Keeping Score: June 26, 2020

It’s been a struggle to write this week.

My uncle — who because of age and circumstances was more like my grandfather, so I called him Pop — died on Father’s Day. And I’ve been living and working under a shadow ever since.

Hard enough to lose him. Harder still, because I couldn’t make the trip out to Texas for his funeral, because of the pandemic.

He’s gone, but I didn’t get to say goodbye.

So I’ve been soldiering on. Writing a paragraph or two, at least, every day.

But each word is a struggle. And if I stop and think about anything for too long, my mind drifts back to losing Pop, and I come undone for a while.

Stay safe out there, folks. Wear your masks. Wash your hands.

Write what you can, when you can.

Keeping Score: June 5, 2020

How does one write, in times like these?

I feel guilty for not being at the protests (my wife and I are both at high-risk for covid-19). For not being and doing more, both now and in the past.

I can make changes going forward. Donate to Black Lives Matter and to Bailout Funds. Push locally for police reform. Vote for candidates that will hold our police accountable.

But where does writing fit into that? How can I justify spending time…just, writing stories?

Because I have kept writing, even as the police have tear-gassed my old neighborhood. As helicopters fly overhead, towards the next showdown between the people and the “heroes” that are supposed to keep them safe.

On the one hand, I write because writing is my escape. A way for me to tune out the world for a bit, and come back to it ready to rejoin the struggle.

On the other hand, I write because writing is a form of activism.

When we read, we can enter the mind of a character completely. See the world entirely through their lives. Cry with them, when the world throws them down. Shout with joy when they triumph over those who would hold them back.

We can build empathy with people and situations we never thought we could. We can also see the dark sides of our own selves, when thoughts and habits of our own are cast in a different light, or shown to us from someone else’s perspective.

So I write to escape, yes. But also to create something that can change someone’s mind.

It’s not as fast as signing a petition, true. Or joining a protest. Or calling a government official pressuring them to be better. Which is why I will continue to do all those other things.

But I will also write.

Keeping Score: May 29, 2020

Earlier this week, I was on a Zoom call with some fellow writers. We were discussing how our writing output was doing during the pandemic: whether it was fine or (for most of us) had gone down.

And I realized: I’ve basically retooled my entire process during these last few months.

I used to write mostly on evenings and weekends, but now I do it in the morning, before the day even starts.

I used to write in blocks of a few hours at a time.

Now I do it in short thirty-minute bites.

I used to write a scene or a story straight through, from start to finish.

Now I jump around, filling in sections a little bit at a time, and then join them up later.

And the biggest change of all: I used to mostly pants my stories, but now I’m doing a lot of plotting and outlining before I set anything down.

Will it last once we’re able to leave our homes safely? Who knows?

I might go back to the old way of writing. I might never be able to write that way again.

But it amazes me all the same, that little by little, my process has changed so much, in so short a time.

What about you? Has your process stayed the same through the pandemic? Or have you had to re-learn how to make your art, in order to keep working?

Keeping Score: May 22, 2020

After two good weeks in a row, it was time for a rough one.

Had to shift my schedule up by three hours this week, for work. Well, I say shift my schedule, but…there’s no way I’m going through my normal morning routine (writing, walking) at 4:30 in the morning.

So it’s more like I abandoned my schedule, and then jet-lagged myself (while staying at home!).

As you can imagine, my writing output has suffered.

But it hasn’t ground to a halt! I’ve managed to keep the writing streak alive, carving out time after work (thank the gods for afternoon naps) to make progress on both the novel and the short story, again on altering days.

Not always much progress, mind you. Several days “just get one sentence down” wasn’t just a trick to get me to write, it was all I could get down.

But I did it, and I’m through to the other side, and can catch-up on sleep and (writing) work this weekend.

And reading. Surprisingly hard to read when your body is in the wrong timezone.

What about you? Have you settled into a new routine, and managed to keep with it? Or have the re-openings, patchwork as they are, disrupted the schedule you built during lockdown?

Keeping Score: May 15, 2020

Current writing streak: 64 days.

Finally reached the part of the novel where I’m back to editing, instead of writing new chapters. It’s made things easier going, on that front. Less intimidating to sit down with words already on the page, and know I’ve just got to make them consistent with everything else.

There’s a few chapters at the very end where I’ll need to be drafting from scratch again, but for now, at least, it’s smoother sailing.

Of course, this won’t be the end of my editing passes. I’ll need to do at least one more of what I’m thinking of as “consistency passes” to check all the new material against what’s already there. Then I’m planning on doing a dialog pass for each main character, to ensure they speak consistently throughout. Finally I’ll do a phrase and copy-editing pass, looking for awkward wording or cliché description.

So still plenty to do.

