Getting the feedback I need

The cover for "Ghost in the Machine."

The cover for “Ghost in the Machine.”

I imagine that whenever any writer hands over a piece for feedback, he’s wanting (and probably expecting) to hear back just how great it is. It’s wonderful! Perfect! Ready for publication!

That’s what writers want to hear, but it isn’t what we need to hear, not if we’re going to make it better. (Still, if that’s what you want to hear, try your mom; that usually works for me.)

I’ve been putting out some early chapters of my novel to a few writer friends. Today, I got feedback from one. She said the bones are good.

Which is, you know, what you say when you’re house hunting and you come across a wreck of a fixer-upper. And as we talked, I wondered, is that what my novel is, a wreck of a fixer-upper?

But as we talked more I realized that, no, the novel’s not a wreck. But, as exhilarating as it was to finish the first draft, I do realize that I’m still in the early stages. It’s like building a house (or finishing a basement). The first draft lays out the framing. So, if I’ve got good bones, then I’ve done the framing right. Now I’ve got to wire it for sound and electricity to give it life. Put up the drywall and paint that make it look polished and finished, then install trim to hide any rough spots that remain.

In other words, it was a great feedback session that gave me what I need. Even better, she sparked an idea to transform the prologue into something that will involve the reader in the story more quickly and deeply. The idea was so inspiring, that I got right to work and rewrote the prologue. I’m going to let it sit for a day or two before I look it back over, but I think the idea worked.

This has been a slow process. Almost as slow as the basement. Since finishing the first draft nearly a year ago, progress has been sporadic at best. But I’m getting back on track, and now that I have a framework for approaching the revisions, it will go better.

Go ahead, judge this book by its cover

The cover for "Ghost in the Machine."

The cover for “Ghost in the Machine.”

This is very exciting. The cover design for “Ghost in the Machine” is done. My friend Chris OBrion designed it for me. Chris is a great editorial cartoonist whose work appears in The Roanoke Times and elsewhere. One of the best decisions I made as editorial page editor was to hire him as a freelance editorial cartoonist. But he’s also an excellent graphic designer.

I came up with the concept. I was out for a walk a couple of months ago and was struck by a barren tree. I thought about how much the pattern of the branches looked like dendrites in a brain. The tree itself was almost in the shape of a brain. Of course, the novel was heavy in my mind at that time, and I suddenly had this picture of a brain superimposed over a tree. Well, I don’t have to describe it to you, really. You can see the cover. Chris absolutely nailed the concept. As I told him, it’s not exactly what I saw in my head: It’s better.

It absolutely fits the tone and content of the novel. I think it will scale well for ebooks or printed books. It’s perfect.

Now all I need to do is finish the revision. Since the burst of activity in November and December, I’ve given myself some time off. I’ve worked a bit here and there, but nothing sustained. It’s time to get back to it, though.

I still have to decide what to do when the revision is complete. I had been leaning heavily toward self-publishing, but I had a talk with a friend who really thought I owed it to myself to try to find an agent, for a variety of reasons. What he said made a lot of sense. But I’m not sure I see a downside to getting the novel out there as an ebook, as long as I retain the rights and the potential to sell it to a publisher.

I’ll keep pondering. The key thing right now is to finish the first revision.

The rough draft is done

The Ghost in the Machine is now a complete story. It needs a lot of work. I already know much of what needs to change. I went into this novel knowing very little about the brain, beyond a 30-year-old physiological psychology class. Since the end of NaNoWriMo, I’ve taken time to educate myself, which will both inform and change the story. But I was careful not to let the story changes I knew could be coming overwhelm the overall story arc, which I think will remain intact.

There’s still a lot of work left to do. My graphic artist friend is working on the cover. I have a ton of rewriting and brand-new writing to accomplish. But I’ve told a story. I wouldn’t want to let it out in the wild just now, but, if worse came to worse, I could and not feel totally ashamed.

I may take a little time off before I start the rewrite, but not much. I want to keep the momentum going. Plus, the cover is on the way. I’d like to have a second draft ready when it’s done.

Update on the novel

I’ve done more basement updates lately than novel updates, but don’t let that fool you. The novel I started during NaNoWriMo is progressing, not as fast as I’d like, but at a pretty good pace.

I wrote just over 50,000 words in the month of November. In December and the first few days of January, I’ve added about 21,000 words to that count. And I’m closing in on the conclusion of the story.

I still think that when I go back and revise, I’ll end up adding significantly to the word count as I fill in some gaps. I’m sure I’ll have to kill some darlings, too, reducing the word count, but my estimate is that I’ll end up with a 90,000 to 110,000-word novel.

Right this very instance, my inclination at that point is to self-publish, both ebook and paperback. I’ve got what I think is a very decent idea for a cover and a graphic artist friend willing to produce it. I’m somewhat reluctant to go that route, because self-publishing has the taint of … well, the taint of the vanity press. Paying someone to publish your work is right up there with paying for other things that grown men should never have to pay for. But that’s the thing. Self-publishing today doesn’t require a huge upfront investment. Ebook publishing is essentially free (except for things like getting a decent cover and copy editing – both of which are important). And you can even go the paperback route with on-demand production that eliminates a lot of uncompensated costs.

