Mid-year round-up, and the benefits of struggling with writing

It’s July. That means half of 2019 is gone, and I thought I’d take a look at how the year’s going for my writing.

My first thoughts on this aren’t good. I’ve found writing increasingly difficult, and don’t feel I’ve been very productive. But to be more objective about this, I’ll recap the 2019 goals I set back in January (for more details, that original post can be found here). These were:

  • To release a new edition of Dark Glass, the first book in my Dominions series
  • To release another two Dominions books
  • To take my Shadows series out of Kindle Unlimited and go wide
  • To release paperbacks of at least some of my books
  • To start a new project or series

So, how am I doing?

Dom1CoverSmallI published the rewritten version of Dark Glass in January, and followed it with a box-set of the first three novels. I’m far happier with this new version of the series starter, and a couple of recent (negative) reviews on the following books bring this back to me‌—‌Dark Glass is now a far stronger book, and so more likely to encourage readers to download other books in the series.

I’ll be getting new covers for the Shadows books from next month (the designers I’m using, Deranged Doctor Design, are usually booked up about six months in advance, which is why I didn’t use them for the original Shadows covers‌—‌a mistake on my part, I admit), so I’m waiting for these before re-releasing the series and putting it wide (Kobo, iBook and so on). I’m also getting paperback covers done, and I’ve already formatted the interiors, so this should be another goal ticked off by the end of the year.

So, one goal achieved, two on target. Now we come onto the ones that aren’t going so well.

I started Dominions V back in January, working from a rough outline I’ve been kicking around for some time (well over a year). But I wasn’t pleased with the first draft, and did some intensive planning before starting another draft. This one ended up far too long, and again I wasn’t happy with the story. There were moments I thought worked well, but overall it felt strained, and there were too many sections that plodded. The whole resolution felt forced, and it wasn’t a satisfying read.

It was now the middle of May, and I knew I needed a break. So I put this novel to one side and started something else.

Shadows was always intended as a trilogy, but I left some loops open (I’ve never been a fan of stories that close everything off too neatly). I’d been intrigued by a possible follow-on series, and so I planned and wrote a novel that could be start of this series, and managed to complete the first draft by the middle of June.

This was an improvement on the Dominions V drafts, in that the story worked. But it didn’t sit well with the rest of the Shadows books. The original trilogy was sci-fi infused with horror, whereas this new one was more action/adventure. It felt like a story being crammed into an already-existing universe.

So, six months and drafts of two novels that didn’t work. I started to wonder if I’d wasted half the year, as well as trying to figure out why writing had suddenly become so much harder. And as I thought on this, I realised two things:

Progress means aiming higher

In retrospect, writing isn’t getting any harder. What has got trickier is writing scenes and stories that satisfy my inner critic. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m constantly resetting the bar for myself higher and higher.

If I wanted proof of this, I only had to look at Dark Glass. When I released the original version, I was really pleased with it. I believed the story worked, and that the writing was good‌—‌not exceptional, but better than I expected. But a few years later I was able to see so many issues with that book that I decided to re-write it.

No writing is ever wasted

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Edison, when he was asked about his failure to produce (I believe) a working lightbulb‌—‌‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ This can apply to anything, including writing.

To get better at something requires two things‌—‌knowing what to do, and practising. With writing, I can read books on craft, listen to podcasts, learn in so many different ways‌—‌but this will have no effect if I don’t put this learning into practice by actually writing.

So I can look back on these ‘failed’ drafts as practice. I can see passages that work, and I can also learn from what didn’t. Through writing, I’ve improved, and that means my next draft should be better, maybe even something I can use.

But there’s another way of using this writing. Stories are made of scenes, and each scene should work on its own. From these drafts, I’ve managed to extract scenes and mould them into short stories (you can read one of these, There’s Always A Choice, here). Additionally, the draft of the post-Shadows book might be usable. I could re-mould it into the start of a brand new series, unconnected to Shadows.


Where does this leave me for the remainder of 2019? I’ve started another draft of the next Dominions novel, after a more in-depth planning process, and I feel it works far better than the previous ones. I’m confident I’ll have this book out by the end of the year, but I doubt the one after will be ready‌—‌especially as I want to spend some time concentrating on the re-release of the Shadows series.

So I won’t achieve all of my goals for this year. But that doesn’t matter‌—‌I’ve kept on working towards them, and I’ve learnt along the way.

As long as I keep on writing, I’m doing well.

