. I think “rules” in writing can and should be broken now and then. Generally speaking, these kinds of prescriptions are for writers, not for readers. Inside baseball, not meant for actual spectators, you know what I mean?
Even so, there are some commonalities to this process I believe every writer can and should keep an eye on. First of all, get comfortable removing chunks of flesh from your manuscript. Just straight-up cutting large sections that may have had stuff in it you liked. Also, get comfortable rewriting everything you just took out. Only better. Hopefully. If parts of your story slow the narrative down, add unusual or unnecessary complications, or otherwise just don’t fit in with what you’re trying to achieve, that stuff’s dead weight, detritus. It’s got to go. Gird your loins, fellow word-wielder. Things are about to get messy at the slaughterhouse.
A good piece of meat isn’t born precooked, and neither is a good book. You can always resurrect some of that cut material and insert it elsewhere, but the same idea applies: if the words don’t fit, you must acquit.
Man, I’m on a roll today.
Another important thing to consider is if you want to make focused passes or not, keying in on just one element at a time, starting with larger issues like pacing and character development. This is a good idea if you’re new to the process or just like to stay organized, and it’ll probably save you some time in the long run. By making several focused and element-specific passes, you’ve got the opportunity to hone in without distracting yourself with other stuff that may change in the long run. My only suggestion for this type of revision process is to keep notes along the way. Ideas may spring to mind, better concepts for how to handle any given character or scene or larger story element, and you’re going to want to keep track of everything you intend to change for your next pass.
Admittedly so, I’m much too erratic and scatterbrained for this method, which means I tend to just charge in like a bull in a china shop and really tear the place up until its “redecorated” just how I like it. Mine is a messy process in this way, but it’s also just how my mind tends to work. Not everyone has the equivalent of sixteen trained chimpanzees careening around their heads, doing their level best to run the ship. If I don’t feed them at a regular time every day, Bingo—he’s the captain, see—he orders the rest of the chimps on strike, and then I’m in a real chimp ship pickle. Nobody wants that.
Where was I? Ah yes, serious discussion of the revision process.
A lot of what you’re going to be doing is in fact that more minute stuff, especially when you’re really getting down to it and most of your broader strokes have been made. Changing the language of the piece, the flow, tightening your syntax, all of that is important as finishing maneuvers. Just make sure you’re not revising so much you’re only shifting elements around and not necessarily improving anything. That can happen easily, which is why it’s also important during the revision process to take breaks when you need them. And I don’t just mean a break of a few minutes or hours. Sometimes you’ve got to let your manuscript go for days or even weeks just so you can come back at it with fresh eyes. The ability to forget what we’ve written is a great asset, so use it.
The annoyance and pain of all this is temporary. You have to keep that in mind. However, once they’re released to the general public, your words are forever. So now is your opportunity to line them up exactly as you want them. In the end, all you can do as a writer, as a creative individual of any kind, is your honest best. Will all your extra hard work pay off? That’s an eternal question, always in motion, and anyway, what’s your definition of success? I mean really?
I’ll have another Craft and Practice topic for you guys next month. Until then, cut a little, cut a lot, but don’t cut to the quick. The chimps in your brain may not like losing any of the good stuff. See you in June!
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Time. It fascinates us, captures our imaginations with the possibilities of time and time travel, so much so that our literature and the entertainment industry are filled with stories and songs which follow that theme. There have been countless movies on the subject: the Back to the Future series; Time Cop; The Terminator; Groundhog Day; Planet of the Apes; Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey; The Butterfly Effect; Land Before Time; and Timestalkers, to name a few. And of course, television series: Dr. Who; Quantum Leap; Sliders; Time After Time; Outlanders – not to mention series with one or more episodes that involve time travel. Books and stories about time travel include: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain; The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving; A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens; “The Langoliers”, by Stephen King (Four Past Midnight); Timeline, by Michael Crichton; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowlings; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger; and more recently, All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai. Even the music industry has gotten in on the theme: Fleetwood Mac can’t stop thinking about tomorrow; Tim McGraw deals with it in segments, so he only worries about the next thirty years; Bad Company is ready for love and figures better things are bound to happen looking forward; Jim Croche wants to save it in a bottle; Cindy Lauper comments on the repetitiveness of it, as things tend to happen time after time; and Stevie Nicks would do it all again, even though it’s not always a breeze. These lists don’t even scratch the surface. So, why is it that time so fascinates us?
