Archive for March, 2012

The anatomy of writing

When you read a book, it is sometimes hard to fathom the amount of work that goes into the words on the page. It just all seems so natural, flowing with ease at just the right pace to create suspense or tension.

The reality of writing is that it is a lengthy and time-consuming process. The job of a writer is not only to cough up the words, but writing a book is a process during which you are making thousands of decisions. All the cool events in that story you’re reading need to be thought up and detailed out. Is that corridor leading to the left or to the right, or is it perhaps leading downstairs? What about furniture and decor? Does it look spartan or is it richly furnished, and if so, with what?

Fu Man Chu’s Vampire Lettering

Every scene in a book requires countless decisions to be made. Some come naturally out of the overall context, but many times, these decisions can be hard to make for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is hard for a writer to make a decision, because we don’t want to commit to something just yet, as the story might require something different later on.

The same decision making process often applies to the writing itself. Things such as which words to use, how to describe settings and events, how to paint characters, their idiosyncrasies, their speech patterns and behavior, all of these things require forethought and a lot of decision making. As a result many writers — myself included — write their books in iterations.

I want to show you how this works and how a piece of text is shaped and polished in such an iterative process, from its first draft to the final version you will find in the published book.

When I write a book I typically do not get up with grammatical details and style all that much. I try to write what is in my mind, without losing to much time so I won’t lose my train of thought. I find that many times I sink into what is called a “writer’s dream.” It is a time where I am writing and I am completely focused on the story. During those times I will see the scene I am writing before my mind’s eye, like a movie, and I am caught up in it, simply dumping it into the computer the way I dream it. I see characters act, react, and talk, allowing me to adapt believable speech patterns and behaviors for those characters. Oftentimes I will actually see specific actors in these parts, helping me to visualize the scene unfold even better. Before you ask, yes, I do have an actor I see when I think of Jason Dark but I will not tell you who it is. No offense, but I just don’t want you to have any external connotations when reading about Jason Dark.

Once I have written down the story, I have what is called a First Draft. This first draft is a rough unpolished piece of writing that will require a serious amount of work before it is ready for the prime time. Below you will see an excerpt from “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire,” the most recent Jason Dark adventure. This is the first draft version. It is the result of my initial brain dump, complete with typos and errors, without any work or cleanup done to it.

A pale moon appeared from behind its veil of clouds and cast its hues across the gaslit streets of London, the pale blue fingers crawling across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as always, oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its inhabitants.
A breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer a few days ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, moving into every side street and court in the dockyards where ships were moored and guarded by the dim light of unsteady lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, like parchment, and blotched with rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds with no sign of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin, red rim and a small gold tassel.

Once my first draft is done, I will usually set it aside for at least two weeks without looking at it or even thinking about it. It is simmering there while I will lose my immediate attachment to the words I wrote. The reason for this is that I want to have a fresh approach to the book. I don’t want to get stuck in the same though patterns I had when writing the book. I want to read it more like a reader than the writer.
So, after some time has passed I will read the book. Very slowly, sentence for sentence. I will look for spelling errors, I will will check the sentences for grammatical issues. Does it sound right? Did I get my point across or have I been overly obtuse? I look for instances where I could perhaps shuffle around a sentence so it becomes more powerful.

Below you will find the same paragraph as above, only this time I have made a first revision pass at it. Note how certain things have changed. These might look like small changes, but the thing about really good writing is that its beauty is in the details. One word changed can make a world of difference and truly elevate the impact of the text to a new level.

The pale face of the moon appeared from behind its veil of clouds and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers crawling across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as always, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its inhabitants.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where ships were moored and guarded by the dim light of unsteady lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, like parchment, and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin , red rim and a small gold tassel.

