Ants Are Invading Our Book Covers

Sometimes people ask me about the cover for my third novel The War Bug. They say things like, “Biff…there’s a giant ant on the cover. I signed the book out of the Freddie Beach Library so that I could read about ants in space.”

I know where this is going, so I try to fake things like a heart attack, memory loss, mistaken identity…but nothing works. I’m there. The person who read the book is there and the issue looms in the air over us.

“Biff, there’s no ant in the book. Nowhere. No ant. I wanted a giant ant and all you gave me was some stupid computer virus.”

What can I say? What can I do? Nothing…except maybe scream and bang my head against the nearest wall. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. Sometimes I have to throw the nearest heavy object at my persecutor.

But it’s true. There’s a giant ant on the cover but no ant in the book, not even a small one that looks like a person milling about an airport as you’re taking off. And for the record, there are no June bugs, lady bugs, bees or dust mites in the book.

Here’s the cover…

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I guess…when you think ‘war bug’ the first thing that comes to mind is a walloping big army ant. That was obviously the first thing the graphic artist thought. But the War Bug isn’t a giant ant; it’s a computer virus that ignites a war between online city states 200 years in the future.  This is not a book about ants in space.

It puzzled me that the book sold only one and a half copies but I received hundreds of complaints from readers who wanted to read about the adventures of a giant space ant. How do you respond to the disillusionment of ant lovers? How do you address their grief? Some said they would never read my books again. Some said they would never read anyone’s books again. Some made death threats if I didn’t re-write the book and include at least one big-ass ant.

But I had a better idea.

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I was invited by the notorious J. Richard Jacobs to contribute stories for the first Twisted Tails anthology. I wrote four…one of them about a graphic artist who receives a work order to produce cover art for a book about a war bug. He glances quickly at the text for the back cover and produces his life’s masterpiece: a beautifully rendered giant termite sort of floating on a mystery plane of existence somewhere in space.

There’s something compelling, almost hypnotic, about the termite that dives deep into the artist’s being. He starts reading the actual book and realizes that the War Bug is actually a computer virus, but he keeps this to himself and passes the work on. Since no one actually reads the book with the exception of the editor who never sees the cover, the book is published with a giant termite staring down the most adventurous and daring of readers.

And the book goes on to become a world-wide bestseller because the cover art is somehow magical. No one ever reads the book. Not even the alcoholic author who lives in a cave with the ghost of his former feral cat. For talking points, people read the blurb on the back cover, which is bland enough that no one realizes the truth. The book wins oodles of global awards for cover design. It even wins literary awards based on the blurb and the termite.

In the end, the graphic artist stares at the original artwork and…

Eyes

OK…so this isn’t exactly what he saw but…

Nobody ever  heard from him again.

 

The War Bug

(Excerpt from my third novel, The War Bug. You can buy it at Amazon. Just do a search for crazy stupid book. BTW, there’s no giant ant in the book. The War Bug is a computer virus that causes a war between online city states…but turns out to be kinda nice when it helps the lead character get his virtual family back. I wrote a short story in which the cover artist get his for putting an ant on the cover. The publisher who published the book with the ant on the cover also published the story in which the cover artist gets his. Go figure.)

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The Great Nano Canyon

“Cold murdering bitch. Damn, just one night with her, one hour!” muttered Jeemo, as he wiped drool from his chin and took off the white robe. The orange spikes on his head stood straight up like sharp erections.

Jeemo Roosenvelt would gladly have taken the sexclone’s place if he could have fallen to his death with his brain fresh full of sex with Bella and the smell of her cruelty seeping into his gray flesh.

He stared at his naked body in the wall length mirror. “Perfection!”

Vast folds of flesh rolled over thick layers of fat. Seven feet, seven hundred pounds. Jeemo loved the symmetry of the numbers. Somewhere under that mass his penis twitched crazily. He could feel it. “Yes. Throb my hidden toy, throb for the goddess Bella, psycho lust kitten of the emerald palace.”

