Thursday, December 29, 2011


My script is perfect.  It comes out beautiful and flows like spring water on a crisp morning.  Since I wrote it, I'm certain everyone will enjoy it as is, and that there's no reason to go back through it at all.  Right?

I used to think this way, I really did.  It was conceited, arrogant, and showed a distinct lack of maturity, but it was also the truth.  Surely, I thought, I mastered the craft on the first telling - going back and reworking any of it would be a sign of weakness, and my writing definitely wasn't weak.

In my second novel, Salvation Day, I worked very hard to create a certain atmosphere.  I just knew that if I cut anything, it would hurt the mood I so carefully crafted.  However, after coming back to it several months later, I was shocked to discover just how much extraneous fluff there was.  The novel came out to 176,076 words, so I started going through it and cutting out adjectives and adverbs that were redundant(sprinted quickly?  really?  that just makes me sound like an idiot).  Before I knew it, I'd cut over 25,000 words.  I put it away and came back to it again a few weeks later, convinced that I'd cut to the bone.

Again, to my utter shock, I found still more fluff that detracted from the novel.  It took some more work, but I cut an additional 8,000 words before that chop was through.  I later went back through with a fine tooth comb, rewriting a few passages here and there and managed to hack off another 2,000 words.  Salvation Day is now around 140,000 words, and although it might still be too much for a first novel from an unpublished author, it makes for a more comfortable read(I'll get it out after my first or second one is published).

With Akeldama, I decided to try the same take I'd done with Salvation Day.  My editing process will surely evolve with time, but it works for the moment.  The first thing I did when I completed the work was to put it away for a month.  I didn't read it, didn't pop it up to relive my brilliance, didn't even bring it up to make sure it was consistent.  That gave it time to settle so I could relook at it with fresh eyes.

I liken the first cut to hacking off large chunks of meat with an axe.  This is the initial butchering of the cow and it isn't neat or precise.  Akeldama was just over 132,000 words, and I went in with a goal of cutting about 100 words per page(it was at 246 pages of size 10 Arial font, which is what I like to initially write with).  I was unsure that I'd be able to cut that much since I was certain my skills had grown since I wrote Salvation Day, but I picked up another lesson in humility when I found that I could easily hack away without losing effect.  Yes, I rewrote some of it here, but I mostly focused on removing adverbs and adjectives that just didn't belong, as well as other stuff that made no sense in a paragraph.  I felt I needed to get it under 100,000 words to have a prayer in hell of an agent looking at it, and I was pleasantly surprised when I got to the end and found I'd eliminated almost 26,000 words(it now sat just under 107,000).

I put it away and intentionally didn't look at it again for another month.  The next time I went through I was trimming away fat.  Here, I needed precision to carve up the ribeye.  More things got the boot, while still others were re-worded("speaking in a low tone" became "muttering," and so forth).  I cut another 8,500 words and got well past my word count goal.

I put it away again for two weeks or so.  The next time I went to it, I read it for pleasure.  I wanted to make sure the story flowed and set the right tone, so I read it the way I would read any novel.  When I came to an awkward sounding passage, I reworked it.  When something felt like filler, I removed it.  The biggest thing I did was to remove the "telling" of things and tried to "show" more(instead of "Seth was nervous," it became "Seth wiped the sweat from his palms onto his pants").  Still, I got rid of another 3,000 words and the novel now sits at 95,000.

Additional edits might come from an agent, a publisher, or any beta-readers that see it, but I'm probably done with self-edits.  That is not to sound like I'm returning to arrogance, just to note that I eventually have to be satisfied with the work.  I'm sure I could tweak it every day, but at some point I have to let the material speak for itself.  People will either like it now, or they won't.  Regardless of the outcome of that, I'm confident I've done what I could to produce the best story.

Next post - the dreaded query letter...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Being Critiqued

Okay you've poured your heart into a piece of writing, and you know it's just perfect.  It flows, the words are elegant, and even John Steinbeck would be jealous over the prose you have graced the world with.  All that remains is to show the world what you've produced.  So what's the first thought that goes through your head?

If I show it to someone and they hate it, I'll probably die.

I don't know a single writer who doesn't think like this.  We tend to view our creations the way most folks view their little brother - I can mess with it all I like, but nobody else better do so.

It takes a bit of a thick skin to allow for honest criticism, and then to apply that criticism in a way that actually makes the piece better.  A bit of a thick skin?  Who am I kidding?  It takes a shell thicker than that of a Triceratops.  You have to be able to deflect silver tipped rounds aimed for your heart and somehow manage not to take any of them personally.

Critiques from friends and family are usually not the most helpful.  Why?  Because hopefully your friends and family love you and don't want to crush your dreams.  If one of them doesn't like it, they'll usually hem and haw about what a great bit of writing it was without getting into anything specific.  When you try to pin them down, most will respond with, "Well, I thought the whole thing was good."  This kind of feedback is rarely helpful and why, with most friends and family, I measure the enthusiasm with which they read and whether they ask for more.

I've passed around my novels to a few people.  It came as quite the surprise when my mother, my own mother, told me that what I'd written just wasn't for her.  Maybe I shouldn't have been all that shocked since I get my lack of tact from her and my dad.  She was being honest, and I appreciated that, but my appreciation didn't prevent it from stinging a little.

My wife was a different story.

Sherry is not an avid reader, and she'd be the first to admit this.  Like a good wife, she dutifully tried to read my first novel, On Freedom's Wings, and she barely made it through the first page(I told you it needs work).  Sci-fi is pretty specifically tailored to a certain kind of audience, but not being able to make a dent in my spouse was deafening.