Once I have completed this first revision, I will immediately go back and read the book again. This is important to me because I now have the entire story still in my mind and remember what happened through the book. This is crucial to make sure the story remains consistent, and so that forward references are correct. I can mentally check if the information a character is referring to is actually know to him at that point in time. As a writer it os all too easy to get caught up in the writer’s dream that we forget to introduce key elements, hints or even people.
During this second reading I will also constantly keep an eye on my verbs. I will look for stronger verbs wherever I can to make sure the sentences get across their meaning as powerfully as possible. In addition, I will look at my word pictures, the nouns and descriptions I am using, to ensure my writing is as evocative as it can be.
At this stage I will also pay close attention to the rhythm and flow of the text. I will check the beginnings of sentences to make sure they are varied and interesting. If I notice too many sentences in a row starting with “He,” for example, I know it is time to shake things up a little and work some rephrasing magic.

Below you will once again find the same passage as before, only this time after I went over it a second time. Once again you will notice the subtle differences, and you will hopefully see how these small changes actually do make a big difference.

The pale face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin, red rim and a small gold tassel.

At this time I am usually close to what I want my text to be. If I am not yet confident, I will repeat the process above until I feel the text has reached a level of maturity I am after. With each iteration, however, it becomes more and more important to keep the original intention in mind. It is all too easy to completely lose the original voice of the text by accident, which is, of course, not something you want to happen.

It is time to give the book one more read. During this stage I will try to put on my reader hat. I will read the book and take note of things that stick out, such as spelling errors and typos, or missing or misplaced punctuation marks. I will also note down adverbs I encountered to go back after the read and see if I can perhaps remove them, or replace them with stronger verbs still. This I do after the read, because at this stage I want to experience the story and not break up the reading with a lot of editing time.

Below you will find the excerpt from “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire” that you should be familiar with by now, with these changes applied.

The pale face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and driving out the stench at last, that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a single muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin blood-red rim and a small gold tassel.

At this point, I usually ask my wife, Lieu, to read it before I actually publish it. She is the Jason Dark series editor and knows the characters perhaps better than I do. She was usually also the person who helped me put together the storyline by providing input, suggestions and ideas, so she is very well suited to let me know when a character in my book acts out-of-character.

Lieu also has an uncanny ability to pick up on lose ends pr things that make no sense. She will point these out to me and ask questions, such as, “Why did the bad guy wait all this time? He could have killed them on page 34 already.” It is then up to me to make things fit and perhaps add a sentence or reference in certain places of the story to make sure everything in the story happens for a reason.

What comes next is crucial. At the same time it is, sadly, the step that all too many independent and self-published authors skip — the Editor.

I will send my book off to my editor, my friend Terry Coleman, in the case of the Jason Dark books. The job of the editor is essentially the same I have done in all the above steps, only that now it is being performed by a trained expert who has no prior affiliation with the text. He has a completely new set of eyes, he has a wealth of experience, he is a walking dictionary, thesaurus and etymologist all wrapped in one person. Terry knows things I don’t. He notices things I don’t. He sees misplaced modifiers that I read over. He notices when something doesn’t make sense or feels stilted. He knows dialects and can polish the things people say, and so forth. In short, an editor is an egg-laying-wool-milk-pig.

Terry will return my book to me with all sorts of corrections and comments inserted as notes in the document. I will accept or reject these comments and correction suggestions at my own discretion, but even when I disagree with the suggestions he is making, I will ALWAYS think about them before dismissing them. Most of the time I find that he is correct and that a small clarification here, or a restructuring there may lead to a stronger emotional response, or will simply improve the writing in general.

Below you will find the same passage we’ve been looking at all this time in its final version, after Terry went over it.

The pallid face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a single muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat crowned the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin blood-red rim and a small gold tassel.

Now the book is finally ready to be read by general audiences. I will format it as an eBook and for the print edition, and will proceed to unleash it onto the unsuspecting public.

As you can see, writing a book is a lot more involved than simply putting down the initial text. It is a process that is iterative and very time consuming, and can be extremely draining. But if done right, the end result can be exceedingly rewarding, for both, the writer and the reader equally. A carefully crafted book is a thing of beauty and well worth the effort.

