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Wow, it’s been a long time since my last post. I haven’t been sitting around doing nothing for the past couple of weeks, though. I’ve actually had a lot of stuff going on.

I’ve started reading my novel aloud, which is really weird. I talk to myself a lot (I’m usually the only one who will listen) but reading out loud causes me to focus on my voice, since that’s the point of the whole thing, and it’s odd to be in a quiet room with just me talking. It’s going well, though. It really does make it easier to find poorly written sentences and typos. Reading on the computer screen just doesn’t do it.

I also joined the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror a while back, and have been spending some time reading and reviewing people’s stuff as well as preparing a new story of my own to post and get feedback on.

I’ve also picked a story idea to work on for my next novel. I’m not sure yet what form it’s going to take. I thought it would be horror, but it’s looking more like suspense/mystery. The beginning is starting to flesh out, and I’ve got a couple ideas for further along. I’m thinking of trying the “Snowflake Method” for writing it, as I mentioned a while back. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on how that goes.

And then, of course, there’s my day job, my political blog, my friends’ political blogs, books to read, movies to watch, family to visit. You know how it goes–not enough hours in the day.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. Thanks for stopping by.

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What Next?

I’m almost done now with the final revision of book one. I just need to fix a couple of formatting issues and that should do it. Once that’s finished, I’ll print a copy and read it out loud (as Anne Mini recommends) to catch any remaining spelling/grammar issues and check the sentence flow. Guess I’ll do that at home instead of taking the manuscript on the train with me. Though wouldn’t that be a treat for the other passengers? I’m sure they would enjoy it.

I also need to start on the next project. I have the rough draft for book two, of course, but I’m going to set that aside for the time being. A couple weeks ago, Jessica over at Bookends, LLC wrote a post about what a writer should work on while waiting for their first book to find an agent (or an editor, if they have an agent.)

I would never urge a writer to work on the next book in the series while I’m submitting the first. When a series idea is on submission I talk with the author and encourage her to start coming up with fresh new ideas. Why? Because if the first book in the series isn’t going to sell, it’s very likely the second book isn’t either.

That sounds like good advice. It would be a shame (a travesty, I tell you!) if a writer spent time writing a book that ends up gathering dust in a drawer, rather than starting a new series.

The funny part is that I’ve already written the next book in my series. Ha ha! Live and learn, right? So I’m not going to start revising it, and I’m not going to start writing book three, even though I’d really like to. Instead, I’m going to roll a few of my other ideas through my brain and see if any of them stick. Being an aspiring writer, I of course have a notebook or two filled with story ideas that have popped into my head over the years. All I have to do is pick one that will be a best seller.

This is one of the fun parts of writing fiction–the endless potential of the blank page.

Writing: The Anti-Drug

After pulling 8 pages (two scenes) from my novel, I was met with a moment or two of concern. While I knew that the excised pages had to go, I had no idea what would take their place. None. I spent some time on Sunday thinking about it. I tossed a few ideas back and forth, but nothing jumped out at me.

On Monday night, I got that one spark that I needed. The scenes I cut were of a fight in a prison yard. They were simply too ordinary, so they had to go. I still needed a fight in the prison yard, though. I decided to make the fight over food. Not only would that provide a motive for two malnourished inmates to go at it, but it would also help the protagonist to have an important epiphany later on.

After that, the scene pretty much wrote itself. It was one of those rare occasions where the words came out as fast as I could write them. I still need to revise the scene a bit, but I realized upon finishing the draft that there are few things in life that I find more enjoyable than writing.

So who needs drugs? Writing is legal, it’s free, and it’s way more of a rush.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how these days it is very likely that a writer’s first page is as far as an agent or editor will go when determining if the story is one that piques his or her interest. To illustrate this point, please allow me to direct your attention to Anne Mini’s blog post from Halloween 2006. She was attending the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, where they had one panel discussion that would send chills down just about any aspiring writer’s spine.

As Anne describes it:

Well, picture this, my friends: brave souls submit (anonymously) the first page of their novels, which are read out loud by a perfectly wonderful reader (the excellent Jack Whyte, who could make the telephone book sound gripping). During the readings, as the uncredited writers quake in their chairs, the three agents on the panel shout out “STOP!” at the point where they would cease reading the submission.

How tough were these agents? Over the course of two hours, only a half-dozen times would they have gone on to read the second page.

Anne compiled a list of the reasons the agents gave as to why they would stop reading a given submission, as well as a list of why they would go on to page two. The striking thing is that the list of reasons they would stop is 74 items long; the list of reasons they’d continue, eight. From the list of reasons they would stop:

6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.

