The Long & the Short of It

I’m sitting here this morning, a week and a half from the debut of The Curse Merchant, overwhelmed with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. I’ve had some of my Facebook author’s page followers take me up on my offer for a free digital ARC, and thus far the feedback has been very positive!

I have several special blog events planned for the first weeks of the book release, one of which is a free bonus short story set prior to the events of The Curse Merchant. It’s a bite-sized narrative in the same universe, offering all of my potential readers a chance to sample something more than just a portion of the novel.

Returning to short format fiction has been something of a homecoming for me. When I first dabbled in writing, everything was a short story. It took years before I attempted my first novel length work… uncharted territory for sure! It wasn’t long until all of my projects began to expand into novels. Every idea compounded into something wider and more sweeping, requiring a more thorough narrative structure. I was creating worlds, not just stories.

Writing a short story is different experience than writing a novel. Fundamentally, storytelling is storytelling. A short story should have the same recognizable rise and fall as a novel. There should be a protagonist, an antagonist, a recognizable conflict, and a resolution. The point of view should be limited at some level so that the reader feels immersed. There should be a point to the story… some single take-away that justifies the story’s existence.

So, what’s different?

Whereas novels and short stories outline a rising and falling of action, a short story does this in one single motion. A novel can chart its plot arc in several individual narrative “peaks.” A short story is a single movement of a symphony, standing alone, interesting in its own right. A novel is the whole symphony, often composed of individual movements, each one a conflict and resolution in its own right, the sum of which creating a grand crescendo to the climax.

A short story has to be concise. A novel has the luxury of taking its time with character development, introducing more aspects of the greater supersetting, perhaps even lacing in elements of future novels. A short story has to get right to the point. It’s vital to choose when to start the short story. One must strive to begin the story as close to the climax as possible. The throw from opening to climax needs to be brief. Granted, one can’t simply begin with “Arturo pulled his gun exclaiming ‘That’s right! I did it! I killed the nuns!'”

I take it back. That would be a great way to open a short story.

The point is that there is precious little room for exposition in a short story. It must be all story, all the time. The short story must be a single-sitting experience. It’s an individually wrapped slice of narrative cheese, meant to be consumed in one literary lunch break.

Another difference between a short story and a novel is that, while a novel has the option of multiple points of view, a short story must have exactly one protagonist. There is simply no room for POV play in a short story. I state this dogmatically, and it’ll fall apart the second someone points out a brilliant piece of experimental fiction. It’s a rule that may be (rarely) broken, but a good rule nonetheless.

What is most eye-opening about this experience is how very damned difficult it is to write a short story when I’ve grown accustomed to long format fiction. My mind wanders down the history of each character. I feel compelled to paint a more detailed setting. The implications of the plot call to me, and I want to explore how this affects the novel itself.

But I can’t.

It’s a story. One story. And it must stand on its own legs.

This isn’t easy. It takes a razor-sharp editing sensibility, and a tight focus on the tale that I’m telling. And a tale is all about conflict. One central discrete conflict. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Good point there. Writing a novel is like pouring out the entire bucket of paint, then mopping up everything you don’t need on the canvas. Writing a short story is an exercise in short, intentional, calculated strokes.

That said, be sure to watch this blog in the month of November, when I give details on the release of the short story “Good Fences.” It’s a prequel to The Curse Merchant, and a fine introduction to the mind of Dorian Lake.

Caught in the Gravity Well of a Book Release

Last week I announced my decision to self-publish The Curse Merchant, and immediately began the planning process. What I didn’t realize, as this is my first time at all of this, was how fast everything would happen when it started happening.

And sweet Jesus, things are happening!

Thus far I have secured the services of three separate professionals: an editor, an artist, and a publicist. Remarkably, I haven’t driven any of them to drink yet (that I know of). As of this morning, I have in my possession:

  • professional cover art
  • the final edit notes for the manuscript
  • a preliminary schedule for the book release

Why do I mention all of this? Mostly to excite you and generally whet your appetite. (Please note, one does not “wet” one’s appetite… one may wet one’s whistle while whetting one’s appetite, but only if one is trapped in an alternate universe dominated by Suess parlance.) But also, I find it remarkable how quickly things fall into place.

If one has a plan, that is. And medication.

That’s enough Zoloft for this edit, I think. And a few Levitra, because you never know…

It seems my notorious propensity for left-brained pre-writing extends to marketing. I have spreadsheets, lists, and lots and lots of folders. I will not comment on the existence of voodoo dolls or tiny darts with the Amazon logo on their flights.

