Boy, Interrupted

I set ambitious writing goals for this year.

Goal 1: Finish the first draft of BENEATH A SUNDERED SKY (150,000 words)

Goal 2: Finish the first draft of WHAT'S BEHIND THE CROOKED DOOR? (15,000 words)

Goal 3: Finish the third (first final) draft of PRINCE OF CATS (50,000 words)

Goal 4: Rewrite BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE (150,000 words)

All in all, I set goals to deal with the largest word count I've ever attempted in a single year. (Granted, some of it had been touched before so maybe that should have a .75 modifier to the word count in terms of difficulty. I can't say for sure.) I didn't set these goals with a "let's see how much of this I can do" mindset. I set goals I expect to achieve. Thus I expected to achieve all four goals.

So why am I obviously leading up to the fact that I'm not going to achieve all four goals? Because it's March and I'm already sick FOR THE THIRD TIME THIS YEAR! I'm not one of those people that get sick every decade. I have a crappy immune system. January and I are not friends. I get sick in January almost every year. Then again at the end of autumn or around there when the weather is turning and my allergies are kicking my ass and everyone has forgotten how to cover their mouths for some reason.

The fact that I've already been sick three times this year is not a good sign. It certainly hasn't made writing easier. It took a bit to get back up to speed after the first time I got sick. Then, after the second time I got sick, I realized everything I had written between those illnesses was absolute shit and needed to be deleted. I not only wasted a month of writing time, I wasted the paltry 20,000 words I wrote in that month (which is half of what I usually write in a month, in case you're wondering).

Beginning the year with SUNDERED SKY and seeing how easily the setting fell onto the page, I didn't think it unrealistic at all to finish it in three months. Add a couple weeks to switch gears and finish CROOKED DOOR and I had thought to have points one and two scratched off by April. I thought maybe to add goals 1.1 and 2.1, revising a second draft over the summer for each of those stories.

It's March 8th and I'm at 50,000 words of goal one. At this pace, I'll finish the book by September! Horror! What a wasted year that would be. I don't expect that to be the issue, obviously. Once I'm well, the word count pace will increase, but damn it's hard to feel that way when I'm on illness number three and I can only manage enough mental capacity to realize I'm sucking it hard this year.

How's your progress coming? Hopefully better than mine.

That question is for everyone, but especially Nate. Everyone stare at Nate and remind him he should not be reading this journal entry. He should be writing his novel. Now. Go. Shoo. Be creative.

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult

A combination of bad advice and bad writing as a result of that advice has kind of got me stuck on PRINCE OF CATS. I have two other projects I'm working on right now, but in a few months, I'll be back to it, and I'll have to fix it, which is a daunting prospect.

An agent who is always full of good advice is Kristen Nelson, and she touched on the subject in her new Friday video blog series. Check it out:

On Beta Reading

I have finished the second draft of my middle grade fantasy, PRINCE OF CATS. To make sure I'm reaching my target readership appropriately, I have enlisted many of my nieces and nephews (and a few friends who are of the appropriate age) to read the draft and give me feedback. Now, since most of them have never beta read for me (or anyone) before, I decided to write up some instructions and an explanation of what kind of feedback I really needed. While a few points are specific to what I tried to accomplish with the manuscript (specifically any words they might not have understood), I think this advice is good for beta readers of any genre, not just mg. So I thought I'd share it. I've seen some people on twitter going through their first beta and all they post about is "so and so liked it!" While yes, that's exciting, that's not what a beta is for. We always want people to like what we write. Beta review is to take what we've created and make it better. Focus less on what they like and focus more on what they don't like. You'l end up with a better novel in the end.

Begin letter

I want to thank you for being a beta reader for my latest novel, PRINCE OF CATS. This is my first middle grade story (middle grade meaning written specifically for someone of your age). The feedback you give me will go a long way in helping me make this the best story it can be.

So let’s start with, what is a beta reader? You are! :) A beta reader is someone who reads a novel manuscript before it is published. I have written the first draft then edited that into the second draft, the version you are reading now. With your (and others’) feedback, I will revise to a third draft. That is what I’ll use to send to agents and publishers and so on. You get to read this before everyone else! When it’s as famous as Harry Potter, you can say, “Hey, I read that before it was even published. It’s totally awesome because of me.” And you’d be right.