I had a little Australian Shepherd named Dorchester. I got her when she was a pup. When she was young, she was agile and fast. Man, was she fast. She could smoke both the male Blue Heelers she grew up with to get a Frisbee. Then, she’d run off with it and wouldn’t give it back. She never was much for playing by the rules. But, as she got older, of course, she slowed. Age affects dogs in many of the same ways that it affects people: it gets harder to get up and down; movement is slower, more careful; the senses are not as accute as they once were, etc… Dorchester began to lose her eyesight first, even before her she lost her speed and her agility, so I had to become her seeing eye person. I began carrying a walking stick on our walks, thunking it down firmly on the ground with each step I took, so that she could hear where I was and follow. We walked this way for several years until eventually she was no longer able to go on walks with me anymore due to poor eyesight and other effects of aging.
Dorchester isn’t with me anymore, but I still go on walks with both of the Heelers. We all walk a little slower these days. Our walks are shorter and there’s not a lot of rabbit chasing anymore, but they are are enjoyed, never the less. My son’s dog, Zaar, was Dorchester’s mate. They were the same age, each joining our family at about the same time. As Zaar ages, he is not only losing his sight, but his hearing, as well. He is very frightened of thunder and storms always gave him major anxiety attacks, so his not being able to hear so good hasn’t been a totally bad thing, but it does pose new problems on our walks. Zaar grew up walking on our property, so he thinks he knows where he’s going and doesn’t always pay attention to where his walking companions are headed. He gets into ‘the zone’, nose up, sniffing th air, and no matter how loud I yell, he doesn’t hear me, causing me to have to chase after him, touching him to get his attention and get him back on track. Zaar was also raised around a Heeler who was deaf, so he learned hand signs and once I have his attention, he will follow, but it’s getting his attention that’s the trick.
The exercise he gets from his walks is what keeps him healthy and mobile. As I watch him getting older, I feel a sense of urgency, knowing that time may be running short for our walks and I want to enjoy my time with him while I can. I guess I just don’t know how to be a seeing eye person for a dog that can’t hear. He doesn’t hear my stick. I must figure out how to adapt and rise to the challenge, because left to his own devices, Zaar would soon be lost, especially after dusk, when his eyesight is at its poorest. It seems none of us are as young as we used to be.
It’s easy to look back and see what we’ve lost. ‘Hindsight is better than foresight’, and all that. Looking to the past, all our regrets become vividly obvious, but we tend to embellish the good times, as well. I think happy moments may be remembered as euphoric, more so than what they actually were, because those are the times we wish to hold onto. When I look back, there’s a dividing line to my timeline, seperating my life before my teenaged son died, and post-death, signifying the time when he was no longer in my life. That’s my loss. The time when Mike was alive seems brighter, more vivid in my memories. He was my biggest fan, with aspirations and the ability to be a writer himself. He was a unique soul and a source of inspiration for me.
These days, I feel a sense of urgency to make this writing for a living thing work while I still have time to do so. I have certainly taken enough time making it happen. I was 52 when I finally earned my M.F.A. and 53 before I became a published author. I’m sure I have some good years left, but I have to wonder if there will be enough for me to realize my dream. I wish I could go back in time and do things differently, but of course that’s only possible in my fiction.
Now, with time travel, there’s the possiblity of doing things over, making things turn out different. Granted, it doesn’t usually turn out well when you go messing around with time, but things can, on occasion turn out better. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at MY time travel short, Last Call. Things aren’t going good for Derek, but he finds a way to make his life better. Maybe I could go back and get started on this career path a lot earlier in life. That’s not Derek’s solution, but it could work.
I don’t live in Derek’s world and there is no Last Call bar for me. I know I can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, so if I want to reach my dreams while I’m still alive to see it, I have to take action. I must market what I already have published, but even more importantly, I must keep writing. So, my plan is to just keep at it. Eventually, my efforts will pay off. I have to believe that.
So what if I didn’t earn my M.F.A. until I was 52 and wasn’t published until I was 53? I’m not the only one to get a late start on their dream. After all, according to an inspirational Facebook post by Karen Caron, Stan Lee’s first big comic came out at age 40, Morgan Freeman had his first major movie role at age 52, and Julia Child didn’t make her cooking show debut until age 51. That puts me in some pretty good company.
Young or old, all we can do is look to the future. (There’s that time thing again.)
