Spotlight on Local Author: Tone Milazzo

Intro

I met Tone Milazzo through the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse group hosted by Jonathan Maberry. I’ve known him for a couple of years now, and I still don’t know how he has time for all of his projects.

When not running the podcast for a local publisher or play-testing his own Fate Core modules, Tone’s preparing for grad school, scripting comics, and writing novels.

His first book, Picking Up the Ghost, came out in 2011 from Chizine. A follow-up, The Faith Machine, will be out in May, from Running Wild Press.

Tone took some time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk with me about his process, writing diverse characters, and how “Done is Beautiful.”

Writing Process

To start, can you talk a bit about your writing process? When you’re designing a novel or a short story, are you a pantser? Are you a plotter?

Definitely a plotter. And the outline for Picking up the Ghost, was something like 12 pages long, which I thought was a full outline. But I definitely, as I got to the middle, I needed to stop and do some more outlining. The story was coming to an end too soon.

When I outlined my second novel, The Faith Machine, it was 77 pages long. That’s a page per scene. Now that’s an outline.

77 pages, wow! What do you actually have in your outline?

It’s a bullet point list: plot points, foreshadowing, and payoffs. Sometimes there’s dialogue snippets in there, if something occurs to me at the time. It’s mostly about where the characters are coming in, what changes, and where the characters are coming out at the end of the scene. Kind of like a method or function in computer programming.

Kurt Vonnegut said every scene should either move the plot forward or move the character forward. So it’ll be either one of those two.

Ideally it’s nice if you can do both in the scene, without jamming too much in there.

When I first started writing, I would put way too much stuff into a scene. Now I’m trying to keep it to one or two changes or insights per scene.

Other things in the outline…Sometimes it’s pop-cultural references, like I’ve put something in the scene that’s supposed to evoke something from another book, classic literature or something like that. In Picking up the Ghost there was a lot of occult symbolism. A lot of tarot card stuff. There are some scenes that are supposed to evoke the Major Arcana.

Do you ever get feedback on the outline?

It’s mostly for me.

Though if there’s an idea that I’m not sure will work, I’ll try to compartmentalize that idea and pitch it to people. Ask them: “Do you think this thing is going to be okay?”

That’s about it. I don’t want anyone to look at my outline or my first draft. It’s too messy.

Nobody?

Yeah, it’s terrible. Especially the first draft for sure. The first draft of Picking up the Ghost, there was a sentence in there, “He stuck a stick in the spot. The stick was stuck.”

Oh God.

Yeah. I think I wrote the first half and got distracted and then wrote the second half, forgetting that I wrote the first half.

When outlining, is there any particular technique you use for building your plots?

So Picking up the Ghost was definitely me trying to invert as much of the hero’s journey as possible.

The typical interpretation of the hero’s journey in fantasy is an orphan with a destiny, who finds a magic sword, and has a magical mentor. It’s basically King Arthur, right? People are cop-opting King Arthur.

So I decided to take that list and make it a manifesto for the book. Instead of an orphan, the protagonist is dealing with family issues. Instead of being some sort of knight, he’s a shaman. And he has mentors, but they’re not trustworthy mentors.

I also wanted to make it American instead of European. So that’s where his ethnicity comes in. Being biracial: African-American and white.

The African-American culture, my attitude is, that’s the most American culture. Even like what most books think of as American, which would be like a rural white culture, that’s traceable in a straight line right back to Europe.

Whereas African-Americans had their culture stripped from them by the slave trade. They had to rebuild themselves from the ground up on this soil.

The Faith Machine isn’t YA. How did you build that one?

So for the second book, I wanted it to be Hollywood friendly. I looked at something called the Save the Cat outline for screenwriting. It’s a 15-point plot, and that’s the spine of that story.

It’s the first time I used that, and I discovered that it’s probably a little short to fill an entire novel. A movie is about a novella in length. Fortunately, because I had an ensemble cast, I had a bunch of b-plots that I could use to fill out the page count.

With all this time spent on the outline, what’s your editing process like?

Go over it again and again until my eyes bleed, and it’s never enough.

