My qualifications as a director

This post is intended to show how my eclectic background makes me an ideal candidate as a writer/director.

Though a biochemist by education and experience, my efforts to turn toward biotech management after I got my MBA were thwarted by events and I turned to programming. I’m almost exclusively self-taught in programming and information security, something that’s lead to a career of more than 20 years.

Using knowledge gleaned from hundreds of sources, I designed, and my wife and I built, a 2,600 sqft house. Then, with an engineer, I designed, and my wife and I built most of, a 5,000 sqft indoor pool / greenhouse with a pavilion that serves as an additional kitchen.

These two elements demonstrate that I can successfully take on long-term, complex projects based on book learning. Switching careers to programming, after investing a decade into biotechnology, also shows that I can quickly adapt to changing circumstances.

I’ve been a manager at several levels, in IT and in manufacturing. My IT career started “backwards” with project management. Programmers, as a group, have an artistic temperament, in that they’re often driven by creative energies and usually have to be cajoled rather than instructed. I believe this experience will help me in pre-production, working with cast and crew during filming and in post-production.

While I’m always open to advice and suggestions – my intent is to make as good a product as I can – I understand that “the buck stops here,” and easily make decisions. Once made, I won’t consider altering my decision unless events change or someone convinces me of a superior approach.

I enjoy collaboration and am quick to include others input and to recognize them, but also understand that some decisions develop momentum and can’t be changed without incurring significant expenses.

As a testament to my creative ability, I have three novels, a novella and a series of short stories, as well as the several scripts I’ve created (two are adaptations of my prose). While I have very clear ideas of what I want for a scene, I also believe in serendipity and want input of cast and crew with each take. My intention is to capture my original intent for the scene, then ask the cast and crew for improvisation to provide the editing process with maximal raw material.

I’ve studied movie making and understand that it’s on par with watching paint dry or grass grow. I look forward to the challenge of working within constrained resources; one of my programming areas of interest is problems that exceed the hardware capabilities and how to achieve success despite the limitations.

With a very strong background in IT and information security, I bring lots of embedded knowledge necessary for modern digital film making. At an instinctive level, I’m aware of the vulnerable nature of the data, how important backups are, and keeping the backups separate and secure.

My business education has given me the tools to evaluate and manage budgets, to establish critical paths and track dependencies. I understand the goals of the producer and am very sympathetic to the need to satisfy investors.

Though patience is not my strong suit, I understand projects like these can take many years. I’m persistent, and will circle back to stalled projects from time to time to see if circumstances have changed.

I believe I have a lot of the necessary requirements to be an effective director and feel, if teamed with an experienced crew, any deficiencies can be caught early enough they won’t impact the time line or budget. As a beginning director, I’m also prepared to be flexible and tie some compensation to investor success.

Trez You

I usually shorten my titles, I shortened this one to TreasHu and hear it in my mind as Trez You.

Treasure Hunt” is the name I’ve come up with for my directorial debut.  It may also be my last movie, only time will tell.  My goal with this is to film it with a ‘nano’ budget of just a couple of thousand dollars, over weekends, with a cast and crew paid via reel, beer and pizza (and the lure of an indoor pool).

I plan to document my trials and tribulations, along with, I hope, my successes, so be sure to check back here if you’re interested in following the adventure.

I’m hoping to write the screenplay such that each 10-20 minute portion can be viewed as if an episode in a TV show, while the feature length (my target is around 100 minutes) can be successfully viewed as a coherent whole.

As I write this, I have a couple of page synopsis written. My intention is to, very soon, begin fleshing that out into the full screenplay.  My tentative timeline is to begin filming this summer (2018) and finishing this fall.

If you’d like to participate in some way, feel free to contact me.

Blurb me, baby!

I’ve been told I have some facility with writing blurbs.  However, since mine tend to run long, perhaps I can only help others.  You can judge for yourself by clicking on the titles on the left-hand side of my home page.

When I’ve helped people with their blurbs and synopsis, what I’ve found that seems to work the best is for them to get angry.  Yup, get pissed.  I’ve back-and-forthed with a couple of authors, trying to help them, and they get more and more frustrated because I don’t ‘get it.’  Finally, they’ll rattle off a series of one or two sentence bullet points summarizing their story.  Guess what?  That summary is exactly what needs to be in the blurb and synopsis!

By the by, though there are huge overlaps, there is a distinct difference between a blurb and a synopsis.  The blurb is the teaser that goes on the back of the book, that’s supposed to incentivize the reader to purchase the book.  The synopsis is to tell the agent/publisher/bookseller what the story is about, so they can judge if yours is new/interesting/different enough to want to represent/carry.  Blurbs NEVER contain ending spoilers, synopses (the plural of synopsis, according to dictionary.com via Google) ALWAYS contain spoilers.  Snyopses tend to run longer than blurbs, but there can be a lot of variety, as it depends on the audience.  Blurbs generally should run 100-150 words and this really is a case where less is more.  Synopses are expected to run between 500-800 words.

The concepts behind writing your blurb and synopsis are the same, just blurbs get fewer words and don’t spoil the ending, while synopses get more words and spoil the ending.  You can use the exact same mental process.

