Nothing speaks to a subject better than practical experience, and, as I wrap up my latest WIP, I figure a behind-the-scenes look at the writing mechanics and such might be useful to the group. So, here’s lessons either learned or further burned in:

1. This one took longer to write.
With the last novels able to get out of the barn in as little as nine months, why did this particular novel extend to a eighteen months? There is never a single answer to these things, but I would attribute a need to throttle back and just work weekends for awhile as one of the bigger reasons. You don’t want to burn out on a new project after being heads-down on a previous one, so some moderation was called for – weekends only. The intervention of life also added to the delay, as did having to world-build from the ground up with new characters instead of relying on the benefits a series gives you where most of that work has been done. I did keep to a schedule, and toward the latter half of last year increased the tempo to include days during the week after work. That pace was then accelerated to every night toward the last few months in order to hit my publisher’s queue in 2013.

2. No spin-rinse cycles.
Not when the spin cycle is built in to my plans. The idea of writing several drafts from beginning to end worked very well for me – from the pile of literary goop that was the first draft all the way to the reader-groomed fourth draft. It made revisions so much easier when I didn’t need to go back.

3. Killing my darlings.
Is the character still relevant or baggage? Do I have the same viewpoints expressed from multiple voices? Is this chapter moving the story forward or otherwise keeping the pace moving, or are we standing still here for the sake of me being in love with a particular scene? The novel saw two characters being blended into a much stronger single character, and a sharper focus on the primary antagonist rather than an antagonist bolstered by off-scene characters and backstory. A couple times I found myself writing scenes that were really cool – but added nothing to either the story or characters involved. I just like the idea. These scenes will appear in my “Deleted Scenes” portion of the website.

4. The best plans dissolve five minutes into contact with the enemy.
This military axiom applies to chapter outlines as well – mine were not only kicked apart as I saw better avenues, they were even re-written going forward. Cause and effect. Reader credibility. These things are vastly important when dealing with a fantasy. I didn’t worry so much about how the book would actually end – I knew I would see the loose chapters firm up nicely as the backstory leading up to the climax firmed. I was right to assume so. You don’t have to nail the ending or any part of the novel at the start – just stay on the general path and the consequence of your previous chapters will find you. This wasn’t so much a lesson learned as one burned in.

5. Writer’s Block happens.
The big red flag is me making little headway over a chapter. In most cases, this resulted from either an obsessive knot of plot logic or disinterest. Both pointed to a base issue – I was straying from the story I wanted to tell, either out of a lack of discipline or too much love for the current chapter I was anticipating. The fix was to take a revised look at where the plot was going. In every case, it wasn’t heading where the plot was moving up to that point or the point to where I was heading was itself deeply flawed (and I didn’t want to admit it). The easier one to repair was a plot problem ahead of me as I had yet to put writing time against it. The only other reason for running into a block was that I needed a break – so I took a day or so off.

6. Fantasy or SF – the rules aren’t that different.
Magic costs. Magic is constrained. The same could be said for any weapons system. Magic, in this particular novel, also had to be understated and subtle – and be as quiet as the bubbling of a Mulligan stew that happens to restore your health. The same thing applies to any fantasy creatures I came up with. They needed to have as many weaknesses and flaws as they might capabilities. Keeping all of this at a low key was a constant effort in order not to throw off reader believability.

7. And boy are there rules.
This novel required research into various cultures, histories, and steam-driven engines. I had to adhere to all of the behaviors and restrictions – as well as the “what if”. More importantly, I found it quite necessary early on (after reader admonishing) to sprinkle my research like a fine spice rather than lather it on. No step-by-step “this is how/why” stuff. Ever. The nice thing about rules is that they often make plot devices so much simpler – and even provide new inspiration.

8. Characters first.
Just a reminder of my regular mantra. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is evil for evil’s sake. All that gray area makes for some wonderful plot twists, and allowed me to fall in love with my characters that much more as they fought against their own shortcomings as well as those around them. All characters had family, because for most readers, family does matter. Nobody just leapt into being – and much of their current makeup could be reflected back to what happened in their past. Especially with my protagonist. I let my characters have feelings and be frightened. I allowed them to wallow in their confusion, and react appropriately when faced with taking life. Nobody in my stories does the cool walk-away from explosions. I didn’t want this fantasy to lapse into someone’s idea of a comic or Dungeons & Dragons adventure.

9. Mechanics second.
Sentence structure and grammar was always a constant fight in the third draft because I had English teachers waiting among the hungry wolves that were my readers. They had little patience for having the movie in their head stop because of a jerk in the film.

10. I stayed to the vision.
I wanted a fantasy without any of the European tropes, and that determination became the primary guide to everything following. This was going to either make the novel stand-out, or guarantee it would die the moment it hit the electronic shelves. I strongly believed in the former, so the take-away here was that you have to believe hard in your work before even starting the project – and stick to your guns until “The End”. Don’t worry about other projects. Finish this one.

11. When life happens.
I had a few “events” to deal with over the course of the novel. Here’s what you do. You stop writing and deal. You start writing when you can think straight again. Simple as that.

12. It’s about the fun.
I was conflicted. I initially felt that this novel was original enough, and I seasoned enough, to take a shot at the bigger houses. I fretted over this decision, as it meant waiting possibly years while hunting out agents and then shopping the book around through them. Not to mention the queue times these bigger houses have over a smaller print or how high the odds would be of actually getting on an editor’s desk.  I also enjoyed my current relationship with Burst Books. My son surprised me with “Aren’t you writing for the fun of it?” His point was to keep having fun and not get into anything that wasn’t toward that objective. Kids these days. I decided to stick with my current publisher and be happy with seeing the book out by the end of the year. I’ll let someone else with less years under their belt grab all the fame and fortune – I’ll stick to having fun.

13. Schedule C is your friend.
Had to toss this in after some forethought. For you US authors, keep in mind that writing is considered a business, and with that comes business expenses. Especially when you start showing an income. In my case, over $2000 in tax deductions last year. Things like paying for a trip on a tour train through the Canadian Rockies, and then attending Comic Con in Calgary. All of this was deductible either as research (the train trip) or promotion (Comic con). Transportation, lodging, and eats. (half off on the eats). All the books I bought from my publisher for sale at the various conventions were included - as was each convention (tables, food, lodging). Oh, and did I say I had fun tax-free? Oh yeah. Lots. Just make sure, come tax time, you can point to a relationship between your writing and your deduction (which is why I had to take that wonderful train trip before the book was finished). Might as well enjoy the perks, true?

Kerry