Confession of a Non-Reader

I was raised catholic so the idea of confession is an easy one to call up. Haven’t been to an actual confession booth in about twenty years. If I cared to go again, I’d probably have to book a block of time to fit in a cataloguing of all my transgressions.

Alas, my confession is not religious in nature (I’m not religious in nature either).

The genesis of my novel was truly a spark of inspiration rather than a desire to craft a certain type of story based upon those tales I’d already loved to read. From all of my forum surfing, comment perusing and blog stalking, I’ve gleaned that this is the usual path for most writers. They’re readers first.

I wasn’t. (Is that bad?)

Not that I didn’t read. I’ve always been a casual reader, usually at bedtime or on vacation or airplanes while traveling for work. But my reading material was 95% non-fiction and covered topics from the history of the American west (I love reading about the Indians of the high plains- Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides and The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin) to astronomy to anything by Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer. Scientific American is my favorite magazine, and I understand a solid ~46% of any given issue.

But I ended up writing a young adult science fiction (and arguably some fantasy) novel. Was I reading in my category? Certainly not.

I can’t name one single science fiction book I read before writing this book. How insulting that must sound to those who came before, to those who do write in the category and are masters of it! And how presumptuous of me to simply dive in to their world without surveying it first! But this is the order things happened for me. The idea struck when it did.

What about fantasy, Chris? Certainly you read in that category before you undertook noveling, right? Eh. Not really. And noveling isn’t even a word.

My list of fantasy reads was anemic, paltry, pathetic, sad. In my entire life, I read The Hobbit (as a kid), all of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Wrinkle in Time (as a kid), the first book and a half of Chaos Walking (still working on that), the first part of In the Name of the Wind where Kvothe is still a fucking minstrel. I mean, does he stay a minstrel for the whole series? I once caressed Wheel of Time at a Half-Price Books.

And then there’s Harry Potter. I read that, at least, right?

Nope.**

So there I was, January of 2015. I’d just seen the movie Interstellar. Loved it. Loved it. Inspired by it. Couldn’t stop thinking about the beauty, the science of it. Was plagued by the time travel paradox that stands as the movie’s single flaw. I read The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne, director Christopher Nolan’s science consultant and Cal-Tech astrophysicist. I was obsessed with space and stars and dimensions and I thought to myself that the magnitude in terms of size, beauty, mystery, etc., of the universe was too much to keep inside and that’s when the premise for my story literally popped into my head.

It’s fun to look back and consider that premise. In retrospect it is idiotic and not very interesting. But the story that evolved from that tiny seed is something I’m immensely proud of, published or not.

Getting back to the point–once I had the meat of the story on paper, I knew I’d need to read in my category/ies. Just to make sure I wasn’t reinventing the wheel but also to check the calibration of my story against these others. I waited until I had the first book almost written and the series completely mapped so I wouldn’t be unduly influenced by my reading. Naturally, I started with The Sorcerer’s Stone (I am getting through The Chamber of Secrets), then on to Ready Player One, the entire His Dark Materials series, and have now undertaken the Dune series (the sci-fi bible, if you will).

The rest of the Harry Potter books and Neal Stephenson’s Seven Eves are on my nightstand along with numerous others.

I’m reliving so much of what so many other writers certainly have. It’s amazing how you can invent a story, character, concept, plot point, magic, world-build, etc. and then find out the exact thing has already been done. Did you know I invented Buggers (not by name, but the creatures)? Yeah, and my wife suggested I look at a little book called Enders Game. So I had to change that.

I read the first forty pages of the Golden Compass a little over three years ago when my wife suggested we name our as-of-yet unborn daughter Lyra. I couldn’t really get into it. It sat unread until February of 2017 when I picked it up again with a different perspective, having now written and polished a novel with a precocious young heroine at the helm. I blasted through the entire series. Cried at parts, wished for it to never end. And when that ending inevitably came, I sat in my bed humbled. I felt a profoundness to the story and the way it unfolded that will stick with me forever. I was genuinely moved by a work of fiction for the first time in my life. And I realized what others were getting that I’d been missing.

I won’t go into all the obvious advantages of actually reading books and how they improve your writing. I get all of that and have experienced it. But forcing myself to read for the sake of my writing made me a fan of the category for the sake of my reading.

**I’m a bad person.

Writers’ Conference & A Second Editor

“Am I overdoing this?” Chris asked as he typed a new entry into his readerless blog.

What am I talking about here? Well, I know I’m close to querying. I’ve said that for over a year now. But it’s really true this time. Nevertheless, there are a few more things I’m going to do before this manuscript is launched into the void.

I’m going to the Texas Writers’ League Conference in Austin this June. Never thought I’d go to one of those, but it’s nearby and it can’t hurt, right? I’m looking forward to it because it will be a live bullets type of situation. Explain your story in one sentence. Now I’ll really have to do that. One of my top agent choices will be there as well and I might even get a meeting with her (we ranked our choices ahead of time, so we’ll see if I get lucky).

I’m also sending the book to a second (SECOND) professional editor for a manuscript review. Hopefully that will help identify any issues the story has and also add some polish. Unless my book is a turd, in which case polish won’t do any good.

You can’t polish a turd.

Amid giant raindrops

We have two dogs. They’re like most other dogs: their breeds are roughly discernible, they love people and food and bathing their nether regions. There’s Samson, the border collie/Australian shepherd/teenage dirtbag and there’s Gretel, the lovable asshole goat/mutt hybrid. They are actually kind of smart but their typical idiot dog baseline regularly overrides any intelligence they might have accidentally been born with. Which brings me to yesterday, when they caught a squirrel.

Now these two have been chasing squirrels together for years with no luck, but for one time in the dark of night about five years back when Samson managed to pin one on the ground and hold it there until I pulled him away so the thing wouldn’t give him rabies or ebola or whatever else squirrels carry. I remember his face clearly. He had felt heartbroken and betrayed by my decision to free the animal after all of his considerable work in capturing it. I didn’t feel so bad. I asked him what exactly he’d planned to do with the thing now that he had it and as usual he had no answer.

It’s not like I’m completely sympathetic to the squirrels. They know the dogs are idiots and I swear the squirrels get pleasure by taunting them. I’ve seen them do it. They stop six feet from the highest point the dogs can reach and literally *bark* at Samson and Gretel. When the dogs are otherwise distracted, the squirrels dash to a neighboring tree in sort of a daredevil/extreme sports mode, usually arriving long before the dogs realize what has occurred.

But Sunday, probably by accident, Gretel and Samson got one in a giant bush. I was far across the yard at the time trying to enjoy my morning coffee and the one quiet moment I get each day. I heard a scuffle and saw Samson emerge from the foliage holding a squirrel by the hindquarters in his jaws.

I have lots of friends that take house pet squirrel hunting in stride. Squirrel stalking and killing is but a natural consequence of a dog or cat’s nature coupled with the omnipresence of the tree bound varmints. Let nature take it’s course, they say.

I wasn’t brought up that way. If you can save an animal, you do it. I’m not preaching here, this is just how I’m wired. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, I know you have to kill animals in order to do that. This blog post isn’t about that so let’s postpone the discussion on that for another day. Bottom line, I wanted to save the squirrel as well as protect my dogs from bites and resultant vet bills.

So I run over as best I can in flip flops through the tall, wet grass. It so happens we have a section of yard that we don’t mow at the beginning of spring because we fancy the weeds that grow but that we pass off as “wildflowers.”

I holler at Samson and he finally drops the squirrel. I shoo Gretel off, who was pissed because she’d apparently been waiting her turn to rag doll the poor thing.

It’s clear this squirrel is in awful shape. There’s no blood but my rudimentary knowledge of how squirrel bodies are supposed to look tells me its back is broken. It was wincing horribly and I knew I would have to euthanize it.

So I bring the dogs inside and head to the garage. Other than previous dogs we’ve had, who we of course paid the vet to actually administer the required drugs, I’ve never personally euthanized anything bigger than a hurt bug. Yes. I’ve euthanized bugs because they were suffering.

As for tools, I have a choice: blunt force or beheading. I want it to be quick and humane. I had a variety of shovel choices as well as different hammers, but I didn’t want to overkill and smash the guy. I also have a machete and an axe–too bloody. At the end, I selected a simple drain spade–you know, one of those long, slender shovels. I figured I’d just whack him upside the head in one shot. If I did it from the side, like a golf swing, well then it probably wouldn’t crush him in some gruesome way, but should certainly do the job.

It was raining harder as I left the garage and I could smell the billions of tiny lavender blooms on our wild Chinaberry tree cutting the air from fifty feet away. The squirrel hadn’t moved but a few inches. He’d tried to pull forward with his front feet and was still wincing in pain. He needed to die. His eyes. His eyes were so black and wet and alive. Hunters and others will scoff at my sentimentality, I’m sure. But the crossover from life to death for any living thing is a profound one, especially when up close, and especially when you are the swordsman. You’re the one taking the life.

