Category: writing advice

First Book, First Chapter, Sixth Draft

I blogged yesterday about the first draft of the first chapter of the first book I ever took a real stab at. Today, I want to share what the first chapter looked like after I’d worked on it for a few years. This is from the sixth draft. (The last one I did.)

Right off, you’ll notice the biggest change: it’s actually in-scene. Early on I struggled with narrating too much. Instead of actually showing the action unfold, I would have my narrator talk about it unfolding. It’s like the difference between watching an episode of your favorite TV show and watching a character from your favorite TV show summarize that episode.

Being in scene is, generally, much better.

Other differences abound. As I recall, I lopped off a ton from the beginning of the book, so this probably takes place whole chapters later in the first draft. Real revision is like that. Huge, big, text-altering changes. It’s not spell checking or running a grammar check. It’s fixing the story and making it as good as possible.

Anyway. Hopefully this is interesting to you. Have a great weekend!

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Chapter One

Into the Elevator

 

Dad shook me awake. “Get up, honey—it’s time to go.”

The sun was already out—I had overslept. “Already?” I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.

“What do you mean already? I’ve let you sleep in an hour longer than I said you could. What time did you go to bed last night?”

The memory of the key adventure came rushing back. “I can’t remember,” I lied. “Can’t I sleep a bit longer?” We wouldn’t be going anywhere, anyway.

“Are you kidding? Come on. Out of bed, or else I’ll have Jacob come wake you up.” He smiled as he left the room.

That was playing dirty—threatening to turn Jacob loose on me. He’d probably try dousing me with water. I grumbled as I sat up, resigned to the fact that I’d at least have to get going, even if I didn’t have to go off to Magnifica. I didn’t change out of my pajamas—that would have required admitting this might work, after all. I had packed my bags last night before I had taken matters into my own hands. Now that things were taken care of, I could afford to be more casual. I slipped on some flip flops, put my hair up with a clip and went downstairs until the key was found “missing.” At the back of my head, though, there was a little voice asking if the key had won, after all. I was tired enough to ignore it.

Dad was running around like a madman—taking out the trash, making sure the dishes were done. We had an okay house, but it was known to have cockroaches. I lay down on the couch and tried to sleep some more until Dad came and prodded me.

“Jacob. Jacob!” Dad yelled upstairs to my brother. If I knew Jacob, he was upstairs trying to cram in some last minute time on the computer. He practically lived on strategy games—he claimed he was pretty good at them. Like I cared. What was the point in proving you were better than some machine? It wasn’t like he was going to be directing any armies any time soon.

After a few minutes—just enough time to shut down a computer—I heard Jacob come bounding down the stairs.

“Come on—we’re ready.” My dad prodded me again, and I opened my eyes. He had a sport jacket and tie on. On another man, they might have looked flashy and hip. On my dad, they emphasized his growing belly and lack of hair. He had put on weight since Mom’s death, and his hair was definitely not as dark as it used to be. He looked at me. “Aren’t you going to wear something more appropriate?”

“Come on, Dad—you aren’t actually going through with this, are you? I mean—trying to travel somewhere by elevator? Who do you think you are—Willy Wonka?”

“Oh get over it, Suze,” Jacob said from his corner of the room. “You’re a girl—why don’t you act like it?”

“Listen, Jake—I don’t need the whole feminine lecture from you again, alright? You can—”

“Enough you two,” said Dad. “In the car—no more questions.”

The next thing I knew I was sitting in the back seat in my pajamas, having not gotten ready at all and on my way to the Holiday Inn. This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. What had happened to the key?

“Uh, Dad?”

“Yeah?” He was right in front of me in the driver’s seat, and he looked at me in the rear view mirror.

“Do we have everything?”

“Sure do.”

“Everything everything?”

“Yes—I even made a list. We didn’t forget anything.”

“You have my suitcase?”

“Yes.”

“And my backpack?”

“Yes—and you should thank Jacob for hauling all that stuff out to the car for you.”

Jacob, up front in the passenger seat, turned around and stuck his tongue out.

I rolled my eyes. “Grade school, Jake—very. What would Tiffany say if your face stuck that way?” He was a year older than my fifteen, but he only acted it when he was around people he wanted to impress. I hadn’t been one of them since elementary school.

“What would you know, lazy? Next time I’ll throw your junk out with the trash.”

“Right.” I looked back at Dad. “You got the key?”

