My Writing Process 5: After Drafting

Okay, so we’re running on the assumption that you’ve finished your first draft at this point. Who knows, maybe you’ve stockpiled eight first drafts or so, sometimes that’s how it works. Either way, the question now is: what now?

Well, if it’s anything like my first few manuscripts, your first draft is a bloody mess that you love more than life itself, so you’ve got a big problem. You’ve got something in dire need of editing but that you’re too enamored with to look at objectively, and that’s good for nobody. So I think the first goal should be to put it in a drawer for 1-2 months and forget it exists. Start a new project. It’ll wait. So will we.

See? Now it’s two months later. Seemed like nothing, right? Right. So now it’s real simple: read the damn thing.

That’s it, just read it. Nothing fancy. You can do it on your computer or on a physical copy. I prefer to have a physical copy, a red Bic pen, and a cup of coffee (decaffeinated nowadays… People bug me.) But that’s me. Basically just take your manuscript to your reading space and read it. If you see errors, mark them with your little pen. But we’re not looking for them yet. What we’re looking for is things that MAKE NO SENSE.

They’re there. I don’t care how smart you are. You could be JK Rowling herself, I really don’t care. There are things in there that make no sense. I’ll give you a few tiny examples:

– In the first printing of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” there is a character bound with a straight jacket that wipes the sweat from his brow. That’s clearly impossible, and makes no sense. Now to me that’s small enough to leave, but the publisher actually recalled and reprinted the books over that little gaff.

– A personal one: in Black Womb, the characters spend the first chapter of the novel talking about a big party that will be at Julian Grendel’s house on Saturday. Problem is: the party is on Friday. That’s embarrassing, and will be fixed for the next release. But here’s the thing: that book has been out for 4+ years, and it was only last July that someone noticed. That’s frightening.

So there are errors. And I don’t even mean editing slips, I mean stuff that makes no sense. In the original draft of Infinity, Abby Fisher yawns and goes to bed right after seeing Hunter murder someone. Yes, seeing a grisly murder always makes my eyelids hang. So that’s an easy fix.

The big problem are the logic gaffs. You’ll notice them. There are points when you’ll be reading and just go: what the fuck?

The issue is that most people are so in love with their first draft and want to protect the integrity of it that they convince themselves it’s okay. They shrug and move on. It’s not okay. If you’re reading and you come across a whole section that doesn’t feel right, circle it with your red pen and write FIX THIS, YOU IDIOT across the top. Then when the whole thing has been read, look up those marked pages on your file and get to rewriting.

20110918-090139.jpg And I know your gut reaction. The book is like your baby, and you don’t want to mess with it. You’re worried that by screwing with it you’ll make it less than it was before. I can assure you that’s not true, but just to quiet your mind, create a folder on your computer called “first drafts”. Put a copy in there and never touch it. Now, edit the real copy to death.

I didn’t have someone to tell me this with Black Womb or Transformations in Pain, and I feel both books suffered for it. While people tell me that Black Womb is great, there’s a part of me that’s still nervous about seeing someone read it.

By Smoke and Mirrors I’d gotten over it. The first draft of that is NOTHING like the printed version. How different? I literally rewrote it scene for scene. I was that unhappy with the first draft. All the events are the same, not one sentence is.

So yeah, get going. Read it. Re-Read it. Read it until it makes sense to you, because if it doesn’t make sense to you it REALLY won’t make sense to readers.

But whatever you do, never throw it aside. No matter how much you get frustrated with your abilities while reading your manuscript, never give up. The fact that you can see your errors means you have the skill and intelligence to fix them, just keep plugging.

It’s the people that can’t see them I worry about.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

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My Writing Process 4: Writer’s Block

20110918-090527.jpg You still haven’t written anything yet? Dear Lord!… Don’t worry, I get that way too. It’s hard to talk about the writing process past the start of it… I mean, to an extent, if you plot: write till the plot is done. If you don’t plot: write till you feel you’re done. It sounds obvious, right? Yet the MOST ASKED thing at these panels is: how do you do it? I talk to hundreds of writers who start book after book and then abandon them 10,000 words in. One guy I told to publish them in an anthology called “unfinished tales”. He didn’t find it amusing.

But it’s a real question: how do we deal with writer’s block?

I think the first hurdle is to admit something. I’ve talked this over with many authors, and they all agree: there is no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s Block is an imaginary illness made up by writers to make themselves feel okay about the fact that they aren’t producing jack shit. What the term should be is writer’s laze.

