A Perfect Slave, the Final Stretch — Excerpt

I’ve done everything I can do to improve A Perfect Slave. Now it’s up to ProWritingAid to winkle out all the little details I’ve overlooked. Twenty-two chapters won’t be done in a day. I’ll give it three days, and use the breaks to create the cover and write a blurb that will be irresistible. I’m way overdue on my own deadline, but since I didn’t drag it out too unreasonably, I’ll celebrate by offering one last excerpt.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

I served him [Master Chanow] for three wonderful years and I thought I would stay with him always, but he betrayed me. I have no right to use that word or to feel that way, and it isn’t how I thought about it at the time, but living in Trusland has changed me. I’m sure Master Chanow thought he was doing the right thing, that he was acting for my benefit. At least, that’s what I was told later. But I did come to see it as a betrayal.

My master was not only kind, he sensed what I needed and kept a firm hand on me. I grew to be fond of him and thought of him almost as a friend. He trained me in his profession, architecture, taught me drafting, how to read blueprints, how to make materials estimates, and much more. Maybe I learned too well, given what happened.

He told me many times that I had a talent for the work, and it bothered him that I could never have a career, or work in any capacity other than as his assistant. He would give me assignments to work on at home while he was at away at his studio, and during the last months, we worked together in the evenings, constructing a model for a new building he had designed. It was a fantastical thing of graceful arches and floating pavilions that looked as if it would be beautiful and terribly expensive.

He wouldn’t tell me the purpose of the building, promising that I would find out when it was complete. I loved working on it with him, cutting the tiny pieces of wood to exact measure and gluing them in place. Helping him create something that might become a reality in the free world was deeply satisfying. Then, one evening, it was finished. I expected that now he would finally tell me what it was for, but he said that I would find out the next day. I was disappointed, and also sad that we wouldn’t be working on it together any more. But there was also the thrill of anticipation. I would learn what the building was to be used for. And maybe we would also be starting on another such project soon.

He prepared to go to work as usual the next morning, and just before he went to the door, he pointed to the model and said “It’s a sacrifice. Whatever happens today, I promise you’ll be all right. Good luck, Shand.” It was the last time I ever saw him.

I remember just standing there, staring at the closed door with my mind spinning in utter confusion. A sacrifice. His words didn’t make any sense, but they made me apprehensive. It was so different from anything I would have expected from him. Why would anything happen? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t get hold of what it might be. I walked around the table that held the model and tried to find some meaning in its being a sacrifice. As I worked on the day’s assignments and the household chores, I kept trying to puzzle it out. ‘Whatever happens.’ ‘Good luck.’ There was a sick lurch in my stomach when it hit me. He was going to sell me back to the agency! Why? What had I done wrong? Why hadn’t he told me… something, anything?

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of anything I had done that would make him angry enough to sell me. Or was it a lot of little things that he let build up until he was too disgusted to want me around anymore? He hadn’t acted any different toward me lately, not that I could remember. I tried to give up thinking about it because I didn’t want to Master Chanow to see that I was upset when he came home.

An hour or so after midmeal, I was walking around the model, thinking about all the work that had gone into making it and imagining what it would look like when it was built. It gave me a good feeling to think that a little part of me could be out in the world someday. Maybe Master Chanow would even take me to see it. I heard a noise at the front door and went to see who it was. It was unusual for that time of day, but I didn’t have any reason to be worried about it.

Before I reached the door, there was an enormous bang and it was smashed open. I was so stunned at the sight of three men in uniforms that I couldn’t even move as they burst into the house and went straight to the workroom. One of them pushed me out of the way and stood at the door, keeping watch, while the other two starting sweeping books from the shelves onto the floor, and scattering blueprints and sketches everywhere. Then, to my horror, one of them brought his fist down on the model and sent the delicate pieces flying in every direction.

Kickstarting (Kicking) the Muse

If I really had a muse, I’d be kicking its ass, trying to wake it up and encourage it to do its job. With health issues sapping my energy (mental as well as physical), I’m getting kind of desperate. I need to be writing. I want to be writing. But most days, writing isn’t happening. It’s partly my own fault, of course. Any sensible person would have no more than two or three WIPs underway, and even if they skipped around between them, progress would probably be visible.

