Craft Singles

It’s been more than a year since we published The Apotheosis Break (published October 2016).

We’re sorry? We guess? We get asked a lot: When is the second volume coming out? That’s probably not uncommon of people who publish something with ‘Book 1’ or ‘Volume 1’ or ‘Saga’ in the title. We have hoisted our every petard.

Our coy, infuriating answer for 2017 was, “Coming in 2017!” People laughed, and nodded like they got a satisfactory answer, and went about their business.

Now it is 2018. Now we say, “Coming in 2018!” They laugh less. They do not nod. They insist, “Yeah, but when?” The eyes in the room turn toward us. We shrug. They go about their business, but glance back occasionally. Their disappointment is apparent.

We have been working. We have been working a lot. But that is mostly irrelevant to someone who has just finished the first book and wants more. They wonder if we’re ever going to answer the questions they have. They wonder if all the time they invested into the first book was worth it. They are asking if they should put that mental real estate back into the market where it could be put to better use: those continuing education credits, that dissertation, that critical thesis, that new season of Black Mirror.

We have done a lot of work. I mean, a lot. Giterary records the number of seconds that you spend inputting keystrokes. For Volume 2 alone, we are at 196 keystroke-hours. Based on Mike and I’s folk heuristics about how this translates into clock-hours, we estimate at least ten clock-hours for every keystroke-hour. So, we are estimating almost 2,000 hours between us for writing and editing. For perspective, the American 40-hour full-time work week, after 52 weeks in a year, weighs in at 2,080 hours. So that’s like working a full time job that we jigsawed into dwindling free nights, busy weekends, and ever-shortening holidays.

To clarify, that’s around 2,000 hours since February 2014 (when we started outlining and writing on Volume 2 in earnest). There are 1,440 commits (discrete changes to a chapter) between February 2014 and October 2016 when we published Volume 1 (and started editing on Volume 2). Since then, we have another 1,459 commits. That means, in theory, we’ve put as much work in our first draft as we have in editing it since then.

The editing, however, is without the gleeful exuberance of pure creation. And with it comes the continual reminder of your fallibilities as a writer, as a human being, and as a thinking machine. We might have around the same number of commits, but editing feels like it takes ten times as long.

Surely, we are doing it wrong, and surely there are resources out there. Say you go looking. You’ll find that there is a wealth of information for people wanting to start out with the writing their novels. Their mantra is Just write!, shouted with upraised fist. The purpose of the mantra is to get people to start, to worry less about the task ahead, and worry more about getting something down. The hope is to build up enough momentum that once you need to edit, the sheer inexcusably large mass of your manuscript has enough inertia to carry you through.

If you again go looking, there is comparatively little is out there for the end game. Lots of questions come up: “I’ve got my manuscript. Now what?” But there isn’t a mantra for editing. There is only work, and pain, and then one day you wake up and you hit ‘Publish’ on your book and you don’t know how you got there. All you know is that the last page of Volume 1 reads, “The story continues in Volume 2.” And the work you have signed yourself up for is immense.

With every new edit, we see Volume 2 getting closer to being publishable, and hopefully farther away from succumbing to sophomore slump.

Closer, but maybe not close. If Volume 2 were a video game, we wouldn’t be fighting the final boss, but we would certainly be in the final world. We could see the final castle on the map, flitting from place to place. We know there are some seriously bullshit water and moving screen levels in between us and victory, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

As such, I’d like to use this blog post to document some of the stuff we do as part of our (hopefully final) editing passes. The following are some specific things we do to get from draft to draft. May they be a light for you in dark places. Especially those ghost levels where you can only see a little bit around you and you keep having to guess which door is the right one.

Thing 1: Say it in a stupid voice

I really love Star Trek. It’s silly at times. It’s bad at times. But I think for the moments when it’s good, really good, make up for everything else.

But it is truly difficult to get through some of Star Trek. And usually, the only thing that gets you through is the acting. Patrick Stewart saved innumerable bad lines by being able to out-act poor scripts. And while that can’t save you from an episode where your characters awkwardly battle on an alien jungle gym with a weird boxing glove with nails sticking out of it, it goes a long way.

Mike and I, however, will not have the incomparable Sir Patrick Stewart to read our book. In all likelihood, we probably won’t ever have someone read our stuff out loud other than ourselves, much less a professional actor. But that’s not of concern at the moment. That’s a problem for a future Josh and Mike.