It’s finished! (Reworking a novel part 8)

Dom1CoverSmallLast time I posted about re-writing the first Dominions book was some time ago, when I was approaching the final edits. I’ve now done all this work‌—‌polishing the text, removing any typos I found, and so on. Then I sent it off for an edit/proofread, formatted it and uploaded the finished file. Book done.

It’s available now, for free, from all the usual stores.

Reading that back, it sounds pretty run-of-the-mill, nothing exciting. In some ways, this is true, for me at least. I prefer the creative parts of writing‌—‌figuring out the story, working on the characters, writing and moulding the first draft. That’s the stuff that gets me fired up. All the polishing and prettifying is a kind of relaxing come-down, a lull before I dive into the next story.

And that’s where I am now‌—‌struggling with a plot that doesn’t quite work and characters with dubious motivations, and I’m enjoying the challenge of writing Dominions V.

But I’m pleased with the rewrite of Dark Glass. The main problems with the original version were poor writing that slowed the overall story down and a protagonist who, for the most part, allowed himself to be carried by events. The new edition has tackled both of these. Even with scenes added and a more involved story, the new version clocks in at around 10,000 words less than the original. And Rodin, the protagonist, is far more active, working on killing his target from the moment he sets foot in the Dome. So this re-write has been a creative success.

The other reason for doing this re-write was to make the first book in the series stronger in order to encourage more readers to buy subsequent books. It’s too early to tell if this is coming to fruition, but I’m quietly optimistic.

Is this something I’d do again? I’m not ruling that out, but for the moment my energy and time are better served by working on new books. But I’m pleased I’ve done this re-write. The Dominions series now has the opening book it deserves, and I’m going to feel more comfortable marketing this book now.

And if you want to check it out, it’s free from all major e-book retailers (and quite a few smaller ones). For a complete list of stores, click here (or on the cover).

And if you read this new edition, I’d love to know what you think. You can do that personally (twiain@twiain.com, or add a comment to this post), or publicly, in the form of a review.


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

Fresh eyes (part 7)

Forever improving (part 6)

A successful first draft (part 5)

Editing or rewriting? (part 4)

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

Fresh eyes (Reworking a novel part 7)

I’ve finished the next edit of Dark Glass now. I’m happy with the structure of the story, and pleased the main character actually does stuff now. I also think the writing’s far stronger than in the original version.

But there are always doubts. What if I’ve got rid of some sections that readers liked? What if the new scenes don’t work as well as I think?

I’m too close to the story at this point, and with more editing I’ll run the risk of reading what I wanted to write rather than what is actually on the screen. Yes, I’ll let the book rest before doing another edit, but I’m also going to use beta-readers. (Maybe that should be alpha-readers‌—‌I’m never totally sure which term is correct.)

That means I’m asking other readers if they’d mind looking through it. They can then come back to me with any comments‌—‌and I mean any comments. This process will serve no purpose if the only responses I receive are all ‘yep, enjoyed that’ or something similar. Praise is good, but constructive criticism is far more useful. I want them to tell me, for example, that they didn’t believe the characters would act as they did in Chapter 20, or that certain chapters felt flat, or that I had a character with short hair at the start of the book and long hair at the end (maybe if the story took place over a year this would be feasible, but in a story that has a time-frame of a few days?).

This is both exciting and a bit scary‌—‌what if readers hate the book? What if, based on their comments, I need to do more major re-writing? What if they say ‘something’s not quite right’, but can’t put their finger on exactly what’s up with the book, leading me to spend ages trying to figure out what the actual problem is before I can fix it?

But, as with the whole of this re-writing project, I have to look on the positive. Whatever beta-readers find, it will ultimately make the book stronger.

Of course, spending a few hours reading a book that you know isn’t ‘finished’ is a big ask, and I’m incredibly grateful to anyone who offers to help. I’ve already my mailing list for anyone wishing to do this, but if there’s anyone else who would like to help make this new edition of Dark Glass, please contact me (twiain@twiain.com).

I’m not going to look at the manuscript again until the new year. By then, hopefully I’ll have some comments to work with, and I can dive into the final stages of re-writing Dark Glass.


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

Forever improving (part 6)

A successful first draft (part 5)

Editing or rewriting? (part 4)

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

Forever improving (Reworking a novel part 6)

I’ve finished my first editing pass through Dark Glass, and after a number of tweaks I’m really pleased with the structure. Of course, there’s still work to do. The writing’s clunky in places, and I’m sure there are repetitions and other issues to deal with. And then I need to go granular, examining the actual words I’ve used.