I’ve also continued to work on the short story on alternate days this week. I wasn’t sure I was ready to start writing the new section of that work, to be honest, but by focusing on just one little detail at a time — Anne Lamott’s one-inch frame technique — I’ve managed to add ~1,000 words to the draft. If I keep this up, I might actually have the draft done (and ready to set aside, for later editing) next week.

Which would be…amazing. I wasn’t sure I could ever get back to some sort of functioning writing schedule during the pandemic. Or get back to writing more than just a sentence or two a day. But something’s happened recently, like a mental fog has lifted. I’m able to brainstorm again, and hold both of these storylines (the story and the novel) in my head again, and write a page a day again.

It may not last. I’m going to appreciate it while it does, though. I know not everyone has been as relatively fortunate as I have through this pandemic.

So I’m grateful, for the work I can do, while I can do it.

How about you? Have you felt like you’ve turned a corner lately? Or are things still too much in the air for your writing brain to settle into some kind of routine?

Keeping Score: May 8, 2020

The streak’s alive! I’ve managed at least 30 minutes of writing for 57 days straight now.

Alternating the days I work on the novel with the days I work on the short story seems to help, too.

I’ve even started tracking my daily word count again, when working on the novel. I don’t let myself stop writing until I hit 250 words.

As a result, I’ve made notable progress on it. Finished three new chapters, and I’m ready to start editing down the next few.

And for the short story, I’m gathering notes on my research and getting plot points nailed down. This weekend (or early next week) I think I’ll be ready to start writing some dialog, and then gradually fill in the rest.

Oh, and I have three other pieces submitted to paying markets. Keeping in the habit of sending them right back out a few days after a rejection comes in.

So this week has been good, relatively speaking. Still not operating at 100%, creatively, but I’m finding a new normal, a new pace of working to make a habit.

What about you?

Keeping Score: May 1, 2020

Current writing streak: 50 days.

50 days! That’s 50 consecutive days of working, bit by bit, on the novel, several short stories, and essays for the blog.

50 days of laying bricks, one at a time. Of sending out stories and getting rejections. Of wrestling with file formats, and Scrivener settings, all to conform to the particular submission guidelines of each market (sometimes “always follow the directions” is hard advice to hold to).

50 days of shoving the pandemic out of my mind for at least thirty minutes, each day, to go visit somewhere else in my imagination. A dearly needed mental vacation.

So, what’s new this week?

I’ve taken up the habit of alternating days in which I’m working on the novel with days where I work on something else. It’s a way of giving me a break from the general slog of the book without going too long without thinking about it. And it lets me make progress on some other projects.

Like the short story I started submitting to markets…two weeks ago? One of the rejections I got resonated with me. It took a while, but eventually that resonation joined up with some things my beta readers said, and crystallized this week into me thinking up a different ending for it.

The new ending changes the meaning of the piece. Shifts its emphasis. But I think it’s stronger, and more cohesive with the rest of the story. And it adds a little bit of just desserts for one of the characters.

So I’m going to give it a shot.

I say “give it a shot” quite deliberately. It might flop. It might make the story worse, not better. I might fail to execute properly. Any of which would mean I’d go back to sending it out with the original ending.

But I’d like to try, so I’ve been using my alternate days this week to brainstorm and outline the new ending. Sketch out scenes, decide sticky plot points, nail down questions that arise as I think it through.

It’s a different way of working for me — usually I just throw down the short story, outline be damned — and it’s slower, but I’d like to be more deliberate in the way I craft things. I feel like the more plot holes I can fill during the outlining, the smoother the actual writing process will go. It should let me focus on the writing itself, because I’ve thought through the action and character beats already.

We’ll see. Wish me luck.

Spotlight on Local Author: Henry Herz

Intro

Henry Herz intimidates me.

He’s written and sold ten children’s books, along with numerous short stories, and he’s one of the few writers Jonathan Maberry trusts to run the Writers Coffeehouse when he can’t host it himself.

Did I mention he frequently runs panels for Comic-Con and WonderCon? And that he edited an anthology that includes stories from Peter S Beagle, Jane Yolen, and Jim Butcher?

Thankfully, he’s as friendly and approachable as he is super-organized (more on that later). He recently spent some time with me over Zoom to talk about his writing process, children’s book publishing, and his dive into the world of middle-grade novels.

Writing Process

What is your writing process like for a picture book? With something that short, does pantsing vs plotting come into play?

I’m a plotter by nature, and because of my background in industrial engineering, I don’t like wasting time. For me, being a plotter is more efficient than being a pantser because I don’t write myself into corners.

But it’s an artistic endeavor, and it may be that someone who loves to be a pantser can’t plot. They would actually be slower, so every writer must discover what works best for them.

For a picture book, there’s usually 13 to 14 two-page spreads, so I’ll just do an outline to show what I want to have on each of these spreads. Then I can look at everything and go, “Okay, do I have rising tension? Do I establish the problem in the first one or two spreads? Do I have a resolution about three-quarters of the way through?” And that’s easy to check. Then I can draft each of the pages and go from there.