He turned sideways, looking up and down the bulk of his body, at the gray face bulging out of his shoulders, and the fan of orange hair spikes forming a line from one ear to the other. His hands and feet were small and delicate; his movement as he turned before the mirror, fluid and graceful. He loved to watch himself move. He loved to watch himself standing still. He loved to watch himself eat, sit, lying down. Every wall of every room in his mansion, except one, was a mirror. Through the mirrors he could watch his enormous girth stretch into an infinity of reflected images.

A tuxedoed serverclone—one of the lower orders of clones, bred without legs, but equipped with anti-gravity boots so that their footsteps would not irritate their owners—floated to his side with a glass of red wine on a silver tray. It was reflected thousands of times over in the walls. “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, Mr. Roosenvelt.”

Jeemo whisked the wine glass to his lips with a single motion and the serverclone floated away. Sipping wine, Jeemo bounced lightly, mounds of skin shaking like sickly jelly, to an arched window. The glass in the window could withstand the force of an F7 tornado—and it had.

Outside, the moon spilled over a Mid-west gutted like a war zone, spreading into the darkness, deep into the New Tornado Alley leading right up to the edge of the Great Nano Canyon. In the distance, strange light played in the air over sections of the canyon, dancing in bursts of blue and orange. This was normal.

The canyon wasn’t.

***

Less than a hundred years into the new millennium, the human race came close to becoming cheese soup. It started with the world’s smallest computer, a computer so small, it could only be seen with an electron microscope. It was the first assembler nanobot, a concoction of seven atoms that had been circuited, programmed and instructed to build—though what the nanobot was supposed to build was never known. In the process of building, it killed ten million people, including the people who had programmed it, and the last communication with them had been from the project’s lead Nano-applications Specialist, Milton Nadd.

His pallid face had filled the phone monitor as he whispered, “My god, it’s cheese soup…”

Then the screen had gone blank.

No one will ever know why it was cheese soup, but here’s how the nanobot was supposed to work: it was supposed to visit neighboring atoms and nudge them around until it had built another nanobot exactly like itself. Then the two nanobots were to visit neighboring atoms and nudge them around until they had built two more nanobots exactly like themselves. Then the four nanobots…

It was much like E-bola, only faster. In fact, it was so fast that, by the time Milton Nadd had said “cheese soup”, he was cheese soup. And his videophone was cheese soup. The other researchers and scientists and administrators and computer technicians in the room with Milton Nadd were all cheese soup. Desks, computers, chairs, paper clips, Far Side calendars, pencils and papers and books were all cheese soup. A million dollar electron microscope shook twice then collapsed into a splash of cheese soup that turned most of the floor into

cheese soup. The walls literally flowed into the floor and the ceiling fell and bubbled into the yellow-orange liquid. Within minutes, the entire underground high-security maximum-containment, fool-proof, fail-safe, absolutely accident free and “Senator-Jonz-you-won’t-ever-have-to-worry-about-anything-escaping-from-this-place-or-my-name-isn’t-Doctor-Milton-Nadd” facility was cheese soup, and it was working its way up through the ground, turning layers of red granite, quartz schist and an elevator containing junior research assistant, Jaqui Wright, who, strangely, had always wanted to be cheese soup, into cheese soup.

Now the assemblers were in gear, revved up and ready to rock, rarin’ to chew into the atoms of igneous and metamorphic rock, bite into the neutrons of trees and grass and asphalt and spit out cheese soup. Highways, lakes and towns, swimming pools and rivers, airports and trains, canoes full of frothy cold beer, and entire cities all churned into cheese soup. Hundreds of square miles of North Dakota were cheese soup by the time the news began to spread. Around the world, people panicked and rioted while others prepared quietly to become cheese soup. Jerry Springer was thawed from cryostasis and hosted a special on people who had sex in vats of cheese soup. Leaders of the Unified Global Village pondered and debated over international chat forums and concluded that it was time to try something new, and soup was always OK. Just when the world was ready to accept cheese soupness, the assemblers stopped.

Just stopped.