I’ll be making a formal release announcement soon, and I’ve got some fun stuff planned in conjunction… so stay tuned. I’m on the search for advance reviewers. If you’re a book blogger/reviewer with an interest in urban fantasy and paranormal thrillers, I’d like to put a copy of Curse Merchant in your hands! Just rattle my chain…

In other news, Top Secret Manuscript ™ just broke 25K words, and it’s really starting to reach that point where the action is sucking me in. Seems I’m trapped between two gravity wells of creative projects these days.

In other other news, another one of my beers (the Munich Dunkel, for those of you playing along at home) took first place in a local competition, so it’s been quite a flush week!

Image credit: Maggie Smith

Update from the New Year

I took a moment during the holiday break to evaluate 2011 with regard to my writing and other creative endeavors. It was one hell of a year, one that was dedicated to feeding my muse. During 2011, I managed to complete two novel manuscripts, and drove the second manuscript well into revision. I also completed the BJCP examination and am now a Certified Beer Judge.

You hear that, Irish Blonde? I'm judging you!

For the moment, 2012 is shaping up to be an extension of this creative thrust. For now, my focus is on Dorian Lake, the Curse Merchant.

At the end of the year, I was thrilled to receive the last of the comments from my beta readers. I adore criticism when given constructively, and my readers were fabulous in their constructive input and the speed at which they finished the manuscript. Allow me a moment to post some uncredited and unqualified comments out of context:

“That’s a hell of a story… I raced through the last half because I could not wait to see what was going down next.”

“It’s fast-paced, especially once you get into the thick of the story and things begin to unfold. The end events deliver satisfaction.”

“Dorian Lake is a complicated character. You absolutely wrote a person with a million facets. It made me realize how often men are written in very hard lines with little emotional depth.”

“The main character did his job well. I don’t think I was supposed to love him, and I didn’t, but wanted to see how he was going to fix the situation.”

“Thanks for letting me read it! It was a gripping story and I shamelessly admit to ignoring my work so I could finish it.”

It’s not often that I blow my own horn, but comments like these truly restore a writer’s forward momentum. Not to say that all of the input was so glowing… I simply cut and pasted the excerpts that made me fist-pump. I’ve taken the comments given and went another round with the Revision Dragon. I came out largely unscathed, though my armor is slightly tarnished with burn marks.

The Curse Merchant is now in the hands of an editor, where it will endure the beating of its life! During this down time, I’ve begun to research my options… literary agents in particular. Now begins the sharpening of my querying skills, wherein I must entice an agent in only a few words. It’s an art in itself, and there’s a plethora of commentary online that I’ve already combed through. Once the manuscript comes limping back home from the editor’s inbox, I’ll give it its due convalescence, and embark upon the query process in earnest.

Meanwhile, the outlining of the sequel has already begun, and I’m already excited about it! I’m waffling over the title, but the front runner is The Curse Merchant’s Principle. The sequel will be a dramatic, personal journey for Dorian, and I frankly can’t wait to read it, much less write it.

 

Guest Judging and Curse Merchant Updates

I’ll be guest judging Leah Petersen‘s 5 Minute Fiction this week. Contestants cook up a piece of prose or poetry, of any genre, based on a prompt that she drops onto her blog page at 12:30. The contest then summarily closes at 12:45, giving the contestants five minutes (plus ten minutes’ grace for this, that, and the other reason) to offer the best flash fiction or poetry they can muster. It’s quite the workout of the creative fast-twitch muscle groups!

Now for some updates on The Curse Merchant.

My first beta reader has finished the book (in ten days, I might add), and will be sending me comments shortly. I’ll have to admit, no matter how many manuscripts I write, I always get nervous when the first “outside reader” gets their hands on my story. By “outside reader”, I mean someone who isn’t my wife, who generally gets an earful of the novel from pre-writing through revision. I have two more beta readers out there, plus a fourth who may or may not be able to get comments back to me by Christmas, but whose input is generally top quality. (I’m looking at you, Sis.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling with the whole self-publish versus traditional publishing debate. I have outlined my thoughts and concerns several times in the last month, often to a great amount of eye-rolling and patiently held sighs. I do feel as if I’m arriving at a decision, however, and it’s not what I expected. At this point, I’m preparing to shop the manuscript to literary agents sometime in January or February 2012. I would detail the finer points of my decision making process, but the honest truth is that the points aren’t particularly fine. The decision came down to a “gut call”. For a hyper analytical type such as myself, this isn’t easy. The path before me now involves final edits, proofing by my Secret Weapon, and honing my skills at query letter and synopsis construction.