You need to introduce your main character, but if you have more than one it can get tricky as too many characters will confuse readers.

You need to outline the stakes.  What’s motivating the character to accomplish great things.  Their main goal.

Finally, you need to list the obstacles keeping the character from achieving that goal.

Simple, eh?  Of course not. You’ve lovingly devoted months, if not years, to your epic story, how can you possibly trim all that beauty down to a few sentences, yet still be interesting, entertaining and unique?  This is why I now write backwards.  Here, I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel and are stuck with trying to create an engaging blurb and synopsis.

This is why I advocate the ‘get angry’ method of blurb writing.  Very quickly, as if communicating with dense old me who simply is not getting your story, list out 4-6 bullet points of why your story is unique, what sets it apart from all the others and why readers should pick yours.  Surely you had these reasons floating around in your head when you started writing.  I’m positive you didn’t sit down with the idea of writing a clone of some story you’ve already read.  You wanted yours to be different somehow.  That’s what I’m looking for.

These bullet points should be your starting point.  You still need to introduce your character.  Not their backstory!  You don’t even need to supply their last name, sex or age, but they need a handle.  Don’t clutter your blurb with other names unless they’re critical to the story, and never name a character mentioned only once.  Use function names.  For example, the wicked witch of the West doesn’t need a name unless she shows up more than once (in the blurb or synopsis, of course).

Never do an info dump in your blurb or synopsis.  Exactly like writing your novel, only supply information when it’s necessary to move the plot forward.  And not a moment sooner.  Trust your readers. Trust that they care enough to remember something is missing.

Get those stakes in there, we need to know why the character is in the story.  Then put in the obstacles.  If it’s effortless for the character to achieve their goals, then you pretty much don’t have any story.  How long does it take for someone to describe their idyllic vacation, where all the food was great, no mosquitoes, their significant others got along, etc.?  About twenty seconds, right?  But those nightmare vacations, those are the ones people want to hear about.  The worst to experience have the best stories, right?  If your character’s experiences were like the idyllic vacation, you might not have a novel anyone will want to read.

Once you have all that raw material, now comes the ‘fun’ part: condensing it to 100-150 words.  Don’t obsess with getting it under 150 words, but if you have 350+ you have too much.  Each word needs to convey excitement to the reader, there can be nothing extraneous.  If brevity is not your strong suit, then you might want to ask for help, once you’ve got all the critical information from the above exercises.  Goodreads has a place; I’m sure there are others on the ‘net.

What about the synopsis, you ask.  Well, you use the exact same raw material, but you spoil the ending.  A good synopsis will engage the reader (generally the agent and/or publisher and sometimes the bookseller if you make it that far through the process), but they understand those are difficult to write.  They’ll give you a little slack. But you get no slack for your blurb.  Sure, word of mouth is great, and if you’re lucky enough to get that, you’re off to the races. But in the beginning, you have to convince people with your blurb.  When you’re looking at books, how long to you give each one?  Ten seconds?  Five?  Your blurb has to grab the reader that fast and keep them interested enough to want to read the rest, which has to be interesting enough to make them want to take it home.  If you can write your synopsis the same way, then you’re grabbing the agent/publisher (bookseller) the same way as you would the actual reader.

Having said all that, screening out readers who won’t like your story is just as important as teasing the interested ones.  I learned that the hard way with my first.  I mistakenly thought of it as a romance (yes, it is a love story, but it violates more romance tropes than it satisfies) and wrote the blurb to attract those readers.  Boy did I have some pissed off readers!  Fortunately, these were beta readers, not paying customers, so no one star reviews reviling my story.

If you go with my ‘get angry’ process, you should have all the necessary raw material for a compelling blurb and synopsis.  Polish to perfection.  If you find you’ve got too many words, ask for some help.  Sometimes we fall so in love with our prose we can’t see how little information we’re conveying.  Blurbs and synopses are a true case where less is more.

A note on white space.  I’ve read in many places, and noted it myself reading other people’s blurbs, that long paragraphs are hard to read.  For your blurb in particular, you want your paragraphs to be no more than 2-3 sentences, 4 at the most.  And short punchy sentences!  The additional whitespace lets the reader digest smaller bits at a time and lets them read more, since they’re only committing to a couple more sentences.  The more they read, the more likely they are to buy the book.  Make it as easy as possible for them to read by having short, interesting, informative sentences.

Good luck!  Don’t despair if you struggle; I spent more time on my blurb than I did on my first draft.

Writing Backwards

What?  Backwards?

What I mean is, instead of writing a novel (or, for me now, screenplays) and then trying to condense my 70+K pile of words into 500-800 word synopsis, then a 100-150 word blurb and finally a 10-25 word logline (less important for novels, but critical for screenplays), I start the other way around.

I’m sure that most, if not all, first time authors simply start writing.  The more plotter oriented (vs pantser) will have outlined their story, but basically, assuming you actually are a writer, you’re going to write just to find out if you can.

The problem then becomes condensing.  You started writing for a reason, you had a story to tell, something that caused your fingers to itch.  But now that all got lost in your wonderful prose,  your charming characters, your clever plots.  You’ve lost sight of why you started writing, so distilling your pile of prose to a simple coherent summary is hard.  I’m positive I spent way more time on my blurb and synopsis than I did writing the first draft.  I decided: never again!

