Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mentioning how I was close to the completion of the fourth draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. Today I’m happy to share the news that the draft has been completed, bound and printed, and now sits on my desk as I begin work on the next draft. This particular undertaking took about nine months and found me sometimes breezing through 2-3 pages at a time, and then being stuck on a single paragraph for two days. This is definitely not the smooth reading experience I would expect from something that’s a final draft, not that I expected this to be the one.
Even with the first couple of pages, on which I’ve probably spent the most amount of time over the last few drafts, I knew that the sea of red wasn’t a particularly encouraging sign that I was anywhere near done. But I didn’t let that discourage me, liberally spilling red ink over the next 245 pages.
This draft is also a product of me taking research seriously. It’s not as if I was talking out of my ass before, but there’s always room to do better. I was pleasantly surprised how accurate some of my details were and also humbled by where I stood to inject some realism. I strongly encourage reading both non-fiction and fiction books on your subject to look both for inspiration and to bolster the credibility of your work. I’m certainly not done the research portion of this writing process and I expect the next couple of drafts to reflect this.
I also ran through all the graphs and metrics I use to improve the productivity of my editing process. This includes the plot graph, my word clouds, my “shit list”, and others. I’ll elaborate all on these in upcoming entries though you can read a bit about my word cloud process here. In any case, I saw improvement, some modest, some significant, on all of my metrics, which again pumps me with excitement for the following drafts.
But I think the most important aspect of draft 4 is that this is the draft that I have chosen to share with a small group of beta readers. I have previously talked about how my wife was subjected to a largely undigested first draft, but with three major rewrites since then, I felt I was ready to go into a slightly wider world.
This is where the excitement really begins and my stomach is aflutter with all sorts of butterflies. Sharing my writing with other people has always been an exhilarating and terrifying experience for me and I look forward to it every time. I can’t wait to see what they enjoy (hopefully something) and what I need to improve (hopefully not everything).
I’ve heard time and time again that writers should just write for themselves and not worry about what other people think. But I see the writer as primarily a storyteller, and for a story to be told, it needs to be heard. So while I want my beta readers to like my novel, I don’t want them to do so unequivocally. I want them honestly to tell me what they think about my story, because my story is not for me, it’s for the world.
After this, I estimate I have about three drafts left (two of them post-beta readers) until I might be in a spot where I think I’ve given the story all I can give, and at my current pace, this should take about a year and a half. After working on Wake the Drowned for more than a decade, this feels like almost no time at all, the proverbial light at the end of that tunnel. At this point, I’ve got an unquenchable craving to see it through, which is why I didn’t bother to take a break between drafts four and five and dove right into the next one while my beta readers go through my novel at a comfortable pace.
I hope this novel is the one, but at the same time, I know it’s my first novel, and it should be treated as a learning experience. So wherever this journey ends up, I’ll just be content to bask in the excitement of a long and massive project slowly nearing its completion.
Any day now, I’ll finish draft 4 of Wake the Drowned, and when I do, I will inundate you with useless statistics and maybe some marginally helpful editing and novel planning tips along the way, but until that happens, I want to talk about inspiration.
For the writers in the audience, we all have an author or work that at one point has made us go “Wow, this is the thing I want to create. I want my writing to make someone feel like this makes me feel right now.” For me, one of those works, and probably the earliest one I can remember, is J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction series, Babylon 5, which I have previously mentioned on multiple occasions as a great inspiration.
Not sure how many of you folks will remember Babylon 5 but it ran in the 90s on the Prime Time Entertainment Network and then TNT for its final season and was the original (and superior) cousin of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The show followed the crew of the space station Babylon 5, built by humans to be a hub of diplomacy and understanding between different species, as they struggled with their internal politics and threats from ancient races.
Very importantly, it was one of the shows that found both syndication and a fan following in 90s Russia, where I had grown up, and because off its airtime, served as a forbidden fruit. It was on after my bedtime, which was extended to cover the show only on Fridays, so the other four days of the week I had to piece the show together by sneaking out of bed and standing quietly in the doorway, bolting every time there was a commercial break knowing that that’s when I was apt to get caught. My parents later claimed they mostly knew about this but I still like to think I was pretty stealthy.
