Saturday, 19 November 2011

Editing: writer’s bane or necessity?

One of the things that has always challenged me as a writer is the daunting task of editing.  I look at some of the revisions of past work and see the version numbers climbing as high as 80—I say to myself, there’s got to be something wrong with this picture!

But surprisingly, no.

It takes dozens of rounds and sometimes more to capture the compelling flow of a piece of writing, to hone the prose to the quality that satisfies.  But at the same time, one realizes that even after all that, it’s probably not perfect.

The other frustrating point, is that something that was ‘perfect’ two months ago, just doesn’t seem to sit so well now.  A tough scenario, but that is part of the process too.

I think that as the writer changes internally, so the way s/he writes also changes.  In any case, most of the time spent on the author’s part, entails re-writing, re-visiting and re-vamping certain key sections and sharpening the prose.  I thought at first this was just a beginner’s phenomenon, but then after reading the testimonies of writers and studying a wide variety of stories, I realized that this is a shared experience.  Writing is a difficult task.  To get the excellent result in the end requires an immense amount of work—and ‘immense’ is even not strong enough a word.

As for testimonies, I remember reading the author’s forward to the Grafton edition of the Lord of the Rings:

“Then when the ‘end’ had at last been reached, the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely re-written backwards.  And it had to be typed and retyped: by me, the cost of professional typing by the ten-fingered was beyond my means.”

And another excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, which I cannot help but quote here, even though it may deviate from my point:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

I was thinking—all that work, ten years of it, for that response?  But again, happily, Tolkien’s critics are few, I would safely say.  The success of the films have cemented his literary genius in the eyes of the world.  I did actually read some of Tolkien’s earlier versions of the Fellowship of the Ring (which happened to be available in the local library), and I noticed that there was quite a difference between that rough version and the final one I was so familiar with reading and rereading.  Still, the characteristic Tolkien style was present, but the author had moved whole sections, and the text was a lot cleaner.  So, my ultimate conclusion is, that even if a master like Tolkien had to go through such hoops, what of the rest of the world?

A thought has crossed my mind.  What makes a novel endure over the years?  Is it that the prose is so absolutely creative and rich with compelling characters and original, engaging plots that it becomes a classic?  Or, is it that if some writing catches the public eye and is considered entertaining enough by popular standards to receive a long list of rave reviews, it ‘endures’?  Because of these reviews, the book gets attention, and more people read it, since they’re influenced by reviews, and say ‘well, it must be good’.  Considering the huge wealth of fiction written throughout history, one may ask what is it that really makes a book exceptional—that it is remembered decades down the road?  Whatever the answer is, it makes all the more sense for authors to put in that extra effort to write the story as creatively as possible, if their goal is to make it endure the test of time.

A lot of professional writers hire editors, but there is a big difference between proofreading and editing for style and content.  I don’t know how effective editors can be beyond their own skill as writers.  Certainly a proofreader can spot grammar mistakes, punctuation, and points of rough confusion (eg non-sequiturs), but to take the story beyond the first beta draft, and go the step further—this requires a special effort and I think the editor has to be on an equal level or beyond the writer, and I’m not talking about superficial edits here.  I’m talking about fine-tuning nuances of theme, pacing, character development, the order of scenes, conflict resolution, story line, dialogue, etc.  I think this type of analysis is almost as hard as writing original content itself, and it is no wonder authors hate editing so much.

Somewhere, I believe, the writer has to develop the editing skills to be able to get a manuscript to a 80-90% phase—a place where there is only a manageable portion of revisions left to do.  The danger of too much editing by outside source(s) brings in the problem of the story starting to deviate substantially from the original author’s work.

To compound this situation, there is also the dilemma of receiving diverse and constructive feedback.  Invariably readers and reviewers will have their own opinions of a story, many of them conflicting.  So then, how to decide on what to pick up on and what to leave behind?

Such complexities make one wonder that any author can produce a viable novel from beginning to end, taking into account all the variables.