So now, when all I have is the gist, that kernel of an idea I want to blow up into a pile of prose, that’s when I create my summaries.  I make notes about what’s important for the story, the elements of the plot and characterization I think make it unique and worth investing time, the critical reveals, sometimes even dialog.  I turn that into a blurb, logline and synopsis first, and only then start writing.

This doesn’t mean you can’t change.  Never think of them as a straight jacket, but if you decide you want your cozy mystery to morph into a scifi first contact, you should, then and there, update your blurb, logline and synopsis with the reasons why.

Does this make me a plotter?  Well, to a certain degree.  But I always knew the ending before I started writing any of my stories.  And I usually wrote the ending fairly early in the process.  Sometimes the ending morphed as I wrote the body of the story, but usually the ending was what drove the structure of the body to begin with.

Now, if you’re writing for your own enjoyment and never intend to show it to more than a handful of friends, no worries.  Go with what works.  But if you intend to show your baby to the world in an effort to get paid, you’ll need a blurb at an absolute minimum, one that captures the essence of your story, grips the reader and forces them to buy and read.  I feel that’s much easier to do if you start that process first, rather than last.

Atomic Blonde

I recently watched the movie Atomic Blonde. What I particularly liked about the movie was how the protagonist actually carried her injuries along with her for the duration.  Much like how in the Bourne series the MC stays injured (even across films!).  So many characters are so super human, after all the damage, they pop up unscathed movements later.  While I can certainly enjoy escapism (though I prefer the Craig Bond over the old-school), things that are more gritty and realistic appeal more to me.  For instance, I like Reservoir Dogs and Chinatown because of that element.

The movie also had a very eclectic visual pallet, though I found it jarring a time or two.  For instance, the TV in the MC’s hotel always had these glaring lights on it.  The music was great, as it reminded me a lot of my youth.  With the appropriate fogging effects of time, I can look back at the era (late 80’s) with nostalgia.

This may be considered a spoiler, if you haven’t seen the flick. Stop here if you want to watch it pristine.  I’ve been studying screenplay writing with the idea of becoming a director at some point (I’ve finally decided to get off the fence and intend to direct a feature on my own nano budget later this fall; I’ll try and remember to update this with a link when it’s gelled more) and occasionally, when I watch a movie, I’ll think about a particular scene, how it was filmed, how the script would have to be written to convey the imagery, that sort of thing.  I felt it was harmless.

Well, I had a disturbing revelation during the lesbian sex scene: I couldn’t relax and enjoy it, I kept focusing on camera placement, what the actresses were doing, the very interesting choice to use mirror-like surfaces to double the view, that sort of thing.  I felt violated, in a way, that I couldn’t just be in the scene (if you can’t guess, this sort of thing is a big turn on to me).  I really hope that the more I get into screenplays and directing I don’t lose what attracted me to it in the first place: the joy in watching movies.

I’ve been beta reading a lot over the last year, but I easily partition that reading because I do it on my computer and read for entertainment with the dead-tree versions.  Maybe I’ll have to watch movies for learning on the computer as well, as a way to try and keep my watching compartmented.

Something else disturbed me, but as a ‘refrigerator moment‘.  I felt there was too much grunting and yelling going on during the fight scenes.  While I suppose unskilled fighters would make a racket to attempt to be intimidating, I would imagine (indeed, that’s exactly how I did my character in my first novel) that skilled fighters would minimize the racket they make, as they don’t want to give away their positions.  I imagine spies as being particularly resistant to making noises as they kill people.  It didn’t jar me out of the movie, it’s pretty much the only way those sorts of scenes are filmed (I like the Bourne fight scenes so much because they are silent and deadly), but when I later thought about how I would do something like that I’d rather have my fighters be largely silent.

If you like realistic action/adventure, I highly recommend this one.

Why Mitusents?

Why did I choose my blog name? Well, I really don’t feel I have much to add to the manifold sources of information that can be found on the web.  Indeed, I debated a long time about even the idea of a blog on writing, as I really didn’t feel I had anything to offer.

Then I realized how much I benefited by finding different expressions on the same topics.  By having the diversity of viewpoints, I felt I could better internalize the important aspects of the topics.  So, particularly since I love to write and give advice, I’d focus on that aspect for my blog.  I’m adding my two cents to what’s already out there.  If someone thinks my viewpoints are helpful, then the blog has accomplished my goal for it.

Dealin Wit Feedback

The first rule regarding feedback: don’t talk about feedback always thank the person giving you feedback.  Seriously.  No matter how rude you feel they are, how clueless, how obtuse, just say ‘thank you’ and move on.  Even if you’re paying for reading/editing (but especially if you aren’t!), people are making choices of what to do with their time, and they’ve chosen to spend it with your story.

OK.  The second rule, which is only not the first rule because I feel it’s really important you say thanks, never, ever, make any changes just because one person, even if that person is an expensive, well-renowned editor, tells you to, unless that suggestion gets you so fired up to make it that your very finger tips itch to start hammering at the keyboard.