Dad paused for a moment and turned to Jacob. “Do you still have the key?”

Jacob sat there and looked clueless—he stuck to his strengths. “You didn’t give me the key.” He lay back in his seat and shoved his baseball hat down over his eyes. If he ever took the time to dress right, he might have had potential—as long as he didn’t speak. T shirts and jeans weren’t a great fashion statement, though.

We pulled up to a red light and Dad started patting his pockets. I relaxed and got ready to go back to sleep while he patted some more. The car was already back to speed when Dad said, “Of course. I put it on my key ring. You had me really worried there for a minute, Susie.”

My eyes shot open as I lunged forward to look around my dad’s chair at the ignition. There on Dad’s key ring, right next to the cheesy “I love reading” charm, was the golden key, shining gleefully despite its tarnish. And it was in one piece. Last time I had seen it, I had just finished sawing it apart.

“Whoa! Are you a little nervous?” Dad asked as I realized my face was practically right next to his.

Jacob elbowed me in the side. “Sit back, doofus—you’re waking me up.”

I leaned back, dejected. “Where—Where did you find it?”

“On the kitchen counter,” said Dad. “It took me a minute—I thought I’d put it in the bathroom. But there it was, right in the open. Isn’t that like me?”

I laughed weakly. “Go figure.” What was I supposed to do now? The Holiday Inn was about a half hour away, but with the key on the key ring, there was no way I was getting my hands on it. Even if I could, what would I do? Swallow it? It would reappear anyway.

Plan after plan went through my mind, each more outlandish than the one before. I could grab the keys from Dad’s hands and make a run for it before we entered the hotel. I could slam on the brakes now and throw the keys through a passing car window. Or I could get stuck in an elevator on my way to Magnifica. Which was the most likely possibility, assuming the key did its job. I could see the Holiday Inn sign peeking through the trees ahead.

The seconds rushed by, and I was still clueless. Worse yet, I was going to have to get out in public looking like some ogre in training. My hair was a mess, and I was in teddy bear pajamas. Pink teddy bears! Struggling with my dad in the parking lot over a key ring would make my crazy woman ensemble complete.

I felt like I was on a roller coaster, hearing the clinkety-clink as we got closer and closer to the top where all that waited was a big long drop to the bottom. And I wasn’t sure if there would be the invigorating swoosh back up once the bottom came. Dad opened the door and got out, Jacob right after him. I numbly got out myself, still conscious of how underdressed I was.  What in the world possessed me to buy let alone wear teddy bear pajamas? We unloaded our bags from the trunk, and I threw my backpack over my shoulder. I could run away and let Dad and Jacob deal with it, but the thought of my dad kicking back Prozac in the bathroom shattered that idea. He would need my support.

The automatic doors opened and closed behind us, and we made our way through the lobby, getting some weird stares from the front desk. They were used to people checking in first, I supposed. My dad pressed the up button, and I watched the digital numbers go down. 5 4 3 2 With a ding, the elevator doors opened to a green and tan, and we stepped inside. Now I could practically hear the sound. Clinkety clinkety. Dad got the key and looked for a hole. There it was, a janitor’s control below the button for the lobby. It was way too small for the skeleton key. This would never work—it was impossible. But so was a key reappearing and a package coming out of thin air. Dad reached over to put the key in.

“Wait!” I grabbed his hand, inches away from the keyhole.

“What is it?”

“We shouldn’t be doing this.” I was hysterical. “We don’t know—”

“Stop being silly—you’re imagining things. This probably won’t work anyway—that keyhole’s way too small. Here, look.” Dad shook free of my hand and touched the skeleton key to the hole. The metal around it seemed to melt and the key slid in as smooth as a knife into butter. Dad’s mouth dropped open and his hand jerked free from the key. It turned in the hole all by itself, and the button for floor 5 lit up. With a lurch the elevator started moving upwards. Clinkety clinkety—the top was getting near.

Even Jacob looked surprised by the recent turn of events—though he seemed more along the lines of the surprise you have when you open up a present and get an unexpected but long-hoped-for gift. Dad looked confused. Time seemed to slow down as we stared at the numbers—this time going up. 2. Clinkety clinkety clink. 3. I could stop this somehow. 4. I lunged for the key to take it from the lock, but it felt like my hand hit a brick wall inches before it could grasp the key. I cradled my arm to my body, surprised by the sudden pain. The elevator slowed down and halted with a jerk. 5. With a ding, the doors opened, and the noise in my head stopped.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Longfellow Writing Camp and a Reading Tonight

As I blogged a few months ago, I’m the fiction instructor at this week’s Longfellow Writing Camp. I finished my second day of instruction today, and it’s been a real blast so far. Class sizes are around 10 students, all of them high school aged. I’ve been impressed with how dedicated they are to improving and learning. They’ve been a talkative group.