My own personal editing process consists of first finishing the rough draft with a beginning, middle and end.  This is the easy part, if ‘easy’ can be used to describe the process.  After that, I engage in two rounds of rigorous editing—slow, methodical rereads.  The first round is the most gruelling.  The pacing is generally horrible and the rhythm is wrong, but at least there is the basic essence of the story, however crudely rendered.  The second round is directed at cleaning up the last edits and streamlining the story line.  I pass it on to a good editor and proof-reader then, usually my mom who has amazing skills in this area.  After going through a series of rewrites and repetition of the above process, I am ready to pass it on to any beta readers I can find.  I sit on it for a while, collecting comments and making appropriate changes.  Fresh eyes make a big difference.  If necessary, I start the process over again.  This loop continues for as long as necessary until I’m happy that the story is in readable form.  An overkill perhaps, but the time taken in doing this is well worth it, I think, even knowing that a few rounds of this rigour is enough to make a hardy soul wince.

The good news is—despite how much energy is required to pull it off and the understanding that there are no short cuts in the game—I think writers gain tremendous benefits from the time-consuming exercise and thereby strengthen their writing skills, with the happy result that they become better writers.

I welcome any comments on the subject.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Interview with Brian Poor

Today we have a very special guest, Brian Poor, who has written an original fantasy series Megazaur, featuring dinozaurs.  Not regular ones—but ones with thoughts, feelings, and somewhat psychic connections with human beings.  I have the privilege of interviewing this unique author and quizzing him on his books and his views on fiction writing.

Check out his shared blog for interesting reviews, interviews and literary perspectives from two avid fantasy writers and enthusiasts:

Megazaur: Akysha's Fury

Let’s start with a bit about you and your craft.
What are your influences?  Favourite authors, books, styles of writing, genres?

Tom Clancy without a doubt is my biggest influence.  I love the way he hops from character to character and seemingly throws a bunch of different story lines into his plot and intertwines them together for a big finale.  Timothy Zahn is another and I so wish as a Star Wars fan that George Lucas would take the Thrawn series and make it into the next films. Zahn does an excellent job of writing a fantastic villain with credible motives and actions.  I also have read a lot of novels that I kinda think of as examples on not how to write.  I hate novels that cheat the reader.

Your novel, Megazaur: Akysha’s Fury is based on a pretty cool concept.  Where did you come up with the idea of humans being able to control dinosaurs? 

I was trying to come up with an idea that would be the next Star Wars, something so different that it was fresh and grabbed the reader's attention.  My son got these Imaginext playsets, a castle with knights and dinosaurs with caveman.  He had the dinosaurs attack the knights in their castle and that got me thinking what if…

It probably took two years to create the world where a man could rule a dinosaur with his mind and in the same world, a land of people were denied that right.  The diversity of this rich culture took a whole life of its self.  The first book Megazaur; the 13th omada arcs an entire country's growth from having inferiority complex to realizing they are equals of their would be destroyers—the Megazaurs (dino riders).  So in away, my main three protagonists are personifications of their country more than they are real characters.

The 2nd novel—Megazaur: Akysha's fury—Is the first of trilogy that’s going to explore what happens when a character with a god-given talent for fighting is thrust into unwinable situations as psychological exploration of the duality of love and hate.  I firmly believe if you can love strongly, you can hate with just as much passion, and it's this flip from one to another that creates the perfect villain.

Akysha's fury sets the table for The war of Zantheon, which will satisfy the readers desire to see these dinosaurs in war.  And it satisfies my desire to show you the reader the dynamics of this world and how they come into conflict with each other.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

 Akysha without a doubt.  I'm having as much fun as I can with her character, but it is so hard to keep her following the plot lines I have outlined.  You can always count on her to do what she thinks is right, but it doesn't always coincide with my plot outline and what I need her to do.

And when you get her together with her best friend Okaru (yes he's a talking dinosaur), it's a real blast.  Scenes with those two are what makes writing fun.

What’s your rule on dialog?  Particularly when to use dialog versus narrative?

I don't use a lot of narrative because I learned that narrative is telling, and direct thought and dialogue are showing.  Zahn does an excellent job of building his world with dialogue, and I learned from him that blending dialogue with direct thought, and passive moments when the character is thinking or reflecting works much better than narrating.  I know for me as a reader, I want to be the I-guy, I don't want to sit in the passenger seat, I want my hands on the wheel—foot on the gas, so to speak, so that's how I craft my stories.  Put the reader behind the wheel and let them go on the ride of their life. (while conveniently forgetting to tell them I never got around to fixing the hole in the gas-tank, or the flat spare, and forgot to check the fluids for the last-like 2yrs and—I just sent them off into a jungle of hungry dinosaurs in a convertible.  Oops, I sure hope they survive…lol)

How do you deal with ‘stuck plots’?  i.e. when something is ‘not working’.