Really, that’s the basic gist of what I want to get across here.  Make changes only if you feel they strengthen what you set out to do in the first place.  Most people (I was going to claim ‘all,’ but I’m sure there are always exceptions) started writing with an idea of what they wanted to accomplish.  Make changes that bring your writing closer to those goals, that strengthen your intent.  My rule of thumb when I get feedback is exactly what I said above.  If I get so inspired I just can’t wait to get at the keyboard, then it’s a ‘good change’ and it doesn’t matter if it was just one person who gave me feedback.

Now, what if multiple people give you the same feedback?  Then it becomes a numbers game.  Always get an odd number of readers and always at least three.  If less than a majority of people have the same comment, feel free to ignore it.  You simply cannot please all the people, all the time.  If each of your readers loved some portion of your story so much that they’ve recommended it to their friends, it’s OK if they have some less-than-favorite sections they feel can be strengthened (unless, of course, your finger tips get itchy).  In my first novel I had just as many people complain about the romance as I did about the ‘endless’ jobs interrupting the romance.

This is not to say that you should ignore mechanical advice.  Meaning, if your writing… fails to match conventions (you might hear the term ‘sucks’).  Conventions exist so people can focus less on the prose and more on the story. The more conventions you break, the more people have to work to get at the story.  If you’re intentionally breaking a convention (or several) and that’s the whole point for writing your story in the first place (as a topical example, I just read a novel that was entirely dialog between  two people speaking on the phone; I can’t wait to read more!), then any advice contrary to that goal can safely be ignored.  You must understand, though, that bucking conventions almost goes hand in hand with reducing the number of potential readers.  But if that’s your intent, then it’s not wrong when you did it.

On the other, other hand (or the gripping hand), if you didn’t set out to deliberately dispense with convention, then it’s probably good that you learn (and internalize) the mechanical aspects of writing, since you dilute your reader’s feedback if they’re focused on elements you don’t intend.  As an example, quotes are used different ways in different cultures.  If you’re targeting US audiences, you need to do your quotes such that those readers will understand.  If your prose lends itself toward… excessive description (read “purple“), then you may want to consider tightening things up.  If you’re like me, on the other hand, you’re rather parsimonious in your descriptions and aren’t supplying enough for your readers to visualize what you have in your mind.

So you’re happy that your prose matches the conventions, at least to the extent you intended.  And a majority of readers all complain about the same thing.  What then?  I still say you need to seriously consider the value of sticking to your guns (for those of you not familiar with the slang, “avoid making changes”).  If you can make a change that preserves your intent, yet also allows for the resolution of your reader’s dilemma, at least for me, that makes my finger tips itchy.  Do not, though, make changes simply because a bunch of people complained about the same thing… unless you can be convinced it strengthens your story’s intent.

What does it mean when you constantly make changes?  It means you aren’t writing your novel, you’re writing an amalgam of a bunch of different people’s vision of what you set out to do.  Who wants to read a novel written by committee?  I don’t see any awards for that!

When you’re self-editing, particularly after you’ve read about how stories shouldn’t be told, don’t go second guessing yourself.  Sure, if it’s a mechanical aspect, you need to learn to be a professional writer (assuming you want to be one, of course; there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobby (but even then, convention exists for a reason)), suck it up and learn to write.  You’ll get much better feedback from your readers if they aren’t continually popped out of the story when they stumble over your prose.  But if your story violates some so-called convention (for instance, my first was written in first-person, present-tense; boy did I get a lot of complaints about that!) on purpose, stick with your intent.  You can always write something else later.  Remember, just because it’s the first novel you’ve written, doesn’t mean it has to be your first novel published.

What finally convinced me to give up novels

As a follow-on to this post, I finally found the source of the data that caused me to give up any notion of financial success as a novelist.  If you’re reading this with the goal of being financially successful, you might want to pause and decide if you really want to continue.  I was blissfully able to ignore all the other bad news I’d read until I got to this one.

Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask)
An In-Depth Look at What/How/Why Books Sell
https://electricliterature.com/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-book-sales-but-were-afraid-to-ask-1fe6bc00aa2d

For me the passage that killed was this one (there’s a lot of great information, so, if you’ve come this far, I strongly urge you to read it):

That’s a small sample though, so I went through the BookScan numbers for every fiction book listed on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. I used 2014 instead of 2015 to make sure each book had at least 12 months of sales. No list is perfect, but the NYT list includes story collections and small press books alongside the big name literary authors and award contenders. 2014’s list includes names like Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, Marlon James, and David Mitchell as well as small press debuts by Nell Zink and Eimear McBride. It’s a good sampling of the “books that people are talking about” in the literary world.

The BookScan sales of those books literally ranged from 1,000 to 1.5 million, with an average (mean) of just over 75,000 copies sold per book. That 75k number is pretty skewed by the existence of Anthony Doerr’s runaway literary hit, All the Light We Cannot See, which sold over 1.5 millions of copies. (The next highest book was about 270,000.) If we remove the best and worst selling books on the list, we get a mean of 46,550 copies and a median of 25,000 copies.

