My Biggest Mistake Was Writing A Book.
Although I should qualify that statement: my mistake was attempting to write a book from start to finish, in reading order, from page 1 to 500. I started with the opening chapter, I wrote every chapter in sequence, I edited it while I wrote, I bumped into obstacles that totally destroyed the pace, I kept pounding my head against the walls of the scenes that just wouldn’t come out of my mind, I got stuck in frustration on finishing an unwilling chapter before I could start on the next, and I exhausted myself before I finished.
And then I found out that the second storyline sucked and had to be removed, leaving only one side of a zipper without a corresponding side that could be zipped together into a coherent story. So I wrote another storyline that had to be inserted into the existing storyline.
The result was a lumpy, lopsided mess that brought me to despair. And since I’m an autodidact writing suspense fiction in my second language, I had no peers around.
Then I found a writing website, now sadly gone, called Thoughtcafe, where I found my peers. People who read my stuff, told me it was incredible and worthy of all the attention I could muster to polish out the lumps and make it run smoothly like the zipper was oiled with eel’s snot.
My second novel practically wrote itself. I didn’t give a shit anymore about the order in which to write, I wrote the draft for myself without any regard for punctuation, grammar, and spelling, and I kept my inner editor locked away in a dungeon until I finished the whole rough draft.
Only after I wrote the draft of the entire novel did I sit back and reread it while highlighting problem areas and adding notes on how to fix the flaws.
Which is why I always tell beginning writers: ‘Don’t Write a Book, but a Draft‘. Write the scenes in random order, assemble them in a sequence that pleases you, see what’s missing and fill that in until the story flows, then get your editor to help you iron out the wrinkles.
The first draft is ‘For Your Eyes Only, Only For You’. Not to be shown to anyone else until you turned it into a manuscript, which will be read by your betas and editor, who will provide you with feedback to improve the manuscript into something publishable.
But the writing part? That’s yours, and nobody should touch that.
*My disability has been terminated, by the way, sending my marketing budget all the way down beyond zero. So now, I’m relying even more on you, my readers, to do what I cannot do – tell others that you liked my books and help spread the word that my books are worth reading.
I thank you for your support.
“Do you outline your novels beforehand, or allow the story to take you where it wants to go?”
Popular opinion tends to divide Novelists into two camps: the Outliners and the Pantsers.
- The Outliners are this anal bunch who take an almost mathematical approach to the novel, writing down the number of chapters and a synopsis of exactly what will happen to whom in what order. And they rigidly adhere to their Holy Outline, or Hell and Damnation will follow them into a pauper’s grave.
- The Pantsers are this hippy trippy bunch who belief that Inspiration is the Holy Grail and that any attempt to harness the Flights of Fancy will result is stale, dull, utterly formulaic Hack Writing that is devoid of the Literary Liberalism that will elevate their prose to the Zenith of Literature.
Truth is, they’re both wrong. Writing a novel is work. Like all work, there are some structural necessities – for instance, you need to write, and if possible you have to write every day. Then someone from the Peanut Gallery will shout ‘You have to set yourself a word count goal!’. Yep, works for some, not for everybody. Just like deadlines get some people off their asses and paralyses other people.
The writers who have written novels can agree with me that the words sometimes flow and sometimes dribble. Distraction can help, but can lead to procrastination. Some turn off all distraction to force the brain into creativity, but that can also lead to despair and alcoholism and drug abuse.
Creative processes can go through phases – like the cycles of a werewolf, or the passing of the seasons. Changing habits can work – people who tend to Outline start to plan less and all for more improvisation, people who write by the seat of their pants realise that structure is not always a bad thing…
Most writers fall somewhere in the middle.
I soaked up a lot about structuring novels through osmosis by reading lots of great books. But my greatest revelation in the art of writing came through the art of sword fighting.
I started writing at a moment in my life when I was sick of the life I was leading, and it was pretty clear that I would die a violent death if I continued down the path I was taking. So I turned away from that path, but I had certain issues that needed channeling into positive activities: martial arts and writing.