There is a lot — an awful lot — of really bad self-published stuff out there right now. But, you know what? There’s also a lot — an awful lot — of really bad publisher-published stuff out there right now. Have you read 50 Shades of Grey? 

So, I think I might give the self-publishing route a try. If you’d be interested in being a beta-tester and giving the novel an initial read (after the first rewrite; I’d only subject my wife and good friends who volunteer for it to the NaNoWriMo rush of words), let me know.

My month of NaNoWriMo

Around mid-October, I decided to partake in NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — in November. The challenge: Write a novel (or 50,000 words of a novel, anyway) in 30 days.

Literally since I learned how to print, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. My grand plan in college was to get my bachelor’s degree in psychology so I could learn what makes people tick, then a graduate degree in journalism so I could get a job where I meet a lot of people and come across many interesting situations. I thought that would be tremendous preparation for the life of a novelist. As a teen, I wrote several short stories and started a couple of novels — sci fi and fantasy stuff, mostly. I never finished a novel, but I submitted several of the stories. I never got any fiction published, though, and the last time I looked back at what I wrote, it wasn’t hard to see why.

I did follow through on my grand plan. I got the degrees I planned and a job as a journalist. Twenty years later, though, still no novel. I worked on a detective novel that a friend and I were going to co-write. We made quite a bit of progress, but the novel finally collapsed under the weight of plot changes we decided to make in late-night phone calls but never got around to writing into the manuscript. I continued dabbling in fiction off and on for years, but never had the discipline to sit down and see a novel all the way through.

This seemed like a great way to force the discipline. The NaNoWriMo approach involves telling everyone you know what you’re doing, and keeping them up on your progress. Facebook served that purpose well.

I had an idea that I’d been kicking around since college, but had never written more than a couple of pages about, and only had really the vaguest idea beyond the concept. But it was one of those things I’d think about when I was driving or out on a solo hike. And one day I had a brainstorm about how to make the ending I had visualized clear to the reader. Something was missing, though. I needed a clearer motivation and a little more emotional oomph. Then I read the biography of Steve Jobs that came out a few months after his death. I had been thinking all along that my character would be someone like Jobs, a driven perfectionist with vast personal wealth to pursue the project I had in mind. But reading that book, it struck me that my protagonist should be the son of such a man, and that his father should die young, like Jobs, to give him the motivation to pursue the project. It started to really gel in my mind, but I still couldn’t get any words out.

Which brings us back to NaNoWriMo. When I made that commitment, the thinking about the novel clicked into overdrive. I thought up plot points and scenes. It was still a very vague framework, but by Nov. 1, I had a pretty clear idea of how the novel would start, the general arc of the plot, and the ending.

I easily met my goal the first day. Fell behind the second. Caught up the third. Then it was the week of the election. I’m a political junky. My focus for much of the week preceding the election was the campaign. On election night, I was up until 3 am, watching the returns, waiting for the concession, watching the victory speech. I was wiped out for several days after, and went nearly a week without writing a word. But I picked it up that weekend and made some progress. Then other things got in the way that slowed me down. A weekend work event that kept me from writing for three days, for instance. It was fits and starts, and, I really didn’t think I would hit 50,000. I told myself that didn’t matter. What mattered was to keep the words coming. If I didn’t hit 50k, it wouldn’t matter, as long as I had made significant progress in the month.

At some point, I discovered the NaNoWriMo Facebook group for the Shenandoah Valley and Winchester regions. That turned out to be my savior. I found out, much to my surprise, that writing doesn’t have to be solitary activity. The group had Facebook events they called write-ins. People would meet at designated times, and write together. With NaNoWriMo, the emphasis is all on word count. The mandate is to lock your inner editor in the closet for the month, and just worry about getting the rough draft written. To facilitate that, the write-ins featured word sprints and word wars. With word sprints, the first person to reach a certain word count — 150 or 200 words, usually — “won.” Word wars involve a set amount of time — 20 minutes was my favorite, especially toward the end, but they tended to be shorter. When the time was out, people would post their word counts and whoever had the highest “won.” Prizes were usually photos handed out by one of the team leaders, usually centering on some sort of theme. The world’s highest peaks, for instance, or cuddly pets.

I found the sprints and the wars to be incredibly focusing. When those were going on, I was writing. I wasn’t tempted to switch over to my Facebook news feed, or call up a favorite blog or go get another beer. I just wrote. It wasn’t about the winning, but if I didn’t have a good count, I wanted to be able to explain it. In between the sprints and the wars, participants chatted, or kept writing, or both. The nights I got in 3,000, 4,000 or — once — 5,000 words were all nights I was taking part in one of these events.

I would not have made it to 50,000 if not for them, and the other people who took part.

But I did, and it felt good. The novel’s not done. I’ve probably got about a third of the story to get through, and there’s a lot of meat I want to flesh out when I go back through what I wrote in such a rush. I figure I have maybe a month or two of non-driven writing to finish it and then another couple months of editing before I’ll have it ready to start shopping around to agents.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the Facebook group keeps getting together (perhaps a bit less often) for write-ins and encouragement.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a preview of the first chapter — which I called the Prologue, but that isn’t quite right since the event it describes takes place about midway through the novel:

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