I’ve had each group for three hours, and I’ll say that trying to get through an overview of fiction in three hours is . . . daunting. There’s a ton of material to cover, and I feel like I’m doing it with a fire hose. Part of me feels like it might be better just to focus on a couple of principles. Another part wants me to just blurt out all the stuff I can think of on the hope that different pieces of it will stick with different people, depending on what they need.

Either way, it seems like they’ve been having a good time so far. A ton of them really want to write fantasy, so I’ve had plenty to say about that. The trick has been keeping things broad enough for a larger audience. Next class period, we’ll be workshopping most of the time, so it should be a different approach then, that will be more tailored to each student. Should be fun.

And tonight, I’ll be doing a public reading as part of the camp. I’ve been thinking about what I want to read, and after talking to my students today, I think I’ll go with the first chapter of UTOPIA, most likely. They were all much more interested in hearing something they couldn’t hear anywhere else than they were with having me read something they could buy. Fair enough.

Though I do wonder how the writing will play out, narrated. The voice in that piece is so . . . unique. There’s a chance I chicken out and just do chapter one of MURDER CASTLE, instead.

We shall see.

In any case, if you’re in the area tonight at 7pm and want to come by the Emery Arts Center, please do!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Planning My Next Book

The time has come. I’m up to date with all my other projects, and so I’ve begun to turn my attention to the age old question of “What should I write next?” This will be my eighteenth book, if I finish it. (I’ve started five others that I never finished, though it’s been around four years since I did that. I’ve gotten better at finishing books the more practice I’ve gotten with it. I think it has to do with being able to identify a subject that I can make a good run at. The books that fell apart on me before just didn’t have enough substance to maintain an entire novel.)

In this case, I’ve got a good feeling about it. I’m excited to write the book, and really interested to see what will come of it. The topic? A middle grade steampunk western. I’m thinking something in the vein of Silverado, but with gearwork demons, Mormon kung fu missionaries, and an apprentice gearsmith on a quest to find her grandfather.

I’d actually initially planned this as an adult book, but after conferring with my illustrious agent, I discovered steampunk and adults just aren’t doing that well, from a market perspective. On the middle grade side however, it’s smoother sailing. Rather than turning me off from the idea, it intrigued me even more. What could I do with that same concept, but with a tighter, middle grade audience?

People always ask authors where they get their ideas. They come to me every now and then as cool what-ifs. I write them down. This book is actually going to be a sequel of sorts to the short story I wrote at the beginning of the year. (AN INCIDENT AT OAK CREEK, which will actually be coming to a short story anthology near you sometime in the future.) The short story is much more serious, and definitely aimed at an adult audience, just by subject matter and how I dealt with the material.

Once I have a kernel of a story idea, I start to flesh it out, thinking about what sort of conflicts would be interesting with that as the central conceit. Steampunk western, middle grade audience. Who might the characters be? I think through the various things I’ve read and watched to get a taste for what’s been done before. Westerns come in a few different flavors. Lone gunman comes to save a family or redeem himself. Scrappy group of ruffians save a town. Band of outlaws running from the law. That kind of thing.

I tumble through each of those ideas, one at a time, comparing it with the sort of book that’s itching the back of my mind, seeing which ones feel the most promising. Some concepts just appeal to me more, the same way I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla. Next, I turn to setting details. Where might this happen? Desert? Mountains? Remote? City? I do a bit of research into the time period to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not. Even in a book with gearwork demons, it’s important to have some concrete sense of reality. (More important, actually.)

I watch movies in the genre I’m approaching. It helps give me more ideas and get excited for the project. I start to write down plot points and highlights. Cool scenes I’d like to write. Then I begin to piece together those scenes in a rough outline that could make sense. That in turn calls for more details and more research as questions arise.

