Hey, my book has a free promotion going on! Go onto Amazon and grab a free copy! (Or a paperback. We have it in paperback now). Today’s the last day it’s running. I’d have told you earlier, but I have work I’m doing now and time is precious. I had a much longer idea I wanted to write about a controversial topic, but it needs a lot more time and thought than I can give it right now. So I’m just giving a short excerpt from the sequel to my book, along with a few thoughts on drafts and revision.
Also, apologies to those who already bought the book. I’d meant to do this as a first-day promotion, but it took me a while to figure out. If you want a refund, let me know and we’ll verify your purchase so we can figure something out.
The most valuable piece of advice on writing didn’t come to me until my third year of grad school. “Don’t pay any attention to what you write the first time,” my old professor said, a man with innumerable articles, who’d been announcing his imminent retirement for the last decade. “Just write without stopping. Don’t go back to correct, to rewrite, to change anything. I used to turn off my monitor so I couldn’t read what I was writing. Just get words on the page. Then when you’re done, go back, and rewrite it mercilessly.”
(The second most valuable piece of advice I got was “don’t listen to music while working,” from The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams. Maybe I’ll talk about that some other time.)
When I was a young child, and had decided I was going to be JRR Tolkien, I had some sort of impression that a book would pop into my head, ready-made. That I would write it out the first time, exactly as I’d pictured it. I was very surprised when I got ahold of Tolkien’s notes and realized that wasn’t even how he wrote… he went through quite a lot of different ideas and discarded most. It was a major break for me that you didn’t need to wait until the story was perfect in your head before writing it down.
(Do you know, that paragraph wasn’t at all in the first draft of this blog entry?)
Still, for years in college and grad school like most students and writers, I’d be constantly going back and changing bits and pieces. I’d reorganize the whole essay and cut and paste chunks, then rewrite to make them more smooth. Sometimes I’d stay up all night writing a paper, only to discover at the end of it what I should have been saying.
But for whatever reason, this advice, particularly the line about the monitor, really stuck with me.
On my next paper, I tried what my professor suggested, and it worked amazingly well. While I was writing the first draft, I was at times shaking my head in the absolute drivel I was spewing out. The second half didn’t even fit with the first half’s argument, because I’d changed my mind halfway through about what I wanted to write about. At times the paper said stupid, obvious things, because I hadn’t known where to go from there and had just started saying the most obvious things that came into my head.
But I finished the paper in record time. Going back was so much easier; I could change elements around. I already knew what the final argument was going to be, so I could shift things accordingly and back up the parts that needed to be backed up. The paper overall was better reasoned, more organized, and had much more relevant quotes.
Since then, I’ve written all my stories that way. The first time, if I ever find myself stopping and thinking “this doesn’t work, it’s too implausible, too derivative,” I shut myself up and just keep on writing the stupid implausible stuff. I work out something more original later when I come back to re-write it.
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, also advises this technique. He says to write without stopping, to get out your ideas as quickly as they come. If you stop and go back, you’ll lose the train of your plot. If you read Stephen King, you can see this breathless style of writing at play–one plot point swiftly moving into another.
Where King loses me is that he thinks you only need one re-write, and possibly not even that. He says re-writes aren’t going to mean the difference between a trash book and a best-seller. Clearly King knows more about writing best sellers than anyone, but his lack of regard for re-writing astounds me. Re-writing (for me) isn’t just about getting the right words in place, it’s about changing whole plot points, foreshadowing things better, filling in plot holes. Sometimes you end up coming with whole new, better scenes that fit into what you need. I think it’s worth noting that some of King’s books, like The Drawing of the Three are rife with continuity errors.
Of course, they’re still best-sellers. So are books like Twilight and Ready Player One, books in sore need of a re-write or twelve. Technique isn’t everything, or likely even the main thing–sometimes a writer can just really nail a good premise and make a story come alive in a way that makes people forgive all the writing sins in the world.
But most of the time they can’t. Most of the time it takes quite a number of tries before you get something that captures the life of what you the writer feel when you’re writing. And often times, you find the best way to write something isn’t the way you started. Though probably you won’t need the 10 different drafts I went through. I was literally re-writing sections moments before I hit the “publish” button.
All of which is to say, take this opening scene from my sequel book, The Hospitaller Oath, with a grain of salt. I might change it. (SPOILERS FOLLOW. If you haven’t yet read the book, go and grab a copy–again, there’s a free promotion going on–before reading this.)