My take from this is the 50th most ‘notable’ book sold a whopping 25K books, when ranked by sales.  I already know there’s a steep drop off in book sales after the first year and while a very few books will become perennial sellers, all the rest probably see 80-90% of their sales in the first 12 months of sales.

Note that these books all have conventional publishers, and, in most cases, the publishers are big ones.  Thus, were I to achieve my fantasy of being picked up by a major publisher (which, of course, requires being taken on by an experienced agent), the best I can look forward to is, really, 25K books sold.  As much as I like the notion of being a best selling author, I just don’t think my style of writing will have a wide enough appeal to generate the sorts of sales that would build on themselves enough to be best selling.  My fantasies assumed I’d be more in the top 1K books, which if the 50th is that dismal, how bad can the 1,000th be?

Yes, if you have a backlist, any new book will generate a bump for all the rest, if your latest is well received, but I’ve read that it’s generally only possible to make a living as a novelist after you’ve had 10 novels that sold fairly well AND you keep cranking them out.  I managed to write nearly 250K words in a year, which is 2-3 novel’s worth, so output isn’t the issue.  But I was unsuccessful with my query attempts (detailed in here), so faced with the three orders of magnitude more dismal prospects of self publishing I decided being a novelist just wasn’t where I needed to be.

Oh, mentioned in the above article is this equally depressing one, which I will leave you with:

What Writers Earn Money? A Look at the Author Earnings Report on Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing Sales
https://electricliterature.com/what-writers-earn-money-c109bfb04d3d

Curious how many authors are earning poverty wages or better?

4,600 authors [earn] $25,000 or above from their sales on Amazon.com. 40% of these are indie authors deriving at least half of their income from self-published titles, while 35% are Big Five authors deriving the majority of their income from Big Five-published titles, and 22% are authors who derive most of their income from titles published by small- or medium-sized traditional publishers.

So… not exactly a ton of writers are even scraping together poverty wages from writing.

How about writers who could be described as making a nice living off of books at $100,000 a year?According to this report, only 1,340 make the cut. For comparison’s sake, there are 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million.

Why my change in focus from novels to screenplays?

Here’s a summary:

  1. I wasn’t finding representation for my first novel, possibly due to difficulty in identifying genre.
  2. So I switched focus to a murder mystery, figuring I could use that, with it’s nice clean genre, to break into the ‘biz (there’s no reason the first novel you write has to be the first novel you publish).
  3. Sadly, that effort came up way short of my goals (18.6K vs 65K).
  4. So I decided to switch focus to self-publishing, as I heard that people were buying murder mystery novellas.
  5. Which lead me to negotiate a grand a book budget from my boss (wife).
  6. All this was grand, until I suffered from acute depression around 2017 birthday (I hate birthdays, they always remind me I haven’t built any space stations (don’t click, it’s sad how out of date it is)) in parallel with…
  7. Recalculated our retirement goals (we do this a couple of times a year, to be sure we’re on track for the summer of ’22).
  8. Realized how foolish it was to spend all that money ($8-10K just on things already in the queue ($3.5K already sunk)) with no return.
  9. Crisis of ‘faith,’ leading me to give up writing novels while in the midst of getting covers made, prose proofed and awaiting dev editing feedback on my series.

After a great deal of thought (normally birthday depression only lasts a few days, this time it was over a month), I realized the only thing that got me excited any longer was the prospects of being able to direct a movie.  A silly dream, yes, but really, how much sillier than being a best selling novelist?

I’ve had a number of business ideas over the decades (from building molecular scale computer components, to sequencing DNA on a microchip (got a patent on that one), long-term digital data storage and aquaponics; I am nothing if not eclectic) that all went nowhere.  All also had lots of dependencies, usually on finding other people with money.

I could write scripts, though, and then direct them for reel, beer and pizza.  Or so I’ve been told many times during my research on independent films.  Of course, few will ever see such a film, almost exactly like self publishing your novel.  However, I feel, by gaining experience and proving my capabilities (or, perhaps, proving to myself I really don’t have what it takes, or find I lack the desire), I can legitimately hope to find a producer that can back a project with enough money everyone can get paid.

I believe now is a golden age for independent film making.  Places like Netflix and Amazon need to have exclusive films to lure in customers and, at least until they develop their own studio system, they’re likely to depend on the indie movie scene to fill the gap.  Plus, the technical aspects have got so cheap.  Even if you want to film in 8K, rental is only a few thousand a week and the computer power to process/edit even 8K raw format is something entirely feasible with a moderate budget.

Besides, people have always said my prose was terse and descriptions minimal, perfect fits for screenplays. I might as well write where my strengths are.  While still quite rare, I feel the chances of making enough money to live off of screenplay writing is much higher than doing so as a novelist.  There are so many more people who watch movies compared to reading books.  Sad that this is  the case, but I got into the writing business as a mercenary intent on monetizing my free time, not to scratch an itch (though I confess, I find it hard to avoid the itch now).

DoaCK Developmental Editing, Part 3

This is a three-part post regarding the developmental editing I got for my first novel through Steve, the Novel DoctorPart 1. Part 2.

This is Steve’s reply to my reply.  I included excerpts from mine to give context.