With a picture book, you could easily get away with pantsing, because the word count is so low. And picture books typically go through a lot more revisions than a novel.

Really?

Well, how many passes are you going to make through a novel, realistically?

Three or four. Maybe.

Yeah, exactly. I have picture books that have gone through 25 revisions, but that just means me making a pass and making changes and tightening things up, or me soliciting feedback from critique group members and integrating the feedback that I think is constructive.

How does your writing process change for a short story or novel vs a picture book?

So I’m organized in both cases, but I’m a lot more organized for the novel or the short story, because it’s a bigger word count. I just feel like I’d be flailing if I pantsed a novel. I would be very likely to write myself into corners or spend too much time in one area.

I found a resource that I really like. It’s called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jess Brody. There was originally a book by Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!, which analyzed how movies are structured, and Jessica Brody took the same idea and applied it to novels.

So her book gives you a template, a starting point, which was invaluable to me, since I’ve only written one novel. I used her structure for that novel and about half-a-dozen short stories in the 3,000 to 6,000 word range.

It guarantees you have the arc that you want. The character development is still obviously up to you, but it helps with the pacing and the arcs.

There’s also a great resource for character development, the book that Jonathan Maberry always touts, which is the Writing the Breakout Novel Handbook, by Donald Maass. There’s a bunch of questions in there that help you understand your own characters.

In my idealized process for writing a novel, I start with a rough idea of the story just in my head through inspiration, but then I flesh out the characters using the Donald Maass workbook, and then I come up with an overview and story beats from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

And that helps chunk it down, because I’m a picture book writer used to writing 500-word books. The first novel, the first and only novel I’ve written, is a 30,000-word middle-grade novel. 30,000 words is intimidating to somebody who’s only written 500. If you’re an adult novelist, you’re like, “Pfft. I do 100,000 words all the time. It’s no big deal.” But for me, it was a lot.

So staring at a blank document that I know will have to contain 30,000 words is pretty intimidating. But if I use the Save the Cat template, then the writing is broken down into anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand word chunks, and that makes it much easier. “Okay, I know how to write that. I don’t know how to write the whole thing, but I know how to write this little piece.”

Like the parable about how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What does your novel outline look like?

Jess Brody breaks the novel up into about 15 beats.

Beats like “The Opening Image”, “The Theme Stated”, “The Set Up”, and then there’s “The Catalyst”. Then you break into Act II.

So having a couple of sentences about each of these beats, it gets me far enough to start writing.

So you had all the beats mapped out first? Or did you map out a beat, write it up, then map out the next beat, etc?

I map out all the beats up front, before I start writing.

Only somebody as ridiculously organized as me would pay attention to this, but Save the Cat Writes a Novel suggests roughly what percentage of the word count should be in each beat. Obviously, you fiddle with it. But that really helps me.

For example, The Opening Image, I think, is 1%. It’s just an opening image, right? So if I have a 30,000-word novel, then I know, “Okay, I have about 300 words to play with.” Now, they’re not strict limits, but it tells me what I’m aiming at. There is a big difference between writing 300 and 3,000 words.

I find it helps with the pacing, to make sure that things are happening at the right times, and that there are head-fakes, that you’re moving in a direction and something shifts. You’re building tension, and then you ramp it up even more. It’s just helpful. I know Jonathan [Maberry] has done this so many times that it’s instinct for him, but since this is my first novel, it was really helpful to have a tool.

How do you go about building a scene in your head? Do you think cinematically, or…?

Let’s take Stephen King’s novel, Carrie.

So if I was writing Carrie, and I’m doing the opening scene, how do I want to set the stage? Would I want to have Carrie in her room levitating something, or would I want to have Carrie in the high school locker room getting picked on by the other girls?

But once I made that decision, then I would envision the scene in my head. “Okay, what’s going on? Who’s going to say what?” Make sure that the dialogue and the action is consistent with what the characters want.

In the end, these are stories about characters, so you always have to make sure that you’re being true to those characters.

I probably pants that more in that I have a general idea of what the character’s like, but I let the character’s voice emerge as I’m writing as opposed to having it all worked out ahead of time.

I can think, “Okay, this character is smart but a little self-centered, has a good sense of humor, mouths off in class when they shouldn’t.” And then having those rough guidelines, then I can let the character’s personality take shape, let it flesh out as I’m writing.

Do you use beta readers? Or maybe a critique group?

I’m a member of a group here locally that I like. It’s some experienced writers, and we do 3,500 words a week that we share and critique. I got through my novel in nine sessions, nine weeks, which feels slow to me as a picture book writer, but I know as a novelist that’s pretty fast to get detailed feedback from multiple people on your novel.

Do you all email out your selection to each other?

So this group uses Dropbox to pass out the pieces and then to give feedback. But then we were meeting face-to-face on a weekly basis until coronavirus, and now we’re doing it all through Dropbox. Just sharing marked up versions of the manuscripts.