There was no apparent reason. They just stopped, after having created a mass of cheese soup that stretched from Winnipeg to Fargo and from Williston to Duluth. The whole planet held its breath in unison, as the ocean of cheese soup trembled like gunky jello without advancing a single atom in any direction. It stayed like that for three days. Then the giant mass of cheese soup went “ping”—not a loud ping, but a barely audible “ping”, like two expensive champagne glasses toasted by ladybugs. By the time the “ping” had “inged”, the cheese soup was gone. In its place was a perfectly round bowl in the earth, its walls polished and smooth. Millions of people who had flocked to the edges of the cheese soup

stared quietly, their faces a wall of open-eyed non-expression around the massive hole left by the cheese soup.

Nobody knew why it disappeared. Nobody knew why it stopped. Only the handful of Nanotechnologists Milton Nadd had called just before he became cheese soup knew why or how it had started, and they later restricted all nanoresearch to space stations far from the Earth’s orbit until the research was proved safe. Or at least somewhat reasonably safe.

Of course, there were those who thought a giant empty bowl was a big improvement over the former landscape.

***

For the briefest flicker of time, Jeemo’s mind drew him back to the failure of nano-treatments to change his body, rejecting him like a bad odor. Then the rejection by his parents, as though he were an insult to their DNA, and then his childhood spent with serverclones and software. Other than his parents, he’d never been in the same room as a real human, never touched real flesh other than his own. But that was all he’d needed, to feel himself real and nano-resistant, so perfect even the bots couldn’t improve him. He was the new standard of human perfection, and he loved every cubic inch of space he occupied.

But he’d gladly die for just a brush of Bella’s cold touch.

“Hot damn! That crazy woman’s going to fuck my brains out and flush me into the ocean.” The throbbing between his huge legs went into hyper drive at the thought of plunging into the ocean with Bella’s acid love fluids burning into his body. All he had to do was get the woman and the girl for her.

He sipped his wine as he stared into the sky over the Great Nano Canyon. The pink hole that was his mouth curved into something like a smile. And there’s the key to it all, he thought, why didn’t I think of that sooner? I’ll move it later. He’ll never find them now.

A sweet aroma curled into his nostrils. Mmm, honey glazed ham. There would be Poinsettia Eggs en Gelee. Potatoes Savonnette and watercress soup. And none of it would taste like chicken. Oh, it might hint of chicken on the aftertaste—chicken was inescapable these days—but the glazed ham would taste like glazed ham on the first few chews.

Active Story Research: Making It Real by Doing It Real

I was sitting in a coffee shop one night working furiously on a short story for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (The editor, J, had mentioned that, if I didn’t have the story to him pronto, bad things would start happening to me.) when I felt someone nudge my shoulder. I quickly grabbed my Saint Christopher’s cross to ward off evil editors before turning to see who it was. It wasn’t J.

It was a pimply faced middle aged wide eyed short paunchy balding man wearing the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil your appetite by describing the sweater. He asked if I were Biff Mitchell. I said no, but he just ignored me and waved two crumpled sheets of paper in my face.

“I need you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” He sounded pissed off and disappointed at the same time. I thought for a moment on whether or not I should take the paper out of his hand and shove it up his nose, but I don’t do things like that anymore, so I took the sheets and looked at them.

“There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” His eyes looked like they were almost ready to burst into tears. “Ashley, my sister, read it and laughed.” I think he called her a fucking bitch, but I’m not going to use that kind of language here. I told him to calm down and I started reading. He moved to the empty chair on the other side of the table as though he was going to sit, but I told not to sit down, that it would ruin my focus. I read the first page.

Surprisingly, the writing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good enough that I continued reading into the second page. And that’s when I almost started to laugh.

He described the cockpit of a Formula 1 racing car going full out as smooth as a bar of soap sliding across ice. Now, I’m not going to get into a critique of the imagery, but I will take issue with the description itself. I’ve never driven a Formula 1 racer myself, but I once saw a video clip of the inside of one going full out…and it was anything but smooth. In fact, it was bumpy as hell and it seemed to me to be a miracle that any car could hold together under that kind of stress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve had my Accent up to 100 miles an hour and it was plenty shaky.

His sister obviously saw the same video clip. In his case, a simple search through YouTube might have given him a little more insight, but, obviously, he just used his imagination and figured that a car built for those speeds would probably drive smoothly at those speeds. His research obviously sucked.

