Decentralizing a Novel

Writing is a glorious creative adventure wherein your imagination is free to roam infinite universes, but it’s also a craft and a skill. As the latter, sometimes it can get a bit … well, boring‘s not the right word. Familiar, maybe? The first time you pull off some literary trick it’s exciting. When you’ve written 600 short stories and twenty-five novels, some of your own bag of tricks get a little been-there, if you know what I mean.

Shaking things up is necessary from time to time. Working in a new, unfamiliar genre, or changing up your process can be remedies to a certain malaise that can set in. I’ve always been mystified by writers who act like their process is somehow an unchangeable fact of the universe, as if changing the schedule and mechanics of their writing will somehow result in disaster. I myself get into deep, comfy ruts when it comes to schedule and mechanics, but I also try to occasionally challenge myself and get out of that comfort zone—like writing a novel as a series of novellas, for example. Recently, I find myself contemplating a decentralized style of writing a novel.

Literally Linear

I’m usually a pretty linear writer; even when my story jumps around in time or is otherwise complex, I start at the beginning of my story and proceed A—Z from there in the order that I conceive of the story. That’s how my brain works, so that’s how I write.

I have an idea for a novel right now that’s going to involve a frame story of sorts and then some individual episodes. Normally, as I said, I would start at the beginning and just go forward from there, but this time, for whatever reason, I want to try something different, so I’m going to just randomly write sections of the book until I’m done. Instead of starting with what would be Chapter 1 and moving forward linearly, I’m going to maybe start by writing Chapter 14, then Chapter 20, and so on.

Why? Why not? But mainly I want to keep things fresh and try something new. There’s such low stakes with little tricks like this, there’s almost zero reason not to try things once in a while in an effort to shake up your own complacency. Worst case scenario? I give up and restart with a more traditional approach to process. Or maybe I go insane and start wandering the neighborhood in a robe, muttering to myself … more often.

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Gettin’ Fancy

When I was in college, I once wrote a short story entirely in crayon. This was most likely because I was bored, but there was a story reason for the choice that I can’t recall (just as I can’t recall what the story itself was about, and I lack sufficient energy and motivation to dig it out of my files to find out), some sort of color theme. It’s one of the few times in my career I’ve tried to play around with the presentation of a story as opposed to relying on the words themselves to carry whatever message I’m trying to convey. Although I do have certain private peccadillos (only writing short stories in longhand, only using a blue pen) when it comes to publishing my work I don’t like to rely on font or design choices to carry anything, because those can be lost or misinterpreted. When the superadvanced roach species that rules this planet in the future finds my work (and they will), I don’t want half the point lost because they don’t have Comic Sans loaded on their futuristic devices.

It’s Not a Rule, Though

I’m currently reading a novel that does rely on a lot of design work and special fonts, and it’s not working for me. For one thing, the special fonts are distracting; one is meant to resemble handwriting, but the perfect repetition of the letter forms betrays it and spikes me out of the narrative. For another, the special, heavily-designed sections meant to resemble specific modes of writing, time periods, and other aspects of the story are just kind of useless.

Your mileage may vary, of course; anything can be pulled off in a novel or story, it just requires that you have the talent and vision to do so. For example, I love House of Leaves despite (or perhaps because of) it’s use of font shenanigans and specific design choices. And would I love Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tail—which I named my blog after!—if it wasn’t so meticulously laid out?

Still, for myself, I’m a purist. I’d like to think I can convey anything I need to simply through my control of the language. And I kind of feel like that’s definitely where you should start, even if you do end up utilizing some font shenanigans or other design wankery to get a certain effect. All of your work should be design-indifferent, utlimately, in my opinion, with the frills added on later. I stick with italics for anything that’s not part of the main narrative, and if you’re confused after reading one of my stories, then it’s not the fault of the design or the font choices, but rather of my writing.

But then, what do I know? Depends who you ask. The Duchess will tell you I have some knowledge of housekeeping, but not much else. And she will go on at length on this subject, too, so clear some time.

Submissions: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When describing what it’s like to make money from creativity, I often like to refer to the TV show Mad Men because of the way it depicted resident creative genius Don Draper. In a nutshell, Draper was often shown napping in his office, sneaking out to a movie (or a date) in the afternoons, drinking excessively, and otherwise goofing off.

In short, there’s a lot of blank space in a creative life. When 90% of the work is mental, it can be hard for other folks to understand what you’re doing if you’re not madly typing constantly.