For The Faith Machine, because the outline has such a deep understanding of what the story is supposed to be, I didn’t have to do quite the extensive rewriting that I used to, like I did on the Picking up the Ghost.

When I wrote out the first draft of a scene, it was a scene I’d been thinking about for over a year, so I knew how it is going to play out.

And even when it got to editorial, I had two editors, one that I paid for and then one from the publisher. And the one that I paid for, it was mostly grammar and little details.

The one from the publisher, he lived on the East coast, and he had some thoughts about the opening scene. On The Faith Machine there’s two characters who are in charge of the team traveling around the East coast, activating all the agents in person. But the order that they activated in was not a good commute. So stuff moved around just because I didn’t realize that this place and that are more than a day’s drive away. Minor stuff like that.

Picking Up the Ghost

In the acknowledgements of Picking Up the Ghost, you mentioned that it was a five year process to get the book together. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think for that one I found a publisher fairly quickly. I think the process of finding a publisher was under a year. Which was stellar compared to The Faith Machine.

The biggest chunk of time came when I had the book finished, and I workshopped it with three of my friends. None of them liked the second half of the book. So I had to rewrite the entire second half.

I had taken Cinque (the main character – ed.) into what I call the Halfway World. So it still looked like St. Jude (Cinque’s home town – ed.), but there was nobody else there with him.

And what I’d done was, I didn’t realize that they liked the supporting cast so much, and I took all them away.

How long did that take you to rewrite?

That was about probably about another year.

A lot of revising by myself. Some moments where I just wasn’t writing for a few months at a time. Distractions, like World of Warcraft.

Most people’s first book usually takes a few years though, from what I hear. Even Jonathan Maberry says he took three years to write his first book.

Working on the same book for five years, how do you keep yourself going?

It’s the opposite of the sunk cost fallacy.

How’s that?

The sunk cost fallacy is the attitude of, we’ve put this much time and effort and money into a project, so we have to see it through. That’s a fallacy, because maybe this isn’t worth finishing and to throw more money and time and effort into that pit is not worthwhile.

Whereas in a novel, if you’ve written 70,000 words, then you only need 20,000 to finish. If you don’t finish it, then you literally have wasted all that time.

And I think that’s where the sunk cost fallacy is not a fallacy. Because books take so long to write. And nobody’s going to read a book that’s 95% done.

An artist I knew said something they taught in art school is: Done is beautiful.

I take that as a mantra. Think about all your favorite pieces of art, what do they have in common?

They’re all finished.

Exactly.

Why set Picking Up the Ghost in a town along the Mississippi?

So, I knew I wanted the protagonist to be African-American. And then I picked a location. I wanted it to be a living ghost town.

It was going to be Detroit. We all hear these stories about urban decay in Detroit, right? Which would have been a good choice, except a friend of mine turned me on to East St. Louis.

He showed me a book about East St. Louis’s history. And it’s like the Detroit situation, but far, far worse. It was literally a company town and the local government was in service of either the metallurgy companies or the mining companies, I forget which.

And then when the industry was done with it, it abandoned the place. Everybody who had money left. And there were people left who didn’t have money, didn’t have the resources to leave.

Consequently, it was the descendants of the African-American workers who had come to work the low-end jobs in the factories and production that are still there.

So did you actually go to East St. Louis? What sort of research did you do?

When I was in the Marine Corps I got to meet people from that part of the country, so I got some perspective there. I also found a great urban decay exploration website where the guy spent a lot of time in East St Louis.

The main place where all the magic happens, the meat packing plant, it’s based on an Armour Meatpacking Plant on a hill outside of East St Louis. And it’s still there. You can see pictures of it. So I was able to lift all that.

I read a few books about the education system in Middle America, its decline, and stuff like that. They had a lot of stuff about that city.

And that’s also part of the reason I fictionalized it. I called it St. Jude instead of East St. Louis. That gave me a little bit of freedom to make up stuff. Whereas if I use a city from the real world, I’ll never stop doing research on that city.

Why St Jude?

St. Jude is the Patriot Saint of lost causes. Good name for a dying town.