Good research is one of the key ingredients in a well-written novel. Lack of it shows, not just in terms of inaccuracies, but in terms of convincing descriptions of settings, procedures, operations, cultures and everyday rituals…just to name a few aspects of convincing fictional world-building.

Sometimes, it’s not enough to scour the web for information, or even to read books. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and do things. I know this because I’ve done it.

Heavy Load

In my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance) I got up off my ass and plopped it down in a laundromat pretty much every evening and a few weekend days for about a month. I took a notebook with me and recorded every sensation I could imagine as I sat on hard plastic chairs, leaned against washers and dryers and strolled around the laundromat examining everything in minute detail. I noticed lint balls in corners, gum under the folding tables, pint bottles of vodka and rum in the trash cans. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of buttons clicking in the dryers, water gushing into the washers. I felt the rumble of machines and noted the smell of detergents and clothes. I watched a woman reach orgasm with her thighs pressed against a washer. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of conversation, even between couples and friends on a night out to restore their wardrobes to wearable condition.

I studied the people in the laundromat, the students, single mothers with kids attached, elderly couples, middle aged career men and women and a strange array of people who, like me, seemed to be there for more than just the suds and duds. Some people actually go to the laundromat to meet people, chill out or just read. There were three people who frequented the place to read books. Never saw any of them show up with laundry. Just books.

I drew maps at the laundromat, recording the movements and paths of my characters as they moved through the fictional laundromat in my novel. I drew on the regulars for minor characters and incidents in the novel. For that month I steeped myself so deeply in that laundromat that I dreamed about it. At work, I could close my eyes and read the signs on the walls and hear the tick tick tick of small buttons in the dryers. I could smell the bleach.

I didn’t use all the material from that month, but it’s like gold mining: you collect a few billion pounds muck and harvest an ounce of gold. If you’re lucky. In the end, I had all the material I needed to make the laundromat in my novel real and I had enough character studies to populate my laundromat with real people.

Active research can take you in new directions, add substance to your writing and give you new ideas.

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For instance, my last novel, The Reality Wars, was set 2000 years in the future and the central action took place in what I initially envisioned as a futuristic triathlon. So, after six weeks of training, and one month after my 58th birthday, I participated in an Olympic level triathlon: 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike ride, 10 kilometer run. I survived, but just barely. Best of all, I finished, but just barely.

There was a particular character I wanted but couldn’t quite see in my mind. I had a vague picture of someone sleek, muscular and blue, with a sleek blue helmet. Or maybe someone dressed in black. But I knew it was someone bad. Evil. Nasty. Someone out to not just beat the protagonist, but out to do her harm. As I trained for the triathlon, I started to get a more complete image of this evil someone. Suddenly, one day when I was being chased around Killarney Lake by the biggest horse fly in the world (did my best running time ever that day), the evil one came to me. She was a woman and she had red eyes. She was running right beside me as I ran from that damned horse fly.

Other things came to me as well. Things like events that might constitute a triathlon 2000 years in the future. In fact, I pretty much scrapped the idea of a triathlon and opted for a series of deadly games played in the real world and in cyberspace.

None of this would have come to me if I hadn’t put myself into the situation I started writing about. I probably would have kept with the idea of a standard swim/bike/run triathlon and not even thought of the much more interesting series of games that were to be called The Reality Wars. And I would never have had one of the novel’s most compelling characters, the beautiful but evil Loac.

Oh…BTW…below is a picture of me finishing the triathlon…alive. Sort of. Proof positive that anyone can be a lunatic.

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I wrote a novella called Ladies of the Fountain that was published in Twisted Tails VII: Irreverence.

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In the story, three sculpted women holding up a fountain in a park area come to life and spread havoc through a small city after a very lonely man wishes for them to come to life and be his women. The fountain actually exists in Freddie Beach, where the story is set.

One Saturday morning, I walked to the fountain, looked around, made notes and took pictures. Then, I walked down the street, making notes and taking pictures of all the spots where things were going to happen in the novella.

When I started the actual writing, I had my notes (which included descriptions of smells, sounds and impressions) and a few dozen photographs to draw on as I wrote. In effect, I had almost lived the story before writing it.

And now things get a little weird.

