Air Pirates Postmortem: What Went Right

On Wednesday, I talked about how I could improve my process. If you read only that post, you might think I get down on myself a lot. I do, but not in that post. The truth is I like my process a lot, and there were a lot of things that went right with Air Pirates. Here are some that stuck out to me.

Air Pirates was originally a story about Sam (big surprise there), and Hagai was just the reader's guide into the world. I always knew Sam's voice, but writing from Hagai's POV was more difficult for me. Until one day Cindy finished reading chapter 4 and said, "I like Hagai. He's really funny."

Funny? I wrote something funny? I had no idea. I didn't even know that was possible. Humor was one of those things I figured I'd never be able to write. Like romance or contemporary fiction. After Cindy told me, suddenly I could see it for myself. Hagai really was funny.

Then I screwed it all up in chapter 6 by trying too hard, but that's beside the point. The point is, when Cindy said that, I realized I had a voice. I mean, I always had a voice, but now I knew what it was. I could see it, refine it, and most of all take pride in it.

Somewhere around chapter 8, I realized I was unclear on the focus of the story. So I spent some time writing and refining my query letter. This was the best decision I could have made for three reasons:

  1. It gave me months to refine the query in small doses, rather than trying to perfect it all at once while fighting the urge to "Send it right now and see what happens!"
  2. It forced me to figure out what the story was really about and consequently kept me from getting off-track while I was drafting.
  3. Because I'd written less than half the novel at that point, writing the query was easier; I didn't try to force superfluous details into the query because I didn't know any details!

So, my wife is awesome. One of the myriad ways in which she is awesome is that she gives me 2 hours a day, most days, to disappear and write. Not only does it help keep me free from distraction, but it motivates me. It feels like I'm leaving for my job, and I know if I waste my two hours, I can't make it up later.

All my beta readers were awesome. I used at least 95% of everyone's comments, and Air Pirates is much better for it.

But a few of my beta readers had that extra level of skill and experience I didn't. They were harsher critics than I even knew how to be. They not only stretched this novel, but they stretched me as a writer.

Until a year and a half ago, I knew hardly any writers. The best thing that has come out of this blog has been my relationship with many of you: writers on the same path, many of whom know more than I do. I'd still be doing this without you guys, but I couldn't do it nearly as well or as well-encouraged. Beta or not, you are all awesome.

Air Pirates Postmortem: What Could've Been Better

In my previous jobs, I was trained to treat even a creative process as something to be examined and refined, so as to repeat successes and minimize failures. In my writing process, that takes the form of statistics and post-mortems -- to learn as much as possible about my own process, to make it better, and (by putting it up here) to maybe edify other writers as well. If this stuff bores you, don't worry. Next week I'm going to talk about board games (whee!).

Today I'm going to look at what could have been done better (on the assumption that I can actually change these things in the future; in the business we call this "wishful thinking"). But first, an overview of the process:

Thinking4 yearsn/a0Ideas that came to me while I was writing Travelers.
First Draft19 monthsn/a100,000I talked about this part of the process here.
1st Edit2 months95 hours94,000My own edit and plot fixes before anyone else saw it.
1st Beta3 months

14 beta readers. 4.6 critiques returned from 6 people (some critiqued only part of it). Meanwhile I wrote "Pawn's Gambit" and outlined The Cunning.
2nd Edit1.8 months79 hours86,000Based on critiques from the betas.
2nd Beta1.5 months

2 beta readers; while I worked on the query, synopsis, and wrote the beginning of The Cunning.
3rd Edit1.5 months58 hours91,000Based on critiques of 2nd Beta. Added about 200 words per chapter (mostly description).

That's sort of a broad view. For one thing, each edit consisted of me going over the draft like 3-6 times looking at different things. Now to identify what went wrong.

I think this is the most obvious flaw from the table above: 14 betas, 4.6 critiques.

Okay, first of all, please know that I'm not judging any of my betas. None of them. Beta reading a whole novel is a LOT of work, and many of my betas were non-writer friends and family who maybe didn't know that. But -- and this is important -- just the fact that they offered made me feel really, really good. It showed me a special level of support, and I'm grateful for everyone who asked to help.

