Today is the Day

I barely slept a wink all night.

The countdown is close to reaching zero on two separate events. One event is that today I mail off my submission packet for Vengeance Will Come to a publisher.

My very first submission. It feels like I’m breaking new ground. Or better yet, stepping out on the ice, hoping that it’s frozen enough to bear my weight.

To be honest, I’m fully expecting a template rejection letter. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s my first novel and I’m sure I have much to learn about writing. I could have moved on without attempting to publish this first book – but the project would never have felt complete otherwise. (I still have a few wrinkles to smooth out in the manuscript, but they are minor and I hope to be actually complete in two weeks).

And without attempting submission I would never have learned about writing a synopsis, which was both a pleasure and a pain.

Writing a synopsis is an art all of its own and different to a query (or “pitch”). It forces you to distil your entire manuscript down to the core ingredients. (Vengeance Will Come is 300 A4 pages and my synopsis was 7 pages). In complete contradiction to an author’s normal impulses you must outline all major plot points, plot twists and character arcs. You must lay bare your secrets in a summarised recounting, without making it sterile.

I found creating the synopsis helpful in how it articulated the character arcs. In future projects I’m going to write the synopsis in parallel to the manuscript.

Cutting Words Without Value

I have to admit that self-restraint around food isn’t one of my strengths. I like food a little too much. I’m working on down-sizing my appetite… and then hopefully my wardrobe.

One of the things I use to say when younger was about “unwanted calories”. If you aren’t going to enjoy eating something (e.g. the flavourless crusts on a pizza) then its “unwanted calories”. Why consume calories when it’s surplus to need and not going to be enjoyable either? It’s smarter on so many levels just to bin it.

There are certain words that have no value, just like unwanted calories. They add nothing to the story and so should be deleted.

One of the tasks I’ve done recently is to review every use of the word ‘that’. It is most often a filler word whose presence can be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence at all. I know I use it unconsciously. When I did my word frequency analysis I had a massive 735 ‘that’ uses.

that
A particularly bad example of THAT shame

My ‘that’ hunt eradicated it down to just 149 instances. A good hunt, indeed.

Thoughts on Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger: A suspenseful situation occurring at the end of a chapter, scene, or episode (source).

For months I’ve been promising a post on cliffhangers. You’ve been waiting, eagerly, like a kitten ready to pounce… and now it has finally come. Did you anticipate it? Was it a good cliffhanger?

I apologise that it’s taken so long, and for the never-ending stream of Dad-jokes which I have floating around in my head. There’ll be more in future posts, undoubtedly (I can’t turn them off).

Logo_of_the_100I wanted to write about cliffhangers after (re)watching The 100 on Netflix. It’s a great dystopian series.

(Side note: I complained a while back about some flaws with The 100. One of the things I’ve come to realise recently is that nothing is perfect. A great TV show that runs for multiple seasons will have bad episodes. The 100 starts out really promising, but takes some mis-steps along the way. Nothing or nobody ever measures up in every aspect (including myself), so we just have to take the good with the bad. And so I’m learning to appreciate the bits that worked well and not be disappointed that it wasn’t perfect).

Background: The 100

The basic premise of The 100 is the remnant of humanity live on a space station called The Ark following a nuclear event on Earth. However, unbeknown to most, The Ark is running out of oxygen. In an attempt to give themselves longer to solve the problem, 100 incarcerated teenagers are sent down to Earth – which may or may not be survivable yet. The 100 is the story of the teenagers surviving Earth, and all it throws at them.

Full of Cliffhangers

(Spoilers). The 100 has episode-after-episode (especially in the first season) where you just have to keep watching. It nails the concept of cliff hangers.