I’m never one for taking the easy road. When I chose a martial art, I didn’t chose a martial art that would capitalise on my strengths, like my long reach, strength and resilience, but I chose aikido, which required grace and technique and to use the other person’s strength without using more strength than absolutely necessary. When I chose to write, I didn’t start off with a creating writing course and short stories, but I dove straight into my first novel.
But what did kenjutsu teach me about writing?
Unlike modern kendo, where there’s a sporting element with competition and scoring points by hitting locations on a harness, kenjutsu teaches how to handle a live blade by performing kata with heavy wooden swords (bokken) and no protection.
I was taught postures. Sword in the high position, sword in the low position. There were no explanations, just a series of positions flowing from one into the next. Well, when I say flowing, it was more stumbling. And my teacher would walk around and mold my body into the correct posture, without explaining what was wrong with my previous position. In the beginning I had to do it slow and trust my opponent to light touch his wooden sword to the crown of my head before I moved into the next position and ‘attacked’ him, where he’d wait for the tip of my sword to touch him before he moved. When the structure became familiar, we would move faster and our teacher would comment on how sloppy we became and to do it slower and correct before we moved faster.
And still, no explanation was given. Just more structure, more rules, more positions, but the why and wherefore were absent. Then, when I was taught the third kata, after two years of training, my teacher explained to me why I did certain positions in the first kata, so that now I understood. And with this understanding, my performance of the first kata improved beyond what I had expected. I was enthusiastic, so when I was training with new students, I started to explain to them why they were certain things in the first kata. And my teacher took me aside and told me to shut up. He explained to me that the information was only given after I put my time in. After I showed that I could do something without asking all the time what the hell I was doing. By showing fortitude and polishing my technique until i was ready for the information.
Because receiving the information during the learning of the first kata would’ve muddled my progress. I would’ve been thinking instead of doing. I wasn’t ready for the information, I had to put my time in.
Writing is similar. When I started writing my first novel, I wrote a novel, not a draft. I worked on my first chapter until it was perfect. If it wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t move on to the next scene or chapter. Writing my novel became an exhaustive slog. And when I was finished, I realised that I had put together two storylines of which one was great, but the other sucked. So I had to take out that whole storyline and put in another one, like trying to match two different zippers together. Sometimes I despaired, but I hung in there and managed to turn that mess into a novel. Working on that first novel and all the mistakes I made were my school – the endless rewriting and editing taught me how to polish something until it shone.
By the time you learn the fourth kata in kenjutsu, the teacher no longer has to look at your footwork. You can wear the hakama that hides your legs beneath flowing robes, because the teacher knows that your stances are solid and your steps measure the appropriate distance.
When you finished that first novel, and you tackle that second novel, you know the pitfalls of either Outlining into Mathematical Precision or Pantsing like Improvisation is Key. When I began on my second novel, I knew what I needed and how to get it and I wrote down one scene after another, not stopping until I finished the first draft. Because I had learned not to write a novel, but to write a draft. A draft is like the four hours of film a director has when he enters the cutting room and the producers expect him to exit the cutting room with a consistent story of 90-120 minutes.
And your process changes again, because you stop being dependent on structure. When you train in kenjutsu, you reach a point just before your black belt level, where you start to let go. You are not actively thinking or repeating anymore, but the sword becomes an extension of your arm and you can feel through your sword and everything flows together – technique, timing, distance – and you look at your opponent who is not there yet and they are sweating and making mistakes and correcting mistakes and spending lots of energy, while you become so efficient that you only move when necessary and not a moment too soon, nor a step too far. And you look at them and you can see that they’ve almost reached that moment too and you know how happy they’ll be that they hung in there and didn’t search for the shortcut.
Because there isn’t one.
I write drafts that are just a string of scenes that I will transform into a novel when I take them into the cutting room. There is no Holy Outline, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure – I can clearly see the storyline to which the scenes will be hung like pearls onto a silver string. I’m not Pantsing, because I can trust in my ability to come up with the correct scene from the right perspective. And I don’t have to rewrite most of my work, because I become more and more attuned to composing in my head and writing down my sentences without tripping over my thoughts and stumbling into a garbled mess.