Now, what is not beta reading? Beta reading is reading this story and telling me it was good or that you liked it. Every author wants people to write what he/she writes, but from beta readers, the most important thing is good feedback. Good feedback points out specific things you like. Good feedback points out specific things you DON’T like. It’s okay not to like something. It’s okay not to like any of it. As long as you communicate that in a constructive way, I promise I won’t be upset with you. We’re working together on this now, and partners don’t get mad with each other.

So what makes good feedback? Point out any and all of the following:

• People/events you like
• People/events you don’t like
• Where the story feels like it’s dragging (Are you getting bored? Skipping ahead?)
• Where you stopped reading because you thought something else would be more fun to do
• Where something happens you don’t believe would/should happen
• Where something happens that you don’t understand

You can give me this feedback in one of two ways. You can write it up in a separate document, just like this one here (or even in a spreadsheet if you’re a child prodigy with Microsoft Excel) or you can write it into the document itself using Track Changes (if you don’t know how to turn Track Changes on, ping me on Facebook and I’ll show you how).

If you could do one other thing for me, I’m doing something special with this story. Some of the vocabulary is intentionally difficult in a few places. If you could write down any words you don’t understand, that would help me hyperlink them to the dictionary so if you read the story on an ereader, you can click to look up what the word means. (If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. But if you want to, it is very much appreciated.)

So with that, accompanying this Word file is a zip file with a few different formats of the story (Word, PDF, epub for your Nook, and mobi for your Kindle). Please keep in mind that this story is only meant for beta readers. This isn’t something to share with your friends. Hopefully they’ll be buying themselves a copy next year. :) While you, of course, will get a free and signed copy because you helped me and were awesome. ...assuming this is published. There’s a chance it may not be, but that’s the life of a writer.

If you have any questions, you are of course always welcome to email me or ping me on Facebook. If you need anything else, just let me know. Thank you again for helping me with my story.


When it's not epic

I've participated in a couple of Writer's Digest online seminars, one featuring Kristin Nelson and one feature Sara Megibow both from the Nelson Agency. During Kristin's presentation, she mentioned that the main plot of your book, that first serious hook, should occur within the first 30-50 manuscript pages.

Now this took me back. Having come up in epic fantasy (even though I'm currently not writing epic), the plot often started well past 50 pages. Often it doesn't start until the second book! :) Was it possible to drop the hook that early?

So I looked at the various single-volume fantasies I was writing at the time and with the exception of one, they all dropped their hooks in the first fifty pages. That one that didn't? It ended up getting rewritten and conforms to that as well (in Times New Roman, Courier pushed me over by a couple pages). It has proven to be not so much an invaluable rule as it is an obvious rule. With an average-lengthed novel (so we're not including epic), a story without a hook at the beginning just feels like a meandering exploration of the writer's imagination. That's all well and good, but we're reading the book for a story and eventually we need to start down that path.

Keep in mind I'm just talking a hook here. We don't necessarily need to blaze a trail down the story (though I fall mostly in Twain's camp1 on what should happen in any given chapter). Just something to promise the reader, "Yes, this is going somewhere."

And that was so exciting about PRINCE OF CATS. I didn't just have the hook, I came up with a good chunk of the story all at once. (Surprisingly, it's the end that eludes me as I keep debating whether I should kill a bunch of characters or not.) The thing was, once I started writing, the hook kept getting farther and farther away. Hello page 80. I'll get to the hook soon. I promise. Just 20 more pages or so.

And it wasn't working. I had all these dramatic moments that weren't that dramatic because there were no stakes involved. Unless we're reading this thing just so we can watch Mirza and find out his uncle-turned-father2 has been lying all these years about how his mother died, in which case we're all set by chapter 12.

So I took chapters 8-12 and shoved them back. They'll still appear. They're good stuff, but first I need a hook. Because once there's something at risk, then we're not just learning about Mirza, we're seeing how Mirza responds to what he learns and wonder as to the fate of Shahzadi Parisa. Then all these secrets about his mother have the heft they deserve.