What struck me about B5, aside from the cool aliens which would tickle the imagination of any young boy who was into Star Wars, was that it was my first exposure to long-form storytelling. Babylon 5 remains fairly unique in its approach to its story – it started off with a pre-planned five-season story arc, and it was given a chance to conclude its full five-season arc, albeit with some shuffling in the final two seasons due to a threat of cancellation. My little child mind was absolutely boggled by this as stories and themes were interwoven, secrets had satisfying resolutions, and actions had consequences reaching into seasons ahead.
It was the first work of fiction that taught me that characters can come in shades of gray, that as one enemy redeems himself the other can face a cruel downfall, their fates seeming both inevitable and completely avoidable. It showed me that humour can cohabitate with tragedy, and strength with vulnerability, and that somewhere deep within me my own stories were itching to get out.
The reason B5 was on my mind as I set to write this post is twofold. Firstly, I have been diligently working on Chapters 2 and 3 of Drops of the Black Sun (despite what the general lack of updates would otherwise suggest), my own long-form mostly pre-planned sci-fi series that I’m sharing here on this blog. As I’m putting together these early chapters and planning for the future of the series, I can’t help but seek inspiration from B5 and I have spotted some unintentional minor similarities that make me question whether I have an original bone in my body.
The other reason this has been on my mind is because on Tuesday, through the magic of the internet, I had a chance to have a brief interaction with the creator of B5 himself. J. Michael Straczynski did an AMA on the /r/books subreddit and I was lucky enough to catch the beginning and fire off my comment. I told him the little tidbit about watching it past my bedtime and what an influence he was.
The ever-humble Straczynski advised me to never let “some other show” influence me as a writer. In general, I take his meaning. Those previously mentioned similarities notwithstanding, I want my work to be original, but what are we without the giants whose shoulders we stand on? Straczynski is one of the giants for me. While I want Drops to have a unique voice, to breathe life into a story and into characters that are entirely my own, I can’t help but see my work through the lens of works that have inspired me. I want to at least come close to bringing to the world the same complexity, the character development and engaging story that Straczynski brought me when I was a kid.
So with that said, I hope you all get a chance to experience the brilliance that is Babylon 5. I know I’m already looking to my next rewatch, and to bringing you even a smidgen of the same powerful storytelling.
Recently I’d tweeted something about the fact that one of my most satisfying moments in editing are deletions. This has stuck with me since then, and I’ve been taking a more critical approach to phrases, sentences and passages that I’m editing and I feel like I’m onto something here, so I thought I would expand on this.
I’ve previously talked about writer’s block and the various ways I deal what that stubborn bit of writing that just won’t let me be. But what if making it perfect isn’t the answer? What if making it disappear is what makes your writing stronger?
At first, this sounds like a quitting attitude, and I do agree that a deletion decision needs to be critically assessed. It’s tempting to interrogate yourself and ask whether you’re just giving up on something and whether a better writer would be able to write their way out of this one. But good writers delete, and you should too.
Secondly, I acknowledge that deleting your own writing hurts. This is your baby, come from within the depths of your creative process, and now you’re expected to unceremoniously sever it and discard it? As traumatic as the experience might be for you, there’s a reason why “kill your darlings” is a bit of writing advice that’s been driven into the ground. Sometimes, no matter how attached you are to the smaller piece, its removal might be an overall benefit to the whole. And if you really do think it’s a good line that just happens to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, save it somewhere else. I have a whole file with deleted sentences and paragraphs to use to inspire myself later. It may find a home a yet.
So let’s look at this in the context of the actual deletion I made last week. This was in Wake the Drowned, the novel I’m currently editing, and the protagonist, Charlie, is struggling about whether or not to enter a room and help another character, but then this character says something completely inappropriate, and the protagonist leaves instead. The immediate next sentence after the protagonist makes his decision and is described as leaving the room is as follows: “There was no need for Charlie there.” While there is nothing wrong with that sentence by itself, something didn’t feel quite right.