If I whet your appetite for some more, make sure to get yourself a copy of the book now for only $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Kobo for all your favorite eBook reading devices. And if you don’t own an eBook reader, you know, of course, that you can download Kindle software or ePub readers for pretty much any gadget and computer for free.

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If you’ve been following my blog or my Twitterstream, you will be aware that I’ve recently finished a new Jason Dark story. I began writing this series of supernatural mysteries taking place in Victorian England about 3 years ago. Revolving around the occult detective Jason Dark — kind of a Sherlock Holmes character facing paranormal cases — and his cast of sidekicks that includes Siu Lin and his friend Herbert, I’ve always been attracted and intrigued by the possibilities this series offered to me as a writer.

Fu Man Chu's Vampire CoverThe most recent adventure, the eleventh in the series, is a perfect example, why. Titled “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire” the title alone says it all. I love to have fun with my stories. It gives me tremendous pleasure to take things that we are familiar with and give the my own spin. Like Doctor Fu Manchu, the criminal mastermind, brought to life by Sax Rohmer in 1912 – though it was first published in 1913. Fu Man Chu made a personal appearance in a previous Jason Dark adventure named “From a Watery Grave,” but only as a somewhat peripheral character that advanced the story. To celebrate the nefarious mastermind’s 100th anniversary, I felt it was time to put him the spotlight of one of my stories, and the idea for “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire” was born.

I already foreshadowed the story in Jason Dark’s tenth mystery, “Curse of Kali,” but I have to be perfectly honest that at the time I wrote those foreshadowing scenes, I had absolutely no idea where I would eventually go with the actual story of “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire.” I just knew that I wanted to do something.

It all changed when lightning struck me in early November — figuratively speaking, of course. In one sparkling moment, just after Halloween, I suddenly knew how I could develop the story. I had the germ for a unique approach to the story, something that would make sure it’s not just another vampire story, and the key how to make the Jiang Shi, the hopping Chinese vampires, truly formidable opponents.

I kept the idea in my head for three days, trying to turn it down, because I had decided some time earlier in the year not to write any more Jason Dark stories for a number of reasons. You can’t keep a good idea down, though, and it just begging. There was a time when the idea teased me with cookies and even bribed me with the promise of riches. Like I would fall for that…

Be that as it may, I finally gave in. I just wanted to write this story so badly. I decided put everything else aside and began to write. After twelve days, the story was done. That is the fastest I ever completed a Jason Dark story. Traditionally, it always took me about twice as long, but this one just begged to come out. With minimal pre-planning, I simply wrote the story from beginning to end. That in itself is very unusual for me, as I have a tendency to write my books out of order. Ordinarily, I write whichever scene I feel like at any given day. But in this case, it was truly like telling the story from beginning to end. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and I went for it.

Interestingly, “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire” also turned out to be the longest of all Jason Dark adventures so far. In fact, after my fourth draft, it was about 25 percent longer than the other stories, and the final editing add even a little more bulk to it. So, it is easy to see that I enjoyed writing it, as there was none of the struggle that usually accompanied the other adventures — to some degree, at least.

Ultimately, it is a reflection of the plot, I think. I wanted to present Fu Man Chu as a larger-than-life villain without him being an entirely supernatural creature. He is, after all, a human. Fortunately, the titular vampire is not and the teaming up of the two allowed me to do some really cool things.

As with all the Jason Dark supernatural mysteries, I also wanted to add some nice drama and unexpected turns to the story to show off my cast’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. I’d love to tell you more about how Siu Lin drfuf jrjf nfb yogifjfndnd… oops, sorry, I am evidently not at liberty to tell you details. You will have to get yourself a copy and read the story. 🙂

Take it from me, though, that it is a fun ride and the fact that I had a blast writing it should, in theory, be reflected in the writing — or so I hope.

Get yourself a copy of the book now for only $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Kobo for all your favorite eBook reading devices. And if you don’t own an eBook reader, you know, of course, that you can download Kindle software or ePub readers for pretty much any gadget and computer for free.

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