That’s right, writer’s laze. I get it, so do you. We’re lazy. Writers love being entertained. That’s why we do what we do. We entertain ourselves with our stories and are our own biggest fans. But sometimes it’s easier to be entertained than to be the source of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been like: “It’s time to write… But wait! There’s a Criminal Minds marathon on!”

It happens to us all.

So when friends tell me they can’t write, I say bullshit. When they say they don’t have the dedication, I nod knowingly. If you’re writing, be prepared for the most time consuming job on the planet. It will absorb your every thought and spare moment.

To control this madness, I set myself at 2,000 words a day. If you’re just starting you can do 1,000, but 2,000 is a good number to be at. It keeps you engaged in the story each day but not so bad that you get burnt out.

And if you find you think you’re writing crap? Power through. Just keep producing that 2,000 words until your first draft novel is done. Fixing crappy scenes is what editing is for. And like with poker: you don’t count your money while sitting at the table, and you don’t edit while you write. Don’t even read while you’re writing.

Stick to this regimen, and you’ll be done before you know it.

And never look back.
Matthew LeDrew

Latest Writing Update

So, I mentioned a while ago that we’d be getting some Engen Bytes up soon, and I’d be dropping some more details on upcoming projects soon. Unfortunately, due to a family emergency, we had to postpone filming and have not gotten a chance to set up time since. Busy-busy as always over here.

Anyway, I figured I should give you all a teaser of my upcoming contribution to the Engen Universe Anthology of Short Stories in lieu of Engen Bytes. The working title is “Oliver”.

Pretty fuzzy, but just a representation of where the word count was earlier. It’s much further along now ๐Ÿ˜‰

My Writing Process 3: Story Arcs

Okay, this one is a little different. If you’re writing along with the posts then you’re already well into the first few pages of your novel, so this post is either going to come too early or too late, lol.

Basically, this is something I tend to cover in my typical, face-to-face writing seminars with Ellen Curtis and Kenneth Tam that tends to go over very well, so I’m going to try and duplicate it here.

There’s a way that I structure story-arcs for my series’, specifically the Black Womb series, and it’s served me very well. It’s a way of thinking about multiple story-lines and character arcs so that you can keep track of them all.

Please forgive my art, I’m not terribly talented as it is, and even worse when using the Draw! app on my iPhone. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing.

Story Arc Alright, so this one is fairly straightforward, yes? I hope so anyway. If not, blame me. This is supposed to be the storyarc for your novel. For those looking for the experience of an actual writing seminar, picture me scrambling madly while scribbling this on a dry erase board.

So, this black mark represents the story of your novel. As the line gets higher, so does the excitement of your reader. At least, that’s the hope. Then green mark represents the beginning of your story, and the purple one the end. See that red one? That’s the climax. In Back to the Future, it’s Marty rides the lightning back to 1985. In Almost Famous, it’s when the kid finally gets his interview with the rock legend. It’s the end of the story, really. Everything before it is buildup and everything after is cleanup. This is the moment your audience should remember.

Not marked here (sorry) is the inciting incident. Basically it takes place near the beginning of the story and is the question that is answered by the climax. In Black Womb it’s Jamie Dawkins’ death, and the climax is the revelation of he killer.

Story Arc But it’s not that simple, is it? Nothing really is. Some children’s novels are that simple (and that’s fine), but you’re writing an epic. You’re writing a goddamn masterpiece. In this next image, we again have that pesky black line representing your novel, but this time its got company. These are your sub plots. In this novel, we have three. They’re the green, pink, and purple lines. Going back to the Back to the Future example, it’s the romance between Marty and his Mom. Another is the romance between his Mom and George. A third is if Doc Brown will die or not. See? All these plots start at different times in the larger arc. They can also end at different times… Although if you can swing it so that they all end at once and dovetail together, it makes for epic storytelling. It doesn’t always work, but when it does both writer and reader feel great about it. It’s goosebump-inducing satisfaction to produce that kind of fiction.

Most novels are structured this way.

So, great! You’ve made an epic novel. Interesting characters, and wow that climax! All the plots converged at once!… What now? I mean, some people would just repeat the same formula and make another epic novel… And if you do that, move power to you. You’ll probably make more money than me, you little Stephen King in the making, you.

Story Arc But that’s not what I did. I prefer series’ to individual novels. So that’s what this next diagram is about. In this one the black arcs are still novels, but there are four novels in the series so far and they’re all connected by the orange arc: that’s the storyarc. I do this with Black Womb. The first three novels form a great little arc. Books four through seven form another arc I call “Peterson Syndrome”. Another good way to look at this diagram is like seasons of a television show. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each black arc is an episode, and when you put them all together they make a season, one BIG story. Like the Glory / Dawn arc in season four. Or the Dark Tower series, another great example. Remember that within each black arc there are multiple character arcs and smaller subplots. If possible, these novels should have a common theme. Theme isn’t necessary, but it’s nice. If possible the action should be upped with each additional book as well, until the last one is just an epic season finale.

