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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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In a previous post I wrote about how I manage my ideas. TL;DR – Notice Stuff, Write It Down, Read It Again.

This is fine, it’s a method for not relying on your flawed memory. But a story is much more than a laundry list of stuff you noticed during the day (unless you’re talking about a Seinfeld episode, then it really is just a laundry list). You need characters and plot points and emotion and conflict and resolution and all that stuff. No matter how cool, accomplished, and savvy you are, you’re only just one person. Despite your best efforts, you can’t know, do, or be everything. Your personal scope is very limited.

So how do you expand your scope? Travel is a great way. International travel. To a place where you don’t speak the language and can’t read a newspaper. I used to work for a government contractor, and I traveled all over the world. I can tell you for certain that my perspective expanded immensely in those three years. I was not the same person on my last day as I was on my first, and I came out the better for it.

But what if you don’t have the good fortune of being paid to travel on the Federal government’s dime? What if you can no more afford a trip abroad than you could pay off your mountain of student debt? What if the court says you can’t leave the county? What if you’re agoraphobic? You can read non-fiction, but even better, you can watch non-fiction. You can find slice-of-life videos everywhere online. Search them out, people are eager to show others how they live, and visitors are eager to show differences, too. Google ‘Japanese toilets’ for a good start on how different other cultures can be.

Absent travel, what’s a fantastic way of expanding your scope? Exploiting your friends and family. You go to work every day, and you do stuff and know stuff that’s a combination unique to you. Nobody else does your job quite like you do, nobody else has the exact same interests and hobbies you do. The same is true for every other person on the planet, including your boring family and idiot friends. Everybody you meet knows something you don’t. So ask them about it.

For instance, I have an attorney friend (mentioned previously) I can bounce stupid legal notions off of. I am always wrong, and Attorney Don gently corrects me, but his regular work day is labyrinth of interpretation and ambiguity that I just can’t wrap my head around. Talking to him lets me appreciate how a good attorney is like a good chess player, always thinking one move ahead.

I have a friend who spent years as a lab tech, and just this week I had lunch with her to pick her brain about what happens to a person who dies of liver failure. This is for the sequel to Special Circumstances that I’m writing now. She’s forgotten more about that kind of thing than I’ll ever know, and she helped me pin down a terrible, terrible death for a terrible, terrible character. It’s what friends do.

Talk to strangers. I know, I know, it’s a scary world out there, and you have to pick and choose who you let into your circle of trust, but I have learned so much talking to complete strangers. Like why you don’t want to weld in the rain but sometimes you have to do it anyway. Like how slowly the plane I was a passenger on would have to fly to drop out of the sky. Like how many different diagnoses it would probably take to get on full disability. Like how complicated the chemistry of toilet paper actually is. Like how emergency rooms have printed protocol on how to get stuff out of people’s butts because getting objects stuck in their butts is a thing people regularly do.

I encourage your curiosity. Find out what makes people tick. Find out what makes YOU tick, your writing can only benefit.

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Since I have no assignment from my publisher yet, I thought I’d share my process. I’m currently planning the sequel to my novel that will be published next year, neck-deep in details and ideas and beats. I know everyone’s process is different, but perhaps learning mine will help someone else.

My Step 1 : Decide what the story is.
This sounds deceptively simple, but it really is straightforward. I’ve talked to writers who launch into a ten-minute dialogue about their book, and at the end, as they catch their breath, I know a lot of detail around the story, but I don’t really know what the story is. For my money, these people have wasted a lot of their time on window dressing without making sure the foundation of their house is solid.

You may see other advice about building the story out of elements that come up as you’re writing, but I think that approach is bankrupt. If you don’t know the story you want to tell, starting to write is just an exercise in futility and frustration as eventually, when you discover what your story actually is, you’ll have to discard much of the work you’ve already put in. Work smarter, not harder, as my grandfather often said.

Here are some examples of stories. Each of these examples presents a simple enough story, but the outcomes of those simple stories make masterpieces of literature.

  • The Iliad – this is the story of a few weeks during the Trojan war when the commander Agamemnon and his best soldier Achilles have a falling out over a girl taken as a war prize.
  • Hamlet – this is the story of how a Danish prince exposes his father’s murderer but also brings ruin onto his entire family as a result.
  • The Great Gatsby – this is the story of how a self-made millionaire uses his fortune to win back his old lover who has married into old money and respectability.

My novel is the story of two brothers, attorneys, estranged for 10 years over a death penalty case, who try to settle the score over a different death penalty case.

My Step 2 : Start taking notes.
This part of my process is essentially brainstorming. Kind of. Maybe brainstorming with a little critical thinking thrown in.

During real brainstorming you just throw out idea after idea after idea, with no censorship or editing. There are no bad ideas. It’s only after brainstorming is over that you can go back and critically evaluate what you’ve come up with.

When I take notes, it’s not really brainstorming, because I already know what my story’s about. I’m past the ‘no bad ideas’ phase. I do censor myself, and I can have stupid ideas (often), but I try to keep the ideas flowing. What I’m trying to do with my notes is discover the individual stories inside the larger stories. In writer jargon, I’m trying to find the themes (overall subjects or motifs) and the beats (plot points).

These notes take several forms, I usually start with a notepad where I write down what I’m thinking about the story. I keep this pad with me most of the time, but in a pinch I’ll use the notepad on my phone and then transfer to paper. I prefer to keep these notes handwritten, because writing forces me to slow down, which lets my idea settle into my brain. I find when I type things out they stay in my brain as long as it took me to type them, only a few seconds.

After a while – half a notepad or so – I’ll have enough to start making note cards. These are regular 3 x 5 cards, and, yes, I do use the analog ones, the kind you hold in your hand. Again, typing is not my friend here. I need my own handwriting. I need the cards, so I can arrange them and rearrange them, and discard them, and recover them. I’ll tack them to my cork board, I’ll spread them on the table or on the floor. The cards are as much a tool to me as a chisel is to a carpenter.

Step 3 : Turn the notes into an outline.
When I have what I think is a decent story – or a decent start, anyway – I’ll create an outline. This outline is not your standard I.A.1.a sort of outline. I’m not making assembly instructions. Rather, this outline is more of a mind map, Plot point is connected to character is connected to theme is connected to story arc, and so on.

Before I start an outline I always know where the story starts and where it ends. I usually know major parts of the middle. Most of the rest of the story – the meat and potatoes – comes up when I create the outline. With an outline I can see where the story is thin, or where I’m jammed up with too much junk, or where there’s a gaping hole when I thought I’d built a wall.

The most important concept here is that my outline is a living document. It’s not a rigid blueprint, it’s a web of relationships that the story emerges from. My outline changes over time.

I’ll leave off here, I’ll revisit this topic the next time I don’t have anything to do for my publisher.

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