But who ever accused me of being sensible? Well, I’m trying to be, so I picked out six WIPs out of the wild jungle of infinite numbers, and I’m going to let them battle it out for further attention. Only six? you say. Nothing sensible about that, but it’s what I’m going with — for now.

I’m hoping that somewhere in the process of figuring out how to evaluate them, and then doing the evaluating, a spark will leap up and I’ll know what to do. Yup. Sure.

In no particular order, here are the six I’m considering for immediate action and publication.

A Perfect Slave is technically the third Boundaries (Hand Slaves) novel. It’s finished, but could probably benefit by one more run-through. I sent every copy, including backups, to digital oblivion, thinking I’m through with slavery fantasies. But it won’t leave me alone, so I dug it out of the Time Machine (thank you, Apple).

Privileged Lives and Other Lies is not only finished, but published. It’s hardly sold any copies, but I can’t give it up. I’m almost finished with a thorough revision. If I choose it, I’ll shorten the title to Privileged Lives, and create a new cover. Does it make sense to republish an old, unsuccessful book when there are so many new ones waiting in line? Good question.

Gift of the Ancien is somewhat vampirish, probably the most mainstream novel I’ve written, and potentially the one most likely to sell more than one copy a month. It’s complete, but needs a massive revision that threatens to drown me every time I look at it. It’s also one of my oldest pieces, so there’s this nagging pressure to get it out there.

Empire of Masks has been kicking around in my head for several years, and on my computer, collecting notes. It’s another slavery fantasy, but mostly about a society gone amuck and, like A Perfect Slave, rescued from digital death. With only 1,000 or so words written so far, it’s the least likely be finished any time in the near future unless I abandon every other WIP and concentrate on it exclusively. When have I ever concentrated on one book exclusively? Only during NaNo, and I don’t think I have what it takes to do that again.

Bentham’s Dream is a prison story dear to my heart, but unlikely to attract many readers. It’s depressing, for one thing. Half to 3/4 done, with the hardest parts still ahead of me.

A Well-Educated Boy takes up most of my imaginative daydreaming lately, but I’m only a few thousand words in, and there are critical parts that still aren’t coming clear. Set in the near-future, it’s a look at two possible co-existing dystopias not so different from today’s realities. It might do well, since it’s basically YA.

So this is me, thinking out loud, and now looking back at what I just wrote for clues to the way ahead. Nope. Not yet. But it’s a start.

The Tide Rolls In, The Tide Rolls Out

The energy tide, that is. I’ve had to take several breaks from the revision of Privileged Lives, but I’m down to the final chapter today. A lot of tightening up reduced the word count enough that I’ve been able to build up weak areas without making the book longer. 93,000+ words is a good length to maintain. Next will come several editing runs, then spell check, a round or two of ProWritingAid, and a final proofread. The cover is still ahead, with the first viable idea since I wrote the darn thing.

Oops. I was going to start serializing it yesterday. Fibro fog or just old-fashioned forgetfulness? Since the first two chapters introduce the two protagonists, Maybe I’ll post both those chapters this weekend. Nope. They’re both around 5,000 words, so I’ll have to split them.

The renewal notice came up for PWA the other day, and it was somewhat alarming to realize I’ve had it for a year and only used it for one book. The cost was probably more than I earned all year, so I’ll have to keep that in mind from now on and get more work finished. Which I intend to do anyway.

I’ll be so glad to get this novel out of the way. As usual, new ideas keep nagging at me along with the WIPs that are demanding my time.

Editing, Kitty Adoption, News

The revision of Privileged Lives is going well, although stuff got in the way yesterday and I only did about two chapters. Still… Cutting the fat, expanding scenes, combining chapters, all on the way to a final rewrite. It’s down to 29 chapters, from 38, and I’ll probably combine several more before I’m through. It’s kind of amazing how much I’ve learned since writing it back in the Spring of 2011. And it’s hard to believe it’s been hanging around that long. This is one of those cases where you have to decide whether a book that’s never sold more than a few copies is worth overhauling. It might still languish unread, but it’s worth it to me.