I have this passage in my book about this moment, although it deals with a person and not squirrels. Nevertheless it is poignant for me:

Dusty often pondered Charlie’s death—not because she wanted to, but because that was how her brain worked—always calling up morbid realities in moments of joy. Perhaps she got that from her mother. But when the thoughts came, she embraced them as a matter of practice, so maybe when the day arrived she’d be ready for it. That stark shift experienced by survivors of the dead, unfathomable when only moments before there had been life. She dreaded her inability to seize life as it ebbed. To hold onto it just a few seconds longer. The scenario often crept into her mind without warning, shortening her breath as if someone had pulled the plug on her heart.

So yeah, I have this idea in my head as I’m considering the poor squirrel. Anyway, I know I have a job to do and I stand behind the squirrel so he doesn’t really expect it. I suppose it’s fortunate that I golf once a year, because I was confident the shovel tip would find home–it had to. You can’t screw it up.

I set the shovel out to the right of him and slowly brought the spade back, anxious about the task but calm about the execution. And with a steady but powerful arc, I swung through as hard as I could.

The squirrel flew about eight or nine feet, but when it landed there was no doubt it had died. There was no noise, no final breaths. No twitching. He was killed instantly. And while I was sad that this had happened to the squirrel, I truly felt as if I’d done something good.

I’m not religious and while I’m willing to consider anything if there’s evidence of it, I don’t really believe in spirits. But I do believe in nature. And even though we walked out from the forests and prairies and into homes with HVAC and television, we came from the place where the birds and the animals still reside. I felt something the moment I killed that squirrel. An overwhelming warmth and calm. A communion. An embrace. A knowing. Knowledge that I had done something nature wanted me to do. Why did I kill this squirrel out of mercy? Because it was in my nature. Our nature.

Amid giant raindrops, I buried the guy deep in the ground between two decades-old red oaks covered in the bright green of new growth.

This is over-sentimental isn’t it? In the scheme of all we know and all we do, to anyone else, this was a nothing gesture for a nothing creature on an unextraordinary and otherwise forgettable day. Maybe. But there was something sad and beautiful about it.

Every time I think I’m out, I pull me back in

The problem with writing is that you get better at it. 

As a result, you’ll always find improvements you can make to versions of your story that seemed ready to go at the time of their writing. 

It’s now month 17 of revisions and editing for me and I truly understand the old writer’s lament that “the story is never finished.”  You just have to know when to stop. 
The risk that comes with continuous revision and editing is that you gradually depart from the original feel of your story without realizing it and end up creating a more technically accomplished piece at the expense of that initial richness and energy. I’m keenly aware of this danger and have tried to monitor my editing to avoid the pitfall. 

Recent suggestions made by a very good friend of mine after reading the book helped reinforce this. He praised the writing itself, leaving his critique to broader story issues that I instantly recognized as spot-on commentary. 

The action in this story is pretty nonstop. A good thing, to be sure, but lost if there is no time for decompression. The weight of a given event is less likely to be registered without the contrast of some character reflection. Not to say I didn’t have that, but my friend’s input helped me identify the spots where the story needed to breathe a little more. 

In doing these revisions, the richness of the story has been enhanced rather than sanitized and I’m excited by the results. I truly believe this will be the final go-around with one last read through for basic errors. My chances in publishing the thing notwithstanding, I’ve enjoyed the process more than I ever thought I would and I can’t wait to get to Book 2. 

Yes. I’m writing a trilogy. Lol. 

Voice Actor, Audience of One

I’m doing what I hope and believe will be the final read on my book before querying agents. Reading the entire thing aloud. Word for word.

This is no new thing, of course, and it’s commonly advised for a reason. You simply catch things you’d never notice with a silent read-through. I’ve been a little sick for the last week and so I’m in there with the manuscript on a music stand, reading with a stuffy nose and God knows what draining down the back of my throat.

The utility of the exercise is to smooth over the prose and get the flow right, which it is certainly doing. But I’m recording it as well so I can see how it sounds on playback.

While the book is actually reading pretty smoothly, I’m now in the full throes of self-doubt as a result of hearing my voice in the recording. I think it’s probably because I don’t have a great voice for this and I’m under the weather. Nevertheless, hearing it makes me respect those audiobook voice actors. Those guys certainly read the book a number of times and likely make notes about tone and situation so they get the sound right. Mine is a travesty, really. Sounds like someone who just learned how to read, but it’s serving its purpose.

Cliff’s Notes: read aloud; be prepared to hear own voice and hate yourself.