But I also need to ensure I haven’t added anything to this version that contradicts following books, so I’ve started re-reading the rest of the series. I wrote the original three books a couple of years ago, and even though I can go back over my notes, there’s much I’ve forgotten.

I have fond memories of the second book, Dead Flesh. It’s the darkest book so far, but it also has a very emotional arc for Rodin, as he develops (or maybe uncovers) a stronger conscience. So I was looking forward to re-reading this book.

It starts well, throwing the reader straight into Rodin’s latest contract, and I’m pleased with how I balance the (pretty sickening) violence with Rodin’s growing unease at the acts he’s being called on to perform.

But the book’s not perfect, and as I read on I came across passages that weren’t as good as my writing is now. As I approached the middle section of Dead Flesh, a nagging voice started asking if this book, like the first, needed a re-write.

Now, that voice was nowhere near as forceful as it had been with Dark Glass (and that book definitely needed reworking), but it started a worrying train of thought‌—‌if the second book could be improved, then so could the third, and so on. I’m improving as a writer all the time (partly because I’m paying more attention to the way I use words and structure stories, partly through actively learning through craft books and podcasts, and partly because I try to write every day), and so everything I’ve already written has the potential to be improved. I always aim for my next book to be my best yet.

But if I constantly returned to older books, pulling them up to my current writing standard, I wouldn’t be producing any new books. This clearly isn’t sensible‌—‌I enjoy creating new stories, and readers who have already started on my books deserve to have those series completed at some point. Just think of the way readers have moaned about the long wait for George RR Martin’s next book. Also, if I want to improve as a writer, that means working on all stages of producing a finished story‌—‌planning, writing and editing. I won’t get that all-round constant learning if I’m only editing.

Besides, it’s not as if Dead Flesh is a bad book. As I read on, I became increasingly immersed in the story (one advantage of reading books that have faded in memory). When I reached the climax, I was pleased with how this part of the series reads. I still love how the final scene plays out after all the action and violence, and it sets Rodin up for what he faces in Dominions III (and beyond). Yes, there are things that could be improved in this book, but I’m fine with how it stands.

So I’m not going to re-write Dead Flesh (and, when I get on to reading Deep Water, I doubt I’ll feel the need to re-write that either). Instead, I’m going to continue working on Dark Glass, and then I’ll concentrate on new books With everything I’m learning through this re-working process, I’m sure that new book (Dominions V) will be my best yet‌—‌until the one after that.


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

A successful first draft (part 5)

Editing or rewriting? (part 4)

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

A successful first draft (Reworking a novel part 5)

I’ve reached my first milestone. About a week ago, I finished the new first draft of Dark Glass (a combination of writing new scenes and editing old ones).

After completing a first draft, I put it aside for at least a few days, just so I can get some distance from it. Then, I pull up the Scrivener file (that’s the software I use for writing), and compile a mobi file, which I then transfer to my Kindle.

I want to know if this draft works as a story, so I need to approach it as a reader. Creating an e-book of this first draft means I can read it just as I read any other book‌—‌on my Kindle, relaxing on the sofa or in bed, coffee at hand. As I read, I try to ignore grammar and spelling, and instead focus on the story itself. Does it flow well, with changes of pace that don’t jar? Does the plot make sense? Do the characters act and react in believable ways?

Whenever I start a read-through like this, I’m both excited and nervous‌—‌excited because I can still remember the good things from writing it, and nervous because I’m never sure how much will work, and how much will need major changes.

With Dark Glass I have more pressure, because I need this to be better than the original version.

And this new version’s not perfect. There are many things that need altering. Of course there are‌—‌this is a new first draft. But, overall, I’m very pleased with what I have now.

I’ve added more scenes than I’ve taken out, but I’ve tightened those old scenes, and this new version is about 10% shorter than the original. This means that it moves faster, addressing the complaint that the original was slow (it was). I’m pleased, also, with how Rodin (the main character) is more proactive the whole way through. Rather than waiting for an opportunity to kill Leopold, he’s working toward that goal from the moment he steps into the Dome.

But something else has grown in this version‌—‌Rodin’s inner change. Now, he’s more aware of how the Dome is altering his perception, and how he’s side-tracking himself from his job. It’s also opening up more possible questions about his past.

There’s more to be done, of course. I have a list of things to address now, notes on individual chapters and thoughts on the book overall. But I’m excited. I can’t wait to pull up the Scrivener file and dive back into Dark Glass.