  1. E01: the plucky teenagers cross a river en-route to a needed food supply. They’re happy to be on the planet and enjoying nature. (After all, they’ve only ever known a sterile space station). They cross a river ‘Tarzan-style’, cheering jubilantly that they made it across. There’s love in the air and excitement and then a spear comes hurtling out of the trees and skewers Jasper in the stomach.
  2. E02: The adults aboard The Ark watch as the teenager’s bio-wrist bands indicate they are dying en-mass. Belamy, the bully is exerting his control over the teenagers. In the last seconds of the episode we see the teenagers being watched by a savage (“Grounder”) in the trees.
  3. E03: The protagonist (Clarke) makes up with best friend Wells, who for years she thinks has betrayed her. In reality his lies have been protecting her from the truth. Wells is on guard duty when a young girl sits down next to him. They have a little chat and then Charlotte stabs him in the neck and hums to him as he bleeds-out.
  4. E04: Clarke and her new flame Finn “get together”, just as Finn’s girlfriend, Raven, is coming down from The Ark. It’s going to get pointy in a way that a love-triangle does, with 3 points to stab and 3 edges to cut.
  5. E05: The Ark’s oxygen supply is worse than expected. They plan to kill off more people in a “malfunction”, when the truth comes out. Volunteers step forward to die so that others may live and are suffocated when the oxygen is turned off. Shortly thereafter, they see a signal from the Earth, letting them know that Earth is survivable (and the people died unnecessarily).
  6. E06: Belamy has a fight with his (loved) sister Octavia, saying things we know he doesn’t mean.
  7. E07: Up on The Ark the ruling council announces (to their members) that while there are 2,237 people on The Ark there is only enough drop ships for 700 people.
  8. E08: The teenagers are getting guns to protect themselves from a Grounder attack. Meanwhile on The Ark it’s revealed the new Council member is the one who tried to have the Chancellor (President) killed in E1.
  9. E09: An effort at diplomacy with the Grounders ends in sparking off a war. The teenagers think help is on its way when a drop ship comes down early, until it crashes into the ground (presumably with Clarke’s mum aboard).
  10. E10: The traitor, Murphy, who  they let back into their midst has turned over a new leaf and is helping to heal the sick. Only it’s just a momentary change and he sneakily kills someone in the last seconds of the episode.
  11. E11: Clarke and Finn are captured by Grounders and Monty mysteriously disappears.
  12. E12: The adults aboard The Ark plan to send the satellite down to Earth knowing that 95% of the station won’t survive re-entry.
  13. E13: After winning a big battle with the Grounders, a strange new enemy they’ve only heart of “the Mountain Men” come and abduct all the teenagers. Clarke wakes up locked in a Quarantine Ward, seeing Monty across the hall.

As you can see from this list, almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but not all cliffhangers are the same. From this list I can see a few variants:

  • Shock factor – something shocks the audience (this could be a good or bad shock). We’re not expecting Jasper to get speared in episode 1, and it turns the moment of triumph into defeat. And now, having known the danger is “out there” we’re completely shocked when a young girl (one of “their own”) kills one of the strongest teenagers (episode 3). We suddenly realise – again – that there’s more danger than we recognised.
  • Impending danger – could be danger to a character, or danger which threatens the plot (what the character intends to do). The Grounder watching the teenagers from the treeline in episode 2 is menacing. The teenagers are busy partying, not knowing that an enemy is so close by. At this stage we know so little about the Grounders that our lack of knowledge intensifies that fear. When Murphy starts killing sick people we wonder if they’ll discover his duplicity, and who might die first (episode 10).
  • A sense of dread – something bad is about to happen, or has just happened and we wonder what their response is going to be. This can be something that happens in the plot, or with the characters. The love triangle emerging (episode 4) and the “we just killed lots of people needlessly” (episode 5) are both senses of dread.
  • Something amazing – a lot of those above are negative/bad, but we can also be encouraged to keep reading because of something amazing happening. For a bad example, “He picked up a sword, to discover that it was a Sword of Truth”. Now, I have no idea what a Sword of Truth actually is, but I’m sure if I was reading that story I’d be wanting to know.

Notice how the types of cliffhangers are alternated and some are character-based while others are plot-based?

See too how the threat is often escalating (but not always). I agree with the Writing Excuses podcasters that cliffhangers are an ‘occasional device’. If every chapter ends in a cliffhanger it can induce weariness in the reader.

The key point is that all cliffhangers should be executed well. A bad cliffhanger, where you over-build the scenario and then under-deliver is cheating the reader. These should be avoided at all costs. (It would severely aggravate me as a reader… If an author did it to me twice I’d probably put the book down).

 

Based on The 100 I think one of the best places for cliffhangers in a novel is the first few chapters. In doing so, the hook is nicely baited.

Cliffhangers can be internal (in the body of the book) and external (at the end of the book). Great care needs to be taken with external cliffhangers. If you’re using them to bait the reader toward the next book, you need to make sure they won’t have to be waiting too long for you to release the next book.

Got any other types of cliffhangers or examples of good ones to add?

A Strategy for Productivity

Years ago I did some management studies. It was a massive amount of work (when coupled with actually working at the same time), but also very enjoyable. I appreciated the brain-expansion and exposure to new knowledge.

One of the articles I read was ‘Getting things done: The science behind stress-free productivity’ by Francis Heylighten and Clement Vidal. My guess is, almost everyone wishes they were more productive, so I thought I’d share some of the article insights.

“GTD” is a simple and practical method for knowledge workers to manage busy days and ensure maximum personal productivity.

GTD-Workflow-Diagram.PNG
Source: http://www.eproductivity.com/dx/GTD-Workflow-Diagram.pdf/$file/GTD-Workflow-Diagram.pdf

The flowchart defines how work should be processed. In summary, if it’s a 2 minute task it should be done immediately, otherwise it should be allocated time in the future, with prompt-actions created.

The article contains reasoning on how the brain works (and therefore why the system works).  For example, the long-term memory has good recognition but poor recall; the short-term memory holds 7 items in active memory, and the energy required to actively remember something in the short-term is high.