Story Arc Okay, you’ve got your box set of like, four books. You can count yourself amount the Tolkiens and the Kings. Are you done? I’m not. The next stage of the game looks like this. The orange arcs represent the three to four book “seasons” that they did in the last sketch, now with a fancy purple line encompassing the whole thing. This is the series plot. Just like all other plots, it has a beginning, middle and end. It gets more and more exciting until it’s conclusion. This is he model I’m working with, remembering again that within each season are multiple novels and within each novel are multiple plots. This is a massive undertaking, and is the reason guys like Jay Paulin referred to people who start a series as “gutsy” in his review of my first book. It takes a lot of planning and even more work afterward.

Story Arc Here’s one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest. It’s basically the same as the last, but shows different character arcs. Here there are three, but if I had to map them all there would be hundreds. Let’s look at the pink one. Let’s call that Cathy. Maybe her main arc starts at book eight and ends around book nineteen. Or whatever. And each character could have more than one. So there are layers within layers of this.

There are other schools of thought of course. I feel like I’ve been preachy during this post, and if that’s he case it wasn’t intentional. Some plots follow a graph much closer linked to a three act structure. Some are all over the place, but honestly those tend not to do well. Sometimes they become cult classics, but it’s rare.

One example of a different sort is The Dark Knight. It used a plotting scale called “constant climax” which would look more like this:

Constant Climax Basically after that first, initial slow beginning it never stops. This is hard to do and requires meticulous planning. I have never seen this in a novel but would love to. It’s something I tried very hard to emulate in Becoming, the seventh Black Womb novel. Don’t think I quite hit the mark, but had fun doing it.

So these are plot arcs, or at least how I conceive them. I don’t often actually draw them, but I find it helpful to organize my thoughts by thinking of the plots this way. One of many compartmentalization tricks I’ve learned over the years. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Hope this helped anyone who needs help.

Never Look Back,
Matthew LeDrew

Character Development 1: Developing your Lead

As a part of my series of Virtual Writing Seminars, I’d like to start a series of blogs on character development today. This series of posts has no definite end in sight, and may go on for quite some time. It will focus on how I develop characters both for a series and for a single novel or short story, and will hopefully give some insight as to why some insight into why some of your characters pop and others… Don’t.

With this post I’m going to focus on the most important character you’ll create: your lead. While other characters may be more entertaining or even interesting, your lead is the hook on which every other event in your story is hung. It’s his story (pardon the male pronoun… Nothing against female protagonists).

The first thing to make sure of is the your lead is three dimensional. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not. A lot of books and movies feature one-note characters, and it absolutely drives me insane. Think of yourself. Do you act the same way towards your mother as you do your partner? Or to your friend? Or your boss? Of course not. We all wear different hats at different times, and so should your character. Sit down with a list of all your characters and figure out how your lead interacts with each of them. Does he love them? Does he hate them? Is he attracted to them? I don’t know. But you should.

This also leads into having the character fleshed out at the start of the story. It really draws a reader in when characters are fully formed, real people. Take Victor from Infinity. He’s enigmatic and we know little about him… But I do. I know everything about him. I even know where he went to high school. I’m not telling you that yet though… I simply know it ahead of time so that he can react appropriately to the situations I put him in. The result works well. There’s a reason we, as fans, love characters like Mal from Firefly and dislike characters like Bella from Twilight… It helps when the writers knows what they’re doing beforehand.

That said, a big part of your character is dialog. This is what makes your character believable, and almost all suspension of disbelief hinges on it. Nicolas Brenden once said of Buffy the vampire slayer that: “It’s realistic. Well, the things that happen aren’t realistic but the ways people respond to them are.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory, apologies if it’s off). What he’s saying is true: it doesn’t matter that a dragon just came out of the floor. If your character responds to it realistically it will be bought.

On the flip side, if you claim your character is a scientist and they get every scientific fact they say wrong, his (and your) credibility is gone.

Also, if you say they’re “grim” but all they do is joke around, you’ve undermined yourself there too. (side note: it’s better not to SAY your character is anything, just to let your reader decide for themselves… But that’s a rant for another time).