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I plotted a series of murders in coffee shops throughout the downtown core of Freddie Beach. These were for a novella called Boston Jonson in Murder by Coffee.

There were three coffee shops and one coffee house. (There’s a difference. Just ask Molly.) I sat in the exact locations where the victims were found and then in the locations where the witnesses were seated. While I was sitting in the victims’ seats, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize what it would be like to have just been murdered. I tried to visualize what it must have been like for each of the victims in those few seconds before they died, knowing that they were just about to die. I tried to get into their heads in those few seconds after they died, you know, those seconds where the recently deceased’s soul hovers over their former body and wonders, “WTF?”

I put myself in their heads that morning when they were getting ready for work, not knowing that this would be the last time they would ever get ready for work, that this would be their last day on earth. And, of course, I made notes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use any of this material. All that weirdness for nothing. Well, not completely nothing; everything you do to get into any part of a story you’re about to write puts you just that much closer to the story and to making everything in it real.

Now, the locations where the witnesses sat were much more productive. None of them actually witnessed the murders taking place (or, at least, they weren’t aware of the murders happening) but they saw the victims in their last moments. Some of them saw the victims at other times and were able to give the sleuth, Boston Jonson, information for his investigation. I imagined seeing the victims and how I felt about them. I put myself in their shoes as they were being questioned. I answered the questions, either truthfully or not truthfully. I became the witnesses and, as I did, I came up with ideas about how the murders were committed and who might have been behind them (something I didn’t have a clue about until I was well into the story). And, of course, I made notes.

I know this seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to write a novel. I mean, it’s not exactly the ideal of sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop and spewing out sentence after sentence of brilliant prose, all of it culminating in a novel that will knock the socks off the entire literary world and have movie producers pounding at your door. But, it just might lead you into a few brilliant sentences that’ll knock your own socks off.

After the First Draft

So you’ve finished the first draft for your novel. You’ve worked evening after evening (assuming, like most writers, you have a day job as opposed to being a poverty-ridden Bohemian living on friends’ couches and writing on soiled paper with a stubby pencil) for a year, or two years, or more. Your friends have stopped inviting you to parties because they know you’re going to say something absurd like, “Sorry, gotta write.” Your significant other has long been someone else’s other and you can’t even remember their name. At work, people talk about television shows that you’ve never heard of, excluding you from the circle of those in the know. You’ve become a coffee-addicted outsider.

But that’s alright; you have the first draft for a novel and now you can have a life again. For a while.

What you have now is several hundred pages of really bad writing. That is, if you’ve been doing the right thing…writing as quickly as possible (saving revisions and rewriting till the first draft is finished) so that you don’t lose the story and your enthusiasm for it. Now it’s time to let go for a few months. Just put the manuscript aside and forget about it. This is going to be difficult. I mean, the sooner you send it off to a publisher, the sooner you’ll see it on the best-seller lists, sell the movie rights and move into that 50 bedroom mansion in Tuscany you’ve always wanted, right?

Right. So, you don’t have to read the posting any further. Just call someone at Random House and tell them you’ve finished your novel and you’re ready to talk advances,

On the other hand, you might want to improve your chances of an agent talking to someone at Random House (they don’t talk to writers, just agents). Before you send off that novel (to an agent if you’re aiming for the Big Six publishers, or an editor if you’re scaling down to indie publishers), you need to look at it objectively. You need to rise above the mire of details and “known truths” in which you’ve been immersed for so long that you’re the last person on earth who can really judge the quality of what you’ve written.

In short, your first draft is something you shouldn’t even let your friends (if you still have any) see. You’re going to have spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, incoherent descriptions, inconsistent information, poorly constructed sentences, indecipherable paragraphs, boringly long dialog that goes nowhere, adverbs and adjectives that are the exact opposite of what they supposedly describe. What you have is what you’re supposed to have…dough, ready for the oven. But you need to get away from it for a while before you’re ready to see it for what it is: just…dough.

Besides, you need a break from the writing regimen, some time to read a book or two, call the former significant other and wish him or her all the best in their new relationship, or just say, “I wrote a novel. What’ve you done lately?” You need time to drink beer, catch up on television, spend some time in the shower, do that laundry you’ve been putting off since last Spring.