In the meantime, I have two small projects in the works. I feel it’s a good time to develop short fiction, towards increasing my exposure. I’ve outlined two short stories, though one of these stories is rapidly evolving into a screenplay. We’ll see how that works out! The remaining short story is a near-future exploration of an American society on the brink of collapse. As I mentioned before, one of the universal themes of my writing is Downfall. This story will be a stampede through a night of chaos, panic, and brutality. Here’s the pitch:

“On the day China lands on the moon, Stewart, an unemployed ward of the state, must navigate through rioting citizens and a vicious police crack-down to the safety of the Failhouse.”

I’ll keep you posted!

Second Verse, Different than the First

More than half the point of reading writers’ blogs is to share in the disappointments and victories along the writer’s career track. Today, dear reader, I’m happy to share in a personal victory.

Revisions on The Curse Merchant are now complete!

"You got the touch... you got the pow-ahhhhh..."

Beyond simply blowing my own horn, I wanted to talk through my next steps for the sake of drawing back the curtain.

My first revision was dedicated largely to tying up loose threads, closing up plot holes, and tightening up the narrative. Copy editing is something that occurs along the way, but ultimately I’ll have to run the new draft under the eyes of an editor. Currently, this editor will be my wife. Thus my next step is to have her comb over the second draft for obvious typographical, grammar, and spelling errors. Because she is also a writer, she will provide substantive editing input… catching the continuity errors, lapses in dialogue, and sudden, unexpected shifts in characterization.

Once she has completed her course of editing, I will make any changes I feel are indicated from her notes (and if they are major enough, may be considered a third draft), and send the sucker out to some beta readers. These readers will be tasked with a much simpler mission: read the novel and tell me what they think. This is marketing research, in a nutshell. I want to see how the manuscript will be received, not by industry professionals, but by the people I hope will buy the book. I simply need to know if they like it and what they liked about it, as well as what they didn’t like. I need to know if the plot was too confusing. I need to know if they like the characters. I need to know how women receive the story versus men. It’s the big-picture kind of input that someone with an editorial eye won’t provide.

Depending on the input from my beta readers, I may be in for another course of revisions based on their comments.  I assume this will be the case. When the fourth draft is ready, I then will be faced with a decision.

Self-publish or submit?

This question has never been more difficult to make. Countless blogs have dedicated space to the issue of self-publishing, so I will skip the salient points and go straight for the consequences to me. If I choose to submit the novel to literary agents, in hopes of finding one to shop the manuscript to the publishing houses, then I will have to prepare synopses and queries, and begin the long slog of researching agents in my genre.

On the other hand, if I choose self-publishing, then I will have to be absolutely certain that my manuscript is air-tight. This will likely mean securing the services of a professional editor, and investing in a thorough editing. I would then have to find an artist to create enticing cover art. Then comes the formatting, making sure the entire manuscript is rendered in solid HTML for exporting to eBook formats. And so on and so on until the manuscript is uploaded and ready to market.

Then I would have to market the book. If it isn’t already obvious, I have already begun the marketing push via this blog.

So, that’s where I stand with The Curse Merchant.

I have put Omnipotence on indefinite hold, as I am focusing on Merchant. I feel that Omnipotence requires more work than I had figured. Either that, or I need to dramatically reconsider my plans for that novel. It’s in such a state of indeterminacy, that it’s really harshing my calm. So, I feel it needs some space.

While I wait for my wife’s substantive editing, and my beta readers, I’ll have free time on my hands. And that will be the perfect time to begin pre-writing my next project!

Back to the Editing Grindstone

I had a very happy moment last night. But first, let me back up. I have an editing method that allows me to double my effectiveness during revision in half the time. My secret?

I cheat.

There are two writers in my household: myself and my wife. We tend to run everything we write under one another’s noses for a thorough and brutal copy-edit. When my wife finished the first two drafts of her first novel, I put my project on hold and scoured her manuscript for a substantive edit. The last couple weeks was my turn. She’s been giving my first draft of The Curse Merchant a quick read while I’ve hovered nearby with a combination of terror and anticipation.

Last night, she finished it.

Either we're jumping for joy, or we're having a grand mal seizure.