With that in mind, I’ve begun the writing and compilation of my memoir about my son’s life and death, finally, after nine years. I’ve decided that it’s time to reunite the two time periods that divide my life and my thinking. After his death, I wrote poems and stories about him, pouring my grief out onto the page. I compiled all the photos of him into a slideshow for his memorial dinner. In addition to that, I plan to contact some of Mike’s friends and request them to contribute writings of their own about who Mike was for them. It’s going to be a massive amount of work, but his story deserves to be told and there is no one else who can tell it. It will be my first non-fiction work of book length.
I’ve always said that I never have less than three works in progress. Michael: How my son became a teen suicide statistic, will make the third one, as I’m also writing the first draft of the sequel to my western novel, Delilah: The Homecoming and I’m revising the first book in my science fantasy Playground for the Gods series, The Great Primordial Battle. Writing is an integral part of my life, past, present and future. I may be an old woman, but there is no other direction in which my life can go. Mike would be proud of my accomplishments so far and I think he would be glad that his story will finally be out. After nine years, it’s about time.
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There are many of you out there who have been following the progress of my science fantasy series, Playground for the Gods. For those who don’t know, it’s about an alien race that comes to Earth and pose as deities, and the power struggles and conflicts that arise. It’s based on the ancient mythologies and religions, with colorful characters who get up to some hilarious antics. You can read an excerpt on my Playground for the Gods Facebook page. If you’re interested, you’ll find an update on the writing processes going into these books below.
In last month’s post, “It’s All in the Finding the Right Market“, I talked about looking at a different market for my Playground for the Gods series. Specifically, I was looking at the Young Adult and the New Adult markets. I was looking to see if perhaps these books were directed toward the right audience, or if perhaps, they might be marketed to a different audience, with revisions, of course.
After attempting said revisions on Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle, and sending it off to my alpha reader, and revising what I had for Book 2: In the Beginning, and writing some the parts of the story that were still needed, I’ve come to the conclusion that this series is not for the light of heart, or a not fully matured audience. The cuss words could be replaced easy enough, but there is just too much sex that is vital to the plot. Removing it would change the entire story.
For heavens sake, my characters are self-indulgent beings posing as goddesses and gods. Self-indulgent behaviors are what landed them on Earth in the first place, and they are what the whole plot, as well as the individual story lines of each book are hinged upon. The indulge, many in excess, in all of the vices, including sex. They are sensual, and most are promiscuous, prompting plenty of jealousy and rage, providing a lot of the conflict in the series. In other words, I decided the sex was a necessary element that the series couldn’t do without, so YA or NA would not be a good audience for this series.
So, what’s next? Well, I’m going to finish writing the first draft of Book 2, and revise Book 1 when it comes back from my Alpha reader with suggestions. But I will be doing this with the science fiction and fantasy markets in mind, the original markets I was looking at for these books.
Once the revisions are complete, I’ll send out submissions once more. Hopefully this time, I’ll get better results. (An acceptance letter would be nice.) Ideally, I’ll be doing this at the same time that Book 2 is with my Alpha reader, and I will be working on Book 3: Inanna’s Song, adding to the few chapters I already have written for it, and working up the outline for Book 4: Enki’s Folly. But, we all know how often things work out ideally, so I’ll just look at these task as goals to aim for and hope for the best.
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This is the longest book review I have ever written. This book was so packed full of useful information for rising authors and screenwriters that I felt I needed to cover it all. If you are an upcoming horror author or screenwriter, trying to figure out how to get a foot in the door or where to start in the matter of launching your career, Horror 101: The Way Forward offers “career advice by seasoned professionals”. Different writers will find different essays useful, so I’m giving you a rundown on all the informative essays included.
Compiled by Crystal Lake Publishing, this collection of essays has something for every writer. The anthology features quotes from the masters such as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack London, Clive Barker, H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and many others. Advice from professional writers and editors covers all aspects of the horror writing business, and the business of writing, in general. From submitting your work, to marketing and promotion, to self-publishing and building your writing business, to crafting your work and the writing process.
The answers to many questions on the topic of submissions and all other aspects of writing as a business are found within its pages. Not getting positive response from your queries? First read Rejection Letters – How to Write and Respond to Them by award winning author Jason Bark, which offers an attempt to write a rejection letter that doesn’t sting, (at least, not so much). Then, flip to Seven Signs that Make Agents and Editors say “Yes!” to learn what agents and editors look for. Buttoning Up Before Dinner by horror author Gary Fry also offers advice to put you in the good graces of publishers and editors and create well-written stories.