If that blank space is mystifying to other people, it can be downright terrifying to a writer; it usually follows months or years of intense effort, and then you send off your project—to a magazine, web site, publisher, agent, or beta reader—and enter into the Blank Space portion of your writing life. In short, one of the most difficult aspects of a writing career (as opposed to actually just doing the writing) is the waiting game that ensues after you submit something. You can drive yourself crazy interpreting silence. The best thing to do, in my experience, is to not think about submissions at all.

Set It and Forget It

I send off a lot of submissions every year, both on my own (short stories and novellas to contests, anthologies, and magazines) and to or via my agent. And it’s always the same: There’s a ton of work that goes into thew writing, revising, and preparation of the story or book, and then there’s a ton of work that goes into preparing the submission itself—cover letters, synopses, proposals, etc.

And then: Nothing. The Blank Space.

The only thing to do is put it out of your mind. Forget all about it. Jump to the next project or take some time off, whatever you prefer, but don’t waste time thinking about what you just sent off. You can’t affect the odds now, what’s done is done. And the universe is not taking note of the amount of mental energy you’re pouring into the submission, so there’s nothing to be gained by going over it in your head, or worrying over what the delay or speed of a response means. Put it out of your mind and move on to the next thing so that the rejection or acceptance that comes down the pike will be a surprise, pleasant or otherwise.

Of course, there’s a downside to this: I often completely forget about submissions altogether, and thirteen months later I suddenly notice an open sub in my records and then realize I’ve accidentally simultaneously-submitted that story a dozen times. Or forgotten to follow up at all. Because when you’ve got a sieve-like memory, sometimes Blank Space is all you have.

Curing the End of Book Blues

Something that doesn’t get discussed a lot in the conversation about writing (and selling and marketing) stories is what happens when you finish something. Writers put so much energy into a novel, so many months or years of effort, so many restless night worrying over plot points and pondering why a character doesn’t seem to be gelling the story, that finishing a novel is sometimes more of a crawl over the finish line as opposed to a triumphant sprint.

Putting that kind of mental energy into a project means that for many writers there’s a crash after you’re done, a creative hangover of sorts that can knock you off your game for a long time.

Out of the Groove

For me, part of it is that by the time I get to the final act of a novel I’ve become really familiar and comfortable with the universe I’ve created and the characters I’ve filled it with. There’s a great deal of pleasure when you’re totally in control of a story. You’ve solved all your plot problems, you’re so familiar with your characters it’s like they’re real people to you, and everything becomes, at the end, effortless.

Then you finish. And you’re suddenly faced with the monumental task of starting over, from scratch. And the idea is simply exhausting. Even if you have a great idea you want to develop, actually, you know, developing it seems like lifting a building over your head.

Worse, of course, is when you finish a book and realize that it isn’t good. That you screwed it up somehow. All that effort, and your choice now is to either trash what you have and start over from scratch, spend another few months trying to sort out the problems without a total re-write, or start something new and hope it goes better.

Either way, there’s always a hangover after finishing something. My preferred way of dealing with it is to have multiple projects going at once. This overlaps the hangovers a bit, which mitigates them. If for some reason I don’t have something else already in progress, I sometimes find it’s bracing and curative to dash off something short and maybe a little crazy. To just take any crazy idea that pops into my head and write it fast and dirty, without planning or deep thought.

Or, you know, drink heavily until my body turns yellow and I’m confined to bed and having nothing else to do but write. Sometimes that.

Spin Those Plates

As you might suspect from a blog tied to a book called Writing Without Rules, I generally don’t believe there is any “correct” way to write. You Do You tends to be my reaction to people’s declarations of process, writer’s block cures, or systems for developing characters or plots. All that matters is that you get words on the page or screen, and that you’re excited about those words. However you get there is immaterial.

I do, however, have opinions based on my own experience. It’s important to note that these are just opinions, personal expressions of personal experience filtered through my own preconceptions and assumptions. Still, it’s useful to see how other people do it. Sometimes finding out that another writer does things the same way you do is heartening. Sometimes seeing another process or an alternative view of the business or craft of writing fiction and/or non-fiction suddenly prompts you to change your approach.

For example: Concurrent projects. Some writers fixate on a single project. They devote themselves to it, doing research, planning and plotting, then writing and re-writing, revising and excising until they’re satisfied. They work in a linear fashion.

Not me. I usually have several projects going at once, usually a few novels, a short story, and any number of other things. And that’s not even counting the freelance work and promotional blogging that I do. What can I say—I think there are distinct advantages to spinning plates.

WIPs All the Way Down

I just completed two novels that I was working on concurrently, and I have a third novel begun while those two were in process, plus a monthly short story, another one-shot short story set in one of my established universes, and two other ideas that will either be novels or … something else, who knows. And I recently stumbled onto another short story that I’d half completed and then forgot about, so I jumped in to finish that.