You know, I have never really had much problem with that yet.  My characters do come to life and do their own things but never to the point I can't get them back on the course I've set for them.  I think one of the reasons I love Clancy so much is that I am capable of telling my story through different characters views, hopping from here to there to get different perspectives and by doing so giving the reader the entire story, not just one character's view of the story.

How have you been marketing your book so far and what is your feeling on its success?

I'm just starting and I'm trying the slow burn method, because lets face it—the first reaction I usually get is that's just too crazy of a premise for readers to understand.  (Apparently there are only two acceptable plots for dinosaurs—time travel to the past, or bringing them back to life for a zoo) But what fans I do have all agree it's a fun world that makes sense once they read it.  One of my best friends, Susan Stec, hated the first 5 chapters of the first novel, and then she couldn't get enough.  And that reaction is pretty much universal but I expect that.  In a way, I'm compare my novels to 'Watership Down' (Okay so my novels can't hold a match to it, but…lol)  But the premise is the same.  Who wants to read about a bunch of rabbits and who wants to read about knights and dinosaurs on some tropical made-up world?

There’s a lot of action and some scenes of vivid carnage a la dinozaur chomp-down in Megazaur.  Was this intentional drama from the get-go, or a result of the characters just unfolding their karma?

I'm very proud of my action scenes, I spend more time rewriting them than anything because they are the key action sequences of the novel.  Why write about dinosaurs if you're not going to use them right?  But I'm very critical of other novels in action sequences because they don't pace things right and they don't detail the action well enough for the reader.  I see way too much glossing over the details.  This is a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist and the rules of that world are often defined by conflict.  The reader needs to know what's the likely result of ten men with spears facing a T-rex.  What problems would you have facing a Necroraptor with a sword?  I have Akysha who is the much like the legendary Achilles of Sparta, but how does one sword deal with an Allosaur?  These are all things the reader needs to know and I'm presuming are a major reason they pick up the book.

So all of that does tend to lead a little dramatization, but I do feel it's justified in showing the rules of this world and perhaps lends it the style I want to imprint on the readers mind.  Take the movie 300 for example.  Good story but it becomes a great movie because of the style of its action.  I want the same thing in my novels.  I'm showing you my world, and I want to leave you with the right visual impression, and I don't want you to feel cheated.  You get the fights and they advance the plot and build the world.

What’s your process for coming up with a good story?  What defines a good story to you?

To me a good story is like a rollercoaster.  It has up and downs.  It has twist and turns.  It has moments that take my breath away and it lets me catch my breath before throwing me into the next loop or tunnel.  They say (and I believe) its true there only ten different plots and we all know them by heart, so its up to the writer to pace the plot points in a way that surprises us.  There was nothing new about Star Wars plot wise, but it was the way it was paced and presented to us that surprised and endured.

I'm sure as a writer, if you read that you're thinking—well that doesn’t leave much room to give what I thought was a great idea much hope of being recognized and loved.  I suppose you could say (And I see this so much in fantasy), well Tolkien created this world of Dragons and Knights, but I could write my own version and throw some twists in it and delight the reader (I call this writing down your own personal fantasies and daring to think some reader will be love with it, instead of recognizing—hey, I read this before by a different author and they did it much better—theory).  To me, this is how you take one of those ten plots and make it your own—you imbue them with how a character reacts to certain situations and you show the reader how the character thinks and reacts to it.  For example: a character loses a leg.  What does he think?  I can imagine how it feels and the visceral image of seeing your leg disembodied from your body, but what does he think?  How does he react?

In my first book (this a plot spoiler) I kill off my super-heroish main character that personifies the hopes and dream of my heroes not as a wicked plot twist, but to see what remaining main characters do.  How did they react?  Who dares to pick up his sword and try to carry on?  How in the world do you fight on when your hope is lost?

In your novel 'Freebooter' I'm not hooked until Baus has to explain to the Pirate captain, exactly how he did come upon the treasure (and sword).  I'm intrigued.  How does Baus react?  Does he lie or tell the truth?  It’s a gamble either way, because I don't know what the Captain is going to think or do.  And that's what I suddenly need to know 

So, get me inside the characters head, because I can't get that from a movie and it’s why I prefer books to movies.