No Zoom meetings where you read aloud something and critique it?

No, that would take too long also to read aloud. 3,500 words times five people, that’d be a long meeting.

Oh, it’s 3,500 each for each person, so each week you’re reading 15,000 words or more?

Yeah, but it’s a lot easier to read and critique somebody else’s stuff than to write 15,000 words.

Fair enough. To get back to the critiquing real quick, how hard is it for you to switch between the draft brain and the editing brain?

Oh, for my own stuff? Very easy, very easy, because I draft until I have a complete draft, so I’m not context-switching on a daily basis. I’m drafting, drafting, drafting, drafting until I have a draft completed, and then I switch to revision mode.

Some people edit as they draft. I’m guilty of that too. But I try to discourage myself because it is important to get that first draft out.

But with short stories, I allow myself to edit as I go. That also means that when I’m done, the first draft is tight.

The last three I short stories I wrote, I was ready to submit after version two. One revision pass, and I was ready to go, because I had been editing them as I typed them in. So they were close to finished in the first draft. Then it’s just a matter of polishing.

When you get feedback from your critique group, do you always make the changes they suggest?

It’s a good question, and the answer depends on context. Sometimes I just get, “Hey, this isn’t working,” and sometimes I get, “Hey, this isn’t working. Have you thought about this?”

And I will consider what they say, but I’m not feeling bound to do it. My choices are reject it completely, do nothing, accept it as is, or accept that there’s a problem, but fix it a different way. Any of those are possible. It just depends on the situation.

I don’t feel constrained by a critiquer’s proposed solution, but I’m happy to hear it. The suggestion might be really good, or it might prompt me to go, “That’s a good point, although that won’t work because of something the reader isn’t aware of,” but it gets my brain spinning. “Okay, yeah. I do need to address that, and I know how to do that. I’ve got to go back a couple of chapters and plant something so that I foreshadow that.”

Publishing

Have all your picture books earned out?

No. Some of them have, some of them haven’t.

Oh. Is that hard to do for a picture book? I guess it depends on the level of advance.

Yes, it depends on the level of advance, and it also depends on how much effort the publisher puts in.

Because there’s an 80/20 rule that applies to a lot of things, and I think it also applies to how publishers market their books. I think 80% of their marketing budget gets focused on 20% of their books that they have a really good feeling about. These are their top authors, proven authors with good track records, who get the lion’s share of the marketing budget.

I’ve sold 10 picture books, but I am nowhere near the top of the field, not even close. I get a modest amount of help marketing-wise. They solicit professional reviews, and they put it on their website, and they do the things they do for everybody, but it’s not like they’re paying for me to go on a tour around the country.

I’d say the most critical thing is can they get your book in Barnes & Noble, because that’s the biggest chain.

And they can’t always do that. Just because a traditional publisher produces a book, it doesn’t mean Barnes & Noble will take it. They have finite space, and they’re going to pick the books they think will sell the best. It’s perfectly logical from a business perspective, but it sucks if you’re not a well-known author.

Do you have an agent?

I don’t have an agent currently, and I think the novel is a good opportunity for me to approach agents, because there’s a lot more picture book manuscripts floating around than novel manuscripts floating around in children’s literature, I think.

And if an agent likes my middle grade novel, then I can say, “By the way, I also have a number of picture book manuscripts.”

Some agents specialize in picture books. A lot of them skip them, because unless you’re at the top of the field, the advances for picture books are small, and the agency gets 15%. The agent gets less than that if they’re not the owner of the agency.

So imagine seven-and-a-half percent of a $4,000 dollar advance. That’s not a lot of money for a picture book agent. $300 isn’t going to pay the rent.

I’m hoping that this will increase my appeal because now I’m a dual threat, I can write picture books and I can write novels.

Do you have a list of agents already in mind for the middle-grade?

I have a list of agents who I like for picture books, and what I’ll probably do is go through that, because I want somebody who works for a reputable agency and somebody who’s interested in the same genres.

You have to align with what the agent is interested in reading, and I tend to write a lot of science fiction and fantasy.

So I will start with my list of picture book agents and go through them again, and go, “Okay, does this agent also represent middle-grade,” and if they do, then “do they like fantasy and sci-fi?”

How do you feel your background in process improvement engineering helps you with your writing?

It doesn’t help me with writing, but it helps me with my career in terms of being organized and being efficient about all the non-writing things that I have to do: submitting, soliciting an agent, and tracking when markets are open that you can submit to. And what you sent and whether you’ve heard back or not.

If you’re being active, you could easily just drown in all the data. If you don’t use a spreadsheet or something to manage it, you’ll just completely lose track of what you’re doing. I’m a pretty prolific writer, so I have to do that.

How do you keep track of it all?

For my picture books I have a spreadsheet. The columns represent the different manuscripts, and the rows are for the different publishers.