I like having all these projects going for three main reasons:

  1. Variety. If i get bogged down in one story, uncertain how to proceed, I can just jump over to another one. And while I’m working on the second, I’m subconsciously recharging my batteries for the first. Plus, I get to indulge two genres at once, if I want.
  2. Confirmation. Ideas are funny—they jump into your brain electric and buzzing with potential. Then some of them die off, withering away, while others just get stronger and brighter. Working on a bunch of different things means that if one withers away and goes nowhere it’s not nearly as devastating as it otherwise would be.
  3. Preservation. For me, ideas don’t last too long unless they’re developed. A concept that seemed ingenious last month might turn into ash if I don’t hang some words on it.

I don’t divide my time and attention equally. One project can rise up and claim all of my attention for a time, especially if it’s near the end. I don’t have any rules about this. I just work on whatever I want to, regardless of what else is on my dance card. Including this blog.

Plot Holes: Gaslight ‛Em

To the outside world, writing probably seems easy. We sit around daydreaming, then spend a few hours typing, and a few weeks later we email a manuscript and receive a million dollars, probably. We writers, of course, know better—most of us are going to end up broke, insane, and working at a local big box store mopping the bathrooms and muttering to ourselves about how hacks stole all of our ideas.

Even worse, the act of writing is rough going sometimes. Ideas that flare into being as bright, perfect creations wither into rotten, saggy lumps when we get our potato hands on them. Characters fail to become real people, Netflix suddenly drops a full season of a new show with the exact same premise as your WIP, and plot holes infest your story until it’s more hole than plot.

A Feature, Not a Bug

I recently had a manuscript reviewed specifically for plot holes; I braced myself, because my mind wanders at the best of times and I am no stranger to the hell of realizing the character who saves the day in Chapter 31 was killed off in Chapter 9. I’m a person who lives very much in the present; I forget things so quickly and utterly I am not kidding when I say that by the time I finish a manuscript there are elements of the early chapters that I have zero memory of. It makes taming a plot into coherency kind of difficult.

This time there were no big plot holes to worry over, thank goodness, but it did prompt me to consider my usual tactics for dealing with plot holes.

Sometimes, of course, the only way to deal with plot holes is to eliminate them even if it means yet another extensive revision to the story. This is only necessary when the plot holes in question make your story a mess. But going back to fix up a plot hole isn’t always necessary—and sometimes causes ripples in the rest of your story, a domino effect of fixes opening up new rifts.

So, sometimes—sometimes—the best thing to do is to take your plot holes and celebrate them. Elevate them from subtle to screaming. To gaslight your reader with them.

This isn’t a technique you can use a lot. The story has to have a certain elasticity to it, a certain loose relationship to realism—if your plot is rooted firmly in the real world, playing around with plot holes like this won’t work. But if you’ve got some leeway with the point-of-view, if your narrator is unreliable or the reality of your fictional universe is a bit skewed, you might be able to take a plot hole and turn it into a feature instead of a bug.

Easier said than done, of course. But then, so is writing a novel in the first place.

The Great Compression

As a writer, I like to finish things—more than finish them, I like to whip things into marketable shape. On the one hand the psychology of this is obvious; as I’m fond of saying, you sell exactly zero of the books and stories you don’t finish. My legacy on this world is going to be my writing, so the more of it I can publish and get seen, the better.

On the other hand my obsession with finishing things and extracting some sort of publishable value from my writing goes beyond simply practicality, and I’m not sure where it’s rooted in my life. All I know is, once a work gets to a certain bulk, I’m determined to make the effort of writing it worthwhile by finishing it and then polishing it into something that might, conceivably, get published.

One side effect of this obsession is an eagerness to try new techniques or crazy ideas. I get super excited with experiments that might lead to stronger material—experiments that go beyond polish and revision. One example is when I Frankensteined two failed novels together to make one great novel (something I discuss in detail in Writing Without Rules). Another is something I just mentioned on Twitter last week: Boiling a novel down to a short story.

The Great Compression

I’ve been planning to submit a story to an anthology, but wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write a fresh story to match the theme or see if I had something already in the can that would work. I realized that a novel I completed last year was actually a perfect fit, theme-wise. The only problem? The antho had a word count limit of 6,000 words and the novel was 63K+.

This novel has a long history. It started off as a short story I wrote in the early 1990s; I really liked it but could never sell it anywhere, and so a few years ago I started trying to work it into different formats, eventually ending up with an unsatisfactory novel last year. I still thought it had great potential, so the story was still alive in my head, but it wasn’t right.