The “stuff” that got in the way of book work yesterday, was one of the massive shopping trips I go on almost every week with my son. Usually, it’s two grocery stores and one or two thrift stores. Yesterday’s started with the local Humane Society. I decided a month or two ago that I missed having a fur ball, so I kept checking out the photos on the HS site. The cat I’m adopting is a ten-year-old orange female who might not have found another owner at that age. She wasn’t exactly abused by her previous owners, but they put her in their basement because of their little kids (no details on that except her inability to cope), and lived down there for a year. She’s still skittish, but didn’t have any trouble with my petting her, leaned right in, in fact, so I think she’ll be fine once she settles down. We’ll probably go in tomorrow to sign the adoption papers and take Stella home.

As part of getting my life somewhat normalized, which used to mean being owned by a cat, I’m cutting way back on the news. I’ve accepted that things are mostly going to get worse as the new “president” lays about him with an axe handle. There’s nothing I can do about it except put my little bit of money where I hope it will do some good. I made a second donation to the Standing Rock Sioux this morning, even though I know that particular battle will probably be lost.

RESIST!

94,000 Words in a Day

It’s possible that my WIPs live in a universe of their own and impose themselves on me as they please rather than according to any decisions I may have made about which ones are the most important right now.

It apparently didn’t matter that I’ve prioritized more current work for completion and the process involved in getting to publication. One of my early novels, which has had almost zero attention from the reading public, shoved its way to the front of the queue yesterday. It had been handing out warnings, which I ignored, believing that I had entered a new phase of my writing life in which I could limit myself to a few reasonable tasks and actually complete them in a timely manner.

Instead, I spent Saturday reading through Privileged Lives and Other Lies, doing a bit of editing here and there, but mostly just noting the areas that need work. Yes, I read a 94,000 word novel in one day, and at the end of the day I wondered how I’d managed it. I’m a fast reader, but even so…

This novel has been a huge disappointment to me, because for the most part, it contains some of my best writing. That, in spite of having a couple of real problems that I simply didn’t face at the time. And it has a terrible cover, one of my first. And I didn’t know at the time I published it, that it fits in the young adult category. And, and, and…

I’m still stuck about the cover, but I know what needs to be done to bring the novel up to my current higher standard. I just hope that it persists at banging on my door until it’s satisfied.

The Never-Ending, One and Only Draft

Came across a moderately interesting review —Track Changes — of the book of the same name, on how the change from typewriters to computers has changed the way novelists write. Some writers still use typewriters, and a few write by hand. And of course, there’s mention of early criticisms that word processing would, in some way, degrade literature. I imagine that one topic is covered pretty thoroughly in the book.

What really stood out for me was just one line: “Philip Roth and Zadie Smith have both said the computer has done away with drafts: they edit as they go, saving over earlier versions.” That, quite frankly, was awesome, because I do exactly the same thing and have been working that way for a long time.

In discussions about novel development (or development of any book, but mostly usually novels) drafts are always a hot topic. How many drafts are optimum? How many drafts should I write? How many drafts do you go through? I never get into those discussions. What am I going to say, “I write only one draft?” Horrors! That has to mean I don’t care about grammar, construction, story development, or any other aspect of writing.

If I say that I just keep writing over the first draft, more horror. What if I cut out something I later realize I want to keep, and it’s gone? There are two ways to deal with that possibility. 1. If I’m really in doubt about cutting out some material and then regretting that it’s gone, I stick it in a text file called “Fragments.” Scrivener makes it very easy to do that. Or, what I’ve switched to doing instead, I can add it to “Fragments” in the floating Notes feature. The advantage of using Notes is that I can keep it onscreen, rather than having to jump between the “Fragments” text file and the chapter text file. There was a time when I just stuck the deleted text at the bottom of the chapter, but that messes up my word count if I’m keeping track of it.

