When you make a story of any kind, the beginning isn’t the beginning and the end isn’t the end. Any truly living story is just a slice of something much larger. I learned this lesson lately.
As I’ve begun the final edits of my novel, A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, I had decided to try writing short fiction on the side. I had many ideas, from using random stories to doing more in the setting of my novel. The idea seemed fun, interesting, different, and relaxing – and maybe profitable.
With my first attempt in draft form, I handed it off to some friends to edit, confident that if I could get such good reactions to my novel draft, this was sure to be of equal quality. However, one of my editors was extremely critical – he noted how it was constrained, limited, and it didn’t seem to be like my other work. How could I have gone so wrong?
At first annoyed, I sat down and analyzed his voluminous comments (this person is someone I’m trying to push towards pro writing and editing). Soon I realized that he had a point.
There wasn’t the sense of setting I usually created – I write on Worldbuilding but this world didn’t seem alive. There was little sense of extra details or of things going on around the characters. It was like a studio backlot.
I didn’t do much with character senses or feelings. The tale was limited and scriptlike, minimal on sensations. Even with the rather intellectual cast of my experiment, the focus was too literal.
Characters themselves seemed constrained – only when they really interacted were they characters. They also didn’t interact well with the setting. It was like actors wandering through a soundstage.
My story, in short, wasn’t alive. So I asked myself how did I get here – and the answer became very apparent.
I had taken a break from fiction for awhile, and returned to it with my novel. To do the novel I had used various plotting and outlining techniques, and I tried to do the same for the short story. I had produced a very detailed outlining system for short stories, ensuring I got to the point and didn’t overdo it.
I had built a skeleton for a story. However I’d put very little meat on the bones – the minimal at best. I had created a system, but not created much of a story, at least to my standards and that of my friend.
With this idea in mind, I examined some of my other short story ideas that had been incubating – and they felt much more alive. These were ideas that had been sitting around for some time, that were played with and thought over. Because of this imagining and re-imagining, they were more connected, more alive, more nuanced.
This story I had just attempted was the least thought-over and least nuanced. Too much of it was alienated from itself.
That’s when the lesson of all of this hit me like a thunderbolt – you don’t write a story, you write part of one.
A story should be a slice of your setting, a piece of the history of that setting, a small and interesting part of a much larger potential. It should have characters who are not sprung into being at the start, but are created and written so they feel like they have pasts and futures outside of your story. Everything should feel large, no matter how short the story is.
Now these things may not be immediately apparent – you may have a story idea and need to better realize the world and characters. You may only need so much detail. But you need enough for the story to be alive because it’s part of something larger, at least conceptually and imaginatively.
Based on this idea, I’m back at it. I can’t say what you may or may not see, but if you do see any short fiction from me, I think it’ll be much better.
As I edit A Bridge To The Quiet Planet to get it ready for my awesome professional editor, I reflected on what I went through to write the book. I see now this could have been faster if I hadn’t spent time editing as I went, chapter by chapter until the halfway point. In short, I actually aimed for quality too early.
At first this violated my expectations. Being into Agile, I figured that doing it piece by piece, making chapters available to prereaders, would result in better quality. It’s something I’ve read about authors doing before, and I’d read several articles on how instructional writing (which I’ve done for awhile) can be released in modules. Shouldn’t a story be something you can release chapter by chapter and get good feedback?
Now I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to make fiction available to prereaders in parts, but I’ve come to the conclusion that’s of very limited value. Here’s why.
Instructional and nonfiction works are often something we can break down – and indeed, should break down – into pieces that almost anyone could edit. Yes, some may miss context or seem borderline useless on their own, but nonfiction is often very modular. We process instructions, history, documentation, etc. in discreet chunks – we think step-by-step.
Nonfiction works are a lot like modular software or dishes where you can sample individual ingredients and get an idea of their combined taste.
But fictional works? They’re different.
Fictional works are much more of a whole. They’re intellectual and emotional and literary, requiring many modes of thought and feeling to appreciate them. They often have mysteries and callbacks and references – indeed, deception is part of some some fiction writing. Fiction is hard to evaluate apart from the whole of the work – to truly “get” it you need the whole experience a complete work. Finally, as fiction involves imagination, you often discover your work as you write it.
Fictional works are like software that requires a lot of code to be done before it functions or a crude alpha before it can be evaluated. They’re like a dish that you can’t appreciate until it’s done, or ones requiring careful tweaking to get “just right.”
