When Research Derails Your Plot

Before I sit down to write one of my novels, I like to plot them out. These days my plots are fairly detailed with a sentence or two about every scene I plan to write. This helps to guide my research so I learn what I need to know before I start writing the novel. Despite that, details sometimes slip through the cracks.

For example, I’m currently working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. The historical Wyatt Earp is an important side character. In one scene, a character wants to buy Wyatt a drink. Now, I’ve watched many western movies featuring Wyatt Earp and he’s often shown in a saloon, playing faro or poker. In my research, I found this to be reasonably accurate, so it seemed fair to assume that Wyatt was a drinking man.

I thought it would be fun to add a little authenticity to the story and have the character buy Wyatt not just any drink, but his favorite drink. Wyatt Earp’s life is so well documented, I thought it might be possible to find out what he liked to drink. As it turns out, I did indeed find out. Wyatt Earp didn’t drink alcohol at all!

At this point, I faced two choices. The first, and perhaps most controversial would be to declare that in this alternate history Wyatt does drink. I’d argue this is actually a fair choice, but if you do go this route, you should do even more research to understand why Wyatt Earp didn’t drink and decide what circumstances in your alternate world would make him a drinking man. While you might not dwell on that choice in the story, you probably should say a few words about it. I would only recommend considering this route if major plot points down the road required that Wyatt Earp be a drinker for some reason and pulling that element out of the story would make it fall down like the proverbial house of cards.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a professional scientist. All my training is built around the idea that if I do research and find something that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, I have to accept that finding. Between that inclination and the fact that Wyatt Earp having a shot of whiskey, scotch or anything else was simply not critical to the story in its own right, I did a little more research. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was a big fan of ice cream and ice cream parlors were just starting to spring up in the old west of the 1880s.

Returning to my novel, I used this bit of trivia to create a minor plot complication for my character who had to scramble to find Wyatt’s favorite ice cream parlor to continue his plans. It adds an interesting moment to the story, as well as a little bit of fun, historical trivia.

For me, this is one of the most fun parts of writing the Clockwork Legion novels. I get to learn about history and figure out how that history is changed by the world-altering events I’ve proposed. Conversely, I figure out what things would be constants in this new world and how that affects the story I want to tell.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me on this thrilling ride through history. The links below will take you to my pages about the books where you can find out how to purchase, read sample chapters, see book trailers and more. Also, note the first two books are available as audio books as well as print and ebooks.

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Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!

Meet Mike and Claire

This past weekend, I’ve been working on a book trailer for my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. To make this trailer, I’ve been collaborating with actor, director, and producer Eric Schumacher, who played Wyatt Earp in the Fox Network TV series, Legends and Lies: The Real West.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of book trailers. Some are more successful than others. I’ve even made a few using graphics provided by the wonderful artists who worked on my covers. For this trailer, Eric and I wanted to kick it up a notch, and make a more cinematic trailer featuring a scene from the novel. Eric is playing telescope operator Mike Teter and Sara Mirasola is playing astronomy graduate student Claire Yarbro. Here’s a sneak peak of the actors in character.

I have tried my hand at writing a couple of screenplays, and even submitted one to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on TV, but this marks the first time I get to see my words translated to the screen. Eric and I collaborated on the screenplay. Like most book screenplays, it’s not a word-for-word translation of what happens in the book, but we worked hard to keep the essence of one of the book’s scariest moments. As the scene opens, Mike and Claire’s dialog teases what’s been happening in the novel so far, then Mike leaves Claire alone. In the book, Claire goes through an internal monologue as she waits to find out what’s happening to the others with a few exclamations. We worked to translate enough of the words to give you a sense of what she’s thinking without giving you a Shakespearean-style monologue. I’ll leave the description there to avoid spoilers both for the book and the trailer.

The writing process started with me picking a handful of scenes I thought might be suitable. We developed one in hopes that Kitt Peak National Observatory could be a stand-in for the novel’s fictional observatory. However, that request was denied. The powers that be felt the Mayall 4-meter was just a little too recognizable and such a film would imply organizational endorsement for the project. Disappointing, but fair enough.

The new scene is set in an observatory control room, which is easier to mock up without implying institutional endorsement. So we went to one of our backup scenes. The scene I picked only had Claire. Eric roughed out a draft based on that scene, then I suggested an opening based on the previous scene where Mike and Claire are together. This allowed two actors to play off each other and set up the scene before Claire has to carry the ending alone. We then sent the script back and forth a few times. I checked for both scientific accuracy and assuring the script was true to the flavor of the book, while Eric worked to assure the scene could be filmed and actors could speak the lines.

It’s been exciting to see Eric and Sara bring Mike and Claire to life. In a future post, closer to the trailer’s release, I’ll discuss more of the technical aspects of making our short film. In the event you don’t want to wait for the trailer’s release to read the book, you can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt, read a sample chapter, and find places to buy the book at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Roughing It

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been plugging away on the rough draft of my eleventh novel, Owl Riders. The novel will be the fourth in my Clockwork Legion series, which includes Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, and The Brazen Shark.

