12 December 2015

Five Years On

I've been writing almost my entire life.

That's my go-to line. Even when I doubt what I'm doing, if it's worth it, if I'm any good, I fall back on that line and taste a sip of reassurance. This is kind of who I am. I think about bringing home a blank hardback from the school store in second grade and making a picture book about Dinosaurs (you remember that ridiculous old show) and writing Dragonlance fan fiction in middle school. But writing was always just a hobby. I didn't decide to be a Writer until my mid-to-late twenties. I wanted (and still do, though my mind is broadening) to write novels.

And, really, even though I've got half a dozen half-done, and one other fully drafted, I've only ever completed a single book. HOMES will be self-published early next year, along with The Dig, the roleplaying game set in the same world.

I sat on the book for a long time, making some half-ass attempts at agent shopping but mostly doubting its viability as anything anyone would ever want to read ever. Who wants to read about a bunch of dwarves anyway? Part of the problem was that I was unwilling to really dig in (get it?) and revise the thing. The surety that I am going to release The Dig no matter what drove me to sit down with HOMES again and give it a hard look. In the last month I chopped the thing to pieces, rewrote scenes and chapters and added new ones. I revised countless sentences, swapped character genders, restructured the narrative (only a bit), and otherwise utilized the years of experience since starting the book to make it gooder. And that's really what this entry is about, a few things I've learned since I started writing that silly fantasy novel five years ago.



1) Writing More Makes You Writier
This is obvious but important. Any author you see at a con or whose blog you read or who shouts at you from their window after asking you to get off their lawn tells you the same thing: to write better than normal people you have to write (and read) more than normal people. This is a challenge with a family, full-time job, other interests, and a social life, but the time has to be made somehow. Looking back at Writer Derek 3-5 Years Ago (though I'm not certain, I feel pretty sure I finished it three years ago), I see what he was trying to do. Many of his sentences had a fun, rambling, 'storyteller' style meant to mimic those turn of the century English writers we love most. These sentences were conversational, but they quickly went off the rails into near illegibility. Shorter, clearer sentences are better than long and stylistic ones, at least until I can properly pull off the style I really want to write (see Good Heart).

Little touches like this popped up throughout the revising process, but one theme ties them together: less is more readable.

I think I wrote more convoluted paragraphs because I wanted things to be lengthier for some reason, and because I didn't trust the reader. I wanted to make sure they saw things as I did. But that, as Tolkien might say, is a form of domination. In doing this I also used too many adverbs. Adverbs are pollution most of the time. As we learn from Stephen King, the scene should be set up properly enough, and the character established enough, that your reader ought to see what you do without the need for excessive adverbs (or excessively long descriptions). Besides, the reader's imaginative participation is part of the whole process.

2) Revising Makes You Writier
I resisted rewrites and revision for a long time. I realize now that this is for two reasons: you don't want to put the blood, sweat, and tears into a whole book and then find out its no good -- fear made me put my head in the sand -- and because I always want to get on with the next project. Probably up until this year I, at least subconsciously, wanted to be prolific rather than...good. Trouble is that you can write a million books, but nobody is going to read them if they suck.

The other thing I realized is that, because I don't do much planning or prewriting for my stuff, there can be quite a few holes and inconsistencies that need addressing. If this is how I'm going to write (I vow that my next novel will have a character bible and a big, fat outline), if I'm just going to let it flow intuitively, then I have to live in the revising room. There is nothing wrong with writing this way. One must find the commitment to go back and punch it up. First drafts just don't often work.
Dwarf sketch by Jacob Hunt


3) Many Spies Have Many Eyes
You need eyes on your stuff. I have not been very successful at this. I don't know if I need heckle my friends more or offer them cookies, but I'm pretty sure only two people read the first version of HOMES. Now that I mean to put this thing out into the public sphere via self-publishing, it's got to be a lot better and that's means opinions outside my own mind, which range from 'this sucks and nobody will read it and you're stupid' to 'this is going to change the face of contemporary fantasy'.

So I tried to hire an editor. He says he won't let me pay him. This particular dude used to work as a comic book editor and he's one of the great readers of the world. I've sent it to a few others as well. Somehow saying you're going to publish it catches people's attention - they probably don't want me selling a crappy book.

Besides a critical eye to snag glaring grammatical or conceptual problems, having some kind of editor (whether it's a pro you're giving lots of money to or just a few friends who know how to read) takes a lot of the burden off the author's shoulders. Getting through this last run of revision, I was worn out. I saw one potentially big problem at the end of the plot, a whole chapter that would need to be rewritten and likely cause lots of little ripples to be altered throughout the book. I did not want want to deal with that shit. Knowing that an objective third party would be going through the book with a comb, and that I could bounce this idea off of them before committing to the rewrite, made me want to dance a little. Suddenly it's no longer just my problem! Share the load and all that.

So that's a short list of some observations I've made recently. Mostly I'm just excited to make books. Hopefully one day I'll write a novel that gets sent to the big leagues, but until them I'm content to write what I want to write and enjoy.

And what I've written really isn't that bad.

My previous fear, that HOMES was just some grown up fan fiction, seems unfounded. It's not perfect and I draw a lot of inspiration from...you know, Tolkien, but there are lots of little gems sprinkled in those chapters. Many funny and touching moments, many crumbs of drama, and quite a few fun characters you'd actually like having a drink with. I don't expect it to become a fan favorite, or really sell well, but I think I'm going to be proud of it.


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