I now realize that I could be delivering A Bridge To The Quiet Planet to you quicker if I’d decided, as opposed to editing chapter by chapter, I’d just run on and pushed myself to finish the thing and accepted it wasn’t perfect – maybe put out one or two chapters to get my groove. Now that I have a complete work, all the edits are far more richer, far more revealing, far more coherent – and much of my best edits were made when it was done and I could see the whole thing.
When I write fiction in the future, I think I need to accept that my initial effort is basically going to be like a piece of alpha software. Good planning and thought can make it a very good alpha, but my focus should be to get it done so I have enough to work from. Many things in fiction writing only become apparent once you have the whole picture.
Again, I don’t think this means you can’t put unfinished fiction up for review. I just think people need to accept the limits of such things – and ask what delivers the most value for them and the audience.
I also find this very satisfying to think of. I can accept that fiction starts imperfect because of all its factors and charge ahead, admitting it won’t be perfect. It’s just that when the imperfect version is done, the perfect version follows more easily.
(By the way that title took me forever to come up with so I hope you appreciate the attention to alliteration.)
(With NaNoWriMo coming up, let me give you a bit of a boost)
So you wrote a book. You self-published it or may self-publish it. It’s just that, down deep, you think it’s kind of crappy. Guess what, I don’t care if it’s crappy – it may indeed be crappy. I want you to know why this is great.
First, let me note that it’s probably not as bad as you think. The ability to see our work as awful is a blessing and a curse to writers, but I oft find writers suffer from low self-esteem over egomania. We just notice the egomaniacs who think their crap is brilliant as they stand out.
So, now that you have this manuscript you’re vaguely disappointed in, perhaps even published, let’s talk about what’s great about it.
What’s Generally Awesome:
Personality And Habits
So your book sucks. But you have a book, and that’s awesome!
(Remember I do all sorts of books on creativity to help you out!)
This one is a shift from the first book. The first book focused on a roughly linear set of advice on worldbuilding across various subjects. THis one is a series of collected deep dives on various issues, arranged a bit more freeform from the specific to the general. It covers conflicts, viewpoints, worldbuilding tools, and team effort – among other diverse subjects. It’s definitely a companion book to #1.
So give me a write, let me know if you want a PDF copy and let’s see what you think!
Well it’s not generator related, but it is creativity related, and ties into Scott’s considerable work – my first pop-culture book, co-authored with my good friend Bonnie, is out!
It’s called Her Eternal Moonlight, and is a look at female Sailor Moon fandom in North America. It was pretty interesting to study this; interviewing people, finding common patterns, then communicating it as a book. It definitely gave me a lot of insights.
It’s also getting reviews here and there, and we’re also discussing it on podcasts:
Now with that done, maybe it’s time to get to some generators and creative writing – but there is going to be another study coming up starting next year . . .
If you’re new to the book, it’s a giant guide to worldbuilding, from philosophy of setting creation, to sex, to ecology, and more. There’s advice, exercises, several lame jokes, and some insights that should give you a different view on creating your settings. It’s designed to be a manual for the important points of making a setting.
After some sixteen years, this is the next stage in my efforts to bring this old work to life! First rewrites, now books. It’s fantastic to see this journey turn into something physical people can hold in their hands!
Certainly it’s not done yet – there’s one more book to drop in November/December (probably December). There’s some smaller followup work. But this marks that transition to the new formats.
My mind still goes back to, when in the midst of the rewrites, someone told me how they’d printed my old columns out when they were younger. It had mattered to them that much, and they remembered it that well. That turned my efforts into more of a mission.
Mission isn’t over yet. Book two drops in November/December (probably December honestly). There’s some followup works I want to do.
But today I can note the next stage of Way With Worlds has started, and it has printed pages and the smell of paper, highlighted with fond memories.
So go on, take a look. There’s thoughts on sex and religion, characters and ecology, and of course plenty of philosophy. In this age, where anyone can put out book or a comic, good worldbuilding is needed more than ever – and is where you can stand out.
Been awhile since a Way With Worlds Update! So let’s find out where we are on my essays-rewritten-and-now-a-book on worldbuilding.
First, there’s a web page for the first book that gives you some idea of what I’m up to. You can also see the sample cover art – and you’re going to love the final cover!
I also got the book back from my editor. My editor is a “word of God type editor” – when it’s edited it’s done. So I spent an entire day going through her edits for the first book. After about ten hours of work, I have a book that is mostly ready for publication. One more read through and it’s ready for publishing (which itself is going to take a few months).
This brings up a really good lessons – there are several kinds of editors and you have to know how to work with them. Some are like a friendly guide with advice. Others are the Word Of God. Yet others are instructional. Each is different and you have to figure which works for you, your works, and your goals.
