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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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