Unsure how to submit your work? Submitting Your Work: Read the F*****g Guidelines by freelance writer and editor John Kenny offers tips for making a professional submission from an editor’s perspective. And What a Short Story Editor Does by horror, fantasy and science fiction editor Ellen Dallow explains the responsibilities of short story editor.
Looking for sound career advice? Be the Writer You Want to Be by television writer and novelist, Steven Savile recycles the best writing advice the author was ever given. The Five Laws of Arzen by award winning dark fiction author Michael A. Arzen offers hints to help you survive a writing career. How to Fail as an Artist in Ten Easy Steps: A Rough List Off the Top of My Head, by Confirmed Failure… by horror author John Palisano provides a reverse list of things you should do to be a successful writer.
Wondering if you need an agent to get your work in front of editors and publishers? Do You Need an Agent? by author Eric S. Brown is a discussion about the need, (or not), for an agent and relates the personal experience of how the author became successful without one. Also included are essays on building your writing business in Balancing Art and Commerce by author and screenwriter Taylor Grant , offering a look at various mediums one can write in and earn a living & advice in the business of writing. There are even essays offered on the lucrative business of ghostwriting, with a personal experience as a ghostwriter shared by dark fiction author Blaze McRob, and Ghostwriting: You Can’t Write it if You Can’t See It by award winning author Thomas Smith instructs on how to step into the author’s shoes and write like them.
If you are hoping to find some help muddling through the vast world of marketing and promotion, The Year After Publication by horror & thriller novelist Rena Mason offers an account of what to expect once you publish your first book and a walk through the exhaustive process of book marketing. How to be Your Own Agent, Whether You Have One or Not by horror writer, editor and publisher Joe Mynhardt offers tips for marketing your stories and yourself. Reviewing by founder of Ginger Nuts of Horror, (one of the most viewed resources in horror fiction), Jim McLeod discusses getting your book in the review pile & what the writer should do while awaiting publication of the review.
If you’ve not attended a conference or convention before, Pitch to Impress: How to Stand Out From the Convention Crowd by editor R.J. Cavender provides a guide to making a pitch that will snag agents’ and publishers’ attention. Tips for networking at conferences are offered by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner in You Better (Net)Work, and Networking at Conventions by Bram Stoker Award winning author Lucy A. Synder offers a look at the benefits conventions have to offer and a breakdown on some of the major ones for horror writers.
There is a plethora of advice offered on publishing, including a comparison of traditional publishing vs. digital publishing in Weighing Up Traditional Publishing and Ebook Publishing by award winning author Robert W. Walker; Publishing by editor and publisher Simon Marshall-Jones compares publishing in the digital arena with the way it was done in the past & how to become an independent publisher; and Glenn Rolle Toes the Line with Samhain Horror Head Hancho, Don D. Auria by Glenn Rolle with Interview that maps Auria’s rise to the top.
The arena of self-publishing is also explored in Make Your Own Dreams by horror and suspense novelist Iain Rob Wright. Besides being a plug for self-publishing’s evening of the playing table. It relates personal experience and advice for self-publishing, walking us through the self-publishing process. Self-Publishing: Thumb on the Button by author Kenneth W. Cain gives a list of things to think about before you choose to self-publish.
Also included are essays on the different mediums for horror: Poetry and Horror by Blaze McRob, and Horror for Kids: Not Child’s Play by novelist Francois Bloemhof offers guidelines for writing horror for youth. Several essays on comics and screenwriting, (one of the biggest outlets of horror today), are also included.
Horror Comics – How to Write Gory Scripts for Gruesome Artists by novelist Jasper Bark discusses the craft of writing horror comics and the relationship between writer and artist. Some Thoughts on My Meandering Within the World of Dark and Horror Art by artist Niall Parkinson offers thoughts on creating dark and horror art. So You Want to Write Comic Books… by novelist C.E.L. Welsh discusses what goes into the making of a comic book.
From Pros to Scripts by author and screenwriter Shane McKenzie talks about the many challenges of screenwriting. Writing about Films and For Film by award winning writer, editor and screenwriter Paul Kane gives the story of the author’s rise to success and tips for learning the lingo of the business. Screamplays! Writing the Horror Film by award winning author and screenwriter Lisa Morton offers the basics of screenwriting, description and dialog, and tips for getting your screenplay made into a movie. Screenplay Writing: The First Cut is the Deepest by author, director and editor Dean M. Dinkel recaps of the author’s experience at the Cannes Film Festival.