I generally take three to six months. I try not to think about the manuscript calling out from my computer and Google Mail (Yep, Google Mail. Each night, after I’ve finished writing, I mail the manuscript to myself. This gives me a daily update stored outside my computer…a handy thing for someone whose computers crash as often as mine do…and also gives you proof of copyright, dated on a daily basis by a third party.) If I come up with ideas that I’d like to incorporate, or suddenly realize that I wrote something the wrong way, or re-consider the role of a character, I make notes in a document called “Revisions,” but I don’t touch the manuscript. Instead, I drink beer (or wine), play some pool http://www.doolys.ca/, go canoeing with Nanook of the Nashwaak, relax. Sometimes, just to keep the flow of words in my life going, I work on a short story or two, but not intensively…more like some gentle stretching or a leisurely run.

It seems strange at first…suddenly having time to do things, fun things, things without schedule. But I get used to it. And then, of course, by the time I get used to it, it’s time to dig back in and start the real work of writing: re-writing.

I tell my students in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop that no novel is ever written; novels are re-written. And then re-written again. And again. Until they’re finished. This process could take a few weeks. It could take a few months. It could take a year or more. I know writers who came close to having nervous breakdowns during the re-writing process (and a couple who nearly lost it after their books were accepted for publication and they had to do yet another re-write under the yoke of merciless editors). No book is finished until it’s on a bookstore shelf or posted on Amazon or another online bookseller.

For the most part, writing the first draft isn’t all that stressful. In fact, it should be relaxing. Your mind should be open to new directions, tapped into the subconscious and excited about the work. Getting to your place of writing (coffee shops for me) should be something to which you look forward, eager to push the story just a little further towards the end, eager to see how that argument between Tina and Turner is going to transpire before Tina stabs Turner, eager to find out exactly how Ray gets out of the burning factory (where you left him tied up in chains in the basement yesterday). Each time you sit down to write, you have a rough idea where you’re going next, but it’s when you do the actual writing that you find out how to get there. It should be relaxing, exploratory, fun.

Not so with re-writing. The fun part is over. The work part begins: thinking with your left brain, making hard decisions, deciding what stays and what goes, what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s like going to classes and taking notes…and then writing the exam. This is where everything you do counts because it’s time to commit. You can change your mind off the cuff while you’re writing because you’re still in the process of creation, of filling the unknown void with the suddenly known. But in re-writing, you have to take the already known and make it convincing, accurate, readable, satisfying and publishable.

Yes, publishable. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re writing for yourself. It’s your story and you’re telling it. In the re-writing, you’re writing for an editor who’s going to look at it through the eyes of people who are going to buy (or not buy) your story. Loose, open-ended writing has no place in re-writing. Everything now comes under scrutiny, judgement, evaluation, second thoughts, the guillotine of the Delete button.

It’s a big, long process and it can be done the right way or the wrong way. The worst way is to just start at page one and make micro changes to spelling and sentence structure and all the other little revisions to make the writing perfect page after page.

Here’s my process:

Step 1 (Relax): Drink beer and party my ass off for three to six months.

Step 2 (Refresher): Read through the whole manuscript, but don’t make any changes, just make notes in the margins (if you’re reading a printed copy) or notes in the text, highlighted in yellow (if you’re using a computer) or use Word’s track changes feature. This isn’t the time to get caught up in details. You’re looking at the big picture. How does the story flow? Does it slow down where it should speed up or vise versa? Are all the characters really essential? Is this scene essential to the story, or does it just confuse things or draw the story out in a boring manner? Big things.

You’re going to notice things like spelling errors, clumsy sentences, paragraphs that should be cut in half or reversed, repetition, inaccuracies…and on into the wee hours of the night. But you have to resist making changes. The idea is to read at close to the same pace as you would a published novel. You’ve been away from it for several months and now it’s time to get back into it with fresh eyes and a bit more objectivity. Maybe that paragraph about the cat in the graveyard isn’t quite as mesmerizing as you thought it was while you were writing it. Cooling your creative heels for a while takes some of the fog off your eyes.