For instance, these books, though being creative and chatty are instructional. I needed a Word Of God editor on them.
On the other hand, some of my more intimate career books need a lighter touch as an editor. They’re chatty and friendly.
My upcoming Sailor Moon book has yet a different editor, a fansourced editor with an academic background and a fandom background, which seems perfect.
Now there’s also been a few schedule changes, so let’s recap!
I think you folks are going to love the books. It’s really my near-final word on Worldbuilding, and there’s a wealth of worldbuilding advice.
Well back to discussing how I write, and we’re to the end – the publishing part. Simple, right? Not really.
Publishing could almost be multiple posts but I don’t want to bore people in the wrong way. So before I cover the parts, lets cut to the point here – publishing your book after the writing, after the editing, is something not everyone can do on your own. You’re going to need help somewhere unless you’ve got the right experience.
Even after plenty of practice, I don’t have all the skillsets.
About half my covers are done by other people. This is because, beyond my basic business books, the style I’m capable of (Genially Boring Professional) doesn’t work. In fact, I’m probably going to do enhanced editions of some books I have done covers for at some point. Because yeah, I could do better, and I’m sure you can think of which ones.
So first, I ask if I can do a cover on my own, in my style.
Let’s say the answer is yes. This is almost inevitably the case for my smaller business books and ebooks. In this case, I’ve got some basic approaches to covers I’ve used over the years that are pretty successful. In fact I grab the latest cover and mostly repurpose it for my next book.
In some cases I’ll want art. I try to avoid public domain and any art where the ownership is at all a problem, out of ethics and a desire not to have issues. For new art I got to www.canstockphoto.com which has great deals. I’ve seen other self-publishers use it, which both speaks to its stock, and warns you to make sure you search Amazon for any similar covers.
Once it’s done I take the cover and run it by some friends and writer’s groups and the like, see what people think, modify it, and done. Again this is often ebooks.
Now if the cover needs to be custom art . . .
In this case I tap the artists I know. Usually that means Richelle Rueda as of late, and she, like any, is a person I fan-sourced – meeting people via fandom connections. Meeting someone that way lets you see them in a more artistic, playful, personal element and you get a better feel for who they are and what they do. And yes, consider that a reference for Richelle.
I always pay artists. Exposure is bullshit payment in many cases, so hand them cash or trade in kind unless they offer. Art takes a long time.
I actually have the skills to format the cover, do the back, etc. You can probably develop those skills, but don’t be afraid to outsource that as well. Like, say, to the artist you just paid . . .
Formatting the book for publishing is something I do on my own – because it saves time, because it’s a good skill to have. I learned formatting the hard way – by doing it and having to waste money on failed prints and times on failed e-books. After a few tries I’m not only better, but it’s one more thing I can do myself
Formatting for me has two paths.
First is general formatting. I go through and make sure that the titles are properly done, that the bullet points are in place, and that the page breaks are right. This is stuff that’s relevant to doing the book right no matter what the format. Its surprising how many mistakes can get made – once I had inconsistent titling capitalization on a 300 page book – and I didn’t find that until the printed drafts. I often roll this formatting into read-throughts.
Now it gets interesting. When I’m very (very) sure the book is in good shape I split it into print and ebook (if there’s both)
First is a document formatted for print. This can be pretty challenging as I have to format it so pages break, pages face the proper sides, paragraphs split (or don’t split), and so on. It’s amazing how having to make a document physical affects how you perceive it. Also if you don’t get this right you spend a lot of time reprinting the damn book.
Secondly is a document formatted for e-publishing. I use Jutoh, which is good for all formats – but recently I’ve gone Kindle exclusive. Kindle kinda won the e-pub war and I surrendered, but I still use Jutoh because it’s a damn good tool.
Formatting an electronic document is way different because you face:
I split the books, and then edit one at a time – but I keep them both available because, while formatting, I often find errors. I then correct it in both documents and often the original documents, because I’m anal retentive as hell.
It used to be worse when I did Kindle, ePub, and PDF as I’d have to keep one doc for physical, one doc that became Kindle and ePub, and one for PDF. It was bad enough I think I repressed it.
So the formatting phase becomes pretty extensive as I basically split the books, then format the physical (and add changes to the other doc), then format the electronic document – and sometimes feed changes back to the previous. It turns into a nasty little oroborous of problems at times.
Finally, I give the physical doc a good look through. Then it’s on to pre-publishing this stuff . . .