That said, a lot of this is outside of my control. For one thing, sometimes beta readers DO stop reading partway through and then tell the author why. One of my most important and valued betas did exactly that, and Air Pirates is way, way better for her input. My most important changes were directly due to that partial critique, so: The purpose of beta readers is not to catch every typo and misplaced comma, but to get you thinking about your manuscript in a different way. That can be done even if they don't finish it.

But what about the folks who didn't give me any feedback? As much as I love them (and I do), I can't fix something if nobody tells me what's broken. I think the fact that I announced an open beta may have had something to do with it; my betas knew there were lots of other betas. It's a psychology thing: people are more likely to fulfill commitments if they know they are the only ones responsible for them. So in the future, I will ask about 2 people per beta phase, and I will ask them directly. It's far from a guarantee, but it's fixing what is in my control to fix.

I try really hard not to stress about how fast or slow I write. Really, really hard. At the same time, I'm thinking about doing this long term, and finishing a novel every 2 to 2.5 years just doesn't seem like a maintainable speed for a career, you know?

So what can I do about it? Not stress about it, first of all. I know from experience that speed at anything is gained with practice. I trust that I will get faster as I get better. Also I know that towards the end of the draft I was pushing out over 10,000 words per month, which is a lot better if I can maintain it.

So my goal here, in addition to not stressing, is to focus on self-discipline and daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. They don't have to be huge, but they should stretch me a little. Or at least keep me from getting distracted.

If you think something might be a problem with your manuscript, chances are good someone else will too. That means if you're aware of a problem, you should fix it before someone else sees it, rather than hoping nobody will notice.

I did this with description, among other things, and both readers in the 2nd beta phase called me on it. Repeatedly. I knew I was lazy with descriptions, but I was more interested in getting the manuscript out then in sitting down and thinking, "What IS in this room? What DOES that rug look like?" (and so on). It's a problem I could've fixed on my own, but I didn't.

Why is that a problem? Because if I had fixed it, those two beta readers could've spent their time identifying problems I WASN'T aware of, instead of telling me things I already knew. Beta reading is really hard. If the novel you're critiquing is full of plot holes and annoying characters, you're not going to notice all the little things that are wrong with it too. On the other hand, if the novel is near-perfect, you're going to get really nit-picky, catching things you would otherwise have glazed right by.

Put simply: beta readers can't catch everything. If you remove problems you're aware of before they read your work, they'll thank you by catching things you didn't know about.

You still with me? That's amazing. I would've quit reading right around when I started pretending I knew anything about psychology.*

* That's not true. I would've stopped reading at the table because I'd still be looking at it. Statistics ENTHRALL me.

What If?

What if it's not ready?
What if this is my last chance
to have my favorite agent
give it more than just a glance?

What if, just like last go,
I'm rejected forty ways?
Am I forever doomed to
tired prose and dead cliches?

What if something's wrong with me,
and I'm not meant to write more
than the newsletters and blogs
I've been doing since '04?

If that's the case I'm sure
to be more than just depressed.
I'll have wasted seven years
on a hobby no one gets.

Writing asks more time than
I can possibly commit.
I probably should quit, but then...
what if this is it?

Only one way to find out.

The Cindy Heine Novel Challenge

(In which you learn two Important Things you might not have otherwise known).

Important Thing #1: I am very close to querying Air Pirates.

Honestly if you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably knew that. I estimate I'm within 1-2 weeks of sending out my first queries. To speed me toward that end, my wife has issued me this challenge: "Send out your first batch of queries before I give birth, and I'll buy you a steak."

And therein you have learned Important Thing #2: I haven't eaten a real steak in years.

No, wait. That's not it. Ah, right. Important Thing #2: My wife is about to give birth. Our second biological child is due on February 25th. So I've got about 0-3 weeks to finish my read-aloud polish, do a couple global searches for consistency, and re-research my agents (I did this research a long time ago, but things change, besides which I know a lot more what to look for in an agent).

So if I disappear from the internet for a while... Sorry, I thought I could finish that with a straight face. Like I could ever leave the internet.

Anyway, it's the deadline without a deadline. God only knows what day we'll meet our latest progeny. Cindy's on a walk with the boys right now. For all I know, I could be losing the challenge just because I wanted to tell you guys about it! What are you doing here? You have a book to finish!

No, wait. That's me.

Paying It Forward, as Requested

This unscheduled post is a shameless method to improve my chances at winning Elana Johnson's Pay It Forward Query Critique Contest.