I’ve published four novels and four short stories in my Amsterdam Assassin Series – a total of some 600,000 words, but I easily wrote ten times that many words. I put in my time, and these are my rewards.
There are no shortcuts. You can sit at the foot of masters and study their books and adhere to all those rules that are taught in all those creative writing classes, but it’s like learning how to cobble together a pair of shoes from a Youtube video. You have the knowledge, but not the experience. And it’s experience that counts here. The experience of mucking your way through your first draft and finishing that first draft and realising that you have finished a book-length story, and despairing that it isn’t good enough and agonising over the manuscript and rewriting and editing the monster until you tame it into a novel.
Sure, I can give you some tips. Like: ‘Don’t write a novel, write a draft’. Don’t worry about the rules and the grammar and whether everything fits together, just get it all down. Make it 150,000 words, because once you drag that beast into the cutting room, that draft will lose all that extra weight until the lumbering beast has become lean and hungry and ready to feed on the brains of the readers.
And by that time, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether someone outlines or improvises, as long as the process has the desired results – a solid draft that can be polished into a publishable novel.
Recently, a discussion on GoodReads was started by a reader who loved stand-alone books, but every book he was offered seemed to be part of a series. The thread quickly turned ‘anti-series’ with complaints about sequels being less good than the first novel, stories become repetitive, single volume books being enlarged to fill several volumes to make more money from gullible readers, writers becoming too lazy to invent new characters, and so on.
As I write a suspense fiction series, I want to address these issues in this blog article.
When I wrote Reprobate, I had some excellent ideas for additional plot lines that would explore other sides of the freelance assassin protagonist, so I decided to develop the Amsterdam Assassin Series as a series of stand-alone novels and short stories that have the same characters but enjoying one book does not rely on having read the other books/stories. No cliffhangers beyond readers want to know what will happen next in the lives of the protagonists.
As to the concerns addressed in the GoodReads thread:
“Can’t you put just everything in one book?”
No. The books are all over 100K and all have a different theme. The first book, Reprobate, deals with the protagonist breaking her own rules and the consequences. The second book, Peccadillo, has criminals trying a hostile takeover of her legitimate business, unaware that they’re dealing with an assassin. In the third book, Rogue, Katla comes to the attention of global intelligence communities when she kills the wrong target. I’m currently working on the fourth novel, Ghosting, which will show yet another side of the character.
“The first book is mostly good, but the rest is repetitive crap.”
Most reviewers agree that the second book is superior to the first book. I just published the third novel. Feedback from the beta-readers convince me that Rogue is both different from Peccadillo and Reprobate, but just as interesting and entertaining. Just because some people force themselves to turn a stand-alone book into a series doesn’t mean every series writer succumbs to this laziness.
“You write a series to cash in.”
If I wanted to cash in, I’d write short novels in a hot genre, not suspense fiction about a freelance assassin in Amsterdam. And as I sell somewhere around 30-60 books per month, I’m not ‘cashing in’. If I listened to ‘market experts’ I would abandon the series due to the meagre sales. However, I do have fans who want to know what happens to the protagonists and are eager for future books (check my reviews), so I just ignore the sales and keep on writing what I love to write.
“Series are just fluff/sugar coated candy/throwaway books.”
My series is pretty dark, which is quite normal for a suspense fiction series with a freelance assassin protagonist. I’ve been praised for the brief instances of wit that lighten the mood and ground the story in reality. In keeping with the need for verisimilitude, the events in the books have real moral/ethical/physical consequences and I received feedback from fans on how scenes made them reconsider the reader’s own attitudes.
“You’re just too lazy to invent new characters.”
Writing a series is actually more difficult than writing stand-alone novels, mostly because you need to satisfy both the new readers and the readers who read the other books, which requires a fine balance of putting in just enough back story to please both. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to writing about characters who might never ‘hit it big’ with fans. Writing stand-alones with new characters doesn’t require any referencing to published stories.