For each cell, there’s really two dates, when I submitted it and when I heard back, either a rejection or an acceptance.

So that’s a helpful thing to have, because then you know who’ve you sent to. I can put notes in there too, like if they rejected but they gave me some feedback, then I can stuff that in there as well.

And then I do something similar for my short stories, which are submitted to online magazines, print magazines, and anthologies.

Has your system evolved over time?

I didn’t used to have that spreadsheet. I used to just have the Evernote list, organized by market.

For example, I scroll down past Amazing Stories, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies to Clarkesworld. I can see that I submitted ABC to Clarkesworld on this date. It was declined or accepted on that date. So under each market, I list every one of the stories I’ve submitted. I may also list stories I’m planning to submit.

But many of these markets don’t accept multiple or simultaneous submissions. That makes it really hard to know at a glance “Can I submit there? Where else have I submitted that story?”

That’s when I built a short story spreadsheet, where each row is a story and each column is a market. That format makes it easy to see at a glance where I’ve submitted it, and where I might submit it. You can use color-coding to show which markets allow simultaneous submissions and which ones don’t.

I want to push my writing out into the world. There are some markets that will give you a fast response, within a few days. But most of them, it’s weeks or months. I think, “Okay, which one do I want to send to in what order, and if I send there, that means I can’t send it over to these other markets until I hear back.”

So it’s like a three-dimensional chess match. I’ve found that I needed the spreadsheet just to retain my sanity and get these stories out in as expeditious a manner as possible, get responses, and then if it’s a no, move on to the next market.

Field Trip to Earth

Why go for a middle-grade novel after having written and successfully published so many picture books?

I’ve been published more than once in the picture book market, but writing a middle-grade novel makes sense for a couple of reasons. First is career-wise, it’s better to be able to write in more than one market. But also, when you’re writing picture books, your vocabulary is tied behind your back. You’re writing for young readers, and are constrained by what words you can use and what concepts you can cover.

You also have to very carefully leave room for the illustrator, because picture books, at roughly 500 words, don’t give you word count to describe the scenes. You have to leave room for the illustrator to do a lot of the scene description.

Writing middle grade lets me use my full vocabulary and describe scenes and incorporate motivations that are too mature for a picture book. So writing for older markets supports both self-expression and career growth.

I chose middle-grade as opposed to young adult or adult, because I’m also being practical. I’ve written a number of picture books of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words. I sold an early chapter book, which was 6,500 words, so that was a step up. But nothing longer than that.

I thought, “I don’t want to jump to a 100,000-word epic fantasy. That’s just a bridge too far. Middle-grade novels can be as short as 30,000 words.

I figured I would hone my novel writing chops by writing a shorter novel.

It’s also closer in tone to picture books than an adult novel would be.

So, what’s the novel about? What genre is it in?

The middle-grade novel is science fiction with a good dose of humor.

It’s called Field Trip to Earth, and it’s basically an alien middle school student finds herself in academic trouble, and she needs to take an unauthorized field trip to Earth to collect data for her school report.

Some of her friends go with her, and hijinks ensue.

That sounds great.

It’s been fun to write. Soon I expect to be done with my second full pass, and then at that point, I’m going to throw it out there and see if an agent wants it.

Have you gotten any feedback that made you completely rewrite part of it?

Partially. So in my sci-fi novel, the main character is a middle-school kid from Proxima Centauri.

And she realizes she needs to go to Earth. Now, she has attended driver’s ed, so she knows how to fly a spaceship, but she doesn’t own one.

In my original version, after school ends, she basically hijacks a school vehicle and flies it to Earth.

I got feedback from more than one person saying, “That’s a little too dark. It offers a behavior that’s not one parents would want to encourage in their kids.” I can’t pull off what Eoin Colfer did with Artemis Fowl.

So instead, she has a nemesis at school. Now, the nemesis is wealthy and has his own ship, so she enlists his cooperation into doing the trip.

Oh, that’s a neat solution

Another piece of feedback: In my early version, the two of them would have verbal sparring, and the nemesis was a different species and chubby.

I had my protagonist teasing him about his size and his eating habits. The feedback I got was, “Your protagonist is being kind of a bully there.”

Even though it was in reaction to the nemesis’ actions, my protagonist’s responses felt too mean and bullying. So I toned that down.

Those weren’t complete rewrites, but they definitely were significant changes to the character and for one plot element. But that’s the idea, right? I’m making it better.

Definitely. When making those changes, did you revise the outline first, and then the text?

No, because the structure is still solid. I don’t need to change the structure. The beats are the beats.

In the way that I am operating, following the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel structure, the beats come in a specific order, and the relative size of those beats is unchanged. I just go into the individual chapters and tweak what I need to tweak to make the desired changes.

I don’t have to rewrite the whole thing. I may have to insert pieces that I needed to set the stage in an earlier scene, but that’s it.