However, she picked up Salvation Day and gave it a go.  Much to my delight, she not only asked for but demanded more.  It took me some work to keep up with her demands for it.  She's currently reading Akeldama with similar enthusiasm, and that tells me others might enjoy my work.  Several friends have Salvation Day now, although one has said she could only read it in chunks since it was "too heavy."

While I freely accept all critiques, I also take them with a grain of salt.  After all, I'm the author, and it's my story.  If a suggestion makes sense, I'll happily massage the story accordingly.  However, if someone suggests wholesale changes that ruin the story's consistency, they can go write their own book.

Summing up, taking criticism about something you've labored over is tough, but every writer that shows his or her work to anyone will face some at some point in their careers.  Yes, I'd love everybody to gush over my novels, but I'd also like to have a shiny white unicorn who shits gold nuggets too.

One day, maybe some agent or publisher will read what I wrote and give me the critique I want - a publishing contract.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Process

I've been a writer since I was nine.  I've been writing books for the past 12 years, and what I've discovered is that a lot of people want to write a book.  A lot.

Let me say that again - a lot.

I've probably encountered at least 20 people who have told me they are in the process of writing the next great American novel.  You know how many people have actually finished their masterpiece?  One.

Those I've talked to usually have a vague idea what they want to write about, but they haven't gotten to, you know, putting words on paper yet.  The idea needs to be finessed, the time has never been there, the subtleties of plot points need work, etc.  Since there is a great deal of confusion over making it from idea to finished product, I thought I'd share my thoughts.

A few folks who have written full length novels have given the same advice - just write the damn book.  Sometimes it really is that simple.  However, while that is indeed what you need to do, getting from A to B can be a whole lot more complicated if you want your words to form coherent thoughts.

For me, it always starts with the idea.  How do I get my ideas?  They come to me in random moments when I'm daydreaming.  That's right, the same thing I used to get demerits for in elementary school is now the basis of my process.  I walk my dogs for between 30-45 minutes each day, and that gives me time to think.  Ideas pop into my head and I'll play around with them.  Sometimes they yield an interesting storyline that I can work with, and sometimes they don't.  However, without the daydreaming, the ideas never arrive, so that part is essential.

Once I have an idea that I think will work for a novel, like the one I'm about to start(no title yet - more on that later), I start an outline.  Outline...that makes it sound a lot more organized than it really is.  I have a spiral notebook that I'll start a kind of a chronological brainstorm, envisioning a story and jotting down key points.  Some parts of the outline are incredibly detailed, especially if there's a scene or bit of dialogue that I just know is brilliant.  Some parts are vague since most of my writing is spontaneous and all I need is a guide.

I never go more than a few chapters into the future with the guide.  Why?  Because a story will change and evolve a lot more than I ever expected when I started more than a decade ago, and anything more than 40 pages in the future is usually useless(this is not to say I don't know where a story is going, but even if I know the beginning and end of a story, I rarely know how to get from A to B...that's part of the fun).

Once I have enough outline to go off of, I write.  Yes, it's really that simple.  I sit down, usually with a goal of one to three pages a day, and I hammer away(I'd love to write more - 10-15 pages a day, but I have a job that frowns on writing full time when there are other demands).  It's all free flowing at this point, with little real editing.  I just want to get the story out, and the biggest problem at this point is my own patience in crafting what I have to say.  This part will take one to three weeks, then I'll outline again before returning to the story.

I'll talk later about the leviathan of getting a story under control(much like a patch of weeds, it'll grow out of control and forever if I let it...stories over 100,000 words rarely see the light of day and are perceived by most people as incoherent rambling).  However, once I get near the end, I use the outline less and less.  After all, I know where it's headed now and the outline does me less good unless there is a specific piece I want to throw in.

After the book is done, I try to set it aside and not look at it for a while.  It's still too fresh and too dear to my heart to allow for proper editing.  Getting people to read it is the next part, but, as The Neverending Story said, "That's...another story."

Friday, December 23, 2011

An Aspiring Author's First Intrepid Step...

My name is Russ Meyer, and I'm a writer.  Please note that I didn't say I'm an author, because I believe that an author's books collect dust on a library or bookstore shelf somewhere.  One day I'll be found on Amazon or in a Barnes & Noble(assuming those still exist), but as my crystal ball is in the shop, I don't yet have a read on exactly when that'll be.

I call myself a writer because, well...I write.  I have an untold number of stories locked up in my head, and they come spilling out when the mood suits me(which is pretty often).  There is no specific genre I gravitate towards unless someone invents a category called "weird stuff."  I've written science fiction, horror, paranormal, military, political, and probably a host of other categories that I'm leaving out.

There are currently three books in my repertoire:
1.  On Freedom's Wings
2.  Salvation Day
3.  Akeldama

I wrote the first one over 12 years ago and it shows.  The lack of depth and obvious life experience make it in need of a serious re-write before it'll ever be ready.  However, Salvation Day was the first novel I've submitted to literary agents, so far without success.  Akeldama will be submitted following the New Year, and it'll probably be the first one that gets any real attention.  I promise that I'll provide a more in-depth look at each one in the coming weeks.

This blog will be dedicated to writing and will be updated three times a week - Sunday night, Tuesday night, and Thursday night so that it'll be available first thing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings for the masses(both of you).  Politics, sports, medicine, and voo-doo witchcraft will have to stay elsewhere, mostly because I don't want to drive off potential readers, agents, or publishers, and I know that those topics would be sure to divide any audience I might preach to.

Please enjoy the ramblings of a man who enjoys telling stories, whether anyone else listens to them or not.  It is my fervent wish that someone will one day take pride in telling people, "I was the first one to read RD Meyer's work."