Did you have any concerns, as a person who presents as white, writing not just a protagonist who’s African-American, but a novel where most of your characters are African or African-American?

When I started writing it, it was before this sort of increased awareness of appropriation. So I wasn’t aware it was even a thing. I knew who Vanilla Ice was, but I didn’t connect that to writing fiction.

And as I said before, I wanted to write an American story, and I think of African-Americans as having the most American culture. Then there’s the fact that the town St Jude is based on (East St. Louis – ed) is something like 98% African-American. To put white people in that book would just be weird.

When I write about any kind of marginalized group, I’m not making a statement, other than I’m presenting people with these traits in roles that they’ve normally not had.

For example, in both books (Picking Up the Ghost and The Faith Machine), all my protagonists have mental disorders.

Cinque is schizophrenic, and then all the characters in The Faith Machine, except for Park, have mental disorders too.

So I’m not making a statement about mental disorder at all. I am taking this trait, which is normally relegated to villains or antiheroes or supporting characters, and assigning them to the protagonists. That’s it.

So you, along with a lot of authors, recently went through getting the rights to your book back from ChiZine. Are you going to put Picking Up the Ghost yourself, or focus on The Faith Machine for now?

The eBook is up. I’ve already written a short story that bridges the two novels. I’m going to put that at the end of an ebook edition of Picking up the Ghost, and sell it for a buck.

And then if somebody gets to the end and they like it, there’s a link to where they can buy The Faith Machine.

It’s going to be a loss-leader. I figure that’s the best use I have for it right now.

Did you get anything back from ChiZine, like the final manuscript or –?

No, they hold onto the formatting and stuff like that. And they also hold onto the cover. So I’ve had to make my own cover.

And I have to get my own ISBN number if I want to return to print, even print-on-demand.

When do you think you’ll have that ready?

The Faith Machine comes out in May, so hopefully before that. A friend of mine volunteered to do the cover for it, so whenever he finishes.

For now, you can find Picking Up the Ghost on Kindle

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Fantastically well-done. Weaves together magic, fairies, Great War trauma, romance, sisterly rivalry, and the treatment of special-needs children into one cracking good story.

So very happy to discover there are sequels.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Dribble out your backstory. At the start, offer just enough to explain the choices that brought the character to that point. Introduce the rest later, as needed for the story.
  • You can get away with a romance between two characters that have little in common if you make their raw attraction clear and compelling.
  • Sometimes the greatest climaxes (or turns in the story) happen when the protagonist realizes something about themselves that they didn’t know before.

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

It’s got an elderly kick-ass demon-assassin, zombies that can think, and a death goddess working at a small press. For that, I can forgive the continuity errors and the occasional odd plot point.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Watch out for the vague “some”: “something made her”, “something told her”, “some sort of sense”…it gets overused too easily.
  • Where you start your story affects how sympathetic your protagonist seems. Start it when they’re under stress, and readers automatically feel for them. Start it with them relaxed but complaining about how rough they’ve got it, and readers might not be as charmed.
  • Vivid, brief descriptions and snappy dialog can pull a reader through the roughest parts of your story.

Strangely Beautiful, Vol 1 by Leanna Renee Hieber

Gothic” in the overwrought, melodramatic sense.

There’s some fantastic ideas in here, but it was tough one for me to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People falling love notice everything about their beloved. If writing from the POV of a character falling in love, their thoughts will dwell on even insignificant details about their beloved.
  • Constant repetition of unexplained magical elements makes them annoying and boring. Conserve the magic, to make it interesting.
  • Use a deep dive into a character’s thoughts during conversation sparingly. Dialog should speed the story along, interrupting the flow with paragraphs of thought undercuts momentum and frustrates readers.

Cranking Through

Managed to whittle the list of editing passes from twelve to twenty and now back to thirteen.

Which means I didn’t finish them by the end of March, like I wanted.

I *did* finish the biggest of the changes, though: giving each chapter to either the male or the female protagonist, swapping evenly between the two, and filling out her narrative arc so that her storyline has equal weight.

The changes I have left are much smaller: revising character appearances, adding touches to scene descriptions, and making sure everything is consistent.

