Book Editing: Round One

I finished Progeny about a month ago and let it sit. Last night, I read it from front to back for the first time since I wrote it. Technically I read it when I typed the longhand into Google Docs/Open Office/Word (long story about that), but this was the first time I just sat and read it like an actual book. It’s only 32,000 words so it only took a couple hours, but I gotta say, it was pretty fun. I can’t tell you the first draft of the book is awesome, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It’s shaky starting out, that’s for sure. The first chapter is the weakest by far. The first paragraph is complete garbage (already chopped!). It feels like I couldn’t wait to get to the main story so I just threw some stuff in there. Narrative small talk. But once the story gets rolling, it feels pretty good.

There are some typos, naturally, and a few missing words, but no problems in terms of spelling or grammar. That’s where the typing-after-writing stage really helps out. Makes me read it as I’m typing so I hear it when it sounds wrong. I have a thing about repeated words and I’m able to catch those at that time as well. The real problem is the pacing. I can’t tell if I just blasted through it to get to the end, or if it’s the right length for this story. OR maybe everything I write will be less than 50k words. Who knows? It’s possible that my impatient reading style that has dictated the length of Progeny.

Now I’m making notes and tying up loose ends. There are some ideas that I launched early in the book that never pay off. Reading through it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah. Where was that heading?” Some of these chapters were written a year ago so some of the third layer ideas kind of slipped away in the process. I’m making notes and trying to decide what to develop and what to scrap. Maybe an extra sentence would sew up an idea, but some of those things will need a lot more. Do I work on the more elaborate ones and try to better integrate them at the risk of watering down my favorite parts of the book? Or cut them altogether and risk having a story that lacks depth and dimension? That remains to be seen. We’ll see what the test readers say.

I’ll post the whole book here for free when it’s done. Hopefully by the end of the year.

Forking Ideas!

I’m over the one year mark on my first book. In that time, I’ve changed jobs, remodeled my house, traveled, taught classes, played Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, cleaned up surveillance videos for a private eye, shot a movie, edited part of that movie, and read a lot of books. Even so, I had plenty of time to work on Progeny. I can’t use time as an excuse for not being finished, even though it’s a handy one that I can reach from the couch. On average, it has taken me 3 hours to write a 2,000 to 2,500 word chapter. 16 chapters, 48 hours, right? Even if we double it and round it up to 100 hours, then calculate for 3 hours per writing period, then add a few for contingency and doubt, all I needed was 50 writing periods over the past year. I’m talking just for a first draft, not a polished version, but still, that’s barely once a week. Three hours once a week? Feels like I did a lot more writing than that. Why isn’t the book done?

This book is my first attempt at a long-form prose narrative. I can’t really call it a “novel” because it’s going to come up just over 30,000 words. I’ve seen charts where people call a novella anything between 20,000 to 50,000 so let’s call it that. The internet has also informed me that novella length is ideal for electronic publishing. A positive! And positives are important when venturing into a new personal frontier. When I start anything new (a script, de-hoarding project, etc), I want a lot of yes men around. People who are there at the launch of the ship. Thing is, support is easy to come by in the early going.

“Can’t wait to read your novel!”
“Novella.”
“What’s a novella?”
“Not as long as a novel. Ideal for electronic publishing.”
“Oh… Yay!”

But now it’s a year later, and people have stopped asking about the book. Actually, they stopped asking six months ago. Scratch support as a motivation to get the book done. But I can’t blame that, either. I’ve always preferred to work under the RADAR, then re-emerge with a first draft. Sometimes I reveal the completed draft to people who didn’t know I was writing it instead of the people who were asking about it way back when. It’s like refreshing the promise. If I give it to someone who asked about it last year, they’re not as pumped as those who never knew you were trying for it. But that hasn’t really affected me one way or another. Let’s do the numbers: chapters written in first six months = 4, chapters written since people stopped asking about the book = 10. So I don’t need external motivation, why isn’t the book done?