My first suspicion was that it didn’t show my character’s motivation or decision making enough. After all, the preceding sentence never explicitly states that Charlie couldn’t or wouldn’t help this other character or why. So I fiddled with the following alternatives: “There was nothing Charlie could do then” or “Charlie realized there was nothing he could have done” or “There was nothing Charlie could do for [character] now.” While about as short and punchy as the original sentences, all of these options didn’t sound right. So I went with a more complicated structure to the tune of the following: “Despite what twisted Charlie on the inside, if he’d cross the room then, he would soon discover that [character] had now sunken out of reach of his help.” This seemed to somehow make things much worse.
So I stared it for a few minutes, wondering why this little sentence, with its expression of hopelessness in a hopeless situation, was bothering me so much. And then I just put a fat red line through it, and read the paragraph again.
Now the scene ended with Charlie leaving the room, without any epilogue-type commentary. That’s it. Here he is contemplating helping, the character saying something inappropriate, then Charlie leaving. Sure, I can add extra details about what Charlie felt at the moment, but what would that accomplish? He left. The reader understands what the decision implies, and if Charlie’s exact train of thought isn’t set out, what’s the big deal? So I figured out what was wrong with the sentence. The sentence couldn’t be editing or improved, because the problem was that it should never have been there in the first place.
I’ve always struggled with the mother of all writing advice: “show, don’t tell”. I don’t pretend that I truly know what it means but I caught a glimpse of it at that moment. “There was no need for Charlie there” was doing precisely that – telling us what Charlie felt, instead of showing us that he left.
There is, of course, the lingering possibility that I made the wrong choice. Perhaps some beta readers will feel like something is missing from this paragraph. And if that happens, I would need to rethink my choices. At this point, I found the red strikethrough to be liberating. I liked the sentence and how it sounded and how it capped off a previous much longer sentence. But ultimately I decided that it detracted from the work, and out it went. I’ll move past whatever pain that causes, because the next sentence calls.
I have recently put the finishing touches on the third draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. It’s been a process that has lasted almost two years, so I hope that not only did I improve the manuscript, but actually managed to learn something along the way. So without further introduction, here is an arbitrary number of writing tips I have distilled out of the editing process for draft 3.
Tip 1: Just let it spill out
Self-editing as you go is probably one of the worst sins a writer can commit against themselves. I still find myself, during what should be a breezy first draft, questioning “is this scene dragging on too long?” or “wouldn’t this be better in another part of the book?” or “does this aside actually serve any purpose?” These are all extremely valid questions and answering them will go a long way to improving your work. However, they shouldn’t be asked at the writing stage and are best left for the editing stage.
I spent years writing the first draft of the novel. And then another year editing it into the second draft. You’d think with all the self-editing I did along the way, everything would have come together by then. Wrong. So much of draft 3 did not just involve editing for phrasing or brevity. I was moving around chapters, adding new chapters, merging chapters from different parts of the book into each other. All that time that I spent overthinking as I wrote was largely wasted, because difficult decisions are being made right now.
So when you’re writing that first draft, just write. Put down every scene you think of writing onto the page. At least now it’s there, saved, and ready to be dealt with later. Then, when you’re editing, apply a liberal does of the following tip, and then you’ve done yourself and your work a great favour.
Tip 2: Be merciless
My first draft clocked in at about 95,000 words, and after the first set of revisions, the second draft came it at around 73,000 – that’s almost a quarter of the original manuscript gone, so I thought I was in a good spot.
The third draft of the novel included additional chapters and material that amounted to approximately ten thousand words, yet the length of the manuscript remained unchanged. That means through this edit, another 10,000 words came off the books. Now a full third of the original was gone. Granted, this process was gradual and didn’t feel so drastic, but think about what this means. Imagine writing 32,000 words and then just … deleting them.
Not everything you write will be gold, and part of editing is panning for that gold so that the end product is a distillation of your writing. Imagine yourself as an athlete with the ability to take away some of your failed attempts. Imagine the career you could have. This is presented to you as an option in writing, so it would be a crime against yourself to not seize the opportunity. Cut. And don’t let the writer you used to be dictate what your writing should look like.
Tip 3: There no such thing as too slow
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. On the surface, all platitudes to make yourself feel better about procrastination, but I found them to be strangely true.
Yes, looking back at the fact that I finished writing the first draft in 2015 and it’s been more than three years later and I’ve only made it through two major revision cycles may sound a wee bit discouraging, but what’s the rush? I’ve got a day job, a family, *gasp* other hobbies. I can’t afford to throw myself in, to marry myself to the “writer’s lifestyle” whatever that might mean to you. So why should I be hard on myself for taking my time?
I’m in my early thirties. I’m still learning life, still reading, still improving my writing. They still make “Top 40 Writers Under 40” lists so I’ve got a lot of room here. No one wins a lifetime achievement awards for a decade worth of work. No one writes an autobiography before they’re twenty. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.
Tip 4: You are not an ostrich
It’s easy to breeze through an edit, correcting typos, changing wording, maybe even tweaking dialogue to make it more natural. But then you get to a page, or maybe a whole scene, and something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the pacing, or maybe it doesn’t serve the plot, or maybe the tone is wrong or the characterization is inconsistent. Maybe it’s just a feeling that something is amiss. Do you a) wrack your brains about how to fix the problem, or b) do you stick your head in thee send and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I’ve certainly done the latter with some of my previous edits and have paid for it in this draft. I’ve already got my eye on the next draft and have a feeling I know what I need to tackle. For years I’ve ignored an uncomfortable feeling about a certain aspect or my story. But now that we’re squarely in 2018, I find myself needing to make some significant edits to avoid what I find to be cultural appropriation.
I won’t be happy until all those wrinkles are ironed out. So why dodge it? If something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
Tip 5: You didn’t marry your outline
I’ve already lamented about how I seem to be unable to start a project without a robust outline in place. While this so far appears to be a prerequisite for me to actually get writing, the outline is just a skeleton of the work. But bones break, get re-set, limbs are amputated, okay, maybe the choice of metaphor was a mistake, but in any case, what you thought your story would look like before you even started writing it should not dictate how your story should develop.
I’ve already gone at length about at the transformations Wake the Drowned has taken over the years, and it only really took off once an outline was in place. So I owe that much to it. But I recently found one of my early outlines for it and almost laughed at how much it has changed.
For this particular draft, I found significant “dead zones” in the plot, or as I like to call them “doldrums” where there’s neither moving action nor character developed (I’ll go into more detail about my plot graphs some other time). I worked hard to whittle these down and yet the problem was right there from the beginning – so much of my outline was basically “and then Charlie walks around for a while and basically does fuck all”. How I thought that would make for engaging story, I’ll never know.
So once the first draft is complete, the outline has served its purpose. Your story is now an organic entity in your hands and you need to help its development. If that means throwing your original plot twists into the dumpster, that’s fine. Save them onto a file somewhere on your computer so you can maybe go back and be inspired by them later.
So that’s about all the drops of wisdom I have to share – felt like juicing a turnip with your bare hands. Hopefully this will make the road through draft 4 a less painful affair.
Let me first preface this with the disclaimer that I had completely lost track of how long it had been since my last entry. I guess between work and some issues that required my full attention on the Board of our Housing Co-operative, I was all tapped-out for creativity. I had told myself when I started this endevour that I wouldn’t let my entries lapse this badly and I had a good streak going for about two months. Hopefully this is just an aberration that will result in some lessons learned and I won’t go this long without an update again.
Now, getting back to the entry I first started writing almost a month ago, I find it a bit amusing that despite it being my major current project, I have actually devoted very little time to discussing my novel. I kind of mentioned it towards the end of my first blog entry, but beyond that, I don’t think I’ve given it much attention. I suppose one of the reasons is that I’m currently in a love-and-hate struggle with it, but the bottom line is I was about to sit down to share with you some of my editing struggles and realized that I haven’t actually provided any context to what has been a decade-long process.
The novel I’m trying to finish, whose working title is Wake the Drowned though my wife has informed me it sounds like the title of a high school essay, has its roots in one simple image. I was no older than seventeen, likely still in high school, taking out the trash in the parking garage of the condo complex we were living in, and whistling some unnamed tune. I locked onto that image, of whistling a tune while walking through a long tunnel, and somebody waiting on the other side to meet the mysterious source of that tune. That’s it. That’s all it was. Not particularly original or awe-inspiring but it was the spark that ignited a fire that was very slow to catch.
The image kept coming back to me, time and time again, until I figured out who would be emerging out of that tunnel and who was waiting for them (I would say who that would be here, but I’ll let you savour the moment if my novel ever sees light of day). And so other ideas built on top of that. The protagonist formed soon enough, a loitering man-child whose character became more and more nuanced until the “man-child” concept was dropped and reworked into something different. The tunnel became the exit out of a perfect little town called Middleton, and contrary to the first line of the novel, Middleton quickly stopped being so perfect.
Most of these concepts were churning freely in my head for many years, all through undergrad and into law school. It was then, in our little first-floor studio apartment in downtown Toronto when I finally sat down to write the short story that had been stuck in development hell until that point. This must have been about ten years ago.
The reason it started as a short story is that short stories were kind of my thing, and they still make up a good portion of the words I commit to paper. I’ve flirted with novels before, and as recently as the summer before law school managed to get almost 50,000 words into a manuscript about a love affair between a Russian Count and the poor relation of a powerful Countess (that one is still officially a work in progress). So when I set out to finally write down the ideas that would form my novel, I very much intended it to be a short story.
That is, until I found myself 5,000 words in and not even having scraped the plot at that point. This was a curious sensation. Probably one of the first times something in my writing had organically developed without me intending to. I wanted to know where it would lead me, and over the next few years and many distracting shiny projects (some of which had now been accepted for publication, so yay!) I decided that about 18,000 words in, I would try my hand at finding the book an agent.
The sheer audacity and naiveté of sending an unfished (let’s be honest, barely started) book to an agent is both impressive and mortifying. But I was greeted with kindness, and though she politely told me to come back with a finished manuscript, she had given me many important pointers that have blown the book wide open. Five chapters in and I was already heading for massive rewrites. This was around 2012 and of course with that much reworking, I had lost steam and motivation, and the book mostly lingered for the next couple of years.
That is, until I hit another breakthrough and the final piece of the puzzle slid into place. The “what” that my novel is about had been made clear to me. It was a work that snowballed atop a single image, but it had not found its purpose. Only after my own thankfully brief struggle with PTSD did I realize what story the novel needed to tell. It needed to be about mental illness, it needed to be about alienation and how we sometimes fail those in need, even the ones we love. The realization was so striking that I remember where I was when it had, driving in the evening over the Oak Street bridge heading home.
That’s when the floodgates opened, and chapter upon chapter poured out of me. The first draft of the novel was complete within a year of my epiphany, after having not even been a quarter-finished six years after I had started writing it.
And that, of course, is when the hard part actually began.
Brimming with excitement over my first finished novel, I subjected my poor supportive wife to it. She read it, but informed me that instead of pancakes I had given her raw pancake batter and to never do anything so horrifying to her ever again. The point was taken, even if it was a hard pill to swallow.
But I believed there was yet a finished pancake underneath all that batter, and so I set to it, reading through it with the most critical eye I could muster. There are plenty of editing techniques other than just rereading that I employed. I’ve already discussed my use of word clouds, and at some point I’ll talk about my plot graphs and dialogue editing. In the first edit I managed to get a 95,000 word manuscript down to 75,000. Just imagine typing out 20,000 words and then deleting them. It felt both jarring and somehow liberating.
It’s that second draft that I’m currently butchering into a stubborn third draft. I’ve added about 10,000 words worth of new chapters while the overall word count has remained steady. Which means now more than a third of the original manuscript is completely gone while the rest is heavily rewritten. Chapters are being cannibalized into three or four other chapters, some getting moved from the last third to the first third of the novel.
It’s like a renovation project for a house – completely overwhelming and just when you’ve torn out all the drywall you think you’ll never be able to finish. But as you move along, and the house starts looking almost habitable, hope blossoms.
I’ve been in the editing stage for almost three years for a number of reasons, and the fact that editing is a whole new beast I needed to learn is one of them. The other is simply life. I’ve got two kids now. My father passed away last year and I’ve gone through three jobs in two years with hopefully having found some stability now. I’m feeling better about Wake the Drowned and I’m ready to finish that third draft and dive straight back into the fourth. I look forward to sharing my work with other people, but I have to be patient and take it one day at a time.
And thanks for joining me on that journey.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.