Another point is to not let them be passive. This is one that’s not so obvious. A lot of professional writers do this, myself included. I consider Xander (in the first Black Womb book only) to be passive. It’s something I’ve tried to resolve for the international release. For those of you who haven’t read Black Womb (what’s wrong with you? Lol) a good example is Jennifer Connoly’s character from The Strangers. These characters are frustratingly passive. They don’t affect the plot, the plot happens TO them. This isn’t just bad character development, it’s bad storytelling. Make the character the active part of the plot. Make their actions affect the story and the world around them. If it’s a crime story, have him hunt bad guys rather than simply react to their actions. If it’s a love story, make the character be proactive in his relationship rather than just reacting to their partner. This, above almost anything else, makes engaging stories.

Once that’s all done, be consistent in how you’ve portrayed them. Nothin comes out of left field more than a character acting in a way that doesn’t jive with the rest of what you’ve told us. That said, they can’t remain the same. The characters have to move over an arc. They have to grow and be different at the end of the tale than they were at the beginning.

Hopefully I haven’t been too overwhelming with all this, and that you’ve got a great character in mind. Don’t be afraid to base them off yourselves or even other characters in fiction either, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hope your stories are coming along great.
Matthew LeDrew

Cake-day!

Ellen Curtis
Ellen Curtis

Yesterday was Morgan’s birthday party, so after work I was whisked off by Liz and Hedley to Melane’s for pizza. As usual, Matt’s side of the family was out in full force for his sister’s party. I have to say, it was nice seeing everyone, as work has forced me to be absent for the last few family gatherings. It’s hard to believe how far all of us have come since this time last year. Georgia and Brandon had a beautiful little baby, it was last year this time Matt decided to go back to school, Matt and I are settling into shared living arrangements, and for once, everyone is in relatively good health.

All in all, it was a nice day. Morgan loved her presents, and I lucked into picking up things for her that she liked and needed. I even got some nummy gluten-free pizza. And I heard a funny story about Matt, but really it would be cruel to post. My sweet boy probably wouldn’t be too pleased.

Anyway, after a long day of work, with school in the morning, a girl needs her rest! Hope your days are just as fun ๐Ÿ˜‰

History of Black Womb 1

20110911-113654.jpg Alright, so this isn’t so much a “writing tips” series of posts as it is a “how I did exactly what I did” post. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I’m finally getting around to doing it. A lot of this has been touched on before, in the ‘from the author’ sections of the books and such, but I really want to get into it here as much as I feel comfortable.

I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember. Some of my first and fondest memories are of playing superhero with myself or my friends, but most notably, with my father. A lot of my memories from that age (I’m talking 3-5 here) involve my father. At some point he brought home an old dos-based computer which could function as a word processor and little else and taught me how to write files and save them. I think I was ten.

I vividly recall two stories I wrote early on. One was a crossover between all the Disney Afternoon characters (something I still contest would have been a good idea) and the other was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story in which the Turtles finally defeated Shredder and the Technodrome, but Donatello lost his arm (because my action figure of Donatello had lost his arm, and I’d longed for an in-story explanation).

Black Womb, 2012 edition, Matthew LeDrew, Engen Books
I may have written more like that, but I know that not long after that I started writing stories about a Superman-esque character named Alexis Temple. This was it, the movement from imitation to actual, individual thought. I wrote ten books (to my recollection), and they took Alexis from his early teenage years into early adulthood. It felt like time to stop then. And I thought I was done.

Then one day when I was supposed to be studying I pulled out an excersize book and started to plan more stories. If anyone read Wizard Magazine while it was in print, there were price guides in the back that would list each issue and the basic contents of them. And there was a code, like ‘Amazing Spider-Man #1’ would be: ‘ASM 001: fa (first appearance) Chameleon, J Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle.’ So I plotted the whole Alexis Temple series as though it were comics. Then I kept going, continuing his adventures even though I’d never written them… I was plotting.

I plotted several more storylines after what had previously been the final one. Around this same time, I was asked by my Drama coach to draw each person in our acting group for a mock-playbill we were making. Then like now, I’m not much of an artist, but I drew everyone as best I could, then drew everyone as superheroes. I recall this big group shot of everyone looking mean into the camera, all 20 of our little drama squad. People had robot arms and capes and laser eyes. I even drew myself in, but that was the only one I didn’t like… So I shaded him in all in black, except for the eyes.

The next time I sat down to plot, I added in the following line: “CHS #75: Alexis meets Sara, Cathy, Mike, Grendel and Black Womb.”

There’s more to it then that of course. There always is. But for all intents and purposes, that was the beginning. It didn’t look anything like what it does now, but it served as the foundation for what would become the longest project of my life.

I had started writing Black Womb.

To be continued ๐Ÿ˜‰

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew