A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!

The Persona Paradox

The Persona Paradox

When Persona 5 was released at the start of the month I wasn’t going to buy it. Despite waiting nearly ten years for it, and that the fact that Persona 4, was one of my all time favorite games, (seriously, I bought a PS-Vita just to play the best version of it ‘Persona 4 Golden’) I was supposed to hold off. I was in the middle of another excellent game, ‘Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wilds’, and I needed to finish a novel draft that had already gone on for far too long (more on that in another post). I didn’t have the time to get sucked into a game that would last over a hundred hours.

And yet, on Persona 5’s very release date, I made the snap decision to stop at Best Buy on my way home and pick it up. I’m about fifty hours in and only about halfway through the story. I’ve played it every evening after work and have sacrificed whole weekends to it. I can’t stop, which I find both understandable and utterly bizarre, because at its core Persona 5 is a game all about time management.

In Persona 5 you’re a teenager who is sent to live in Tokyo on prohibition after being falsely accused of a crime. There the player character finds that he can travel to another dimension known as ‘The Metaverse’ where he gets some dope threads and starts stealing the ‘hearts’ of corrupt adults to make them confess their crimes. It’s a game full of teenage rebellion, coming of age stories, young love, talking cats, virtual tourism and the slickest menus and smoothest background music you can find. The last two are vitally important because you spend a lot of time in those menus planning your day.

Unlike most RPGs were the progression of time might exist only to change the scenery from night to day, Persona 5 has a friggin calendar. Each morning the date is prominently displayed by a slick cartoon knife throw. You start the day going class and then get the afternoon off to run dungeons, work part time jobs or hang out with friends, with a similar free time existing in the evening. Each dungeon must to be completed by a certain date, and if you don’t pull it off, well it’s game over. In Persona if you fail at time management you die.

This emphasis on making smart choices with your time is a paradox, because Persona 5 is a massive time commitment. The game is a dialogue heavy experience that takes over a hundred hours to complete a single play through. And to get the entire story, boosting all your stats and social links, you must beat Persona 5 multiple times. Accomplishing that would cost you hundreds of afternoons and evenings, the very resources that Persona 5 teaches you are precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Thus Persona 5 rewards me for being smart with my time in game and yet it costs me a ton of my real-life time. I first discovered this paradox back in Persona 4 when I skipped the gym to play more persona 4, but told my character in game to work out, in order to improve his ‘guts’ stat. I gained a point in the game and lost one in real life. I was shocked, and yet I kept playing.

Despite my surprise Persona is hardly the first game where I’ve bumped into similar paradoxes. RPGs are my favorite video games, but they’re a genre that require a lot of time and even some work. Things like grinding and sorting through gazillion pieces of equipment aren’t actually fun, but you do them to bump up stats and get the best stuff. Back in high school my mom always found it infuriating that I could be so thorough planning out a massive game and yet never had my homework done on time. It was all because of the Persona Paradox.

For instance one of the many tasks you can do in Persona 5 is laundry. Laundry takes up one of the game’s afternoon or evening slots (just like in real life). I can now say that in one of my favorite games, you do laundry. How does Persona 5 make something like laundry compelling?

There’s a lot of answers to this, some are obvious, in Persona 5 laundry takes a game ‘afternoon’ which is like 15 seconds. There’s a scene where my character sits down stares at the laundry machine and my adorable talking cat says something cute and it’s over. Laundry only cost me about two pushes of a button. In real life it takes more time and effort. There’s also the rewards.

In persona 5 if I do laundry I get new, better equipment. In the real world, the same clothes I already own are now clean, it’s just not the same. And that’s true for all of Persona 5’s daily activities. In Persona 5 if I spend my afternoon working at the flower shop I gain both money and also a sat boost to my ‘kindness’. If I spend the evening playing Shogi with my friend I move our relationship forward and get a stat boost to my ‘knowledge’.

Certain apps and TED talks have suggested we can ‘gamify’ life. Take the rewards and habit loops that are so addictive in games and recreate them in the real world. You get points and experience for doing chores, you can level up. If I make it to level ten blogger maybe I’ll earn a follower, that sort of thing. I see the allure of this thinking, but real life is a lot messier than video games.

Take the stats I keep on mentioning. In Persona 5, like in many games, you can increase stats by doing repetitive tasks. This is kind of like real life. If I get up every morning to run, I’ll get better at running over time and be able to go farther and faster. But my path forward is not a straight video game experience bar. I don’t know exactly how many runs I’ll need to progress to a new level as runner and no video game randomly injures me when I push too hard. I could strain myself and that might cost me some of my gains. And running is pretty clean example, what about some of more the abstract persona stats? What repetitive tasks make you kinder or more charming? How do know you’ve progressed in those areas?

The social links of Persona would be even harder to quantify. In the Persona games you gain more experience, neat tricks and occasional stat boosts by hanging out with different characters. These characters are your friends, but also maybe your teacher, or guardian, or that shady guy at the gun store that asked you to ‘hold something’ for him when the cops came calling. On top of being rewarded levels for hanging out with people you’re also rewarded with insight into their lives and get little story arcs that are fun and touching. Progress these far enough and you might even get yourself a girlfriend (every girl in the game is kinda into the player character, which yeah, that ain’t like real life.)

In real life how do I know I’m progressing in levels with a friend or colleague? If I hang out with my friend Pete I’m not going to get a neat little story every time like in Persona. Sometimes we’re just going to watch a movie or argue about politics. Some people you’ll never gain intimate insights to regardless of how often you hang out with them. There’s also no toxic relationships in persona.

And since Persona 3 they removed the very real world mechanic where if you didn’t regularly hang out with a social link, then that link would start to deteriorate and you could even be demoted levels with them. From real life experience I can tell you that if I start hanging out with a girl then ignore her for weeks on end to break into cognitive palaces, play with my talking cat or rent dvds to increase my ‘proficiency’, she won’t become my girlfriend when I decide I have time to get back to her. I’d be lucky if she even responded to my texts at all. (Side note; Persona 5 taught me that renting DVDs is apparently still a thing in Japan).

And yet, I can’t let the Persona fantasy go. It is so tantalizing close to real life. Sure, I can’t be a dashing phantom thief with great hair, but hanging out with my friends, volunteering to help local politicians, and reading to increase my knowledge? I can do those things. I can look at my afternoons and evenings as chances to expand my relationships and experiences. Time management can be fun and engrossing. I can even get a girlfriend! Or I can play Persona 5 where all that is as easy as pressing a button. Maybe that’s the true allure of the Persona Paradox, that the fulfilling exciting life you always wanted is there for you, and all it will cost you is your time.

Hi, I’m a Proud Failed Novelist

FullSizeRenderOn November 1st 2012 I started writing a novel: ‘Dex and the Broken Heart’. It was the story of Dex a redhead barista/bartender who dropped out of college over a bad break up and ended up working for Madame V the Goddess of the Broken Hearted. For three years and nearly three months I worked on Dex almost every day. He had three completed drafts, one of which was over 300 single spaced pages, the longest story I ever wrote. And his was the first novel I shared with anyone who asked in an attempt to get as much feedback as possible. Dex was going to be my novel, the one I finally finished and shared with the world. I didn’t even care if his story was good, or if anyone paid me for it, I just needed him to be done and know I could do it.

In late March of this year after taking a break from Dex to work on other projects, I frantically reread what I had dubbed ‘draft four’. I read over scenes I had been working on for years and they were joyless to me, words on the page that barely made sense any more. I felt numb and halfway through work that day I locked myself in my car to cry. Dex was over. My latest failed novel.

My long career in failed novels began early. In third grade my teacher submitted a short story I wrote to an annual UConn literary magazine for writers K-12. I didn’t get in, but I received an honorable mention in the back of the book. And since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a published author.

My first failed novel started a year later in fourth grade. I wrote it in red spiral notebook in between classes. It was about a knight who got to pal around with dragons. I never gave it an ending, but after I was given computer privileges in fourth grade I started working on a new draft. I made it to 100 pages before quitting.

From middle school through high school I had a diverse literary career in failed novels. There was the retro sci-fi novel about knight looking mecha and sky cities fighting for control of their gas giant homeworld; each city styled after a different Italian Renaissance state; 1 draft, fifty pages. The supernatural horror story that took place in a rural town in Connecticut where monsters lived in the woods and there was a portal to a shadowy dimension in an abandoned church (went through a bit of an emo phase in high school); at least three drafts that I remember, and got to between 100-200 pages. ‘Vashkin’s Secret’, a fantasy story set in a world heavily based on Slavic myth with pre WWI technology, that one had between three and four attempts, none more than 100 pages.

Most of these projects ended with a whimper. I got bored and stopped or I lost the thread and didn’t know where to go, or it took them fifty pages just to get their butts out of the castle and start the stupid adventure. I started to view the failures as a defeat, some sort of character defect that I and others had. You didn’t finish your novel? You simply lacked resolve. I swore that wasn’t going to be me anymore. I was going to work on Dex every day until he was done. And in a way I did. I didn’t stop writing Dex because of a lack of resolve, but for something I was completely unprepared for; change.

Dex was a very intimate story, but one that ended up belonging to a very different me. As the years went on and I worked on Dex I changed, but he didn’t get to, not in the same way. His problems stayed the same: he was obsessed with an Ex and depressed and I wasn’t. I was moving my life forward in part by writing him. When I finally sat down to really start draft four I realized that there were a mess of themes and ideas in Dex that a dozen different Matts had contributed to. I had pulled him in different directions and sorting him out was going to take another three years, and in that moment I couldn’t go on.

When I stopped writing Dex I felt lost. I started to think back on all that time I spent on my failed novels. As a writer they’re pretty much all I have, so what is their value? Why did I keep trying? Why did I keep failing?

In truth I realized that every novel is a failure. A story is only perfect until it is written. The second we bring it out from the safety of our thoughts it starts to decay, the imperfections creep in and the possibility for ‘failure’ grows. You realize you have too many characters, or there’s a gaping plot hole, or just don’t believe in it anymore. It happens, it’s okay that it happens.

There are many layers of failure and I have far more complex and damning ways yet to fail. But failure is not necessarily the same as defeat. Each failure earned from trying is really just a different result than the one I intended, an opportunity in itself. With each failed novel I saw my knowledge of writing grow and improve. I realized I didn’t need to describe the intricate detail of every piece of armor, or that I had bad habit of repeating similar scenes or lines. Thanks to my failures I started to find my own writing style, the tricks and ticks that defined me.

And Dex in particular gave me gifts I never realized a novel could. Not only did I learn from him, I was able to let go thanks to him. Writing all the stuff about relationships and depression, helped me to confront it, to stare at it and analyze it and move beyond it. I didn’t know if Dex was ever going to be a good novel, but he was definitely going to be a novel that I needed to write.

In the end Dex is like all my failed novels; as complete as he is incomplete, works that never leave me. Their ideas and concepts morph into new questions and challenges, and their heroes and worlds shift and expand into new creations. They have led me forward to this point and will lead me again; each resting, waiting for me to return and change them as they have changed me.

So maybe one day you’ll read Dex’s story. But until then I promise I have a lot more beautiful failures to share with you.