Still, I’m setting weekly goals, aiming for three editing passes done each week. At that rate, I’ll be finished with the edits in early May :/

Much later than I’d like, but I tell myself that’s better than not doing them, or worse yet, continuing to tweak and edit for a year or more.

Everyone Gets a Pass

My original plan for editing the first novel turned out to be…rather naive.

I thought it would be enough to fix the female protagonist’s plotline, then make a few description tweaks, and be done.

Instead, I’m looking at making a dozen or more editing passes over the novel, each one picking out a thing to fix and make consistent through the book.

I’ve had to change character appearances, character names, city names, backstory, world history…nearly every element needs to be tweaked one way or another to line up better with what I think the novel should be.

So I’m keeping a running list of things to fix as I go, jotting them down as I find them. That way I can focus on just one editing task at a time, getting one thing right all the way through the book before going back to the beginning and starting on the next fix.

My goal was to have these edits done by the end of the month (for a total of three months of editing), so I could spend the next three months editing my second novel. But we’re a third of the way through March, and, well…my list keeps growing.

Still, I’ll push on. I’m finding I still like this novel, still like the characters. I want to do them justice, give them the best book I can. So I’ll keep working through the list, till the list is done.

Done!

Novel’s complete at 50,122 words!

At least, I think it’s complete. Last time I thought it was done, there turned out to be another 45,000 words of story to tell in there.

The cut-off point this time felt more natural, but could seem just as arbitrary to a reader.

Only way to find out for sure is to hand it off to those brave friends willing to read and offer feedback on something so rough and ragged (bless you all).

Till then, it’s back to editing my other projects. I’ve had some ideas for how to trim my first novel into a better shape. *cracks knuckles*

Hope you have a Happy New Year! May your words sparkle, your stories captivate, and your edits be painless 🙂

Outline as Compass

Novel’s at 39,412 words.

Decided to brainstorm my way out of being lost. I took the climax I’m working toward, and mapped out short, medium, and long ways to get there.

They all had scenes in common, but only the long path gave me the chance to wrap up all of the plotlines I’ve got going.

So I’m taking the long path.

It’s still likely to end up a short novel. I’m definitely in the final third of the book, so I know I need to pile on the pressure to build things toward my climax.

With luck (and a lot of work), I’ll be finished somewhere around the first of the year.

Then I can turn back to editing my second novel, and maybe doing another pass on my first novel, and another edit on this short story I wrote in September…

*sighs* Maybe best to ignore that for now. One story at a time.

Where Am I?

Novel’s at 33,986 words.

I’m at a point where I’m not sure how much story is left to tell.

I could be two-thirds of the way through, and so on my way to the end. If so, I should be quickening the pace in each scene, pushing the narrative forward faster and faster to reach the climax.

Or I could just be halfway through. In which case, I should be steadily building toward the next major turning point in the story, pacing things so that the reader’s not exhausted by the end of the book.

I feel like this is something I should know.

I’ve got the rest of the book outlined (even if it’s in my head). I know the scene for the story’s climax. I know the characters that are there, and what happens afterward. But damned if I don’t know how they got there, or how much time there is between the scene I’m currently writing and the last one.

It mystifies me that the only way to find out is for me to write it. As if I weren’t writing a story, but reporting on events. And until those events happen, I’ve got nothing to report.

From Sprint to Marathon

NaNoWriMo’s over. Final word count: 30,836.

So, I didn’t make it to 50,000 this year. But I don’t want to dwell on that.

Here’s what I did do:

  • I started a new novel, which is still not easy for me.
  • I proved I could still write 4,000 words in a single day, like I did last Saturday.
  • I learned that starting with a short story set in the world does help when it comes time to write the novel. I’ve written more each day, and more easily, for this novel than the previous one.

But the novel’s not done, and neither am I. To keep me on track, I’m setting a new goal: to reach 50,000 words by the end of the year.

More modest than NaNoWriMo, true, but I think it’ll keep me focused, keep me pushing forward on the book. I’d like to have this first draft done in three months instead of twelve, so I can spend more time revising it.

Wish me luck.