…In either case, it seems that the bulk of the marketing and advertising falls on the author’s shoulders which then seems to make the idea of self publishing all the more appealing. Except then there is the battle to rise above the huge amount of noise.

Just a note – marketing has always been something that lands most squarely on the authors’ shoulders. Yes, publishing houses have marketing budgets to help launch a new book/author, but unless they’re projecting huge sales, that budget is tiny. In this “new world” of social marketing, it’s truer than ever that authors have a lot of hard work ahead of them. That’s just the reality of trying to become noticed when there are literally thousands of books competing for the same eyes/ears/reviews/sales.

…Of course, I fantasized you’d say I was the greatest thing since sliced bread and tell me you knew just the right agent, but instead I’ve got my worst-case scenario: I need to put in dozens of hours (at least) to get it ready to approach agents, then the silly process of trying to actually get published, all for the pittance offered.

If you want me to tell you you’re a crappy writer, I can do that. But that would be a stretch. I know it’s frustrating to be caught somewhere in the middle, but the truth is, that’s where most authors are – both successful ones and those who don’t sell a single book. The number of truly awful authors is bigger than that of truly great ones, but most of us are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Of course, all of that is subjective, so what some editors/agents/publishers say is “middle of the road” could be “top of the heap” to others. Yeah. I know. More mud to slog through. In some ways I wish this were easier to assess – but then again, that would mean no space for surprises or outliers.

…I’m now convinced I’m not the right guy to do erotica, but I’ve only had the one reader that ‘specialized’ in that sort of reading (she was the one that said it was too much or too little). As mentioned elsewhere, I plan on (assuming I move forward) substantially upping the romance of the first sex scene, but don’t intend to add erotica back when doing so.

I can certainly look at that if you like. I’m more concerned with the overall “flow” of the plot regarding the romance and sex, though. It’s a bigger picture issue than merely adding more scenes. It’s about the slow build, I suppose, rather than plugging scenes in to hit some kind of nebulous quota.

…As one of Seacay’s hobbies is reading, I would expect he would attempt to adhere to a lot of things you are describing, so I believe that the changes you are suggesting will allow me to maintain the goal I set out to achieve.

I gathered this was the conceit, but still had to wonder if it might be more compelling with the past tense approach. It still has that immediacy and intimacy of first person, but without the occasionally clumsy present tense issues.

…I want to show some sort of transformation for her, though, because as I reveal later in this book and emphasize in later books, she has very little interest in sex with anyone, but particularly men. I felt it was important to show why she would be willing to consider trying to get her man, but I do agree it could be put further off in the story.

Yes. Sometimes when the backstory comes too soon, it steals some of that wonderful “wondering” that readers do while they read. It’s all a balancing act, of course, and knowing when to reveal something about a character is one of the trickiest parts of writing. But it’s worth careful review in the revision process because it’s often the difference between a compelling read and a benign one.

I agree with the ‘show vs tell’ issue, but often need some help in specifically addressing instances. I certainly ‘tell’ a lot, but I feel it is necessary to move the story along. Based on comments from you and other readers, my conclusion is much of my ‘telling’ is acceptable, so I need specific instances (like the one you point out above).

Yes. Telling is fine and necessary in fiction. But the most compelling sections tend to be those show, so more show will mean more engagement.

The way I wrote the original sex scene there was lots of graphic, fluid filled sex. I think I cut too much, or rather, didn’t adequately replace the fluids with something else. I’ve been working on converting the novel to a screenplay (as if I didn’t already have enough distractions already 😉 and have been looking at each key scene (I consider that one of the most key) and realized that, as written, there is essentially no way any reasonable reader (or viewer) would think these two people had got unrecoverably hooked on one another.

Agreed.

…If, as seems to be the growing consensus, stories written with this goal in mind are not ‘interesting’, then it is probably best for me to set these aside. I understand the general draw of ‘coming of age’ stories as they allow for the traditional angst, mistakes and dumbdumbs, but my whole goal is/was to write something after that point.

I certainly understand that. And there are successful novels with similar “super-hero” protagonists. I’m fine with that. I just like to point out things that stand out to me as “opportunities” for the author. In this case, the opportunity was to make Seacay a bit more relatable, despite his obvious skill and experience. It’s when we stumble that we most seem human, so that’s sort of the point I was making. Still, you need to trust your gut ultimately so it’s a book you enjoy.

…Considering myself a likely ‘conscienceless killer’, just an unproven one, I model Seacay after myself regarding the damn chick flicks (ever watch ‘Courage Under Fire’? Who knew a movie about war and blowing shit up was a chick flick; that happened to be the first movie I watched with my now wife and still acutely remember the pain of holding in the tears while we watched the damn thing).

Point taken. Yes, the ol’ “choked up” rather than tears. I actually liked that Seacay had this “chick flick” issue. I just mentioned it because I wanted to be sure you are being consistent with his character. Again, it works. But maybe you need him to acknowledge even more directly that while he’s emotionless on the job, and perhaps in relationships (apart from Isabel), for some reason he’s unable to put up the wall when watching those movies. You sort of address this – but I think having him acknowledge that disconnect could go a long way toward erasing any “is this consistent?” questions in the minds of readers.