I haven’t said much about the new novel as I’m writing it, partly since it’s novel four, it’s tricky to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first three novels. However, what I will say is that I hope this novel closes up some loose ends from the first three novels while possibly serving as the first book of a second trilogy featuring these characters. Whether that last part happens will depend on demand.

Those who follow this blog, know that I’ve also been busy with several other tasks, which have included the release and promotion of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt and the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, plus, of course, I’ve been shepherding the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales toward completion. Of course, on top of these are visits to conventions and, oh yeah! I have an actual “day” job operating telescopes!

Ideally, I like to luxuriate in the drafting process. I’m the kind of author who likes to spend time in a scene, really immersing myself in it. I write fast, so in the past I’ve often done things like think about a scene for two or three days, then furiously write four or five thousand words in a sitting. Afterwards, I would go back and reread what I’ve written, making corrections and generally trying to make sure I haven’t left out parts or repeated parts. My hope is that when I’m done with this, I’ll have a rough draft that won’t need all that much work to turn into a published novel. Yeah, right.

My beta readers and my editors always find stuff I missed. It’s partly because of time and partly because of this realization that I’ve been taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to this novel. For those who don’t know what that is, NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month and the formal event happens in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. To do this, you just draft and don’t look back at what you’ve written, just keep plunging forward.

In fact, my novels, The Solar Sea and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order started as NaNoWriMo novels, when I was challenged to participate by my publisher.

The best strategy I found to complete NaNoWriMo was to set myself a daily word count goal and stick to it. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing with Owl Riders. On an ideal day, I wake up, have breakfast, check my mail for important messages, go for a two-mile walk, write 1000 words, have lunch, go for another walk, write another 1000 words, go for a final walk, then get on with the other business of the day. I find that during the walks, I can spend time visualizing the scenes as I prefer, plus it gets me up and moving around, so I can avoid a repeat of the thrombosis scare I had earlier this year.

As I say, this is an ideal routine. Because of the nature of my “day” job operating telescopes from sunset to sunrise, I can’t easily write on those days. Also, if I have a time-critical item on of my other projects, I’ll give myself a break and only require myself to complete 1000 words, rather than 2000 words in a day. As it is, I’m making steady progress. I know I’ll have to go back over the whole thing with a fine tooth comb and make sure the whole book works together. I’m sure there are wordy places I’ll cut and places where I’ll need to add detail, but I’d do that even if I took my time drafting the manuscript.

While waiting around to see how well I succeed, you can read the first three Clockwork Legion novels. All the links above will take you to my pages describing the books which include links to retailers where you can purchase the book. Also, all three of the original Clockwork Legion novels are available in a single budget edition from Kobo and Barnes and Noble.

Hearing My Own Words

Last week, I finally had the chance to hear the audio book edition of my novel Owl Dance. It might surprise you to hear that I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until after it was released, but by contract, my publisher has the right to create an audio edition and there’s nothing in the contract that says I have a right of approval. My approval process wrapped up when the publisher and I agreed the novel was ready for print.

It might sound like I’m complaining about the process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a lot of work goes into writing, editing, and promoting my books…not to mention my other full-time job operating telescopes. It was actually kind of nice to let my publisher handle all the logistics behind arranging the production and proofing the final product. I was glad to know another edition of my book was coming out and I didn’t have to add another task to my plate to make it happen.

So, what did I think of the final product? I think narrator Edward Mittelstedt did a fine job. He had a great range of voices and a nice delivery speed that was clear and understandable. His pronunciation of names like “Fatemeh” and “Maravilla” were somewhat different than mine, but they weren’t wrong. In particular, he pronounces “Maravilla” in a kind of a South American accent, which suits the character.

Recently a friend asked if I had a difficult time enjoying the books I read. Her thought was that as a professional writer and editor, I might be so busy critiquing books I read that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy them. My answer was that I’ve reached a point where I can read books critically, but still enjoy them. The critical part of my brain is sort of like a background task I can access when needed.

That said, I found listening to my own book was much more difficult than listening to books by other authors. Time has passed since I wrote the book and I have gained a new perspective on my words hearing them read by another person. I found myself critiquing my word choices, plot, and character decisions all through the story. Despite that, my overall impression of the book was positive. I felt like I heard the kind of story I like. That said, there were word choices and particularly some repeated phrases I wouldn’t mind revisiting if the chance ever presented itself.

I’ve come to the point where I strongly recommend writers read their work aloud at some point during the edit. It helps you hear phrases you use too often or too close together. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I was doing that regularly when I wrote Owl Dance and I caught a few places where it showed. I’ve taken the lesson to heart and will be applying it as I go forward. Hopefully these issues attracted my attention because I was listening at a more detail-oriented level than most listeners (or readers) will.

If you’d like to travel back in time to an 1877 that wasn’t, but could have been if a sheriff and a healer started wandering the West together while a visitor from the stars encouraged the Russian Empire to unify the world under one leader, you can read a sample chapter and find links to all the books editions at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html