I (Josh) keep Star Trek in mind when reading through. I say to myself, “What if it’s not Patrick Stewart reading the line? What if it’s someone else that is less bound by the conformity of perfection?”

The test is this: if I have a line that I am fond of, I put it through the “silly voice test.” This is where I read it in a silly accent, aloud, for the world to hear.

If the line stands up, and still feels like how it should feel when spoken like a Swedish Chef, then it’s a good line. If you have to imagine it being read by a knighted Shakespearean actor for it to be good, then it still needs work.

Thing 1 Summary: Read your important, power lines in a silly voice.

Thing 2: Every Change Can Be A Breaking Change

This is more of a practice than an editing pass, but it’s critical to editing nonetheless. Hear me out.

Our Giterary tool has a feature to be able to show the word-by-word differences between each update. The chapter text is displayed, but with removed words being marked in red, and added words being marked in blue.

This ‘diff’ display has two uses.

First, it lets us communicate our changes to the other, displaying quickly and succinctly show what was changed. This saves an incredible amount of time, making it so we don’t have to read the whole chapter over again and try to figure out the changes by ourselves.

The second use is a little more subtle, but equally important: We review the diffs as soon as we make the changes.

Why? That seems redundant, right?

A little, yes. But it’s important to review for a few reasons.

Consider that you’re making a pass for passive langauge. You find a few egregious examples. You change the wording. But as you’re typing, you reuse a portion of the sentence, because who needs to do all that typing.

Perhaps you made the conversion perfectly. Perhaps that sentence you reused rather than retyped was a perfect match. But maybe not. Maybe your tenses don’t match anymore, or you’ve got a plural mismatch. Your spellchecker might catch it. But it shouldn’t be something you inherently trust.

The thing to keep in mind is that just because you’re editing doesn’t mean that you aren’t still making mistakes. If you review your own diffs, and do so as you make them, you are likelier to catch a problem that you introduced.

This sounds tedious, I’m sure. But consider what the problem looks like at scale. We are looking at around 160,000 words for Volume 2. It already takes us a few weeks for each editing pass we do. We have to find ways to both reduce the number of problems in the book, but also not re-introduce problems with the fixes. We find that the best time to catch follow-on errors is right after they are made, while the part of the text is still fresh in your mind.

It takes work. But it’s less than leaving everything until the next pass, where you’ll just glide on past that part because you know you “already fixed it.”

Thing 2 Summary: Review your changes when you are making edits to make sure you aren’t making the problem worse.

Thing 3: Accidentally hit ‘R’

Mike is currently addicted to a game called PUBG. Before that, it was TagPro. Maybe he still plays TagPro, I’m not sure. All I know is that I haven’t heard shit about TagPro for a while. I don’t play the PUBG. I don’t really understand everything that is going on. But it seems important somehow. He has sent me links to a lot of gameplay videos.

Why I bring this up is because TagPro had a fun customization that some users would implement. It was called ‘honking’. Being a simple browser game, the game’s internals were exposed to tinkering. And some people would overwrite the keyboard handling routine to do something special when a player pressed both the up and down keys at the same time. That ‘something special’ was play a sound file of a honking car.

For it to work, both players would need the ‘honk’ customization to be applied to their web browser. The player customizations would listen for other players to indicate that they were pressing up and down at the same time, and honk. So, if many people had the customization, you would hear people honking themselves, with a response of other people honking.

It was silly and fun. I liked that idea a lot. So I did what I tend to do to all users of software I write: I torture them.

I customized Mike’s editor in Giterary to ‘honk’ whenever he accidentally hit the up and down keys at the same time. Well. Step back a bit. I actually customized it so that it would honk every time he hit the space bar. But then he asked to have it removed, so I reduced it to only honk when you pressed up and down at the same time.

From then on, whenever we were jamming, and he would navigate around our shared text editor, accidentally hit the right buttons, and I would hear a little car horn emanate from his computer. I would snigger a little bit. And then we would carry on.

Listen, honestly? All that above: I just like that story. I could do all sorts of backflips to try and relate it to our editing tool here, but at the end of the day, I think it’s funny.