Shameless, but worth it. Elana's offering the query critique services of five fabulous agents (plus a bunch of other prizes, including some super-size Post-Its that I couldn't get in Thailand if I wanted to).

Books I Read: Boneshaker

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Genre: Science Fiction (Steampunk)
Published: 2009
Content Rating: R for violence*

Seattle, 1863. Inventor Leviticus Blue tests a powerful drilling machine, nicknamed the Boneshaker. In the process, he destroys several city blocks and releases a poisonous gas called the Blight, which kills, and often reanimates, anyone who breathes it. Soon the entire city is destroyed.

Sixteen years later. A giant wall has been erected to contain the Blight and the ever-hungry rotters it has created. Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes, lives outside, struggling against poverty and her husband's reputation. When Briar's boy goes behind the wall to try and clear his father's name, Briar is the only one who can save him. She must face her past as well as the Blight when she finds something worse than rotters behind the wall.

I worried this would be a horror book -- and it is, but only a little. This is an adventure story, and to that end it does very well. I got annoyed with the main characters at first; I felt they did dumb things or were too stubborn or (in the case of the teenage son) just talked too much. But it didn't ruin the action for me, and a lot of Briar's stubbornness was even explained in the end. Overall, Boneshaker was a lot of fun to read. If you like steampunk, zombies, or even airships (which play a big part too), I'd recommend it.

And for the record, I would totally play an RPG set in this world.

UPDATE: Looks like Boneshaker was just nominated for a Nebula Award.

* Content ratings based on what I think a movie might be rated, if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Ratings are very subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure whether the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

Google Mini-Rant and Follow-Up Language Tips

I normally love Google, but this Google Buzz thing is bugging me. The problem, as I see it, is that Google signed me up for a social network and started sending my updates to people (that I may or may not actually know, but whom I've e-mailed at some point) without my permission. That's a Bad Thing.

Now I'm not a big privacy nut or anything. But I am a simplify-my-life nut.* I get requests for random social networks all the time, and I refuse them for a reason. Google just skirted around that by not asking me, and then making it ridiculously hard to opt-out of. Thanks a lot, Google. Screw you, too.

* Which is to say I'm a supporter of it. It doesn't mean I'm good at it.

*deep breath*

Okay, enough of that. How about some random tips on fictional languages that didn't fit in last week's post? Sound good? (I swear this will be the last post on foreign languages. At least for a while. Maybe...

Does slang count?)

MAKE IT READABLE. Even if the reader doesn't understand a word, they will still try to mentally pronounce it. It's frustrating if they can't. Wykkh'ztqaff may look very alien and fantastic, but it'll drive the reader nuts trying to say it -- even in their mind. This is especially true for names!

USE LATIN WITH CAUTION. My method last week involved stealing words from real-life languages and mashing them to hide the source. If you use this method, you should know that Latin and some of its siblings (Spanish, French, and Italian, for example) are so familiar to English speakers that it's very difficult to hide them as a source. (Assuming you want to. See parenthetical below for a counterexample to this tip.)

Take the magical words and phrases from Harry Potter, for example. Their origins are obvious (flagrante enchants objects to burn, gemino duplicates objects, lumos makes light, etc, etc, etc). It works in Harry Potter because it's set in the real world, more specifically Europe. It makes sense that their magical language has the same roots as their spoken language (it also makes it easier to remember what each magic word does). But can you imagine Gandalf the Grey using these same words and claiming they were the ancient language of the Valar?

"The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor... Incendio!"

(Matt Heppe noted in last week's comments that he intentionally used Romanian (a Latin-based language) to give the language a sense of familiarity for English readers. That's definitely a good reason to use Latin. I think, as with anything in writing, intentionality is key.)

WHAT ABOUT ALIEN LANGUAGES IN SCI-FI? It would be a little odd if an alien language sounded like one or more of our Earth languages, wouldn't it? Aliens could be their own post, but off the top of my head I'd say don't use language as we understand it at all. Aliens can speak in hisses, purrs, scents, flashes of color, x-rays, gamma rays, frequencies too low for the human ear to hear... Get creative. Though if you do use a spoken alien language, see the first tip at the top. (There's nothing wrong with spoken alien languages, even if they do sound like ours. I just want to encourage genre writers to stretch their creativity and be intentional about their choices.)

Anyone got any other tips on made-up languages? Do you know any fantasy languages done particularly well? Particularly poorly?