Writing Miasma turned into a huge learning experience. There are some things I am changing for my next story. Some of them are small, and some quite significant. These are the truly vexing issues I wrestled with on Miasma:
Beginnings: If a writer picks up a craft book, the one common piece of advice in every one of them is that we all tend to start our stories too early. From the earliest time on, I read things like, “Cut the first 50 pages to find your beginning” and “Start with the story.” Where other people started 10K ahead of where they were supposed to be, I started 30K+ after where I was supposed to start. Setup came into the story anyway — forced its way really — and crowded other things like themes and subplots out. When I was going through the revision, I even found setup at the end of the story. I discovered that I have a really hard time figuring out where the story should start, and that’s the one thing I need to pay the most attention to.
The second vexing item turned out to be structure. That’s not a topic we find much in craft books. There’s a few that discuss it — one preached about outlines to get structure and was condescending to non-outliners, and another focused more on the detail level, which is one of my weaknesses. After much searching, I finally found something that clicked for me, and it was patterns. I just needed to know what the pattern was of the structure, and I could rearrange scenes to make them fit the pattern and add related scenes (yes, I write weird!).
Next up will things I’m going to do differently on the next project.
Since 2011 is coming to an end, here’s a list of my long-term goals and short-term goals for the coming year. I’ve read about goals, both in business training and from my recent Self-Publishing class from Bob Mayer. Goals should be measurable, so that it’s easy to tell if progress is being completed.
Long-Term Goal (5 Years)
- Sell a million copies of books. I thought about “Be a best-selling writer,” but there isn’t a definition of what “best selling is.” Each of the lists is calculated differently, and not always by any metrics.
Overall goal: Finish 3 books by the end of 2012 (Miasma, Hunger, and Hunted). This is extremely aggressive because of problems I’ve had with getting the stories to work (Miasma was started in 2008). To accomplish this goal, I have been rethinking both my creation and revision process.
Each of the books has the steps broken down:
- General research on setting and major elements only before I started writing the book. On Miasma, I spent a considerable amount of time researching auctions for one scene, and the scene was deleted in the final draft. At the same time, I didn’t research the setting, and I ended up doing that in final draft.
- Assemble list of at least 75 last names based on setting before I start writing. During Miasma, if I needed a last name. I stopped writing to hunt for a name. That took considerable time out of the story, and I ended up tossing a lot of characters in the final revision. The last name list uses obituaries, so it can be done a little at a time over months and easily reused for a future story in the same setting.
- Finish first draft.
- Do a fast-pass edit of the first draft. I don’t outline, and my creativity is a lot like throwing paint at the wall. Ideas don’t always come in the right order, and sometimes what comes in obviously shouldn’t be there. This was never more clear on Miasma where I had stubs for over 50 subplots (mostly a paragraph or a sentence), and it interfered with figuring out what was wrong with the story. So a fast-pass editing is sort of like a quick dusting to clean up to make the revision easier.
- Revise the novel in one draft. I spent a lot of time in Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel Course learning new things to make this work. I will also be taking Bob Mayer’s writing course in January for more take aways.
- Do a fast-pass edit of the final revision. The stuff still creeps in there!
- Do a through edit.
- Get professional edit done.
- Proofread, proofread.
Attend four science fiction conventions by the end of 2012 to understand how to leverage for book promotion. I’ve identified about ten, five of which are local. The first is in mid-January. The deciding factor has been cost and distance.
Identify three more books to be waiting in the dugout. Have two already: Aurora and A Soldier’s Diary.
What are you goals for 2012?
One of the thing that never makes it in books that are set in Washington, DC, is the traffic. Anyone who lives here knows it’s not only a way of life — there’s a culture associated with it. Residents know that it’s best to avoid downtown during Cherry Blossoms, White House Easter Egg Hunts, and floods. Traffic goes from bad to very, very, very bad. Summer is also bad because the tourists get stupid and walk out in the middle of the street without looking. Then there’s the messenger bikes — these guys do not stop for stoplights or cars. They just weave in and out of the moving traffic.
Part of the problem is that we have a transitory population. There’s a large military community, so they’re only here 1-2 years; ambassadors and foreign diplomats; politicians. Then there’s the guy who immigrated from another country where it’s okay there to cut across three lanes of traffic to make a right turn. There are also drivers who will speed up to avoid letting another driver in and ones who will cut in line because they have an inflated sense of self-importance. All of this creates chaos because no one is following the same rules.