The idea of trying to cut 90% of the story? Exciting. Like, thrilling. I love stuff like that, extreme challenges. Could I excise most of the novel and still have the core of it?

It was dismaying easy, actually. Dismaying, because it implies that 90% of that novel was just bullshit I poured in there to bulk it up, something I expressly advise people not to do. My only defense is that I didn’t bulk it up on purpose. And I like a lot of the writing I deleted. In practical terms, one reason the story was easy to compress is the structure I used in the novel—it has three timelines, so step one was simply to choose the timeline in which the main, core story occurred, and then delete the others. Just like that, 50% of the words were gone.

Next, I compressed characters. In a novel you can be subtle and granular with your characters. In a short story every character has to be essential. So I eliminated characters whose roles could be passed on to other people. That took care of another chunk of words.

All of this work took me: One day. And I had a story that was still coherent at about 9,000 words. The rest was shaving and shaping, and I really like the story I ended up with at 6K.

Is there a lesson here? The only lesson, I think, is that it’s worth it to push yourself, to try crazy things, to go beyond NaNoWriMo and see what you’re capable of. I can’t swear I’ll sell this story to this anthology or anywhere else. But it was fun to do this, and ultimately successful.

For my next trick, I’m going to try compressing an entire weekend’s worth of drinking into one night. I may not survive. You may not survive. But someone’s got to try, dammit.

Snatching Failure from the Jaws of Victory

Last year I submitted a short story to an anthology, and a few weeks ago I got an email informing me that my story had been selected. This is always great news, and it was made even better by the fact that the antho was kind of prestigious and I could expect a bit of attention, so this was more than just a tidy sum of money and an extra credit on my resume.

The email noted that the although the editors had chosen my story, the publisher had the final say, but I figured, what could go wrong?

You see where this is going.

Thanks but No Thanks

Yup, the publisher pulled my story. They had their reasons, and the editor who contacted me to break the news was very awkwardly embarrassed about it, but hey, shit happens. I sold a story and then it got un-sold, and that sucks, but you move on.

Luckily, stuff like this is rare, and usually it’s me doing the un-selling. I once sold a short story to a magazine, but their contract turned out to be very shitty, so I pulled the story. I’ve been ambushed by vanity publishers and had to pull stories. Usually, once you get the acceptance, though, the rest is just details.

Not much you can do about it. Losing opportunities like this is just part of the game, because there are two sides to every sale: The editorial, and the business. And whenever you get a story past the editorial part, there is always the possibility that the contract will be bad, or the terms not what you expected—or that someone on the bean-counting side will object for bean-countery reasons.

The lesson is simple: Don’t brag on your sales until it’s a done deal. When I was sixteen, I sold a novel to a tiny publisher. I immediately began bragging to everyone about, and was very likely insufferable for a very, very long time. Two years later, as I started college, the tiny publisher had gone out of business and had mailed back my manuscript, half-edited. And I had to start admitting to everyone that I wasn’t getting published after all.

It’s part of the game. The fact that the game’s rules were apparently written by a drunk and vengeful god is beside the point.

Salvaging a Fail

It happens. Every novel I start begins in a surge of excitement and a sense of infinite possibilities. Then, as I work, those possibilities start to shrink down with every choice I make. Certain plot twists become impossible, certain characters prove to be less than fascinating and are phased out, certain ideas get pushed aside.

Along with those dwindling options in your story you also start to get a sense of whether or not the story is working. As much as writers are often poor judges of their own material and rely on other people’s feedback, we generally do have a handle on whether the book is even working on a fundamental level. There might be some serious denial going on, of course, but deep down you know. And sometimes you get the ominous feeling that this book you’ve been working on for six months, this book that now has tens of thousands of words in it simply isn’t working. You have a thing that looks like a book but is really a shambolic mess.

Or maybe that’s just me. When a novel that I’ve invested time and energy into starts slipping through my fingers like a castle made of sand, I don’t just give up, because I like to finish things—because you publish exactly zero of the projects you don’t finish. Instead, I try to come up with a solution to save the day.

Finish Him

My choice of solution varies depending on how far along I am.

Almost a Novel. If I’m three-fourths through the plot and the work is already or close to book-length, I just push through. Just because a novel is terrible is no reason to just not finish it—as long as you’re close to the end. If I think I just need a few more weeks to polish this turd into a novel-shaped thing, I go on and put that work in, because at least I’ll have a book at the end of it.