I go through CreateSpace for physical books now, and Create Space, much like Lulu, lets you set up a book and publish it – without making it available. You can send yourself a copy for approval. Which, I assure you, you’ll want.
While I wait on that to get delivered, I generate the electronic copy of the book. This is where it gets complex again. See people read ebooks on various devices, so I usually generate it then check it on:
You have to consider use cases for your ebook to make sure it works for your audience – and putting it on various devices often reveals problems. Bad formatting, poor flow, an extra space, all become apparent. It’s a good test to make the document readable (and you may find additional errors).
Then at some point the book arrives, and I go through that. With a pen. I mark every page with an error, folding the page down, and underlining what’s wrong. I usually go through the entire book – then fix it in the publishing document, and at ties the e-book document. Sometimes there’s even issues with the cover you have to fix.
Then it’s running both over again, ordering another copy of the print book, and regenerating the eBooks. I’ve had to do the print book over four times at some point (note, that is due to rushing formatting so half that was my own damn fault).
Once it’s good enough (meaning I can make a pass through both without seeing an error or at least one I care about by that time), it’s a go. I upload the eBooks and I give confirmation the physical book is OK.
By the way, by now the feeling isn’t so much triumph as relief.
Publishing is often my least favorite part of doing a book. OK it is my least favorite part. This is why I try to get good formatting done early (I use templates for my books), finish covers, and check carefully. Once you get into this publishing cycle of actually getting the book out it can feel like a hideous grind.
It is a hideous grind, who am I kidding.
At this point I’d take a break, but there’s usually marketing to be done. I’m not going to write on that for awhile as I kind of am not great at that. Perhaps when I get further i’ll talk about it
But there you go, how I write. I hope it helps.
. . . I kinda feel exhausted at this point.
All right, so where are we in this extended discussion of how I write my books? We just covered how I edit my wordspew and it’s time to talk editing.
After revising and revising and revising, my book is eventually “good enough” to be edited. By good enough I usually mean a mix of “this is good” and “oh god I’m sick of this, I’m gonna stop now.” The latter is usually more prominent than I’d like, but anyway I’m at least at a stopping point.
When I refer to as editing, there’s sort of two kinds I lump under “Editing” because they’re really intertwined.
Before I go into how I do this, there are times I don’t do any editing beyond my own writing. At least in the past. Let’s take a look at that, if only for confessional purposes.
Let me repeat – this is when I don’t have others edit. I still edit the hell out of my own work, even if poorly.
So first of all, I don’t think you should avoid having your work edited. If at all possible, someone should at least pre-read it. However there’s a few cases I can see someone not editing, which I’ve done or at least think I did:
I’ve done two published works this way (and hope to revise them with editors and pre-readers when I can). It can work.
But I don’t recommend it. But hey, I gave you an out, and you can always say “but Steve said.”
Now anyway, on with editing.
I didn’t always use pre-readers – originally I only did when a book had a lot of interviews and I used them as pre-readers. In time I found that pre-readers were invaluable for insights.
See, a pre-reader isn’t an editor in the traditional/specific sense and that’s good. A pre-reader is a reader. They are not there to edit a book for language and punctuation, even when they do because they can’t resist. They’re they’re for content and flow.
They’ll catch things an editor won’t because an editor, no matter how much they read, is still editing. You really do need both. Plus it takes a little pressure off your editor – “Can you edit my terrible abuses on language and tell me if this meticulous battle scene makes sense?”
Secondly, a good pre-reader thinking as a reader can give you feedback on your book to help it become a better book. They can tell you how it can be more consistent, better organized, and so on. In turn it won’t just be a better book – that will make the book a hell of a lot easier on an editor. A book that reads easy, even with flaws, allows an editor to go to town as opposed to being stopped by confusing twists or ill-explained concepts on top of Oxford comma arguments?
How do I handle pre-readers?
Thats about it. Find, send, wait, integrate.
After the pre-reader feedback I usually do another pass through the book. then it’s off to the editor
First of all when you get something edited to publish professionally, make sure they’re professional.
That may not mean they’re a professional editor. It means they have professional-quality skills relevant to what you’re doing. It could be from writing their own novels, it could be editing fanfic for ten years, it could be an experienced technical writer. Just get someone who can edit for what you’re doing.
I like to fansource, finding editors through fandom and geeky connections. They “get” me, I often get a break on price, they get their name on a book they like, I act as a reference, everyone wins.
I usually give an editor 1-3 months depending on the complexity of the work and their schedule. It also gives me a nice break, and sometimes while waiting I do extra formatting or setup for publishing. Or write another book.