Step 3 (Second Draft): So…ready to make changes to spelling and grammar? Good. But not yet. This is where you make the big changes. Remember in Step 2 where we mentioned non-essential scenes? This is where you look at the note for Scene 3, Chapter 4 that says: Is this really necessary? Consider dropping this. Can you imagine how heart-wrenching this would be if you’d spent, say, an entire evening or two re-writing this scene to make it perfect and then realize that it just slows the story down and doesn’t do anything to advance the plot? Now’s the time to drop it, before you’ve wasted any more energy and time on it.

In my last novel, The Reality Wars, Notice how I put in a plug for my book? We’ll get into this when I do a posting sometime in the future about how to market your book after you find a publisher.) I had over 180,000 words in the first draft. In the second draft, I cut over 35,000, mostly because I dropped two characters who didn’t do anything to advance the plot and may even have caused some reader confusion. This meant tracking down every passage where they were mentioned and any passages that may have been affected by them, and deleting or re-writing those passages so that the characters were gone, but everything still made sense.

In this draft, you’ll also be looking for things like scene juxtaposition. You may have a scene in which Jake is wondering why his father killed himself, but it comes before the scene in which his father actually commits suicide, and the reader’s wondering what the hell’s going on. It’s not hard to make mistakes like this in the first draft because you’re focussing so much on the just getting the story out of your head.

You might find inconsistencies, like Cassie wearing a blue coat while she’s talking to her mother, but you come back to this scene later and she’s suddenly wearing a red coat. Or Dave might have blue eyes in Chapter 1, but have green eyes in Chapter 3. These things happen. There may be inconsistencies in timelines.

I posted a novella at the Zoetrope Writer’s Community several years ago. (It was a community of fiction writers who read and critiqued each other’s work. I think it’s defunct now, and replaced by the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, devoted to filmmakers.) The story took place over a period of several thousand years. One of the community members sent me a two page list of timelines that were skewed, inaccurate and otherwise just plain wrong. I spent a week implementing his changes. But this is the kind of thing that happens in the first draft.

Another thing to look for is modulation…the rhythm of your story. This is something you might have in mind when you’re writing your first draft. You might have short scenes for fast action and long scenes for slow action, but you’re unlikely to have a sense of how those really work until you’ve finished your novel. When you read over the first draft, you might find that you have one slow scene in a section of the story that just doesn’t’ fit; it slows things down where the action should be continuous. This is the time to decide whether the scene gets dropped or relocated.

Mood and atmosphere can be so easily buggered up in the first draft. For instance, you have a section in an old house where people are disappearing and the remaining people who were stupid enough to go into the house with the curse on it in the first place are seriously creeped out. But you get into the thoughts of one of the characters as she thinks about the pool party she attended few days earlier and this scene goes on for a page or two…and totally breaks the mood of fear and eeriness you’ve been building for the last fifty pages. If you’ve been away from the manuscript for a few months, this disruption of mood with blare out. Now’s the time to delete or relocate.

Look for things like conversations that drag on and on and on…and go nowhere. I’ve noticed this in a lot of novice writers. They get some pretty cool dialog going and the accents are perfect, the tones are right on, the language flows beautifully and the diction fits the character to a tee. But the conversation goes on for three pages and does nothing to advance the plot or reveal parts of the characters that haven’t already been revealed. This is what I call elevator talk, and it should be enthusiastically slashed and burned. Ask yourself: Would the whole meaning and usefulness of this conversation be improved if it were just a page or less? Put all your conversations under the microscope.

Related to superfluous dialog is superfluous description. A writer friend of mine, Beth Powning, spent years and much traveling researching her novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife. Her descriptions of clothing in the 19th Century were accurate and absorbing. However, she had to cut over a hundred pages of description from the first draft. This especially happens when you’ve done a lot research and you want to use as much of it as possible. You might over-describe a house, someone’s facial features, a setting, a legal procedure or a character’s feelings about someone they love or hate. Modern audiences seem to respond to writing that goes light on description and lets the reader fill in most of the details. Ask yourself, “Does this two page description of the meadow behind the house really need the part about the robin feeding worms to her young in the nest clinging to the large branch with veins like those of a champion weight lifter after a three hour workout in a hot gym with…?”