Unfortunately, turning the uncle into the father and then shoving 4 1/2 chapters back has really thrown a wrench into the gears of my rhythm. I have been cranking this story out, and now I've come full stop while I insert the separator and crank everything apart. Then I have to go through and make sure everything fits together. Usually this is saved for the second draft. But hey, it'll save me reweriting in the future. Hopefully when I'm back at work and not staying home to deal with construction people3, I can get make to a more acceptable level of progress.

1 Mark Twain famously said that each chapter should advance the plot or advance the story else it should be cut from the story entirely. While I don't hold to this 100% of the time, I hold to it 99.5% of the time.

2 I realized the other day that I had fallen into the MG/YA cliche of making my main character an orphan. In adult work, I try to stay away from all the character tropes that have been bludgeoned to death over the years. I don't have characters that are orphans. I have characters that had loving, well-adjusted parents, so their own eccentricities are just that. No need for the orphan who's sworn an oath to hunt down his paretns' killer. Batman has had that covered for near on a century.

3 We had a furnace leak that grew a healthy amount of mold in our basement. This has been an incredible headache. I do not advise it.

Can I Do This?

If you were lucky enough to be Liz Poole, a hotel night auditor named LurkerWithout, or an agent with incredible literary sense, you would have had the opportunity to read my manuscript JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. This is a manuscript where I explain why just because the protagonist is 15 years old doesn't make it a young adult novel. The thing is anything but a young adult novel. ...depending on how you wish to raise your children. If you're okay with intense amounts of violence, profanity, nudity, sex, and drugs, then perhaps this is a YA book. Otherwise, we'll just assume it's not.

I've mentioned that before, so why am I saying it again? Because now I am writing a young adult novel. More specifically, I'm writing a middle grade novel (for a younger audience than YA, if you don't know the difference). Things are going swimmingly. I've only been at it for a week and I'm about to hit the 20,000-word mark. That's progress! Things are going great!

Well...yes, but I'm starting to run into something the euphoria of being so prolific has to date kept at bay. I've never written for this audience before! I write hard, cruel adult content. How am I supposed to write for 10 year olds?!?! Here I am cruising along and they have THE HOBBIT and A WRINKLE IN TIME and HARRY POTTER to read. What is this? PRINCE OF CATS? It's nothing. It's tiny. It's not my market!

*pulls out hair*

Who would have thought that the hardest thing for me to write would be content for kids. You wouldn't think so until you try it. But once you try it, you're all ooohhh, now I see.

Like if I were to write Sesame Street, this is what you'd get:

Things I Like Other than Writing

I finished my rewrite, began PRINCE OF CATS (which is going awesomely--beyond awesomely really, I'm flying), and the summer crush is over. Obviously you can tell that because I'm blogging, thus my hours are not filled with making content to educate the next generation of politicians who will hopefully ben an improvement over our current crop.


As this is the end of he busy season for a few months, I have time to not only write, but to do other fun things as well. I can take days off and stuff. I'm told the funs happen on days off.

So what do we do? Well, New Hampshire keeps a lot of its funs outside, so I'll go there to find them. My buddy Britt taught me how to play disc golf and I've been practicing. I could do more of that. Especially since the local putting green was rebuilt after a really bad storm tore up the baskets.

I could...go sailing! My wife spoiled our anniversary surprise and mentioned we're going sailing. I learned how to sail through Naval ROTC my freshman year in college and absolutely loved it. It was my favorite thing about the entire experience. She's the queen of the groupon and got a good deal that we can go sailing down on the Charles River (I believe that's where it is).

Another groupon she got me for Christmas is horseback riding. I learned to ride when I was four. My family used insurance money from my father's death to go to dude ranch and mourn/cope/stop trying to kill each other. I have loved riding ever since. I do it every year and if I had enough money, I would love to have a horse of my own. Well, she got me a groupon for a two-hour trail ride and I'll be cashing in that puppy this week. I'm so excited! Woooooo!

But there is more! I need to shed about 20 pounds, but Alpine Adventures, the zip lining place up in Lincoln, NH, has a new course. What's zip lining, you ask? Watch this video of my wife zip lining from a couple years ago. She got me a gift certificate a couple Christmases back and I need to use that puppy. Once I'm less fat.