Monday, May 23, 2011

Length Crisis (aka it's too long and I refuse to cut it apart)

So I went to a fabulous talk on Thursday. The topic was "Writing a Young Adult Novel". The speaker, Antony John, author of "Busted" and "Five Flavors of Dumb", did a marvelous job explaining the varied and exciting world of young adult writing. He convinced me that Threadcaster absolutely should be a young adult novel - it's straightforward and experimental and concise with teen characters and clean to slightly dark situations. He even signed a copy of Dumb for me with the encouraging words "I look forward to seeing your books".

So off I went home to start reading his novel, hoping a published YA would give me a peek into the "Authentic Teen" voice he said was so important. I learned a thing or two about authentic teens; they speak in incomplete sentences and use the passive voice (but that might be because the author is british), but they also like their chapters short. Like... five pages short. Then i noticed that the amount of words on a page is next to nothing compared to the amount of words per page in my Threadcaster document, so a chapter was more like two pages. Then I noticed his book was the same page number as mine... and with the difference in content per page...

... to add all the parts up for you, my book is too long. According to the notes I took at the talk, an average young adult novel is 40,000 words. Threadcaster clocked in at 140,000 words. that's 100,000 more words than is generally publishable, and that's a lot of words.

To it's credit, through editing only the first chapter i've managed to pare out 12,000 words... but the sheer size of the task is still daunting. This leads to three options - butcher the hell out of my book, split the book in to two or three volumes or ignore it and hope someone publishes it anyway.

Option one does not sound good to me at all. I can cut out redundant phrases, but to get that kinda word retraction I'd have to cut out a whole Element! If we skipped Water Town or Wind Town all together then maybe we'd get down to 60,000 words (after removing all of Zephyr or Lynn's dialog. We'd get more removed with Lynn). I've worked really hard building these relationships though... there's no one in there who is just kinda there and not serving a purpose like Nell was back when I decided to cut the Lightning curses.

Option two is not favorable. There is one place where the story could concievably break. It's what I call the "Wrench Scene" where I take us all in a totally different direction. The only problem with breaking there is that it's the bleakest place in the whole book... and ending a story with such tragedy would suck and most the second book would then be somber. Or maybe it'll be a good thing? Ending on an unexpectedly awful note might get people to run after the second volume as soon as they can to find out what happens. Then the second book I can spend more time getting to know Jared who has precious few scenes. It'd be a bit of filler, but it's easier to add content than subtract it.

Option three is what  I'm going to do for now. Who is to say someone isn't going to want to pick up a 100,000 word book just because they're a teen? I might lose some audience members but hopefully the pace and sense of adventure will drive them on. I have a whole stack of Redwall books on my shelf- those are YA and excessively long, so there's not rule saying it cannot be done.

I still have doubts about being able to sell the book to an agent though now that I know it's both a first novel and an overlength one. I'm really doubting myself and my work lately, I think it's because I'm tired and I've been so critical. All I want is to edit the thing so people can read it - I think when I hear feedback that is not my own I'll regain some of that confidence, because in my heart I know the book is good. I know the universe is interesting and the characters authentic, just as an author it seems stale and overdone.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Break Book: Good Omens

Good Omens: What I learned

On the wise advice of my good friend Kathleen, I took a break from Threadcaster to listen to someone else's author voice. In this case I chose two authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I respect greatly, although only one of whom I have read previously.

First it needs to be stated up front that this cult classic has been lauded by many as their favorite book ever. It is, indeed, a fun book. I wouldn't call it my favorite though for the reasons I state below. I spent the entire novel comparing and contrasting to my own novel and trying to learn from it.

 The first thing I learned was the pacing. I don't know about Neil, but Terry has a way with long rambly worldbuilding, and the book tends to stop dead in places in order to explore some strange corner of it that has little or nothing to do with the plot. This can be a footnote on the history of something stupid or a side-character story that provides no content. I found this distracting while I read, because I thought about all the little plot culdesacs and dead ends i've deleted out of Threadcaster because it didn't move the story forward. I wonder if those things were better left in for the sake of color... these are best selling authors after all... or if they are better out so that the clock that is my manuscript ticks at the proper times. Good Omens as a whole is 400 pages long, but I'll bet fifty of those could be eliminated by removing details about telephones and strange nunneries.

Second I learned about character; The main characters are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, two unfortunate immortals sent to keep tabs on the world by their respective generals. I call them the main characters but we probably only spend 50% of the book with them, the rest is spent with a great cascade of side characters that may or may have much use really at all. There were a couple that were employed cleverly, a couple that were annoying and useless, and a couple that had nothing at all to do with the overarching plot in the slightest. A great example is a demon named Hastur, one of two demon lackeys that meet with Crowley. Hastur was successfully dispatched during a cleverly resolved scene (I suspect one of Neil's) then left by the side. That would have been fine, but then we spend three pages later in the book bringing him back as a player in the already congested narrative only to ignore him completely for the conclusion. It felt sloppy is all... just another excuse for Neil to write about maggots. It's taught me to keep track of my named characters, their motivations and what they're doing. Hastur and a miriad of other bozos all have a lot of pages devoted to them, then no real role to play. Many aren't even a mistake to be included... they're just included past their point of usefulness. Shoulda left Hastur dispatched, it was better that way. Should have left Mr. S back at home, he was pretty useless. I could go on.. but I wont.

Third I learned about doing things for a reason. I understand that Adam was manipulating the world on accident when he raised atlantis and made aliens and tibetans, but they didn't end up having a thing to do with anything. Why were they there? Oh as jokes I guess. That's a lot of really epic stuff happening for the sake of jokes. Maybe it's a play on the British; that truly amazing things happen and they remark on the weather instead. I don't know. I just wanted the aliens or the atlanteans to come into play somewhere in the broad scheme of things... to be used, because they were really great tools! The same goes for stuff like the kraken, or Bealzebub and Metatron... stuff included that could have been used really well but instead were treated as one-offs and dismissed. What I learned is that people can see squandered potential... or at least I can. I'll try to make the things I include significant later on - at least if they are hefty things like gods of the underworld.

Fourth  I learned about passive voice and the difference between acceptable passive sentences and unacceptable passive sentences; the latter being the type that is hard to read. Its 'All the days they'd been having were good days' vs 'They'd been having a lot of good days'. Both are passive sentences but the second sounds more natural and pastoral, conjuring atmosphere. The first screams "IMPROVE ME" at me as loud as it can. The lesson here is not to worry about making sure all the sentences I write are active, just the ones that need to be. Plus variety is a big part of a successful narrative, whose to say a little passive voice is a bad thing? I also learned that rambling is annoying no matter how well it's written.

Finally, I learned the importance of resolution. It comes in line with the statement about characters above; there were a lot of tiny stories and threads weaving around... so many so that the conclusion seemed almost unfit for the novel. I was expecting something big where all the major players came in for their parts; making the celestial chess game complete. Instead (spoiler alert btw) it kinda ends with a certain 'mneh'. They just stand and talk about it, and the power of talking solves all the worlds problems. I realize this is kind of a joke because it's what every leader WANTS to have happen when entering conflict - speak about it rationally and arrive at a conclusion, but for the ending of a book it's kind of mundane. I'm with War when she said "I expected it to be grander", I wanted a real satisfying payoff for all the little trials and tribulations we've faced. It didn't have to be celestial war. It didn't have to be a balls-to-the-walls wings-out flaming-sword fight with the devil (Although I gotta admit I was real excited by the possibility only to be summarily dropped in cold water just when my hopes were up), but something more than just rubbing a couple computer screens, poking some people and shrugging and saying "oh well". Then after everything is concluded they tease me with 20 extra pages of what I assumed was going to be an awesome twist but ended up as rambling epilogues (I am guessing I can thank Terry for). So this great story kinda peters out to nothing. After that long list of nitpicks, the real lesson I drew from it is make an exciting ending, but don't be afraid of writing the aftermath too. I kept reading didn't I? And ending sweetly or happily doesn't make your book any less of a cult classic.

What I really took away from the book as it applies to how I'll edit Threadcaster is to not be afraid of fun colorful stuff if it helps your characters or your setting. I've generally avoided bamboo-trap scenes (sit and talk scenes, see previous entries) like the plague, but the audience can stand one every once in a while as long as it is entertaining. I've also learned that small named character parts are totally forgivable as long as you let them vanish when it's appropriate. I learned anyone labeled as significant by tone or circumstance should do something to earn their keep, even if it's something like dying.  Finally I learned that the grand conclusion should be grand and the followup should followup nicely. I shouldn't punish myself for indulging a little of myself in the ending... the audience might be as in love with all these people as I am.

I also learned to read more Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, although Terry... Terry... you ramble my friend.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Celebration Art

I thought everyone would enjoy this. I put it up as a wallpaper as I finished off my draft. The cast gives me encouragement when I'm feeling discouraged. They held my hand through the finale!

Friday, May 6, 2011

It is done.

I'd like to officially record that May 6th at 9:30pm I saved and closed my laptop on a finished draft of Threadcaster. It's the first time in the history the story has existed in prose in a completed form.

It took me all day, but my good buddy Kathleen was there to give me support. She and I hit up Wired Coffee on Lindbergh from about 2 to close... I ran out of tea, battery and open hours at Wired all about the same time so she agreed to come with me over to Breadco so I could keep my head of steam. I was in the middle of a big emotional scene... my heart was just pounding.

We settled in from 6-9:30 while I forged on, pounding out all the scenes i've been playing over and over in my head. Like a doctor I gave the official announcement: 323 pages, 140783 words. Then Kathleen and I went to Cold Stone and got icecream.

Post-Mortem is kind of moot since I've still got a lot of work left to do on it, but I should give a report of my emotions and feelings and etc on this historic day... I'm proud and kind of drained, but I feel good. I think the ending is good, but I know it needs some work. I've written the thing three times in different places, every time second-guessing it. It was either too sappy or too complicated or just plain too long. This one has some great ideas in it and I think it's pretty powerful - I mean it got me going. you really get thrown on your ear there for a while and I hope everyone will be satisfied. I built a lot of layers of symbolism and stuff into it and tried to make it all pay off. I've got some stuff to weave back through the rest of it to give it stronger legs, but there's a time for that.

What really concerns me is the kinda tolkienesque rambling series of endings I lined up. I have certain things I want to hit - for non-spoilery examples say I want to make sure I tell you if THESE characters survived, where THESE people went, who THIS person is... and when I was drafting tonight I kinda breezed through it all in a desperate sprint to the finish. It's like going down the hill on a bike... once you get at a certain speed stuff starts feeling dangerous. You either keep riding with the momentum and hope you don't crash, or break and take jerking motions until you reach the bottom. I went for the momentum approach just because I was so desperate to declare the thing done. I have a LOT of writing left to do in the form of revision and editing (I'm actually doing some right now... just of the ending bit not back to the beginning. I had a thought about how to improve one of the rambles) First step though, I think I'm going to take Kathleen's advice and read through the thing without worrying just to get the pacing down. I'll probably try and read it aloud to myself to see how it flows and take notes on parts I feel are unnecessary or broken. Then I'll give it the refinement pass and pass it out to my beta readers... while working on Ghosts of Whitehall I suppose, or prepping the good parts for my Kristin Nelson pass (aka the "People don't actually growl and stop telling me she's sad" pass).

I'll start all that good stuff tomorrow. For now I'm going to fix/ finish my grand Cast photo and go rummaging through all my old plotting notes to compare and see what's changed. Maybe I'll do a side by side comparison entry when I'm done... that would be a lot of fun I think!

Anyway, the completion of the rough draft officially marks this: May 6th as Cat's canon birthday. That way I can celebrate yearly.

Love you all, thanks for supporting me in this. I'm gonna delete some fluff and go try and sleep off my separation anxiety. :)


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Home stretch

After the weekend's worth of writing I'm extremely close to finishing the first draft of this book. I"ve had it outlined for six years, prewritten for two, second or even third drafted for places but now, finally, I'm to the point where I can write the official and complete end.

This will of course be followed by a thorough rewrite, but there's no denying to significance of this upcoming event. I'll have a complete draft for the first time in the life of Threadcaster. I can't even tell you how strange it feels to be at this point. I'm excited.

I'll be writing at Wired Coffee in Lindbergh tomorrow. Maybe Friday as well. I want to be able to go to the St. Louis Writer's Guild's open mic next week and announce I have a completed draft. An official completed draft.

Current page count 310. I'll update again tomorrow with my development.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kill your babies

So I've spent the last week writing a scene I've been planning from word-one.

The scene involved a character introduced at the very beginning as a fun throwback to remind you of where we came from. She wasn't particularly important... but it was a fun marriage between the beginning of the book and the end of the book - and quite literally too.

I've been trying to write this scene for days, but as you can see from my title, I've decided to cut it. I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss what it's like to have to cut something you've held on to for so long... in homage, let's name him Charlie

Charlie took place in act 3. He was a scene about Cat, our main character, running into a woman named Isolde who we meet on the road to Fire Town. It ends up she's married a man who is the father of another character we meet in the second half. At their house Cat gets a disguise and a strategy for how to sneak into the Endgame, which will take place dangerously soon.

Charlie's first warning signs came with the inkling... the inkling that perhaps he was extraneous. I don't know how many others share this internal klaxon, but it's what I call the "library book sense" and it lives in the back of my head near the base where my spine connects. I get this sensation when it's about time for things to happen - like returning movies, paying bills or, of course, killing literary babies. Charlie started going on too long... I'd gotten to the point where it was supposed to be stressful and exciting, but instead it was feeling like a chore - like the book knew it needed to be doing other things right now, and that was the first sign that it either needed a rewrite or a purge. I'd planned too long to put this scene in the book, there was no way I'd purge it now!

So Charlie went to imagination therapy. This led to sign number two - character knowledge vs. plot requirement. I solved a large part of the prewriting problems by sending Cat in to meet these people by herself because there's no way she'd drag her four Curses into a dangerous Brushcaster-infested town with her for a menial task (delivering a letter) so I decided to send her in alone, something she might actually agree with. I presented her the situation and she started arguing with me. I even had the mysterious and powerful Joshua show up and tell her to go but she still didn't want to. Joshua doesn't fight with me, he does whatever I say. Eventually he basically told Cat "The Author wants you to go to this town, I'll carry you there." and she begrudgingly agreed but still thought it was a bad idea. It's times like these that you should listen to your characters, Cat had far more valid arguments than against following my plan than I did expecting her to follow.   Before rewriting the scene again, Charlie needed to be put though one last test.

It's the last-chance hazardous and highly difficult Double-Column-Graph test. I start with a blank piece of paper (usually in one of my idea notebooks) and draw a line vertical through the middle and put Positive on one side and Negative on the other. As you can figure, the two columns are for all the good points of making a choice and all the bad. The question was "Should Charlie go?"

Positives in favor of axing Charlie: 1, it keeps Cat and the Curses together, 2, It will add speed when there is speed and make room for another slow scene later when it might fit better, 3, Cat doesn't want to go and it makes sense not to, 4, I can eliminate this slack thread i've woven though the book.

Negatives resulting if Charlie is axed: 1, I don't get to use this recurring character, 2, We don't get to see the inside of Astonage.

There are obviously more positives than negatives in my graph, but that's not what necessarily what makes a successful graph test; sometimes there might be one point in the positive or negative panel that tips the graph in its favor even if it's the only thing in there. A great example was when I was thinking of getting rid of a trip to Joshua's house - originally the place was just a well of backstory that was stop and sit in for a couple chapters. This setup was awful and counter-productive, so the question came up about whether or not it should be removed. I gave it the graph test and realized that the value of going there (for reasons I won't mention) far outweighed any benefit we'd receive by skipping it, so instead of obeying the positive column I reorganized and reworked the whole latter half of the story to make it fit better with great success.

The second major red flag I got from the chart was the fact that everything in the Negative column was related to ME. *I* wanted to keep Isolde because *I* wrote her that way. *I* wanted to see Astonage because we haven't been there before. Cat didn't care, she didn't know a disguise and a solution to the problem was waiting for them inside the town, all she knew was that it was dangerous and a totally illogical course of action. A novel is supposed to be a slice of the characters' lives, the minute the reader sees the author in the draft they've left the narrative... don't do things out of character, it's poor form!

The decision was clear. I had to abandon Charlie to the junk pile. The lesson to be learned is; just because it's in the outline doesn't mean that time and evolution can't change circumstances and even if you've planned and provided for something in the beginning, the STORY is what counts. Listen to your draft, listen to your characters, don't force something just because YOU want it seen. Snip Charlie off, store him in your Graveyard/Grab-bag file and proceed without him.

Sometimes you have to kill your babies, but you can name them if it makes you feel better.