2. The other way to make sure my golden words aren’t lost forever is to take a snapshot of the chapter as it is at that moment. Snapshots are another clever feature of Scrivener, but the truth is that I’ve used it only once, just out of curiosity. Snapshots are, though most people probably don’t think of them that way, another way to back up your material. Since I save to Dropbox, and have an external drive just for backups, plus thumb drives, when I remember to use them, that would be a bit of a redundancy on top of redundancies.

When it comes right down to it, though, over time I’ve developed the attitude that there are multiple ways to write a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. In a sense, writing a novel in a word processor is like playing with Silly Putty. Your ideas are plastic, always changing, always capable of being reshaped. To make the best use of the power of writing digitally, your mind also has to be plastic, willing to let the past evolve into the new.

If nothing else, you don’t have to deal with the clutter of all those old drafts that you’re probably never going to look at again.

When Desperation Drives You

That’s when you’ll do crazy things. Like sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. Which I just did. Why? Because Camp Expendable has been hanging for almost seven months now, despite having had an excellent beta critique and some major rethinking on my part. Why the rush? Considering the months of prep work I put into it before actually writing it last November during NaNoWriMo, the time is probably close to a year.

I’m more or less normally functional about every other day. The rest of the time, accumulated aches and pains, and fatigue, turn everything I do into a debate about priorities and how much energy any one job will require. Not exactly a situation conducive to sustained work on novel revision.

The first draft of Camp Expendable was 52,394 words. Since then, I’ve done a fair amount of editing and increased the word count to 64,620 words. The scope of the novel means that it really needs to be at least 75,000 words, and that’s what I’ll be aiming for in July. It’s pretty pathetic, really: a goal of just over 10,000 words for an entire month’s work  — 335 words a day. But half the year is gone, and I haven’t done diddly on any of my writing goals for this year. Something has to give. July will be do or die time.

 

 

Character –> Revisions –> Frustration

Working on Camp Expendable has become an exercise in frustration. I want it finished and it doesn’t want to be finished. I put the first three chapters through ProWritingAid yesterday, and my overall impression was that the writing is better, so there isn’t as much to be corrected as there would have been only one or two drafts back. But… I was still finding details I was unhappy with that required further tweaking. Will this never end? Apparently not.

To make things even worse, while I was reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel last night, Casey’s personality and my problems with it intruded. Casey is the primary protagonist, and it’s his actions that direct the novel. I think I’ve developed him fairly well, but all through the various revisions, I’ve felt that there’s something lacking in how he comes across. That lack is weakening the novel, and even though I can see the problem clearly, I haven’t been able to figure out what to do about it. Until last night.

Here’s where I would love to turn the novel over to beta readers because I don’t know if I can trust my own judgment that he’s coming across as a whiner with a bad temper, whose stance changes with every shift in the wind. He’s also very strong when he needs to be, and very caring, but extremely vulnerable because there have been so many losses in his life. He’s conflicted.

But I’m being stubborn about getting this book published as soon as possible, so waiting for beta readers (if I can even find more than the one faithful one who’s been so much help to me) is simply out. I don’t have the patience, or the time.

I recently broke each chapter into its scenes so I could have a better overview. That may stand me in good stead now because I can go through the named scenes and track Casey’s arc, which is something I should have done earlier. “Arc” is another concept I’m just now getting around to in thinking about structure.

I now have a better handle on how to present Casey’s conflicts, even if the details are still  fuzzy. But that’s the pantser aspect of my work. There’s always a lot that doesn’t come clear until I start digging in. Unfortunately, all this insight means a fair amount of revision. The word count is probably going to go up, which is fine, except that most of my chapters are already quite long (around 4,000 words), and I may have to break up some chapters. That means more editing before I can put the “final draft” (the second or third final draft) through PWA.

I think I’m going to go make a batch of cookies now and eat myself sick. (I’m a frustration binge eater.)