Also, the series does feature new characters. Granted, they may be antagonists, but if the antagonists don’t measure up, the protagonist will fall kind of flat. I go by the principle that any character I create should be able to hold their own as protagonist of their own stories, so they have to be fully developed, not just sounding boards for the main characters.
Still I understand how readers don’t want to read series and prefer stand-alone books. In that case, Reprobate would work as a great stand-alone novel because it has all the characters, but all the plot lines are resolved in the end and you don’t need to read the other books.
Except if you want to know what the future holds in store for Katla and Bram…
This almost turned into another ‘stopped reading’ review, except that I wanted to know what happened to Martin Calvary, the protagonist. So I ignored my many reasons to delete this book from my Kindle and struggled through the formatting errors that cropped up in the last quarter of the book.
Should I have? Perhaps not, but I was curious to see if Stevens had a twist at the end that would be worth it. There was something that should’ve been a twist, except that it didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Maybe less discerning readers will be surprised by the ending, I don’t know.
So, the formatting errors… I actually contacted the author and he wrote me a very nice PM telling me that he had a giveaway through Bookbub with some 30,000 downloads, with all the Kindle versions containing the formatting errors, but not the ePubs. I can understand that through some mistake an older file containing proofreading notes and formatting errors ends up in an e-book.
So, if you have one of these screwed up Severance Kill e-books, maybe you can get a new corrected file through Manage my Kindle. Or you can just ignore the typos, missing quotes and strike-through sentences. And overlook the awkward prose when a sick woman running up the steps is ‘ignoring the complaints from her unaccustomed knees’ and operatives being ‘linked up telephonically’.
However, I pointed out that there were many more mistakes unrelated to the formatting issue. Mr. Stevens didn’t show any interest in my feedback, so I’ll just put them in my review.
On the whole, the book was well-written. I had some trouble with the start of the book, where Calvary is getting his ass kicked out of a fourth-floor apartment, manages to keep from falling to his death, and gets back into the apartment to finish the target. The target, who first puts up a fight and almost finishes Calvary, suddenly retreats into his apartment, where the target suddenly changes into a weakling.
Calvary crouches in front of the sitting target, lays a hand on either side of the man’s face and kills him with a crack… So what did Calvary do? Break his neck? Let’s just say, don’t believe the action movies you’ve seen about how easy it is to break someone’s neck. The author is a doctor with the National Health Service, so he might be hesitant to give an exact blow-by-blow on how to break someone’s neck, but to break someone’s neck while crouched in front of him and holding his ears is quite a challenge.
After that, Calvary gets blackmailed into doing a last job in Prague, where he reminisces about his past kills. And I almost put the book down.
Because Calvary reminisces about electrocuting a target in his bathtub. By throwing a battery-operated transistor radio into the bath. The death of the target is horrifying. “Crackles and screams, churning mix of water and blood and effluent, like a shark’s attack” and the victim dies with a rictus of agony and a hand clawing the air.
Impressive, if it wasn’t that a battery-operated transistor radio tossed in a bathtub will not have a sufficiently high charge to electrocute a human being. I could start a whole explanation about the milliamps used by transistor radio and how many transistor radios would have to be submerged in your bath to tickle your heart into the high frequency fatal fluttering of a heart attack, but even then the victim will not flail about like they are chewing on a high voltage wire.
And while I can understand someone emptying their bowels when they are electrocuted, how exactly does all that blood get in the water? And what makes the water churn? Not the two 9V batteries in the transistor radio, I can tell you.
If killing someone by tossing a battery-operated transistor radio into their baths would work, lots of disgruntled housewives would be buying battery-operated transistor radios…
With my bullshit radar now on full alert I read on.
Calvary relieves someone of his semi-automatic pistol and thumbs the safety before he slips it in his pocket. When he takes the pistol from his pocket a few pages later and hands it to someone, the pistol turns out to be a Glock 17. And Glocks have not safety to be thumbed. The safety of the Glock is a small ‘second trigger’ inside the trigger.