We have a feature in Giterary called ‘random paragraph’. It… does what it says on the tin. If you hit ‘R’, it brings up a random paragraph from what you are reading. The paragraph is highlighted, and put into a separate modal window. The rest of the screen is faded, and all that remains is this randomly chosen paragraph. It is truly an oversight that I do not have Giterary also emit a small honk sound. I’ll get on that. See? I did bring it back.

Anyway. What pops up in the randomizer tends to be surprising.

This sounds odd, but consider this as another problem of words at scale. At some point, you will have written more than you can remember. And at some point during your editing passes, it all just starts to flow together. You know the parts that you like. You know the parts that you’re only so-so on. And you, being a fallible human, are inconsistent with the amount of attention you give to every paragraph.

The random paragraph feature removes the human element. It shows you a paragraph outside of its place, not preceding or following anything. And with your focus just on that paragraph, you can ask the question: “Does this stand on its own?”

It might. It might not. But we find that looking at a piece of writing apart from everything else tends to show things that were hidden before.

Thing 3 Summary: Take a random snippet of your writing. See if you like it. If not, mark it for fixing. If so, find another random snippet to fix.

Thing 4: Search and Destroy

We have a relatively new feature, called ‘searchgrid’. It’s something that the folks down at R&D cooked up.

I was noticing that Mike was doing “search passes.” Essentially, he would pick problem words or phrases that tend to indicate weak langauge or bad style. For instance, finding all of the times a character says, “The point is…” and replacing it with something better. Or finding all the instances of “suppose”, and just not using them.

Both Mike and I have our crutch words. We both have favorite words. They each have their time and their place, but it is not ‘all times’ and ‘all places’.

At some point during our editing passes, you will start finding these repetitions. Keep them in a list. Don’t forget them. Because as much as we like to think that we’ve become better writers over the years, we still have bad habits.

If I (Josh) am writing, and if something needs to be slowly diminished, I will have it erode. And if Mike wants many things attached to one thing, you may rest assured that is going to be festooned.

We acknowledge this. Mike is allowed one (1) festooned per novel. Whenever you see it, just know how much went into it surviving until the final draft.

Our current trouble words / phrases are as follows:

  • suppose
  • noticed
  • saw
  • heard
  • festoon
  • myriad
  • facade
  • could not help
  • the point is
  • the point being
  • turned
  • parade of
  • littered
  • realized
  • wonder
  • the boy
  • scurried

Thing 4 Summary: Learn your go-to words. Find them. And destroy them.

Thing 5: The Things You Can’t Just Search For

One of Mike and I’s favorite fantasy series is the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. We’re not really shy about it. A lot of our inspiration comes from it. It’s part of the Triangle of Things That Bore Skysail:

  1. Name of the Wind
  2. Firefly
  3. Final Fantasy 6

Aside from the great storytelling, worldbuilding, and magic system, I (Josh) like KKC for how it expertly pulls off a complex framing narrative. For example, at any point, there are one of two stories being told: the protagonist Kvothe in a tavern telling his autobiography to the Chronicler, and the transcription of Kvothe’s autobiography telling of Kvothe’s storied past.

That makes it sort of an epistolary novel, and sort of not. It switches between the autobiography and the meta-story frequently, and sometimes one part of the story informs the other (meta-story characters occasionally pull us out of the autobiography to ask questions, clarify plot points, or just to switch things up a bit).

But what’s great about KKC is that you are never confused about who is talking. You are either: outside of the autobiography, in and around the tavern, or you are inside the story, spoken from the mouth of Kvothe. The novels are polished such that there is nothing but clarity when it comes to the speaker.

Writing for Skysail, I realize now that the kind of clarified narrative framing that is effortless and seamless in KKC is hard as shit.

Skysail’s narrative voice is somewhere between third person subjective and third person objective. The voice of the narrator is impassive and neutral, except where informed by the protagonist’s thoughts and insights. We hear and see other characters and their actions, but Vasili is the only person who we get to know what he’s thinking (styled by italics to differentiate it from the rest of the text).

We do this for a bunch of stylistic and plot reasons that probably warrant a blog entry themselves. But even without having a story within a story like KKC, this, too, is hard as shit.

Why? Let me show you. Take the following original snippet:

When he blinked awake in darkness, brief disorientation was followed by frustration. He had gone to bed with having eaten pickles for dinner and nothing more. Now, his lips had cracked and fissured in his sleep, while his head throbbed.