In terms of polar characterizations (ie. good guy versus villain), where do you stand?  Are you likely to favor strong, good guy versus villain paradigms, or cross-overs into mixed, good-guy bad-guy type characters?

Aww…yeah!  My favorite question and I'm so glad you asked.  The real villain in my novels are human nature.  I have a word sharply divided by the polar opposites of human nature but each character has to wrestle with those opposites.  You have one culture that's 'Alpha-personality on steroids'.  Men who are the strongest and rely more on animal instincts to survive versus a society of thinkers and creators.  But all of the characters have to confront themselves when the meet someone who is from a different culture and try to understand why they think the opposite way .

In Akysha's Fury—Akysha finds out that when she reacts without thinking (this is this key ingredient that allows her to move as twice as fast a regular human), she's in danger of losing her 'moral high-ground stance' to the raw emotion of killing other men, making her no better than the immoral people she fights.

But the personification of these polar opposites do come to life in the form of Zantheon and the Necroraptors and they both have understandable reasons to be evil. (If you can't tell I'm particularly proud of Zantheon, because he is truly an evil villain who has went off the deep end for reasons beyond his control.)  In the next book, it's going to be interesting for him and Akysha to meet, because he is what she will become if she can't control herself.

I'll will say this and then shut up about it.  A great villain can be purely evil or a 'gray villain'.  The villain acts as the counter opposite of the hero and gives them the reason to be heroes.  But where you so often see writers fail is not giving the villain a good reason for being evil.  Why is this guy starving his kingdom and beheading every guy named Jason his solders find?  Give me the reader a reason I can believe and accept.  If you tell me that's how he gets his kicks, then I'm not onboard with that.  And write a great villain, not some carbon-copy version of Sauron from Lord of the Rings.  I'm a huge Star Wars fan, but I personally think  the Emperor was too cartoonish to appreciate.  Darth Vader, well now, he's just as over the top as the emperor but he has style and reasons for being so evil, especially to his kids. (And then with the first three movies, you get the back-story of his charter and it makes him that more awesome.)

What are your thoughts about integrating action with character, particularly with reference to Megazaur?

Actions define your character.  Do they think one thing and then do the opposite?  Is that action something you wouldn't expect?  In real life, we often do the exact opposite of what we think we should.  We are caught by surprise.  We wimp out and disappoint our friends and family or we act boldly which might be out of character.  It's something as a writer you have to think about.  What's true in life is not acceptable in a novel.  You're character is defined by the actions they take and set a pattern that we as the reader then come to expect. When that character acts in away we don't associate with them it has to be defined as a carefully planned exception.  Readers don't fantasy to find reality but to find characters that act as noble or as evil as we want to or fantasize about.  We all want to be heroes or villains. A reader can accept faults as long as the character acts logically in the defined characterization the author lays out.  Kind of a huge responsibility as an author if you think about it.

Where do you see yourself heading as an Indie writer (in terms of genres, types of stories, writing style)?

I will be living in this land of Megazaurs for quite awhile, even if I only have a few fans. I created it, I love it and I have a responsibility to see it thru. Akysha's practically my daughter and I wouldn't abandon her.  After that?  Who knows?  I have ideas and I write them down and I would love to try my hand at horror, but for the next few years, I'll be writing about dinosaurs.

How do you critique or get feedback on your work?

Mostly from a few select people I trust, like my friend Susan Stec and Bryant James.  I'm writing the next two Megazaurs currently as we speak and hope to have them both done by early spring.

How has the release and writing of Megazaur helped you as a writer?

I don't spend enough time writing, I seem to be spending a lot of time trying to get people to read it.  But, I have met some great people, including you that I hope to become friends with, because you help drive me.  I want to compete with you in a friendly way and keep have meaningful conversations about our craft.  It stimulates me. Intellectually. 
What tips would you pass on to other writers based on your experience?

Join a writing group to help perfect your writing.  What seems great to you often isn't and you meet people who can help you become the best you can be.  And oh yeah…when you read other novels write down all the verbs.  You can never have enough!

Thanks, Brian, great answers.  And looking forward to reading new books in the Megazaur series!