41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.

68. “It’s not atmospheric.”

Keep in mind that these are the opinions of three agents, it’s not like every agent / editor / screener has this list in front of them and they reject a submission as soon as something from the list appears in it. It does, however, afford some insight into how little tolerance there is for the common shortcomings of the typical submission, and just how quickly professional readers reach a decision.

From the list of why they would continue reading:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

I’d say that’s something that every writer of fiction should strive for.

Novel Update: For those of you waiting with bated breath to hear about how the book is coming along, I’m on the last piece that I wanted to revise. I removed two scenes (8 pages) that didn’t add as much to the story as I thought. I’m rewriting them as one scene that hopefully will be more streamlined.

To follow up on my previous post, I posed the question of how to calculate word count to Colleen Lindsay over at The Swivet. I was not the only person with such a question, so she (being such a kind person) talked to one of her industry contacts about it. You can read about it here, but this is the important part:

Colleen asked this:

I have writers who’ve been asking me about how to estimate word counts. Most new authors go by their MS Word counter. Some writers are using the old pages x 250, based on 12-inch Courier text with 1″ margins. Are new writers simply over-thinking this?

Betsy Mitchell, VP & Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey Books replied:

Yes, they’re over-thinking. Using the MS Word counter and putting “approximately xx,xxx words” is good enough on a submission.

While that didn’t technically answer the question, it makes it fairly clear that word count isn’t something to get hung up on (at least until further down the road.) I’ll keep an eye out for verification of how to properly estimate word count. When I come across something useful, I’ll certainly post about it.

Writing fiction is a lot of work. There are a million things to consider while writing a novel: character development, pacing, story arc, word choice, etc. Every page contains hundreds of decisions for the writer to make. Sometimes the decisions are easy and the pages flow like the Colorado River after the spring thaw. Other times a single word or a mark of punctuation can cause hours of consternation. That’s just how it goes.

There’s one thing, though, that should be straight forward, a no-brainer, a thing that makes you go, “duh.” That thing is word count. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Word count. Count the words; put the total on the cover page. No problem, right?

Not quite. Word count depends on one thing: how the piece is formatted. You thought it was going to be the number of words in the manuscript, didn’t you? I did, but I was wrong. In the world of publishing, what matters is how much space those words will fill. A novel that has a lot of dialog will require more pages than another novel with the same number of words but very little dialog. For that reason, when submitting to an agent (or other industry professional) the approximate word count is used.

How is this number arrived at? Simple: multiply the number of pages by 250 words per page. That number (250) is contingent upon how the pages are formatted. Using 12-point Times New Roman font (or Times, if you have it,) and with 1-inch margins on all four sides, 250 words per page is assumed. If, however, you use 12-point Courier New or another monospaced font (a font where each character takes up the same space, no matter how wide or narrow it is) the words per page is assumed to be 200.

This can create quite a discrepancy in the word count of a piece. For example, the book I’m editing right now is 377 pages when using Times New Roman. That calculates out to 94,250 words. If I re-format the manuscript with Courier New, it fills 551 pages, which calculates to 110,200 words. That’s quite a difference! To someone who works in publishing, those two numbers mean the same thing: how many pages the finished product will be.

I’ve modified the opening paragraph of my first novel a few dozen times. It’s safe to say that it has received the most attention, by far, of any section of the book. In fact, I made a couple of changes to it earlier today. While some may argue that I’ve let my obsessive personality get the better of me, this post over at Redlines and Deadlines makes me think I may not have spent enough time on it yet.

Some [editors] faithfully read three chapters all the way through before making a decision. Some read only until the first typo. Some read the first page.

And, of course, there are some editors who will only give you that first, vital paragraph. That leaves it up to you to impress them, interest them, immediately. That leaves it up to you to come up with a truly great beginning.

The window of opportunity can be very small, indeed.

My job as a writer, though, is not just to make that first paragraph shine. As the post goes on to explain, the opening has to contain a compelling hook, but can’t be over the top. Going too far with the opening is as certain to fail as not going far enough. And of course, the opening can’t outshine the rest of the work. If an editor or agent is suitably impressed by the hook and continues reading, the following pages must meet the standard established at the outset. Set the bar too high and the rest of the novel will disappoint; set it too low and the rest won’t even get read.

It’s ironic, in a way, that a career based on bodies of work that average maybe 90- or 100-thousand words each should hinge upon a few documents that are only one or two or three pages long–the query or cover letter, the synopsis and the opening paragraph.

But that’s the game, and I like a challenge.