I’ll tell you why. All these forking ideas. Yes, I’m being funny. And yes, I’ve thought of all the other ways of using “forking” to hilarious effect. I will giggle each time I use it in a sentence, but the truth is, as I sit down to write Progeny, I get distracted by all the other stuff I want to write. A full year ago, I wrote this entry about managing ideas. I was really good about sticking to my “Not Main Idea Day” for a really long time. But in the past few months, I have not only had trouble with distractions from other ideas, but these ideas are splintering into more ideas. I feel like every time an idea forks, I end up with two or three different ideas that might even work together. Complicated! The whole concept behind Progeny is that it was simple, self-contained, and digestible for both reader and writer.

It’s gotta be anxiety. I’m anxious about finishing this book. I’m anxious about what to do next. I’m anxious about how much energy my new Dean of Education job is burning. All that anxiety is bad for focus. The only thing that has helped so far is reading. Reading helps me focus and reminds me of the satisfaction of completing something.

I read the first three Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books in the past month. Really good. Even if you don’t like fantasy (which is light in these books), they are great reading. The style is casual and immersive. Since then, I’ve tried to get into other books, but it’s obvious when the author is trying too hard. The description will be clunky and forced, the dialog is that times ten, and the plot is either overly elaborate or non-existent. Why can’t all books have the sustained tension and satisfaction of Game of Thrones? GRR Martin’s background in TV is evident. He can interweave multiple story lines and keep you reading. But that was with the first three books. It is said that he was stressed out writing the fourth book and it shows. Even though I’ve just started it, the style is different. The confidence and constantly-moving story is gone. In short, GRRM was anxious and his mind wandered. In the first four chapters, it’s apparent that he wasn’t focused on his story.

Am I comparing my skill to GRRM? No. But it does feel like a distant camaraderie has formed with someone who struggles the way I do. Read Feast of Crows and see if you agree. Then keep that in mind if you ever get the chance to read Progeny.

Buzzer Beater

I have mentioned before that I play in a men’s recreational basketball league with a bunch of (much younger) friends. A few Sundays ago, we were down by 2 with 15 seconds left and I made the tying shot in the lane with four guys hacking the crap out of me. Did I get the foul? No, the ref called travelling. There were so many people around me that he didn’t see that I dribbled. Even then, I only took one step! Disappointing, sure, but what happened next is what is stuck in my brain. They missed a free throw and we got the ball back. It was in-bounded to me. I shot-faked, dribbled left and popped a three. Missed at the buzzer. Just short. A shot I make probably 50% of the time. It felt great, right in line, just off the front of the rim. I make it, we win and I’m a hero, I miss it and everyone else wishes they had taken the last shot.

So why is it, after a whole game of flat play and missed shots, that it feels like the last shot made all the difference? The guys were all cool and didn’t hold it against me, but since then, I’ve had dreams where I made that shot. I wake up in the morning still aggravated that I missed it. In an effort to put some relevance on this thing so I don’t feel so absurd that I’m spending so much time replaying that shot in my head, I tried to find analogies in life for the last second shot. The buzzer beater.

Here’s what I came up with: the buzzer beater is the basketball equivalent of the overnight success. People love those stories. They love to hear that M. Night Shyamalan or Robert Rodriguez (old references, I know) showed up out of nowhere with a movie and hit it big. Same thing with the last second chance to win. It’s always a highlight on ESPN or on Youtube. There’s even blog space dedicated to the best buzzer beaters organized by NBA season. People like to think all success can be summed up in the last moment of the desired goal. Want to win the game? Hit the basket that puts you ahead. Think nothing of the exertion of the preceding 47 minutes and 59 seconds. Want to be the next JK Rowling? Or Darren Aronofsky? Just pull a kick ass book/movie/album out of your pocket.

I’m not treading any new territory in pointing out that success takes hard work and years of preparation, and that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is my personal problem: I look back and only identify the complete ideas that have gone nowhere. I just want to change the finish on them and receive the cheers. I dream about that final moment and what follows. Just like the game where I wish I had made the last shot. What I should be doing is evaluating the whole game and thinking about the accumulation of mistakes or lapsed effort and applying that to the next project.

A week ago, we were in another final second situation in the men’s league, but this time the opposing team hit the final shot and won at the buzzer. I could have put my arm up and contested it, but I had already realized the truth. The whole game had led to this moment. Make or miss, we didn’t deserve the win. Is that any way to think? My answer is no. That doesn’t work either. You can’t blame a loss on a missed last gasp, but you can’t pass up the chance to win, either. You must try. At every possible opportunity.