Keeping Score: April 17, 2020

Another week. I’ve kept the writing streak going; currently at 36 straight days.

Managed to pick up work on the novel again. I worried I might not be able to get back in the headspace that easily. But it turns out if you’ve worked on something for two years, you can dive back into it without too many issues 🙂

Had to think back through the chapter I was working on, though. The plot I’d had when I last put it down didn’t fit with the setting I’d established, and — to be perfectly honest — wasn’t that interesting.

This new version I’m writing is harder, emotionally, but it’s better.

Which seems to be true about a lot of the rewrites I do. The ones that are harder for me to write, to push my characters through, are the ones that make the story shine.

I’m keeping my daily goals modest, though. Sketch out a conversation here, set down a turning point over there, and that’s it. Slowly stitch it all together over the course of the week. Review it — but don’t edit it yet! — and mark the progress made.

It’s these little steps, little victories, that keep me going.

What about you?

Spotlight on Local Author: J Dianne Dotson

I won’t be shy about admitting this: Dianne’s one of my personal heroes.

A trained scientist, turned science writer, and now indie publisher, Dianne’s one of those people that makes me wonder how they find the time for it all.

Did I mention she also has two kids, did a cross-country tour to promote her books, and was on a panel with Cory Doctorow at Wondercon last year?

Dianne was kind enough to take some time — over Skype, given current circumstances — to talk with me about her writing process, going indie, and what’s it like to work on one long story for thirty years.

The first two books — Heliopause and Ephemeris — in her Questrison Saga are out now, and the third’s on its way soon.

Writing Process

Let’s start with your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I would say that everything is in my head. I already know what’s happening. I basically just sit down and write it out. I don’t really follow an incredibly structured situation, I just write it. Things can come up as I write that influence where I think things might go and the characters have minds of their own. They might do things I didn’t expect.

But I don’t do outlines.

What about editing? Do you do multiple editing passes or do you do everything in one big push?

For the most part, I will go through the book and I will do my first pass, and then I’ll go back and do it again.

Then I hand it off to beta readers.

Then the beta reader feedback, I get back. If there need to be edits or anything expanded upon, then I incorporate that. I read through it again.

Then at that point, I need to hand it off to the editor.

Do you mind going into a little more detail about your editing passes? I know some writers will break it up, so first they do a dialogue pass, then a consistency pass, etc

No, I just go through it all. It’s just in literal order, line by line, chapter by chapter to the end, and I fix things as I go.

Do you take any time between writing a draft and then doing the edit?

I don’t like to, because I feel the fire. I feel like I want to get this done. That’s very much a “me” thing. I’m very much like that. Once I finish something, I want to make sure it’s really, really done. I can’t stand waiting on stuff like that. I tend to just jump right in.

Do you give any guidance to your beta readers?

Well, I don’t like to frame things for them in advance. I do it more after they read. I do ask them, I say, “Hey, if you see anything blatant, let me know. If you have any questions, let me know.” I keep it simple.

After they’re done, that’s when I really ask them the questions, because then they read it. That’s what I want to know about, as a reader, what worked for you, what didn’t work? I’ll ask things like, “Who is your favorite character? What made you laugh? What made you cry?” Different things like that. “Do you think that this particular passage worked?”

Do you do an editing pass per beta reader?

No, because they’re finishing at varying times. I thought, well, I want to ask my questions now that it’s fresh on their mind, they just read it. Then because of that, then I’ll go ahead and incorporate right after that, their feedback, if I felt that it merited changing.

Not everything does. In some cases, I’ve had to say, no, this is the way it is supposed to be.

You have a lot of really strong characters in your books. Are those based on real people?

Some of them are.

Sumond, the alien chef in Ephemeris, I based on this chef that I knew from San Francisco from when my brother lived there in the early ’90s. This guy, this chef was hilarious. He had been an opera singer. That’s where Sumond comes from.

Or take Troy in Heliopause. We all know Troy. He’s a lounge lizard kind of a guy. He’s loosely based off some people I know and he’s named after my dad’s cousin, Troy, who was more like an uncle to me than a cousin. It’s a little bit of family nod there.

Then who else? Let’s see. Even Veronica is influenced a little bit by people I know. I won’t say who.

Everybody’s got a little bit of influence from here and there, but nobody’s an outright translation now.

Aeriod, though, is full-clothed from a dream that I had as a young teen.

Wait, what?

I dreamed that this alien Brit rocker had taken me up in basically a boat with some friends of mine up to this island in the sky, this land that he had with palaces. He showed me around and he talked to me.

There are some direct lines in Ephemeris from that dream, when Galla is dreaming about Aeriod showing her around. That dream was my dream.

Aeriod was just straight out of my head like somebody I knew. He seems very real to me. That’s one reason I guess people say he’s complex. It’s because he’s been in my head this whole time.