Halfway to a Novel. On the other hand, sometimes you realize that you’re writing something awful much earlier. If there’s a lot of work left to make this into a novel-length story, I’ll usually abandon that goal and focus instead on coming up with a resolution to the story that ties everything up in a much shorter time span. Better to have a novella than nothing at all.

A Complete Mess. If I’ve got a lot of words and not much else, I’ll lower my goals to simply extracting something from the pile. Maybe the first chapter—when I was inspired and focused—could work as a standalone short story. Maybe a middle section could work on its own. If there’s nothing worth pulling out then I’ve really screwed the pooch, because that means there’s literally no contiguous set of a few thousand words worth reading in the whole thing and I should reconsider my application to Clown College.

That last scenario almost never happens, though, because there’s almost always something worth saving. A few years ago I started work on a novel that’s been up and down quite a bit. I originally cut it off and Went Novella on it when the story lost steam, but then I went back and thought I had a solution to the book’s many problems. I doubled the word count and yes, it’s a novel now, but it still isn’t a good novel.

Still, I’d rather have a finished novella and novel out of it than a swamp of messy words. I may never publish either version of that story, but at least with finished, somewhat polished work the possibility of publishing it in some form remains.

Whether or not the world benefits from publishing those stories is an issue our future alien overlords will have to determine when they sift through the ashes of our culture.

The Long and Winding Road

In a few weeks I’ll finish revising the second novel I’ve completed in 2018 (technically they were both completed in 2017 in terms of first drafts, and now they’re both hitting a “presentable” polished stage, meaning I can inflict them on my long-suffering agent). This isn’t unusual for me; since 1988 or so I’ve completed 44 novels, and it’s not at all strange for me to finish 2-3 in a calendar year. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re good novels; of those 44, after all, I’ve published 10 (one self-published), and at the moment there’s only 3 unpublished novels that have any chance of seeing the light of day (and that number includes the 2 I’m discussing here).

That’s me, that’s my process. I’m a write-it-all-and-figure-it-out-later kind of guy. I draft quickly, pants my way through plot, and as a result I have a high failure rate in terms of having top-notch material ready for my agent. I’m okay with that, because it’s just naturally how I work. By the time I figure out that a novel’s not working out I’m 80% of the way through it and my compulsive need to finish things kicks in.

The two novels I’m finishing up right now are really good, I think. And they’re interesting because they were both born, originally, as short stories written in 1992. Which, if you’re keeping score at home, was 26 fucking years ago.

I am old.

The Glorious Year of Glad

So, 26 years ago I wrote a story called The Hollow Men and a story called The Only Time. One was sci-fi, and one was sort of a dark thriller that wasn’t speculative but felt speculative, is the best way I can describe it.

I never sold either story as a short, but they lingered with me. The Only Time I tried to work into a novel in 1999, and to be honest I really liked that book at the time. A few years ago I was thinking about my journey with The Electric Church (which was originally written in 1993, then revised in 2004 into the version that sold to Orbit Books), so I dusted off that 1999 draft of The Only Time to see if similar magic might be done, but I wasn’t too happy with it in the cold light of middle age, so I started re-working it entirely in 2016, combining it with another concept. I finished that draft in 2017 and, frankly, hated it. The mixture of concepts didn’t work, and the earlier chapters had a different tone and feel because they hued closer to the earlier draft.

The Hollow Men just sat on my hard drive for decades. I always liked the core story, but even shortly after finishing it I realized it was juvenelia—one of those stories you write as a kid because you think it’s “cool” and “edgy” when it’s really just pointlessly nihilistic. But the basic concept stayed with me, and I finally decided in 2015 to try to expand the story into a novel. 60,000 words later, I had a hot stinking mess of a story. There was some great stuff in it, but one of the big reveals in the latter part of the plot turned out a bit more ridiculous than I’d expected.

I worked on it again in 2016, changing the big reveal to something more speculative and out-there. This didn’t work either.

Finally, I started revising again last year. The book had bloated up a bit, so I started cutting out unnecessary stuff, shifted a few parts around, and removed all explicit references to the speculative aspect while leaving it in invisibly—in other words, I know what’s behind everything, but it’s no longer stated in the story, and that works so much better y’all.

So: I wrote two shorts stories in 1992. In 2018, I’m finishing up novel-length versions of each and you would be hard-pressed to see the connections between them. The novels are so different from those original stories you’d never guess in a million years th related in any way.

And that’s writing, sometimes. The evolution of ideas is harsh. You cut ruthlessly. You sand and hone endlessly. Details erode away to reveal new details. Characters and entire subplots get deleted, shifted around, rendered invisible. And sometimes it take more than a quarter-century to take an idea and make it into a book.