I guess I would need some specific pointers where I need to shift from telling to showing. I understand your point, but have read quite a few authors that I like and respect and they often will tell just to move things along. I would rather ‘dwell’ on the plot points I think are important than invest a lot of time (mine and the readers) on what I consider points not germane.

I have found that a good “showing” scene makes up for a whole host of telling scenes meant to move something along. Think about the goal of the scene – is it to describe a job in detail? Then use your telling as much as needed. But if it’s to reveal something about a character, it seems to me there would be benefit in zooming in close to a “showing” scene and leaving space for the reader to play a role.

…Still, when I go around depending on a needle gun that knocks people out before they can fire their own gun, I figure a small addition of a heart attack inducing chemical isn’t that far a leap.

That’s fine. I only ask these sorts of questions because I know some readers will. I will say this, though, when an author says “Well, it happened in real life, so of course it could in a novel,” I have to press pause. Because what exists in real life, and what works in real life, doesn’t always work in fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than non-fiction.

Maybe I do need to remove/rewrite that, but it was a key scene I came up with early and I feel shows them both struggling with their feelings for each other. I also want to show that Isabel is struggling with their relationship as well.

I just wonder if there’s a better, still awkward, approach that doesn’t dive directly into misogyny. Which is what it feels like in context.

…I also feel that Seacay, in adapting his diaries, would be cagey about some of those details, but I can also see that he would conclude he should make some stuff up to help the reader. I’ll think about how to go about adding more such flavor.

Fair enough. But he does mention how many months/years it’s been in the text, so why not make that clearer for the reader. This actually could enhance the “diary” aspect of the form.

…On the one hand I hate sub titles, on the other hand, I hate Anglicizing everything, particularly since I think non-US viewers might be a significant fraction (at least I would be targeting them, were things to proceed to that point).

This is a case where clarity probably trumps cleverness (or even accuracy). This is the same dilemma historical fiction writers face when trying to figure out how much classical language to include, etc.

…As I said before, I don’t think I emphasis enough that they spent several sex-filled days at the end of their first job and no matter how fantastic the sex is, if nothing more there has to be some conversation while the body recovers. I think if I am able to effectively get that point across that perhaps this element won’t be as out of place.

Yes, that will solve this.

…The vulnerabilities I want to show (perhaps not well) is that he is out of his comfort zone because of Isabel. I can see to adding more layers of evident distraction, perhaps catching his mind wandering or something like that.

I think the key here might be for him to ponder more about his rather quick decision to partner. It goes so against his nature, yet there’s not that much resistance to the idea.

…This event (giving the second a specific drug cocktail) isn’t spontaneous, it is the result of a long period of careful planning on Seacay’s part. I’m trying to tell the story entertainingly, but quickly, to show his expertise is more than simply tripping people going down some stairs or shooting them with a needle gun.

Maybe what’s missing here is a piece of narrative that helps readers see how much time has gone into this job before what we see on the page. That would answer some of the concerns. And I’ve already noted my general concerns about “convenience” above.

…I wanted to show that he isn’t just about unbelievably beautiful women, but is more about personalities once there has been interaction.

This is fine. It’s just that there’s an abundance of things that appear rather conveniently. This would be stronger if there were fewer of those, I think.

…I could just drop Seacay’s story and keep Tessa’s if you think that achieves what’s necessary. I guess this also applies to below as well.

I like having more Tessa. Maybe you can solve the concern about “perfect” Seacay by addressing it more directly. As noted earlier, sometimes when you have the protagonist directly address the issue that the reader may be pondering, you eliminate it as a concern in the readers’ minds. It’s like you could have him say, “I know I’m a bit of an ideal – a superhero who has all the right skills at all the right time. But it’s not like I started out that way. And history is written by the victors, so I’m telling the story my way.”

I agree that some transition is helpful. Perhaps a good place for one of those ‘living it up’ scenes where he is having a great time, but is seeing Isabel everywhere he looks.

Yes.

…I was trying to make his earlier ‘vanishing’ acts more believable by showing some of what was involved in making that happen. I guess this applies to the below as well.

I could see this. But readers have already made their assessment about his abilities from the previous scenes where he just does these things. So the explanation comes a bit late, and may feel more like story apologetics than a narrative necessity.

…Perhaps the marathon dialog needs to be broken somehow, except I don’t want them to interact physically and don’t really see them being this intimate at, say, a restaurant.

I think the key here might be showing a little more dialogue earlier, or at least some aborted attempts at communication so when this flood comes it feels like it’s been building.

I can see I’ve hammered home my average looks and memory aspect, but I want to show him getting started before he joins the military and this story seems plausible to me.

The first kill comes without any real vetting of who he is, though, right? I think that was my concern.

…In my mind this doesn’t show anything particularly super human, he knows what meds the target has been prescribed and even if he didn’t already know the result of higher doses he could learn that trivially.

This is fine. Just keep in mind that my comments about this stuff are mostly about the abundance of convenient skills, etc. Readers will get to a breaking point on the believability of a story/character when they’ve had to swallow (pun intended) too many things that required suspension of disbelief. That point is different for different readers, of course.

…As I’ve said, I think my first sex scene needs a massive overhaul and with that done correctly, I think this scene might fit in better.