A final note. This is something I’ve thought about off and on. Much of the discussion and advice about how long it takes (or should take) to write a novel, is based on stories that depend heavily on plot. Such stories can be outlined, with approximate word counts and deadlines set before the first word is written. Stories that depend almost entirely on characterization can not be written that way. I was learning about Casey long before I wrote the novel last November during NaNoWriMo. So, he’s been on my mind somewhere between six months and a year. And that still hasn’t been enough time to know him as well as I need to. Think about someone you thought you knew very well after years of being friends, and then they surprise you with an aspect of their character they’d never shown before. You may have to rethink your whole relationship, and your view of who that person really is. That’s Casey.

Discovering Structure, Moderating Ambition

I restarted a work journal for Camp Expendable today. I’d started one weeks ago and forgot all about it, but I’m trying again. This post is a slight reworking of the entry.

Story structure — I’ve paid very little attention to structure, just forging forward with the story, letting it take its own shape and hoping it works out. Structure may be the last big aspect of craft that I need to learn about and be aware of as I plan and write.

To that end, I broke the chapters down into scenes yesterday. I also named them as a way to remind me what’s in each without having to skim through every time to figure out where I am. The result of breaking it all down into scenes is finding that 1. they don’t always break neatly. Is that because I’m careful to include transitions, or is it a problem to solve? 2. Chapters vary wildly in the number of scenes they contain, and the length of the scenes varies just as wildly. The usual range is from two to four scenes, though one reached five. Another problem to solve?

It’s obviously time to find a good book on story structure.

The task took a whole day to get through, so that’s one more day of delay to publication, which is moving further into the distance with every day that passes. And I thought I was on the final run-through before proofreading. Trying to understand the structure of what I have here will take at least another day. Given the conflict between wanting to get the darned thing done and out of my hair, and wanting this book to be different in terms of quality and reader appeal, I’m starting to feel desperate. I hoped this one would be a true breakthrough, one that I could say was a real achievement rather than a decent job. So far, I haven’t felt that it’s anywhere near that point, and this sudden concern about structure makes it blindingly clear that I may be trying to accomplish something I don’t have the skills for yet.

I could laugh at myself and chalk it up to being an obssesive perfectionist, but it makes more sense to admit I still have too much to learn to aim for such a grandiose outcome. Maybe next time? So the work goes on, and if it takes a week or more past the deadline I tried to impose on myself, then that’s what I’ll have to accept.

How Many Drafts? The Rights, The Wrongs, The Reasons

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t write separate drafts, so it’s impossible to say how many I go through before I’m satisfied with a story. It’s occurred to me that my “method” would probably be a nightmare for most writers. There are no older drafts to go back to, just the one that has been evolving and changing from day one. I also do a lot of stopping and starting over the months or years that I work on a novel, and usually start back with chapter one, so some chapters have been revised more times than others.

The subject of drafts has been occupying my mind for quite a while because there are so many opinions about it. I have a strong bent toward picking apart the pros and cons of subjects that are more a matter of personal opinion than of hard fact, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. There are logical reasons why some professional writers insist that you should whip that novel out and stop fooling around with multiple drafts, while others insist that you must rewrite until you have a polished gem.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I see one specific factor influencing how many drafts a professional writer considers optimum. The concept of “professional” writer has changed somewhat over the decades. By today’s standards, someone like J.D. Salinger would be considered a hobbyist because he published very few works, and took his own sweet time about it. Back when writers were paid by the word for magazine articles and stories, there was a fairly clear distinction between “hack work” and Literature. Hack work was about earning a living, and its practitioners were professional writers; Literature was about creating a body of work that would exist long after the words were put on paper, and its practitioners were also professionals.

Of course, those two categories didn’t necessarily say anything valid about quality. Some hack work turned into classics, some Literature was forgotten before its authors had died.

Today, from what I can observe, writing for a living is professional; everything else is considered hobbyist. It’s a dichotomy that leaves most writers scrambling to churn out their next novel as quickly as possible, and a smaller number fighting a rear-guard action for consideration of old-fashioned qualities like depth and complexity.

As a general rule, writing for a living is writing to entertain, and necessarily concentrates on plot and action. Writing “for the ages” strives for meaning, and focuses on style, complexity, and insight into characters. The two are’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but current debates tend to sound as if they are. You’re either a professional writing for a living, or at least aiming for it, or you’re a part-time writer, a mere hobbyist who doesn’t take writing seriously.