We changed it to the following:

When he blinked awake in darkness, brief disorientation was followed by frustration. He had gone to bed with having eaten pickles for dinner and nothing more. His lips had cracked and fissured in his sleep, while his head throbbed.

Not a big difference, right? I mean, the ‘now’ signifies a time progression between the previous sentence in the next while at the same time bridging the two sentences together. It anchors the reader a little, giving them a little less mental overhead on how to treat the time progression.

It sounds pretty reasonable. It might even sound better. But we removed the ‘now’. Why?

It comes down to who is saying ‘now’. The word ‘now’ implies an external reference point, an external perspective for which the ‘now’ can be evaluated. The ‘now’ belongs to somebody. It’s the ‘now’ for whoever is talking.

Which causes you to ask, “If someone just said ‘now’, then who exactly is talking?”

The easy answer is: ‘The authors. The authors are talking. Duh. Why is this section going on forever? See, this is the reason why blogs have died. If I had known the estimated read time for this thing, I would never have started. Fuck it. I’m going to scroll to the next bold heading.’

The hard answer is, well, a little bit harder.

For Skysail, our story is about the adventures of Vasili Mikhailovich. From the outside, it has the veneer of a plucky adventure with airships and cats and feeling the wind on your face. But upon further inspection it’s about disappointment, and how it feels growing up in an indifferent universe.

As with everything in writing, we can’t just outright say that. As much as we’d like to, it’d be pretty lazy. The real magic trick is to make you feel it without saying it. And there’s where our narrative voice comes in.

We arrived at third person subjective/objective because it is, by default, indifferent. The narrative voice is neutral, and does not weigh in on events unless a character does so. There is no authorial commentary from Mike or I, or from a disembodied voice. There is no speaker outside the characters who are speaking. There is just the story. The Telling.

Which is why we can’t use ‘now’ in our narrative voice. Or ‘this’. Or ‘that’. Or ‘this’. Because each implies that there is someone speaking that has a ‘now’ or a ‘then’, or has a ‘this’ or ‘that’. And if someone is asking who that someone is, then Mike and I aren’t doing a job of making you feel.

Back to my problem of words at scale. Imagine that you have to tell a story. And you have all of the dialog in your story, spoken between your characters. Now imagine the rest of it. Of that, you have to ask, “Who is talking?”

For Skysail, that answer always has to be, “Nobody.” And if it is, “Somebody,” even just a little bit, you have to find some way to rewrite it.

That’s a hell of an editing pass. And something you can’t solve using a search grid.

Thing 5 Summary: To unlock New Game+, try to write without using the words ‘now’, ‘then’, ‘this’, or ‘that’ in your narrative.

Sidenote: Mike recently told me that he is trying to get his wife to play Final Fantasy 6. While I’m interested in seeing what she thinks, I am fearful that the result will be that she will discover, as I have discovered, that 90% of everything Mike has ever said or done is inspired in some way by that game. The other 10% is Final Fantasy 9.

Thing 6: Call Me Writerly One More Time

You may be familiar with Godwin’s Law.

Basically, it says that the longer an argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will bring up Hitler. Whether it’s Twitter threads, email chains, or familial Facebook comments, as time progresses, the probability increases that someone will bring up a comparison to Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust.

Unless you are historians arguing over the sociopolitics of fascism in Europe during the 1940’s, the point at which Hitler is brought up is usually the point where the argument is over. Everyone can go home. Nobody won, and no further argument can be had.

In our arguments over Skysail, neither Mike or I have called each other Hitler, or compared our writing or editing methods to Nazism. Yet. I mean, yes, there has been some strong language with regards to our worldbuilding, and the use of the word ‘scurried’, but nobody has fallen victim Godwin’s Law.

But at risk of violating the law, I won’t say that being called ‘writerly’ is as bad as being called Hitler. But it sure is unpleasant.

What does ‘writerly’ mean? Between Mike and I, it could mean a few things:

  1. You’ve used words that are either over the top, too ornate, too flowery for the situation.
  2. Or, writing whose style calls attention to itself more than what it is styling.
  3. Or, you’ve used words that writers tend to use.