Agreed.

…I can see interweaving those discussions within the body of the novel, perhaps that would ‘speed things up’ on the job.

It might simply be an issue of the form you chose to write the novel. When it’s a series of jobs, there is going to be a baseline “sameness” to some of the action. But my concern here was more about the stuff that happened before that, which just touched on themes about Seacay that I felt had already been adequately addressed.

I agree in principle, but need specifics in order to focus enough to come up with alternatives. Perhaps, if I persuade myself to move forward with this writing, I can get your “Red Pen of Life and Death” or “Comprehensive Edit” and you can point those locations out.

[I’ll save my Kindle notes. Out of habit I started to highlight things I’d address in the Red Pen. They’re written in my own little shorthand, or I’d send them along.]

I suppose I could do away with the chapter, but felt it was important to show the reader some of the effort he puts into his layers of disguise.

Which you already did earlier, right?

…I get that when there is a theme with readers there is an issue that needs to be addressed and in this case I am not so attached to it that I would want to stick with it, but I feel something like this is important.

I’m fine with the psychological operations idea. It actually makes sense, assuming of course that Seacay is skilled in this as well as the other jobs (kills, observation, requisition of data, etc). Psyops would be a rather specialized field, wouldn’t it? So to make Seacay an expert at this too…well, you know my general thoughts on that.

…BTW, don’t really get the ‘bit on the nose’ reference, where does that come from? Going with what I recall in my reading, I would interpret ‘on the nose’ as being ‘right on target’, the opposite of what I think you are trying to convey.

The “on the nose” reference is just to say it feels too neatly packaged. It’s a phrase used a lot with movies – you’ve probably seen some dialogue that just feels like it was drafted to answer questions for readers, rather than sounding organic to the moment. That’s what I was referring to.

Well, I’ve designed and built a house (along with my wife, the two of us doing 90%+ of the work) as well as an indoor pool/greenhouse, all from reading books, so it doesn’t sound like any sort of stretch to me. My goal with the story about the bondage is to show how Isabel and Tessa came together, to make it clear that they have had a long, loving relationship. Perhaps it comes too late for proper impact.

Yes. It does come a bit late. It’s all bunched up at the end of the novel, though the truth of these two would have been evidence at least in clues here and there much earlier.

…I can see adding some of the elements scattered around the rest of the book, that would make this chapter much shorter.

Yes. That will help a bunch.

…I want to have to defend the elements I think are critical, if I can’t convince a professional editor that they are important, perhaps either they aren’t as important as I thought or, as is likely in this case, I’m just trying to do something that doesn’t have a ready market.

I didn’t mention funds because I skipped over that question in your editorial note. Not on purpose – I was focusing on the editorial notes. I can tell from your writing (and from these notes) that you have a great interest in making this better, but also that you have strong opinions on what that might look like. Both are admirable qualities in a writer. Being open to editorial suggestions and direction gives you the chance to grow, but without some conviction about the story, it’s like taking a writing class, rather than writing a novel. Which by the way, isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve worked with lots of writers on books that became a living writing class rather than a publishable work. Writing ain’t easy. And making money from it is even harder. But for those who feel the compulsion to write, the hard, long road is something to embrace.

Just a few more thoughts – first, there is no such thing as wasted writing for anyone who desires to be a writer. I have the sense that you’re not entirely sure you need to be a writer so much as someone who wants to make money writing. (Though as noted – your natural writing voice is good – you’re far from a hack.) The two aren’t entirely distinct, but if you find yourself frustrated by the process now, I can assure you it’s not going to get any easier.

This is something I tell all my writers: don’t quit your day job. I know, you’re talking about retirement, but the same truth applies. No one can tell you with assurance if your books will ever find a substantial audience. That’s been true in publishing forever. Of course, if you have to write, then no one can tell you not to (nor should they). But if it all comes down to dollars, you’ll never hear me saying “drop everything and write full time” because that’s simply unwise. Could you be a huge seller someday? I can’t say “no” because I can’t predict trends and luck and opportunities. But the vast majority of writers (including some brilliant ones and plenty of average ones and more than a few hacks) won’t earn back what they spend on editing/covers (if they self-publish) or much more than their advance (if they publish traditionally). That’s just reality.

Of all my writer friends (and clients), I only know a handful that make anything near 50K a year from writing alone. A great goal, and for a select few, reachable. But you have to be totally committed to the marketing game, however you get published. And that’s practically a full time job in itself.

Okay, enough harsh reality. If you feel you must write, write. I’d be happy to work with you to help shape a book into something that might garner more agent interest (no promises – but that’s always the goal). I enjoy the give and take that comes with the editorial process. I always grow as an editor with every project, but especially with those that are trying to do something a little different.


I hope those of you who stuck through this to the end got something out of my exchange. Steve’s input triggered me to make changes to my novel that I easily believe made it 10x better. His feedback also gave me confidence in my abilities as a writer, allowing me to believe my quixotic quest to become a professional writer wasn’t entirely misplaced. I felt it was well worth the money and the wait and recommend developmental editing to anyone who is serious about their craft, whether they intend to publish or just grow their skills.