Moments later Calvary takes ‘the Browning’ because ‘the Browning has to be cocked before every shot and the Glock chambered a new round automatically, making it easier for a novice to use’. The Browning, like the Glock, is a semi-automatic pistol. You might have to pull the slide to chamber the first round, but after that the blowback action of the slide will chamber a new round from the spring-loaded magazine in the grip.
The last part of the story featured strike through sentences, misspelled words like ’trial’ for ‘trail’, omitted words like ‘[character name] phone went’, double words like ‘ahead he fancied saw the car park’ [maybe so you can choose which verb you think is most appropriate?] and quotes missing so you have to guess what is narrative and what is dialogue. Sometimes the Third Person Limited perspective featured intrusions of First Person, often right in the middle of action scenes, ‘one of her feet catching him on the cheekbone. It wasn’t enough to put me off. Calvary began to crawl…’ and so on.
All that could be overlooked if the characters didn’t start doing improbable things, like Calvary on the run renting a car with cash but expressing no worries about having to show his driving license because ‘he [protagonist] doubted [antagonists] would be monitoring every car rental place in the city’.
Their spy craft must be worse than mine, because—despite not being a professional spy—I would definitely monitor every means of (public) transport in a hundred mile radius if I were looking for a spy on the run.
But then, Calvary could be right about the antagonists lack of tracking skills. The scene shifts to the antagonists who are fretting because one of their operatives has been incommunicado for almost a day. Finally the leader has a brilliant idea and goes to the communications officer, where the leader asks an underling ‘can you get a GPS trace on [missing operative’s] phone?’ The comm officer, who has been twiddling her thumbs apparently, answers affirmatively and set to work.
Again: seriously? These antagonists are supposed to be veteran’ intelligence’ officers, and they wait for hours before they decide to put a trace on their missing team member?
With my suspension of disbelief blown beyond repair I finished the book.
Wasted potential. 2/5 stars. Only recommended if your suspension of disbelief is made out of sturdier material than mine…
Revisiting On Writing Tools:
As I wrote in my previous article On Writing Tools, I use an iPad2 with an Adonit Writer Plus keyboard for the main bulk of my writing.
“With the advent of the iPad3, the iPad2 was dumped on the market, so I got myself an iPad2 with an Adonit Writer keyboard/iPad case combo. Although the keyboard is quite a bit smaller than a regular keyboard, the portability is incredible – weighing next to nothing, the iPad/Adonit joins my Kindle in the laptop compartment of the backpack I take everywhere. With its battery-life of ten working hours, the iPad is much better at working wireless than most laptops. I installed Apple Pages for iPad and transferred all works in progress to the iCloud and I’m a happy person.”
However, I stopped using Pages and started using Scrivener for Mac, using a MacBook Pro at home, and exporting scenes I’m working on to SimpleNote, so I can work them on my iPad.
Of course, there are some minor issues – SimpeNote is a simple note program, so it has no bold, italics or underlined function, nor does it do well with ellipsis or em-dashes. However, I found that working on the iPad, has two major advantages:
- the iPad has a substantially longer battery life, and doesn’t take long to start up.
- the iPad SimpleNote app features no distractions, so you’re not tempted to fiddle with formatting or editing, because you will do that later on the MacBook when you have the power of Scrivener to accommodate your needs.
Although I hope that Scrivener will release a version for iOS soon, I’m quite pleased with the Scrivener/SimpleNote functionality.
I shifted from proofreading on my old Kindle to proofreading epubs on my iPad. The touch screen makes highlighting much easier, the full-sized bluetooth keyboard makes notes easier and the list of highlights and notes is easier to delete by swiping the note in the list to the left.
On my Kindle, I could delete highlights/notes by pressing ‘delete’ on the small keyboard. If you have a newer Kindle without the keyboard, that might not work. On the other hand, if you just leave the list and upload a new version, you can easily delete the old version and take the editing list with it.
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