Keeping Score: August 20, 2018

Blew past the word count goal this week: 2,133 words written!

I realized yesterday that I’m almost at 40,000 words. Since I expect this novel to be brief (about 50K or so), at my current pace I’ll be done in about five weeks.

Five weeks!

Who knows if I’ll actually be finished at 50K, but it’s exciting to think about putting this first draft to rest. Feels like I’ve been working on this novel forever. It’s only been nine months, though, and it’ll be close to a year before I’m done.

Ok, not done exactly, but at least done with the first draft of it.

I’d like to get into a pace where I can finish (as in, draft, revise, stick a fork in it, ship it finished) a novel a year. I’m not quite there yet; if I finish this one by October, I’d only have a month to do all the edits it needs, which likely won’t be enough time.

It’d be better if I could revise one book while writing another. I haven’t been able to master that trick yet; the one book takes up so much head space for me that it’s all I can do to occasionally spit out a short story or two while I’m in the middle of the draft.

Maybe I could find a way to edit on weekends, and work on the new draft during the week? Or vice-versa?

Not sure what’s best. I just know once this draft is done I’ll have four novels that are finished drafts, but not finished pieces. And that’s starting to bug me. I need to be sending these out, trying to land an agent. But that’s hard to do when they’re not in any shape I want a professional to see them in.

Do you revise one book while writing another? How do you do it?

Alive by Scott Sigler

Intense.

The prose is stripped clean of excess, going down so smooth it injects the story right into your bloodstream. And hot damn, it’s a good one.

I haven’t read a lot of YA, but this is the first one I enjoyed, start to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • First-person, step-by-step, can be brutal: by sitting right inside the character’s head, it’s easy to get sucked in, and then when the shit goes down, you feel every victory and defeat like they’re happening to you.
  • Every group has a jerk. Every group in fiction needs a jerk.
  • One way to handle writing a large group, where each person needs their own personality, is to write scenes in which the group rotates through different configurations. The numbers stay manageable, but the composition of the group in the scene changes, giving each member a chance to shine.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

Another strong portrayal of a villain from Grossman.

Avoids the trap of completely rehabilitating Nixon. He’s sympathetic without being likable, and interesting to follow without the reader always cheering them on.

Loses steam in the second half. There’s plot lines that go nowhere, scenes that could have been cut without changing anything, and the climax happens completely off-screen, with no buildup or release of tension.

Still, I learned a few things about writing:

  • Delivering most of your plot via dialog — so long as you’re not data dumping — can be a great way to keep the story moving.
  • The best villains think they’re the hero.
  • Restricting your book to one POV can be too confining. Multiple POV can let you explore other aspects of your world, which you might need if your story takes place somewhere very different.

Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

A 1990s trenchcoats-and-mirrorshades action film published in the 21st century with 1950s gender roles. An odd, frustrating, throwback of a book.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Be careful when porting an old genre to a new skin. Bringing along the social mores along with the other elements will make your book feel dated from the start.
  • Taking an otherwise-competent character and pushing them out of their element is a great way to both explore a new world and make it challenging for them.
  • In sci-fi, it’s not enough that the names of things — computers, cars, etc — change. Our relationship with them needs to change, too, or it’s just window dressing.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Basically perfect. It’s low-key, character-driven sci-fi, stuffed with cool ideas and diverse cultures. Completely scratched my Firefly itch, in a good way 🙂

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Can think of chapters as episodes of a TV series, with cuts between multiple points of view, similar beats, and cliffhanger endings.
  • Having the Shit Go Down at the end of the book rather than the beginning gives the reader time to know and care for the characters, making it more tense.
  • You can get away with an infinite amount of info-dumping if it’s a knowledgeable character explaining things to a clueless character.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Disappointing.

Starts out well, action pumping and character backstories fleshed out just enough to make you care, but not enough to stop the flow of the story.

But the world around them never congeals for me, and the atmosphere of threat and double-cross the story needs can’t happen without it.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Switching perspective characters early on is a great opportunity to give more context to what’s happening, since it’s another angle on the world
  • In a modern setting, you really can cut descriptions down to the bone, to put the focus on dialog and action
  • Can do character backstory in a single chapter, covering years of someone’s life, with breaks in-between

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Disturbing. Most of the characters are completely unlikable, especially the men: the worst are outright misogynists and racists, even the best act like superior assholes to everyone else.

Mamatas doesn’t pull any punches in exposing the sexism and harassment that happens at fan conventions. It makes for tough reading, both because the female protagonist is constantly experiencing it and because the male narrator, whose death she’s investigating, is one of the superior assholes it’s hard to sympathize with.

Worth reading, though, if nothing else than as a “Do I act like this?” check.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • – Can get away with very skimpy descriptions — or none at all — if you choose the proper perspective to tell the story from (in this case, a corpse’s).
  • Protagonist’s motivation for pursuing the mystery can be thin, if the reader’s interest is piqued enough for them to want to see it solved
  • Characters will always rationalize their behavior. Even when dead.

White Horse by Alex Adams

Frustrating and disappointing. Adams’ writing is stuffed with metaphors, giving everything a dreamy quality that makes it hard to take anything seriously.

Didn’t help that I just came off reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which do a much better job of narrating a woman’s journey through a post-apocalyptic world.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • If readers already know the narrator survives a scene in a flashback, don’t try to wring tension out of their survival.
  • Readers need to know not only what your characters are doing, but why, if they’re going to care.
  • When writing a character from a different country, do several editing passes to be certain their dialog, analogies, and expressions all match where they’re supposed to be from.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Prescient, gripping, and intimidatingly good. Definitely going to read more of Butler’s books.

I’m rather sad that she wasn’t able to complete a new Earthseed series, like she planned, before her death.

Three more things she taught me about writing:

  • Perfectly acceptable to have the sequel start out as more “and then this happened”.
  • First act turn is a great place to upend what the characters have built previously, have the outside world come in with the force of a storm.
  • Editors and compilers of biographies can have agendas just like other characters, and become more interesting when they reveal them

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Oddly compelling. Told any other way, it’d be just one more story about giant robots and the people piloting them. But by telling it through interviews, to make it feel like you’re reading a classified dossier, makes it feel fresh and compelling.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Even old ideas can feel new again when told in a different way.
  • Interviews can let you do first-person narration without having to actually narrate. No need for detailed descriptions, etc. Can take a lot of shortcuts and still feel real.
  • Don’t forget the interviewer! They have their own agenda, and that should come through in their questions and reactions.