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

Editing or rewriting? (part 4)

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

 

Editing or rewriting? (Reworking a novel part 4)

It’s an interesting process, reworking a novel that already exists. Some parts of the original need to go, and new sections need adding. But there are many scenes where the story works, but the writing doesn’t, or where they feel okay but could be better.

For a while, I saw two ways of dealing with these sections, each with their own pros and cons.

First, I could edit what I already had. This made a lot of sense‌—‌why re-invent the wheel, right? If the story was okay, I’d only be changing language. But there was an awful lot I wanted to change. In many scenes, I doubted there would be many sentences left untouched. With that much work, maybe my second choice would be better.

Second, I could start from scratch and totally re-write the scene. I wouldn’t be hampered by what I already had. I wouldn’t have to wade through sentences and paragraphs that I didn’t think much of. But in the long term I knew this process would take longer. Yes, I’d have a tighter first draft of each scene, but I’d still need to edit.

But then I came up with a third way. Not a compromise, but a way of combining the best bits of the other two methods. I’d start from fresh, but reuse wherever I could.

I write in a piece of software called Scrivener. In some ways it’s like a normal word processor (like Word), but uses multiple files stored all in one place. I use a separate file for each scene, and then store these scenes in chapters. I also have pages for notes of all kinds‌—‌story arcs, characters, settings, general notes, and so on.

Scrivener screenshot

It’s easy to have more than one file open on the screen at any one time. When I’m normally writing, I’ll often have the scene I’m working on in the largest window, and notes to one side. But for this re-working of Dark Glass, I’ve changed things a little.

For each scene, I’ll start a new file‌—‌a blank page‌—‌but I’ll have the old scene up too. I’ll first-draft my new version while keeping an eye on the original. There are some good passages in this, and when I reach a point where I can use one of these sections I simply copy and paste it across. Of course, I still need to do some editing on it, but changing a paragraph or two is far easier than changing a whole section.

So far, this way of working seems to be going well. I’m feeling pretty good about the whole re-write at the moment‌—‌I’m reducing the word count while also adding more to the story, which should mean it reads faster. If nothing else, this addresses the comments on the slow pace of the novel.

And I can see myself using this process when I’m editing other stories‌—‌I’m not only improving Dark Glass, but I’m refining the way I work. Win-win!


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

The first draft is always a mess (Reworking a novel part 3)

I’ve started writing some of the new scenes for Dark Glass now. The first of these I did was Rodin’s first attempt to assassinate Leopold.

I was excited to write this. I had it all planned out, knew what was going to happen. And it ties in with certain themes that return in later books, too. We get a chance to see Rodin working without his usual weapons. We see him planning and executing a removal‌—‌even if (spoiler alert) it goes wrong.

But as I wrote this scene, something felt off. I’d write a sentence, then wonder if it was good enough. I pushed through, onto the next sentence, the next paragraph‌—‌but I had the nagging doubt that this writing wasn’t as good as I expected. Worse, the writing itself didn’t feel like an improvement on the original Dark Glass.

And then I remembered something‌—‌because this was a new scene, this was a new first draft. And first drafts are always messy.

The first draft, even of a single scene, exists to get the words down, one after the other. It exists to tell the story. A first draft shouldn’t be about clean writing, and it’s allowed to have errors‌—‌spelling mistakes, poorly formed sentences, unrealistic dialogue, weak descriptions.

If a scene (or a book) is a sculpture, the first draft is the point when the big chunks of rock have been hacked away. There’s a basic shape, but the edges are rough. There’s no detail‌—‌the head is a round blob, the hand has no fingers. But this doesn’t matter, because the next round of work (the edits) will add details and smooth edges. Slowly, those harsh edges will become smooth contours, and ugly sentences will become flowing prose.

This is the process I went through with the original Dark Glass‌—‌first draft, then rounds of edits to refine both story and writing. So there’s no way I should be directly comparing that finished product with these messy first drafts. It’s like comparing a plain sponge to a decorated cake, or a single-track home recording of guitar and voice to a professionally recorded full-band version of the same song. It’s like comparing a first screenplay to a completed movie.

So yes, these new scenes are messy. But that doesn’t matter, because at this stage they are improving the story. And the writing? A few rounds of edits, and I’m confident I can pull that past the standard of the original novel.

It’s good to know I’m on the right track.


Previous posts in ‘Reworking a novel’ are:

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)