The irony here is that “taking writing seriously” is now defined by speed and productivity, rather than by maturing craft painstakingly learned over time. A notable change, which may be another overgeneralization, is that many of the writers who wrote for a living—the science fiction writers of the Golden Age of SF, for instance—churned out an enormous amount of crap initially, but learned how to write, on the job, and became the classic authors we still read today. Many of today’s professional writers, some of them hugely successful, write just as badly years later as they did when they started.

When I say “write badly” I’m talking about the qualities that make a book a classic and that are necessarily left out when the goal is to earn a living. These professional writers do improve their ability to plot, to maintain tension, to keep a reader hanging on until the exciting ending. What they may not bother with is style or even basic grammar. This does not describe every professional writer, and I’m not trying to feather and tar professional writers, as a group.

The real problem is that they are influential, and their advice to beginning writers, based on their own experience, and their success, makes it appear that their methods must be followed if success is to follow.

What does all this have to do with drafts? Everything. I think it was Ray Bradbury who advised writers to produce only one draft, and get the darn thing published. It’s popular advice, but I wonder at what stage of his career Bradbury made the suggestion that has, over time, turned into a rule. Was it an early statement when he was struggling to establish himself? Did he stick to it throughout his career? He wasn’t alone in advising just one or two drafts, and I suspect it’s the reason we see so many books that look exactly like first drafts: grammatically awkward, vocabulary-challenged, full of plot holes, continuity errors, and cardboard characters.

But here’s the thing. If you can write a story that hooks and holds the reader, you can get away with all that. Why? Because the majority of readers don’t see the problems, and even if they do, they don’t care as long as they’re being entertained. So, if you want to earn a living by entertaining the readers, one or two drafts will do the trick. You will rake in the bucks and it won’t bother you that your stories are read one time and then forgotten when the reader grabs another one more or less like it. It won’t bother you that your books will eventually disappear, buried under the ever-growing mountain of momentary entertainment, or that your name will be forgotten. You accomplished no more during your lifetime than the office worker sitting in his or her cubicle, but let’s hope you at least enjoyed it more than the office drone enjoys his job.

Excerpts

Today is going to be a revision and editing marathon, for as long as my eyes and concentration hold out. I’m making good progress on Camp Expendable, but not good enough. So this is today’s post, unless something hits my must-write button later in the day.

I added “Excerpts” to the sidebar, and have posted selections from three chapters of Expendable. Excerpts from other WIPs will be coming along on an irregular basis.

Revising Old Work — Why or Why Not

This is a short Sunday morning rant inspired by a discussion on Kindleboards. A member asked whether he should revise a “book,” knowing that it would affect his ranking. The “book” is actually a 30-page short story, hence my quotes. Why is he considering a revision? Because it’s full of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors, and was poorly formatted. It was his first published work and now he wants to add it to a series of which two parts have apparently already been published.

His only concern is ranking and sales number. Acknowledging that the story was a mess implies his understanding that quality matters, but he doesn’t address that in any way.

Why would a writer even ask whether he should revise something that basically cheats any reader who paid for it. (Let’s hope no one did.) Why would he be more concerned about his ranking on Amazon than about his readers? Why did he publish it in the first place? Ignorance? Laziness? Whatever his reasons, he produced something that supports the continuing negativity that surrounds indie publishing.

When I decided to revise Privileged Lives, it wasn’t because it was a shameful mess. It was spell-checked, proofread, and edited multiple times. I obsessed over word choices and sentence structure. It wasn’t a mess; it wasn’t even a bad novel. But it wasn’t the novel I would be able to write now, with more experience under my belt. So that’s what I’m doing. Turning it into the novel I’m capable of writing now.

Anything we publish should be the very best we can do right now. Most early work isn’t worth revising and republishing. Some of it is satisfying enough to readers that it isn’t worth the effort. But if it sticks its hooks in you because you know it deserves better, then revision is the way to go. Because your reader deserve better.