So I have to shake my head when an author has a high speed chase down 17th Street. Or anywhere else in DC. L.A., yeah, I could believe that. The streets are long and wide, but DC — the streets just aren’t exactly chase friendly. Maybe Pennsylvania Avenue and Independence, but it’d be pretty hard to do without hitting a tourist.
What are some unique aspects about the place where you live?
Also check out my post on Planning Washington, DC.
I’d finished it in May of 2010 and started submitting it to agents. But there was a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right, and I was admittedly uncomfortable with the fact I’d had to do every workaround imaginable to get the word count to 80K. It wasn’t until an agent gave me personal comments, that I realized there were profound problems with the story.
Some were caused by my trying to bring up the word count. Because I’d had to fight my way to the word count, I’d focused too much on numbers and not enough on good story. But there were other problems, like me not being able to develop any subplots. The story also felt off for reasons I couldn’t pin down. The two things I knew for sure was that I needed to identify the problem, and that if I didn’t, I would continue to repeat it everything I wrote.
On Thanksgiving Day last year, I happened to visit Holly Lisle’s site and saw her How to Revise Your Novel course. There was a section on subplots. I figured that if it could help me solve the subplot problems, it would be worth the money. (Holly is planning on releasing the lessons as an eBook.)
And I went over the novel, following the lessons. I could see how much the details and trying to pump up the word count had messed up the story. But when it came to subplots, I didn’t have any. I just had stubs — sentences here and there that might hint at a subplot. There was something like forty different ones. Then I got to theme, and everyone kept telling me I just wasn’t seeing it. But the truth was, I didn’t have one either. And the answer to the problems I was having remained very elusive. It wasn’t until I got to lesson ten, when I connected the conflict when the problem suddenly revealed itself. Second half of the story worked pretty well, but the first half, just didn’t connect. And with it came the realization that, in all the writing advice that said, “Start with the action,” I’d managed to start the story too late. My original beginning is now 130 pages into the story. The result of starting too late was that the story setup still came in, just in the wrong place. I was even getting it at the end of the story. So it was crowding out the theme and the subplots.
I spent a lot of time on the beginning, trying to get it to be in the right place. Eventually, the story seemed to be coming together.
And then I realized it was running too short again. What could I do? I still wasn’t able to get subplots into the story, though I figured it was the type of story I was doing. So I added a second plot (Clive Cussler actually has 6 plots in each of his stories!). But as I continued writing, the story was starting to overcomplicate itself again. That second plot. At the same time, Holly announced that she was going Indie, and I started looking at that. Indie books don’t have word count requirements like traditional publishing does. So I decided to let the word count go. With that, I took out the second plot and combined some of the action scenes into the main story. Whew! Story uncomplicated itself and the bumps started smoothing out.
Then I took Bob Mayer’s Self-Publishing Options class and identified my platform. That led to the addition of a subplot in the last two months of the writing of the story. I also still felt like something was off, but now I started to get that there was a problem with the structure. I researched a few sites and found something that made sense to me. I started rearranging scenes — that pesky beginning again — and moved a major scene out of the front of the book to make it the Mid-Act Crisis and the book began to really come together.
Next up is to do a Style Sheet in preparation for the editing phase.
I’m finishing up the final draft of Miasma. I learned a lot about my writing on this book. Miasma was seriously messed up when I started on Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel one year ago Thanksgiving. It was so bad that I was stumped through most of the class, trying to figure out what the problem was.
Some things I learned along the way:
Word Count Goals: I’ve had a history of running too short, resulting in a bad relationship with word counts. I spent so much time doing workarounds to get the word count up and focusing on the number that I lost the story. I made the most progress with the revision once I decided to let the word count go — it’s going to be around 60K, which means I’ll be going indie. Word count goals are out. I’m still thinking about other options to show progress. I’ve had great fears of being under contract for a book and running too short. It’s a major fix that takes a lot of time.
Details: For years, I thought I was detail-oriented. Turned out I was over compensating for my not being detail-oriented. The details vomited themselves all over Miasma, so bad that it was hard figuring out what to revise. It’s not a matter of me creating a spreadsheet and tracking the details; rather, I can’t tell when I’ve used too many, so the solution has been to let as few get in as possible. A style sheet during the editing process will help make sure what’s in there is consistent. I will likely trim more details in the editing.