“Why are my friends so horrible?” I ask.
Dr. Schaeffer looks up at me from the other side of the plane. “They are human,” he says, “with all the horror and all the glory that implies.”
“Half-human, you mean,” I say. Ball-Buster and the others weren’t any more human than me or Dr. Schaeffer. What else they were, I can’t exactly say, I still haven’t found out whether Nephilim are supposed to be half-angel or half-alien or something else entirely, but everyone agrees we’re not human.
Dr. Schaeffer doesn’t seem very interested in that point anyway. “They are teenagers.” He shrugs. “Even the best intentioned and most intelligent teenager does not have the experience to know their weaknesses and limits.” He bends again over the stretcher in the middle of the compartment and adjusts some of the tubes stuck into her.
Coach. My old phys-ed teacher. The woman who chased my friends and I all the way from Attu Island. The one that the Templar Shadow slashed open and left bleeding over the sand. The one my friends left to die to join with the Templars.
Friends. We were imprisoned together in the UN camp. Together, we discovered what it meant to be Nephilim; we argued, fought, and cracked jokes together. They fought by my side against our classmates. We escaped on a boat together. Back-to-back, we fought in a raging river against raging Russian bears. And we all survived.
I thought they were my friends. I suppose they were, even.
I swallow. “What do you think the Templars will… do to them?”
“I do not know,” Dr. Schaeffer says, still fiddling with Coach’s bandages. “I do not know of these Templars. The old Templars, I fought alongside and against.” Apparently satisfied, he leans back and starts to unstrap the sword on his back. “From the single man I fought today, I will say that they do not seem to compare.”
The huge sword he’s unstrapping must be a claymore or something—almost as tall as he is. He’s still wearing the armor he had on when he landed on the beach to save me. It’s jet black, marked with a spiky white cross of some sort, and looks like an odd mixture between a medieval-style breastplate and a Kevlar vest.
Really weird to see a history teacher dressed like that.
“Still.” There’s a frown on Dr. Schaeffer’s face as he pulls off the sword and lays it next to the machine gun. “The submarine shows they have resources. Their ability to find the DEMP camp shows they receive intel. And they mentioned an Old Man Ash…” He shakes his head. “There are waters I do not understand here.”
“They seem to be most curious,” Destro says. I look over at my sole remaining friend, sitting on the seat next to me. The eyes in his puffy face gaze around almost disinterestedly. “Certainly they have a perverse sense of humor. And ethics.”
“I did not look to see you here, Mr. Iskinder,” Dr. S says, looking over at my friend.
“Yeah, we didn’t look for a lot of things from Destro,” I say, glancing over at him. “Apparently that was the point.”
Destro just gives a flashing grin, his teeth white in his dark face. “It is not good to be too noticeable in a prison camp. That is not a good thing to be. But I am grateful that you brought me with you, friend Square.”
I just grunt. “You helped us break out, it would have been hard to leave you behind. Plus you’re some sort of black ninja wannabe. Apparently.”
Destro laughs. He does that a lot, and it’s just now occurring to me that it keeps him from having to answer any questions.
Doc is looking at him with a very odd expression, but he seems to shrug it off. “It would be best to rest now,” he says. “It will take us some time to get to Marienburg.”
“What is Marienburg, anyway?” I say.
“It is a safe haven,” he says. “A base, of sorts, for the Hospitallers. We’ll get on another plane there and head for some remote locale where Wolfe will not be able to locate you. That should…”
Then the plane explodes.
It really happens too fast for me to absorb what’s going on. There’s a massive BOOM that seems to ripple up the floor from under my feet. I have a dim impression of the wall behind me turning to a bubble of fire. Doc Schaefer doubles over Coach’s stretcher, tearing it free from the straps and leaping up, through the roof of the airplane. I see the metal break apart.
I hit the floor. It’s a weird floor, it doesn’t seem to behave like a floor should—it’s not actually supporting me. It’s like a wall. The heat from the fire is cutting into my skin, I need to get out, OUT. Clear blue of the sky through the flames. I scramble desperately toward it, the room bending, breaking around me.
Out. Empty blue. I pitch forward. The blue whirls, replaced with white. I barely have time to realize how fast it’s coming toward me before I slam into it and pain explodes all across my body.