We’re well familiar with #1 and #2. That trying-too-hard, purple language is as punishing to the reader as it is to the writer. We know it to be the mark of early writers. Because we have looked back into our own __Notes.txt documents from yesteryear, and we have seen what it means to be early writers.

The use in #3, though, has been new experience. Used in the feedback from one of our beta readers, we learned that there are certain words, certain turns of phrase that are ‘known’ to be used by writers. Good writers, bad writers, it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of writing that says, “Look here. I am indeed a writer.” And it’s the kind of writing that other writers can spot from a mile away, even when it’s good, and especially when it’s bad.

As someone who writes, I like to think I put a lot of work into my writing. I like to think everything I write is to the best of my ability. And I have a pretty good idea when my writing is not up to my standards. I delight in finding a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that is exactly what it needs to be.

But now something can be writerly. Now (goddamnit), we are no longer considering whether our writing is just something we would want to read, but whether something is too ornate, too stylistic, to the point that anything that is the least bit stylized feels like someone is pressing their lips together, giving a disapproving “Mm mm mm.” And now everything is in question.

Between Mike and I, writerly is our implementation of Godwin’s law. We’ve both used it when justifying edits or critiques. A “further erode” is replaced because it “feels writerly.” Questions about using the noun or adjective form of ‘myriad’ end with “[It’s] Writerly either way. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

We try to find a good balance. We feel that writing should be consumable, and as simple as it needs to be. We want to make art, but not to be too ‘art-y’. Neither of us considers our work to be literary fiction. But we do like to use good words sometimes. Useful words. Exact words. Precise words.

In addition to working on Volume 2, we are planning on issuing a new edition of Volume 1. It is mostly to fix typos that we’ve come across since publishing, but also to clean up things that we know were artifacts of our younger writing selves. And boy are those some hard edits, knowing that all of those writerly things have been out in the world for over a year.

Thing 6 Summary: Have someone point out to you where you’ve got some writerly bits in your manuscript. It doesn’t matter where. Then create a fearless moral inventory of your shortcomings, and start again at the beginning.

Thing 7: Don’t Edit As You Read

Our last thing, and I should get back to editing.

Your draft will not be perfect. It will probably have things that you aren’t 100% happy with. Things that you got to say what you want, and what the story needs, but you still feel like there may have been a better way. For our work, our sincere hope is that either a) people don’t notice the things we’re unhappy with, or b) people don’t care about them.

The trick is knowing when to stop. Because there is a point where you will need to stop. To move on. To get things out the door. Because, in the same way that you will always be introducing mistakes whether you are writing a first draft or editing a second draft, you may not be able to produce the perfect solution to every problem, and your next solution might just make it worse.

So, how do you know when to stop?

For me (Josh), it is where you can read through a chapter and not have to stop and fix something immediately. That is: I put Giterary into ‘Readable’ mode (where the editor and navigation options are disabled), and I just read. Print out your chapter if you have to. Go sit in a place that doesn’t have Internet. And just read.

If you can get through the chapter without getting up, saying, “This just won’t do,” then you’ve reached a good stopping point.

I think Microsoft Word and others have ‘reader’ modes, too. But I don’t often hear of people using them during the editing process. I see the application open to the editing screen, and fingers poised over home rows, ready to make the next change. And if you are short on time, sure. The Just write! mantra has the pal Just Edit!, and Just Read! sounds like a waste of time. Why not just make the fixes right there?

But for some edits, or the avoidance of an edit, you need to keep reading. To know why something was left there. To know why it was important to use that word first and the other word second. To see how pacing remained consistent between paragraphs, or dialogue was reordered to explain or to give some psychic distance.

It may take forever. But your work is more than the sum of its parts. And it’s important to consume it as such. Because otherwise you won’t see the same things that your readers see.

Thing 7 Summary: Don’t forget that your readers will just be reading. Be sure to read your work in the same way that they will be reading it (not in front of an editor).

Sometimes I feel bad when I do these craft articles. The time I spend writing these is the time I could be spending doing the craft.

But some days you don’t feel particularly inspired. And for all the effort you can put into something, you don’t feel like your heart is into it. It’s the middle of February in Alaska. It’s getting a little bit lighter, but it’s still very cold. And all that I want to do is eat and play Human Resource Machine.

So, if this happens to you, feel comfortable enough to switch gears, even if just for a few thousand words. When you come back, you will have learned something, and be able to see your problem anew.