Part II will be the vexing things that I learned during the course of the story.
What new discoveries have you made with your writing?
One of the most fascinating things I discovered in researching Hawaii as a basis for my fictional country in Miasma is that there was a unique culture that developed there. The Hawaiians loved being out of doors–no surprise, considering how beautiful the islands are. The Hawaiians believed that gods were in everything around them, and their worship was conducted in open air temples. There were two types:
Simple: This temple consisted of an altar, consecrated images, and a raised platform. The “consecrated images” are the tubular images Hawaii is famous for. There’s some great photos of them on Travelographer.
Complex: This type of temple includes all of the above, plus a refuse area, burial grounds, and oracle towers. The tower might be 20 feet high and covered with kapa, which is a type of cloth made in Hawaii. Since these were more elaborate, they were often built at the direction of a powerful chief who could recruit the people to do it.
After reading up on the culture, I could easily imagine the Hawaiians setting up a temple near a waterfall like my picture to worship the god that made it. Or certainly, in my case, the people of my fictional country!
What imaginary travels have you found in your research?
Also check out my other posts on this setting for Miasma:
Sometimes it’s tough finding books that have a heroine part of the adventures — it’s even tough finding ones with men! Action-adventure isn’t about having a major battle scene at the end of the story–it’s a major component of the story. That being said, here are three books that women or girls looking for adventures will enjoy as a Christmas gift:
Green Rider, by Kristen Britain. This was such a good book that it was an instant reread for me. The heroine of the story accepts the duty of delivering a message for her country and ends up on her own with bad guys in pursuit. The author has three more books in the series, with the most recent one, Blackveil, just out. What drew me to this one: The cover. Girl on a horse, clearly running from danger.
Lady Knight series, by Tamora Pierce. The main character wants to become the first female knight. The series takes us through the different stages of the character going through training, all with action. The third book in the series, Squire, is my favorite. But I hate the new covers–they don’t convey a different image of the books than what they actually are.
Open Minds, by Susan Kaye Quinn. Spotted this one through a cover contest. The cover was a draw, but the title, not so much. In a society where everyone communicates telepathically, the main character finds out that she has a talent for jacking minds — and uncovers a government conspiracy. The book starts rough — too much repetition, but gets much better after all the setup. This is the first book in a series.
Any titles you can recommend?
Also check out my post on What Makes a Good Action Scene?
Arlington National Cemetery is likely to be the setting of at least one scene in my next book Hunger. So a trip was in order to experience the cemetery. I’d been before, but it was during summer and crowded with tourists. This time it was late November.
The most memorable thing: the sounds. I went right when the cemetery opened and the tourists hadn’t arrived yet, so the sounds stood out. It started with a suffocating quiet, as if someone were pressing a hand down on the place for silence.
Then the sounds came through, one at a time:
The buzz of a leaf blower.
The wind ruffling the leaves in the trees.
Water spraying against concrete.
The clack of the soldier’s shoes as he pivots in a right face.
A child’s cry as she bounced down some stairs ahead of her parents.
Then the bark of rifle volleys. One. Two. Three.
The Star Spangled Banner.
The soft footfalls of rain.
Also check out my blog on the 21st Anniversary of Desert Storm: Women at War.
In Miasma, one of the characters is a curator, so I had to dig up what happens behind the scenes at a museum. Thousands of visitors go through our Smithsonian Museums in DC every day, and they have no idea all the things that happen before the museums open. Some of the jobs:
Art handlers: They take down paintings and hang them, but they also have a morning round dusting the art with either feather dusters, cloth diapers, or soft brushes. Because they look at the art every day, they also carry around a notebook and make notes on any changes they see. Can you imagine them checking the dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History?
Lamper: An electrician who changes the light bulbs. It doesn’t seem like a big job, but the National Gallery has 8,000 lights! Some lights are also adjusted to to best show off a particular piece of art. There’s a statue of a chubby angel at the museum where the lighting was arranged so that the neck didn’t look quite so short. Now every time I go into the museum, I also look at the lights to see how they’re being used to highlight the art.
Bracket Maker: This guy makes claws and clips that hold the art in place. These are very carefully concealed so no one viewing the art can tell. But they are also very sturdy — after our earthquake in Virginia, I wondered how the museums fared. The only damage was to unsecured artifacts in the backrooms.
It’s hard to believe so much goes on that we never see!
What’s the best art museum you’ve been to?