Does that happen often? You dream of characters for your stories?

I have very vivid dreams, and sometimes they do lend themselves to stories.

In fact, the first little scenes of Forster in Heliopause, where he’s walking along the soft floors with the dim lights, that’s from a dream.

I had already made his descendant, Kein, but Forster himself I dreamed separately later. It’s funny.

Indie Publishing

You’re publishing the Questrison Saga yourself, rather than go through a traditional publisher. Why go indie?

When I had worked on this for so long and then didn’t really know what to do after that, I knew I should submit to a publisher. I realized that, oh, you can’t really do that anymore, that there’s a gateway to publication and it’s called a literary agent.

That was about 2017, around the time that I started going regularly to the Writers Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. I was going to get an idea of what I needed to do.

I started there and I queried quite a few agents. I got some bites.

At the end of it, there were four that I came very close to using.

One of them turned out to be a shyster.

The other one was just really sitting on it, and sitting on it, and not getting back to me.

The third one had a very strange reaction to it. She’s like, “I think it has too many characters,” but then she kept going back to read it. I’m like, “Just make a decision.” What’s the decision? She couldn’t make one.

Then the fourth one, I really hit it off with, and she had loved the samples that I had sent her. She read the whole book. But she actually wanted me to kill more people than I was ready to kill at that time.

That was when I decided: I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s my story. I’m going to tell it the way I want it. I’ve had it in my head for years.

I can write other stories and submit to this process all over again, they won’t matter as much to me. This particular one, I’m doing myself.

Plus, I was uniquely positioned in a time in which you could make a really good quality independently published book by having professionals do the covers and having professionals edit it.

When you set it side by side with a traditionally published book you can’t tell, that was the goal. That was accomplished.

Would you do it again?

I will not do this again, because it is a lot of work. It is expensive. You are the publisher, the agent, the promoter, and all these other things when you’re still a writer.

If you’re taking a lot of time to promote this book yourself, that’s time taken away from your writing. Even though I’m a very fast writer, it can be exhausting to keep on top of it.

I still feel that it was the right decision for this series.

But for everything else I’m doing, I will submit to traditional publishing.

How much did it cost you to produce Book One? Was it any cheaper to finish Book Two?

About the same. It is actually a little bit more expensive for Book Two because the editing, it was bigger book.

Do you mind talking about those costs?

I don’t remember exactly all the costs. For the first editor of Book One I think was $1,200 and then the copy, the final proof was mostly $600, the art was $600, and then I actually had to buy the books myself from IngramSpark to be able to supply to bookstores and to conventions. That’s a significant expense.

Advertising, promotional materials, posters, everything ranging from postcards to business cards to just all kinds of stuff, it was a few thousand at the end of the day.

Have you made that back?

I have made it back for Book One.

I have not made it back for Book Two, I don’t think. Not yet.

I think what was interesting was that the minute Book Two came out, more people bought Book One. I think people just like a series.

How did you find all the people that you’ve ended up working with: the editors, the artists, the graphics people, and the web designers?

Well, everything about this process has been throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, literally. Because I didn’t know what the heck I was getting myself into, piecemealing it, but I figured it out.

I got the website going first. For that, I had gone through a couple of web design people and logo designers.

I ended up asking a food and lifestyle blogger, Michael Wurm Jr., who runs “Inspired By Charm”, because he had a really sleek website. He gave me the contact information for Dash Creative. That’s who I’ve used the last couple of years.

In terms of the editing, I had gone to San Diego Writers Ink. They had a class on book publishing.

The woman who hosted the class, Laurie Gibson, said she was also an editor and so I contacted her after I’d finished the draft of Heliopause. That’s how I met my main editor.

Then through her, I met Lisa Wolf who did the proof edit who is actually the editor for Book Three.

It’s a chain of contacts, basically. My cover designer was a parent at my kids’ school and he knew the artist, Leon Tukker. That’s how that happened.

Can you talk about distribution? I think you mentioned you use IngramSpark?

IngramSpark prints and distributes most of the books that you see.

When I upload a book and it’s ready to go and I purchase the option for both paperback and eBook, they upload it to everywhere: Kobo, Amazon, Google Books.

They do all that and they also put the links up all across the world on various international bookseller websites.

I chose Ingram because of its reputation, it’s worldwide distribution, and the fact that it would not be limited to Amazon. I wanted independent bookstores to have my books and not feel competition from an Amazon published book.

Did you have to form your own publishing company to own the copyrights or deal with IngramSpark?

I filed copyright. I immediately copyrighted it through the U.S. government.

If you’re an indie author, I highly recommend that you get an entertainment lawyer to help you with policies because we don’t have big publishing companies behind us.

We need legal help. We need contract help. That’s what an entertainment lawyer is for. I secured one of those.

He recommended that given the uniqueness of the name Questrison, that I trademark the Saga. I did that. That was extremely expensive, but I feel good about it.