Here were the points in the article I highlighted:

  • As much as possible, offload your mind by storing information/thoughts in a trusted external memory (paper, computer), in a structured format that is easily retrievable.
  • Record this information in an “actionable” form (so it reminds you what needs to be done).  Hopefully to stop you leaving a vague message that becomes cryptic after 5 minutes.
  • Be efficient with your actions.  (i.e. if you’re in close proximity to a task, do them now). When you’re doing a task make sure that you’re in an environment, with the proper tools, to perform that task with maximum effectiveness. “strike while the iron is hot.”
  • Switching to different tasks (mentally and physically) costs time and energy, so minimize job transitions (avoid disruptions).
  • When an ‘opportunity’ arises, but cannot be taken (due to current priorities) file it away in a ‘someday/maybe’ file, so the opportunity is not entirely forgotten.
  • GTD manages from the bottom (concrete issues you have to deal with) rather than from the top (high-level goals and values). It points out that if you try planning downwards you will simply be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities you have to take into account.
  • Each time you have performed one of these tasks, mark it off and write the next action.  In this way all of your project(s) are moving forward.

None of these suggestions are ground-breaking, but if applied consistently I believe it would increase my productivity. As a writer, I have two immediate take-aways: clean my workspace up and avoid “broswing” on the Internet.

Right: blog post written (or read) *check*.

Move onto your next task, and good luck.

Writing a Synopsis

I’ve written before about the amateur author’s pendulum, and the indecisiveness of which route to choose. The spectrum is vast, with traditional publisher at one end and self-publish, release-for-free at the other end.

I’ve decided that I’m going to submit Vengeance Will Come to a traditional publisher. First and foremost, I want the gatekeeper to say I’m allowed through. I don’t want to self publish and (accidentally) add to the slush pile. I know I’m not experienced enough to judge my own quality objectively.

I also know myself. I don’t want to have to worry about things like cover art, promotion and marketing. (I realise there could be elements of this, but I don’t want to ‘go it alone’. I’d rather leave it to the experts).

So now I’m trying to write my very first synopsis. Trying being the operative word.

Organising Feedback

feedback-1793116_640

I’ve had a few rounds of feedback on Vengeance Will Come and have been mostly diligent in filing responses in a sub folder of the project as soon as I receive it. (If your inbox is anything like mine, things get lost in there like a grain of dirt swept up in a mudslide).

Sadly, that’s about where the organisation of feedback ended. (In my partial defence, I intentionally wasn’t processing the feedback straight away: I wanted a balance of opinions and some time to pass).

Here is what I’m going to do now, and in the future, before starting the revision process.

Compiling the Feedback

Create a Feedback Compilation document, which has the same structure (chapters and scenes etc) as the novel.

Go through each (feedback) document/email:

  • Where it’s a typo, grammar or obvious error (e.g. wrong character name), fix it in the manuscript immediately.
  • Where the feedback is incontestably wrong, ignore it. (If there is any doubt, don’t ignore it).
  • Where the feedback relates to a given chapter/scene place it in that location in the document. If it’s thematic feedback or has broader application than a single section I’ll add it to the top of the document.

    I’ll add three-letter initials of the reviewer in brackets at the end of the comment, just in case I want to know who provided it. Some reviewers opinions should hold more weight than others and it’s always helpful to be able to later clarify comments.

Colour Coding

  • If the tone of the comment is positive, change the font colour to something less stand-out than black. I’m leaving it in the document so I don’t accidentally “edit out” the bits people like. And, inevitably, there’ll be days when I need a motivational boost.
  • Where I disagree with the feedback I’ll add a comment in brackets as to why, and colour the font a grey. (It’s still there, but less important).
  • Where I agree with the comment (or enough reviewers pick up on the same issue) and it’s a major problem, apply bold and red font.

Summarising

  • Once I’ve added all the feedback from all reviews, I’ll group my related dot points (to see the weight of opinions). This might result in grey text I disagree with becoming black text. I might also paraphrase a collection of dot points down into a concise problem statement.
  • If reviewers disagree with each other then I’ll either side with one, or put both opinions in a table with two columns (pros and cons).

After all this work I should have a single document to use as a reference when editing each section of the novel.

If you write, what are your strategies for managing feedback?

It’s Hammer Time

In the beginning of Vengeance Will Come I have a made-up saying, a piece of wisdom:

A bar of steel is of limited use

But if it endures flaming trials

And is pounded upon by adversity

It can be shaped into many powerful things…

forge

Vengeance Will Come has been in the fires too long and I have too many other projects I want to progress. To continue the forge metaphor it’s time that some serious hammering occurs.

To that end I’m suspending all work on any other project until the current revision of Vengeance Will Come is complete. No other writing (excluding blog posts) and no programming, no matter how enticing the idea may be.

Ideally I’d like to finish by the end of July, but I’m not sure that’s realistic (based on past experience). In any case, I’m aiming to finish as soon as humanly possible.

And so, it’s hammer time! (Millennials won’t get the pun).