Once I’ve got all that done, I’ll write up a short summary of the book. Maybe two or three pages, keeping in mind overall length. (For this book, I’m going to shoot for 40,000-50,000 words, for example.) I’ll send that summary to my agent and have him pick it apart. Often there are ideas that seemed good in theory that he can identify as glaring problems long before I start actually writing. Better to avoid those early on. Once we’ve kicked the general concept back and forth and have it at a place we’re both happy with, I begin to write.

At that point, it’s all about word speed. I do 1,000 words a day, and so if the book ends up at 50,000 words, it’ll take me around two months to finish. During that process, I inevitably find things in the plot I didn’t like. Things that need to change. (Though I hope I’m doing better at avoiding throwing in random new things just because they seem cool. That usually takes me in places that just get too convoluted and unworkable.) Honestly, that first draft is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s what I look forward to the most. I feel most fulfilled each day as I find out what happens next. As I get to the know the characters better. Revising is important and great, but my biggest love is original composition.

So I’m really excited to be approaching that point again. Wish me luck!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

It’s Often Not about the Performance. It’s about the Competition.

I’ve been watching the Olympics since they started last week, and I was very excited to see Shaun White’s gold medal run last night in the half pipe, as I was to see Chloe Kim’s gold. We let Tomas and DC stay up late last night to see the final runs, and it was pretty riveting stuff.

As I was watching, I compared my investment in the event with the amount I was invested in the female halfpipe a couple of days ago. It was markedly different, and I wondered why that was. Kim and White both have compelling stories. There were strong reasons to root for both of them, but for Kim’s runs, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to see what would happen.

The difference, of course, is the competition. In Kim’s event, she was in the lead the whole time. She seemed like she had the rest of the field simply outclassed. Her first run was a 93.75, which put her in first place by almost eight points. The second round, someone came within four points of her, but by the third round, everyone knew she’d already won.

With White, his first run was a 94.25, only a bit above Kim’s. But there was someone in second place with a 92. Already, he seemed more vulnerable. That score didn’t feel as ironclad. Like Kim, White fell during his second run. But for White, someone stepped up and took first place. Suddenly, he was losing by a point. So when he went down for his final run, everyone knew he’d have to do better. Everything was on the line. Kim ended up with the higher score, but White ended up with the better story.

In writing, this is something that can be easy to forget at times. I’ll be working on a novel and trying to get the main character just right. I want them to be relatable and realistic. I want my readers to be invested in what happens to them. But often the solution to unlocking that isn’t found in the character at all. It’s found in the circumstances around that character. Who he or she is up against. The odds they’re facing.

Generally speaking, if you want the climax to be memorable, you don’t do it by adding more pyrotechnics to the scene. You don’t get it by having the main character be even more awesome. You do it by raising the stakes. Making the opponents stronger and more fearsome. Increasing the odds. The Miracle on Ice isn’t remembered because the favorites won. It’s remembered because the underdogs pulled off the upset.

And there’s your bit of writing advice for the day.

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Taking the First Step

Just a brief thought for you today. (At least, I think it’ll be brief.) I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the creative process, and we were discussing how hard it can be sometimes to take that first step. To actually begin working on whatever it is you’re working on.

This morning, I saw the same feeling arise in the construction process, as we try to decide how to proceed actually building the front steps. (So now we’re talking about the first step quite literally.) I’ve been looking at pictures of houses. Studying front steps as we drive by other homes. Watching videos. Reading articles. And at times, it all seems so clear. I’ll go outside and expect I’ll know just what to do.

Except when I go outside and look at where I want the front steps to go, suddenly there are a slew of questions and doubts. How deep do I need to dig? How wide should the stairs actually be? What will I really make them out of? Because when everything’s theoretical, it’s perfect. It’s this Platonic ideal of “steps” in my mind.

Taking things from that theoretical plane into the actual world is really tricky. You need to make actual decisions. Commit real money. And (what’s worse) make tangible mistakes.

I think that’s what causes me to hesitate more than anything. The fear of Doing It Wrong. And that’s true in the creative process as much as it is in the construction process. Doing something the first time is almost always the easiest. Fixing something done wrong can be really difficult, not to mention embarrassing. Because you’re spending more time fixing something you already spent a whole lot of time doing in the first place.

Of course, I don’t think about all the time I’ve wasted in that hesitation before I begin. That doesn’t seem to count, somehow. And so it’s easy to wait. To plan some more. To think things through yet again.

But sooner or later, you have to pick up that shovel and start digging. And if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Those stairs aren’t going to build themselves.

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