The happy moment? When she came home, she was 90% through the manuscript. Rather than the usual “Hi honey, I’m home,” she gave me and the boy a hug and sat down immediately to finish it. Seems the third act of The Curse Merchant proved too compelling to put down!

So, that’s the good news. Seems the story is interesting, the pacing was brisk, and the POV character proved to be engaging and likeable. Now, here’s the bad news.

I now have two… count ’em, two… manuscripts in revision.

Thus, tonight begins a new schedule in our household. I’m carving out special time alone to really put the screws to these pages. This requires a bit of flexibility and creative scheduling due to my bio-rhythms.  Here’s the thing… I’m not a night person. Nor am I really a morning person. My maximum brain power engages somewhere in the middle of the day, which is usually when I’m at my “day job”. And after work is the commute, and after commute is family time, and then there’s dinner, and then the night time routine. By the time I reach a moment of quiet at home, I’m hitting a degree of exhaustion that frankly precludes creativity.

So we’re trying a new scheme wherein I steal away an hour every day after I get home for editing work. Just me, the computer, and the dark and silent Writing Cave. Maybe a glass of beer. I do hope for good things with this situation, as I’m staring down the barrel of two manuscripts that are just begging for a sound and solid thrashing with the red pen.

But the greatest benefit I find diving into the next couple months is the feedback I’ve received from my wife. The story is good, and I’m about to make it even better!

Image credit: Tanatat

New Excerpt from The Curse Merchant

I’ve reached the point in my new project where the average reader will start turning pages faster, and refusing to put the book down. For the record, the effect is mostly similar for the writer. I ran into some enjoyable dialogue last night, and decided to simply post an excerpt of it today. Note: this is raw verbiage; no polish, no context.

“Dorian. Nice. Come in.”

He turned and immediately withdrew into his home, leaving me with the door. I stepped through his door and into a staggeringly impressive living room. White-painted bookcases with dentil crown molding were loaded with leather-bound books. Shiny couches stretched out along a conversation pit, a drink service with crystal decanters aligned haphazardly. A gigantic flat screen television was playing some digital music. Smooth jazz spilled from hidden speakers in the coffered ceiling. I took in the room as I stepped carefully inside.

Bollstadt pulled a small remote from his pocket and dialed down the music.

“Drink?” he mumbled.

“Uh, sure.”

“What’ll it be?”

“Scotch is good.”

He chuckled.

“Yeah. It’s pretty fabulous.”

He poured me three full fingers of scotch from one of the decanters and swaggered forward. His gait was irregular and cautious. When he offered me the highball, a whiff of booze hit my nostrils, and not from the highball.

“Welcome back. How’s your life been?”

“Complicated.”

“Tell me about it.”

I nodded with a grin, and smelled the scotch. It seemed low-rent for the environment, but they say presentation is the greater part of tasting.

He cocked his head and lifted his bushy gray eyebrows.

“No seriously. Tell me about it.”

“Hmm?”

“Your life. Since the last time we spoke. Moved to Baltimore, right?”

Last time we spoke?

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t remember, is your problem.” He waved a slow hand at me as he stepped into the conversation pit and plopped down onto a white leather couch. “We’ve met before. You just don’t remember.”

“You’d think I’d remember something like that.”

This conversation was starting to feel uncomfortably familiar.

He motioned at the couch opposite him, and I took a seat, keeping an eye on the door.

“It was a while ago, and you were…” He circled his temple with his finger. “Well, not really all together. I remember you, though.”

“Wish I could say the same. When was this?”

“I remember a teenage boy, completely wrecked by his parents’ death. Father was a suicide, right? At least, everyone except you thought so. Mother killed the same week when her car got t-boned by a cab.”

I gripped the highball tight. Good thing it wasn’t real crystal.

He continued, “And this teenage boy had approached every two-bit occultist on the eastern seaboard before he finally got my number. By then, he was exhausted by the experience, choking on all of the snake oil he had been sold. When he should have just come to me first. It was a pity.”

I set the highball down on a glass top table and cracked my knuckles.

“Right,” I whispered. “My God, I totally forgot about you.”

“I make it a point not to be easily remembered. That, and I cheat. Anyway, I didn’t take your case. It was a bullshit vengeance angle. I hope you realize that now. That it wasn’t personal.”

“No, I get it.”

“Sure.” He slurped at his martini. “But, I remembered your name. I thought, shit. This kid’s basically fingered through the Devil’s little black book to get even on, I don’t know. The Universe? Death itself? I figured this kid’s going to be something someday. Best to stay on his good side.”