Make the Most of the Preseason

You work on a book for two years and excitement creeps in, no matter how hard you try to tamp it down. Excitement about what? You haven’t done anything yet. But ooo-boy, the possibilities. Prior to fording the eel-infested waters of agent-finding, everything is still out there for you.

Getting published.

Huge sales.

Critical Success.

A seven-movie deal.

You know, the usual.

I compare the journey to my favorite sport, college football. Prior to each season, everyone is undefeated. The possibilities are there for the taking. But once the season starts, there’s no rewind button. For all but a select few teams, losses mount and the prospects of championships (national or conference) quickly die. Soon, you’re hoping just to win 6 and make it to a crap bowl game (the current state of my alma mater, Texas). When the season is over, it’s over. You start again and hope the next season brings better results.

To be successful in college football, you’ve got to have players, coaching, scheme, preseason preparation and execution. For writers, your skill is your players. Your research and teachers (if you’re lucky enough to have them) are your coaching. Your scheme is your genre. Writing the book and polishing it is your preparation and submission is your execution.

I’m in the preseason and what I do here will dictate how my season goes. Once I play the games (submit queries), I can’t then decide I want to go back and prepare more. Those submissions are out. If I query everyone under the sun and don’t get a bite, a deal, a sale, etc., then on to the next season (read: next novel).

I’ve read so many writers and agents bemoan the error of “submitting too early.” Hopefully I am learning from the past mistakes of others. Maybe my manuscript will be extra polished. So polished as to cause the first agent to jump up and cry with glee that she’s finally found the book of her dreams.

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You remember A Christmas Story, right?

Well, maybe my story evokes a similar reaction in the agents that read it. Wishful thinking? Sure. But why not aim high?

I’m by no means delusional, however. I know that most manuscripts don’t get an agent and even fewer get published. I’m prepared for failure even though I hope for success. I’m prepared because I’ve made this book about the journey and not the end result, whatever that may be.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, I was not a writer when this book idea hit. I still throw up a bit in my mouth at the thought that I would ever presume to refer to myself as one. But I’ve written every day for two years. Paid attention to the craft. Stayed wide open to criticism and advice. Read everything from forum posts by aspiring writers to author interviews to On Writing by Stephen King. (Tremendous, by the way). I can no longer say I’m not a writer and I don’t want to declare myself arrived, but I’m becoming a writer. The process has been so fulfilling and I can’t lose sight of that if my story doesn’t make it on to international mass-distribution.

I think I’m on my 8th full revision. Maybe 9th? It’s hard to keep count, especially when so much of the revision occurs casually. Open the manuscript to page 118 and edit for six pages.

I’m sure other writers get as much excitement as I did when I had the story polished enough to print a hard copy and edit directly on the page. I actually tried to do this with my first draft about a year ago, but it was still in rough shape so I gave up and went back to the MS Word version for few more months.
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Since then, however, I’ve collected a nice little pile of hard copies edited by me and others (wife, friends, Jess Hagemann-awesome editor and writer).

That’s it right there. The beta copy for Earthling Archer. I  had some copies bound for ease of use among my 17 beta readers. Thats a few copies there there on top. I could go on and on about the benefit of betas, but that’s well documented across the landscape of the interweb.

I don’t yet have them all back. But the input thus far has been so helpful that I’ve jumped back in for additional revisions.

The fledgling writer in me is learning to take control.  I now revel in the ease with which I can identify and slash unneeded phrases and adjectives (I’d already killed of all the adverbs and passive voice long ago, worry not). I can see this manuscript not only coming together, but crystalizing. I can see the end of the preseason and that first game up ahead.

Short version: College football; betas.

Try Writing a Query

You think writing a novel is hard, do you? Try boiling it down to 250 words. I’m on at least the twenty-fifth version of mine and am only now approaching coherence.

For anyone trying to get their query letter up to snuff, I highly recommend Janet Reid’s QueryShark. Janet has likely put hundreds of hours into helping folks get their queries in shape for submission. To be clear, QueryShark isn’t a query-revision service. It is a repository of queries that are good, bad, perfect, etc. Many are revised a number of times until they’re ready. It’s a lovely service and I highly recommend it. I didn’t even begin drafting my query letter until I’d read a couple hundred of the submissions on QueryShark. So shoutout to Janet Reid for that. She also runs an informative blog here.

@davidrslayton on Twitter posted the following diagram, which is a great way to check the readiness of your query:

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Up next-the one sentence summary. I get asked enough about that and I need to have it down.

“Girl volunteers to help save the galaxy but can’t seem to get out of her own way.” Hmmm.