When I get the edited document back, I don’t use that document to make the final book – I read through it, page by page, integrating comments and changes into a new copy master document. That forces me to read and pay attention, and makes sure I don’t end up with a book laden with things I forgot to address, remove, or change.
This part usually takes at least a month. My goal, when it’s done, is to have it done.
So once that editing run is done, I do one more spellcheck and grammar check, and read through the book (yes, again). If I find any errors, I fix them – and run that check again.
At this point, having done so much editing, I use that previous trick of reading parts out of order just to keep myself fresh.
My approach is to read it through. If anything changes in the small I fix it and re-read that chapter. If there’s any large change, I re-read the book from the start, or at least skim. I’m done when I do a pass through and didn’t change anything.
Then it’s one more spelling/grammar check. Then it’s done
So with the book edited – pre-read and edited properly – and with my final read-through’s its done. Ready to go.
It’s time to publish.
And let’s get back to How I Write with me, Steve. Who Writes. This. And books. But also this post. Er. Anyway, you get the idea.
So to recap I’ve covered how I write up to the point of actually writing. It was basically:
By the time this is done I have a well-outlined book that is written by a mixture of gut, heart, imagination, and desperation. The outline provided guidance so the book “works” – in that it reaches a goal – but the results are often less than stellar.
In short, my first draft is usually very first and much draft. It’s often done with surprising speed, but it’s really not that great. That means my next step is re-writing.
I hesitate to call this editing since my re-writing is not that subtle an exercise. Sure, I often have content thats in better shape than it sounds when I call it “word vomit” – but at best it’s not polished, and at worst parts of the content only worked in my head. So it’s time to go through and re-write it because sometimes it changes massively.
Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Usually.
So my first pass on rewriting the book is the most intense. I go through the book, in order (so I can keep the big picture), and work on:
Sometimes you have to re-outline chapters or sections in the first pass – and my advice is when you can, do it. I’ve saved “re-outlining” for later review cycles and it was incredibly painful because so much of the book had “solidified” that changing it was like adding onto a house. If you have to make major changes, do it first thing or it will be harder later (and may reveal hidden mistakes).
A first pass can sometimes take as long as writing the book in the first place. There’s no shame in this – really it’s just another part of “writing.” You’re rarely going to get it right the first time.
So after the first pass, what do I do?
After your first pass, I take a break from the book. Sometimes a few days, sometimes a week or more, but I try and step away. I usually need it.
Why? Because familiarity breeds not only contempt, but sloppiness.
I can get to know a work too well, and then I start seeing what’s in my head, not what’s on the page.
I can get tired and want to just “get through” the re-writing – so I rush it. This always comes back to bite me.
I also need a break.
So I rest. I do something else. I blow up some enemies in Team Fortress 2. Then I’m back at it with a new perspective.
Usually after a first pass the book is in pretty good shape. It may not be “book like” but it’s “sort of a book.” That intensity in outlining, that instinctive writing, that careful review pays off so later passes are less painful. If you think about it the book had a solid idea, a solid outline, a massive dump of information, and a later shaping of that information into something clear.
Its usually pretty good – but I always have to make that second pass.
On the second pass I’m focusing on concepts and communication Did I really say what I want? Is the order right? Are things clearer? Does the book do it’s job? Is it really what I planned?
If I planned well and re-wrote well, the second pass isn’t so bad – it may even be easy to do – and it’s easy to spot problems. By now the book is polished enough my mistakes are obvious. Here I can correct them if I didn’t get them a first time.
In some cases, I may have to re-work a section. When I’m on to the second pass, I do not do the re-working as a “vomit draft.” I take a much more craftsmanlike approach – taking my time, editing as I go, etc. At this point since most of the book works, trying to ram ahead and dump a bunch of writing in can throw you off.
The only exception is if a section or chapter has to be completely rewritten – then I may re-outline it, dump it, and edit it separately.
Also at the end I usually run a spellcheck and grammar check, for my sake and for those who may soon see the draft . . .
I may have to make other passes if the book doesn’t “feel” done or if I keep finding mistakes and thus assume I’ve missed even more. I keep going through it until it’s done right – often three to five passes.
Looking at a book over and over again can make you miss problems, however – again one can end up reading the book in their head, not what’s on the page. So here’s how I mix it up:
I keep going until it’s done. Speaking of, what is done?
So at some point I’m done (usually about 3 passes in, sometimes 5). I consider it “a book.” That is done by the standard of:
So what’s next? Editing. Where the book goes to someone else who then promptly tells me everything I screwed up.