Essays on writing a digital world include Running a Webserial, or How to Lose Your Mind, One Week at a Time by Southern author Tonia Brown, providing a brief history of serials and a rundown of what goes into running one on the web; Friendship, Writing, and the Internet by Bram Stoker Award winning novelist Weston Ochse with reflections on online connections with like-minded writers, and Audiobooks: Your Words to Their Ears by horror novelist Chet Williamson discusses what it takes to create and audiobook and what to expect from the effort.
Of course, there is also plenty of advice on crafting a quality story. What is Horror? by author and novelist Graham Masterson offers general writing advice which could be applied to any genre and instructs on how to push your writing to the edge. The Journey of “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears” by author Richard Thomas takes us on a walk through of the writing, editing and submissions process of a story. Writing Short Fiction by horror and thriller novelist Joan De La Haye offers tips to tighten your writing and move the story forward, and discusses where to look to sell your story and how to choose where to submit. Ten Short Story Endings to Avoid by Scottish horror novelist William Meikle supplies a valuable list, if you want to avoid having readers feel cheated. From Reader to Writer: Finding Inspiration by publishing and editing consultant Emma Audsley offers advise for attacking the blank page. Writing Exercises by horror writer Ben Eads provides exercises in description and dialogue. Writer’s Block by short fiction writer and novelist Mark West discusses how to keep the creative juices flowing. Editing and revision are covered with Editing and Proofreading by author and editor Diane Parking presents good reasons not to send out a first draft, and How to Dismember Your Darlings – Editing Your Own Work by Jasper Bark gives a brief guide on how to self-edit.
A few essays outline the needs of a writer and suggestions on how to meet them. Filthy Habits – Writing and Routine by Jasper Bark offers a look at the benefits of creating a daily writing routine. A Room of One’s Own – the Lonely Path of a Writer by horror and fantasy writer V. H. Leslie discusses the need for solitude and space to write in. Writing Aloud by screenwriter and author Lawrence Santoro outlines the benefits of reading aloud as a part of the writing process.
Also included are Partners in the Fantastic: The Pros and Cons of Collaborations by novelist Michael McCarty, which looks at the views of various authors on collaborations, and Writing the Series by series author Armand Rosamilia, which explains why Rosamilia writes series.
Several essays offer advice specific to writing in the horror genre. Making Contact by award winning novelist Jack Ketchum discusses how to turn what you know into a horror show. Bitten by the Horror Bug by horror author and screenwriter Edward Lee looks at what motivates us to write horror. Reader Beware by author Siobhan McKinney explores the role fear plays in horror. Bringing the Zombie to Life by author Harry Shannon maps out four components of a good zombie story. The Horror Writers’ Association – The Genres Essential Ingredient by author and President of the Horror Writers’ Association (HWA), Rocky Wood gives a rundown on the HWA.
What’s the Matter With Splatter? by horror writer and Vice-President of the AHWA, Daniel I. Russell discusses the use of blood, gore and splatter in horror fiction or screenwriting, gives tips on how to use it to gain the desired effect, and discusses why some gore doesn’t get a second thought. Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death by British horror writer Ramsay Campbell defines good horror fiction & emphasizes originality. The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner offers an introduction to writing horror, including techniques and brief definitions, and a list of good resources for horror writers. Growing Ideas by horror writer Gary McMahon offers a look into the author’s writing process. Writing Horror: 12 Tips on Making a Career of It by horror novelist Steve Rasnic Tem instructs on building your own writer’s toolbox and advice for entering the profession of writing horror. The Cheesy Trunk of Horror by international best selling author Scott Nicholson provides a look at both writer and reader perspectives on horror and dark fiction. Class: Vaginas in Horror by science fiction, urban fantasy and horror novelist Theresa Derwin offers an overview of women in the horror industry. And the afterward by Crystal Lake Publishing’s editor, Joe Mynhardt, includes his own advice for writing horror.
Horror 101: The Way Forward is based on the sound advice of seasoned professionals that is useful to horror writers in any stage of their careers. I recommend it with four quills for anyone who wants to write horror in either fiction or screenwriting.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.