Probably not. Minimalist is the way to go, unless details in the description advance the plot or will be needed as clues to solve a crime if you’re writing a mystery.

Step 4 (Third Draft): OK…you’ve re-structured, ruthlessly deleted superfluous material, relocated scenes, corrected inconsistencies and done some re-writing. Now you have things pretty much the way they’re going to stay for the duration. You have a stable script and unless you get a mind-altering brainstorm that causes your head to melt, what you have is ready for the small stuff, the micro editing.

This is the fine tuning part, where you correct spelling and grammar. (Although you might have already corrected the spelling in the previous draft since it’s not really that big a deal when you have things like spell check.)

This is where you look at each sentence, paragraph and page and make some really serious decisions. That sentence you thought was so beautifully worded in the first draft and maybe even through the following drafts is suddenly under a microscope with a scalpel attached to the lens. Here’s an example:

Ted thought that he was the only one in the group of young men, who were all members of the same soccer team, who had any really realistic ideas about where their little enterprise was going and what they should be doing, as a team, to make some lasting changes at the outset of their venture, rather than wait until their mistakes were so entrenched as to be impossible, or unnecessarily difficult, to change way down the road.

According to the MS word count, that’s 78 words. That’s a lot of words for one sentence, especially when this is part of a scene that’s packed with fast action and intense thrills (You did get that, didn’t you?). But, when I wrote this, I was almost in tears at the majesty of the diction, the depth of thought, the magical flow of images spilling across the screen, and I’m sure that you share these feelings. But…maybe we can improve on this perfection. How about this?

Ted felt alienated from the others by his insistence on proceeding cautiously with their venture so that mistakes made now wouldn’t be compounded in the future.

Twenty-six words. And it says pretty much the same thing, except it gives a more precise insight into how Ted feels: alienated. And this sentence could have been re-written thousands of ways…all of them better.

Most of your re-writing won’t be this drastic though. Mostly it’ll be dropping a word or two. For instance, the “pretty much” in the last paragraph could be dropped and have no effect on the meaning of the sentence. I`m leaving it in because it`s the way I talk. Editors, though, want `tight` writing. They want the writing pared down to the essentials. Anything that doesn`t reveal character, advance the plot or compel the reader to keep reading gets tossed.

Before you begin this step, may I suggest that you read The Elements of Style from cover to cover. You only have to do this for your first novel. After that, use the online version for specific edits and things you might have forgotten.

Step 5 (More Relaxation): After that last draft, you can relax for a few weeks. But that’s all. Any more than three weeks and you will disintegrate. You need this time to get away from the details. I mean, you did some pretty close editing. So now…drink some more beer. Call friends who may have forgotten your name. Call the ex. Tell her or him that you’re OK with their choices, like, if you’d rather have hamburger than steak…I’m OK with that. This is the time to have some fun.

But just for a few weeks.

Step 6 (Fifth Draft): This one’s not so bad. You just read through the entire manuscript and make notes where you might have missed something. When you’ve finished reading, make the changes in the notes. By this time, it shouldn’t be a lot. If it is, you might want to considerea career in busking. The good thing now is that you’re ready to share your manuscript.

Stop 7 (Feedback): If you have any friends left (or relations who still speak to you), give them a copy of the manuscript and ask them what they think about it. You’ll likely get just two or three who’ll give you feedback, but that’s OK. They’re the ones you want the feedback from. Their feedback will likely lead to a few more changes.

Sometimes, getting feedback on just a few things is helpful across the whole book. When I was doing the editorial changes for my third novel, The War Bug, the editor told me to delete every instance of “And then.”. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I used it and how distracting and unnecessary it was

Step 8 (One Last Read Through): By now, probably the last thing you want to do is read this manuscript that’s sucked the life out of you for so long, but you should., because now you’re going to send your manuscript (well, the first thirty or so pages) to a publisher or agent, or maybe you’re going to self-publish.

I always do one last read-through…just for peace of mind. And generally, I’ll find some stupid little error here, another there, spelling mistakes, places where I’ve accidentally deleted half a sentence. It happens.

After that last read, you’re ready for the riches, adulation, fame and glory that I know you’re going to receive because, after all this, you deserve it. And please don’t forget us little people.

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