Because now I can put the circle R, it’s a registered trademark. The Questrison Saga. You can’t use it. It’s my baby.

Questrison Saga

You’ve mentioned before that you’ve been working on these books for thirty years. Can you talk about why you decided to finish these books when you did?

All through college, even though I was overwhelmed with schoolwork, the stories were always in the back of my head. I had also drawn a lot of the characters in them. I sometimes would still sketch those while I also learned how to do actual watercolor art from classes.

After I had graduated college, it was a nightmare just entering the workforce. I ended up moving to the West Coast from Tennessee in 2000, and did work for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for a number of years.

Then after that, I briefly lived in San Francisco. That’s when I thought “I have to get back to these stories.” They’re been in my head all this time.

That’s when I started working on what is now Ephemeris. I even made a brief little comic of it with my own sketches, outlining the story a little bit. That was the closest thing I’ve ever come to an outline, was this storyboard.

After that, I had children. And I was very busy with them. laughs I worked as a science writer for four years. I felt that I was preoccupied by writing nonfiction.

After the recession, I was laid off. I decided to apply to graduate school and I chose epidemiology, which is very topical at the moment.

I came to San Diego to start a Master’s Degree in epidemiology. I would have finished it, but I never saw my family and my younger child, who at the time was two, did not cope well. I chose to withdraw from the program. I have no regrets about doing that, because it was the right thing for the family.

Then I meet another parent at my kid’s school, who was an editor. He edited scientific papers, not fiction. I mentioned I had these stories, and I showed him the first few chapters of what become Heliopause.

Not being a fiction editor, it wasn’t really something he could work on, but he did encourage me to finish the story. I hadn’t had that kind of encouragement. It was a kick in the pants. For that, I’ll always be grateful to him.

I call him the man that saved Heliopause.

It’s funny how encouragement or discouragement at just the right times can make a huge difference.

Yes, and I definitely had been discouraged a few times.

Some people would say, “Maybe it’s time you just let that story go and work on something else.”

I hated hearing that. I thought, no, I want to finish the story. It’s been in my head for most of my life.

Positive encouragement is more powerful than discouragement. Because when somebody believes in you at the right time, and I hope that everyone has that person, it makes all the difference.

Having worked on these for so long, how many drafts do you think you’ve been through for Ephemeris in particular?

Well, it’s funny because what is now Book Four was actually the first book.

I started with what is Book Four now and then morphed it around, and what is now Ephemeris then came after that.

Ephemeris is an interesting book because it takes place before, during, and after Heliopause. It’s giving you a preview of things to come as well as things that happened in the past, and tying everything together later in the book with people from Heliopause.

I’ve had so many drafts of these stories over the years. In my closet here in the office, there are binders full of handwritten drafts from over 30 years ago, including maps that I made, travel guides, glossaries, everything.

My handwriting is just garbage, and that never got better.

There were some typed versions too. I had a terrible typewriter, but a lot of it was handwritten.

There’s so many drafts. It’s ridiculous. I kept a lot of them. I threw out a lot of them too. I don’t even know how many there were to be honest with you.

Basically, we have to talk in terms of the Questrison Saga instead of just one of the books, the whole saga. I knew the endgame from the beginning when I was a young teen. Just the journey to get there changed along with me as a writer in developing the craft as well as maturing as a person in experiencing life.

When reading Ephemeris, it felt like I could point to certain locations and go, I think this is such and such a place that I know Dianne has lived. Like reading about Perpetua, is that Seattle?

Heliopause, I’ve often said, is a love story to Oregon. Because Forster keeps remembering Oregon, and the time he was with Auna in Oregon.

That’s why when Aeriod presents him with the possibility of such a place as a planet [Perpetua], basically an untouched Oregon, he’s delighted.

Aeriod sets him up that way. He’s thought it out. He knows what Forster cannot say “no” to. He’s already thought through all the scenarios. “How can I get Forster to do what I need him to do? Let’s throw out everything that he could just never say no to.” And that’s what he did.

When I write about Galla on Perpetua, that’s her first experience on a forested planet, near an ocean or anything like that. It’s very instantly different than anything else she’s experienced. That is similar to when I moved to Pacific Northwest in 2000.

Not Seattle per se, which I don’t have a lot of love for, but Oregon I absolutely adored.

Are there other planets in the books that are also drawn from places that you’ve lived before?

Well, I’ve driven a lot of roads.

There’s definitely some influence from my road trips because I have gone across the country several times in the past several years by car.

Now there’s a world in Book Four that is heavily influenced by my time in both Tennessee and San Francisco. Because I know that planet the longest, it feels very real. I feel like I’m there when I’m reading it.

You’ll see connections to a lot of the places I’ve lived in that book. It will seem very intimate. It will seem very real, I think.

Books One and Two are already out. When is Book Three due?

Early April for pre-order, with an intended release the end of May.