The Long Wait

My first two novels, in some ways, were experiments. No, maybe that’s not the right word. Learning experiences comes closer to describing the processes and, in some ways, intent. Writing and self-publishing the first novel fulfilled the bucket-list task, the second proved to myself I could, and have a desire to, continue pursuing novel creation.

I like to say that life is about living*, a shorthand statement to summarize that I would rather pexels-photo-121734.jpegtry at something and fail than not have tried at all for the fear of failure. Believe me, I get that fear. I have been ensnared by that fear. It is paralyzing and debilitating, sapping the strength of the desire to try something new, fearful that others may reject the effort.

Writing is one way I counter that fear because I make many, many mistakes as a writer. On the surface that may seem like a contradiction, until realizing that growth is attained through mistakes. When exercising, muscles are torn down and built up. The Internet is filled with examples of famous success stories that are built upon failures. I wanted to learn the process of writing a novel, and to do so I prepped myself to fail repeatedly, not because I had no faith in my skills, rather that I believed in my ability to learn.

True self-publishing is great in that you do everything yourself, from drafting to developmental editing to content editing to layout to cover design to ISBN procurement and so on. Starting from scratch with Ingram Spark about five years ago, I have learned may lessons, enough to fill a book (there’s an idea). Now, as you patiently wait for the main theme of this post, I am in the process of one such lesson – the developmental editing.

If I were asked to pinpoint the most significant mistake I made in creating and publishing my first two novels, I’d state without hesitation they are too complicated. I tried to create a complicated afterlife environment as a vehicle to tell a grand story of temptation, forgiveness, and redemption spanning a century while addressing other heavy issues like abortion, depression, and communism. That’s a lot of stuff to cram into 160,000 or so words. I love the world I created, but cringe at the complexity. Lesson learned.

How could I have averted that? By engaging a professional developmental editor. When drafting my current novel, Leaving Darkness, I defined two changes from the start. First, the story would be simpler and the message more focused, and second I would engage another set of eyes, those who have done this many times before, to review the draft for continuity, story development, and just plain readability.

About two weeks ago I sent the draft manuscript to the developmental editor and three beta readers. I will likely receive feedback from the editor in two weeks, and the beta readers around the same time. For now, I wait and wonder. Is the story too complicated? Does it make sense? Is it fun to read? Is the message I want to convey received? I will summarize the results of the experience in a future post. For now, all I can do is wait.

*John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

 

The Finish Line

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I have run several marathons and many more half marathons over the past twenty years. Inevitably there are well-intentioned bystanders within the last quarter of the distance shouting words of encouragement, including “you’re almost there!” Unless those words come at mile 26 in a marathon, no, I am not “almost there.” Much agony, sweat, and pain remain.

Writing a novel is a similar process. When that rough first draft is completed some (particularly non-authors) may encourage you by saying that you’re almost finished. Nope – not even close. Reaching your desired word count and into your third revision – that’s a time to start thinking about the finish line.

At almost exactly this time last year I began my third novelLeaving Darkness, about a man’s journey out of depression. I tried a different method that I described as Divide and Conquer. When I wrote this post in March of 2017, I had reached 3500 preliminary words towards my goal of 80,000 using this tactic. This is the update I promised then.

Today Leaving Darkness is substantially complete. At about 79,500 words, I have about reached my goal, and will likely exceed it as the editing and fine-tuning processes continue. Thus, I have essentially written a novel in a year. Considering writing is not my full-time job and I took three months off from all writing to start a consulting business, that’s not bad.

Therefore, my update on Divide and Conquer simply is this: it works. I was able to structure my thoughts logically, added details and plot elements at a measured pace, and never lost my way in the process. Leaving Darkness is by far the best of my three novels. The writing approach contrasts markedly with that of Temptations of the Innocent, written by “stream of consciousness.” That end product also contrasts with Leaving Darkness and was not one of my favorite works, but we learn from mistakes.

After I cross the manuscript finish line, now in sight and about 0.2 miles away, the next step will be to publish the novel. I’m exploring different venues there as well – stay tuned!

Their Words, Not Yours

pexels-photo-256798My two ongoing writing projects are vastly different. One is my third novel, first draft about 90% completed but stalled because of competing priorities. The other is not my work. I am performing the duties of editing, formatting, and publishing. Both will likely be out sometime in 2018.

While I am sworn to secrecy at the moment as to the author and topic of the second work, I know the author, and her story, quite well. Her work is an anthology of sorts, describing events, conquered obstacles, and personal revelations over several decades. It is a pleasure to work on this – just hearing (and in some cases reliving) the tales alone has been wonderful.

Therein is the genesis of a problem I should have seen coming. Being aware of the stories that spun some some vignettes (and mentioned in a couple as well), I began to reword some of her sections in my words based on my memories. I had no malicious intent, nor was I driven by insecurity. I simply was doing for her in the editing process what I do for myself constantly with my works – write, edit, refine, edit, refine, and so on.

Early on I realized I was not simply editing her words – I was replacing them. And not just words. I found myself overruling her style, imposing mine on her work. Again, no malicious intent – my style was better than hers. After all, I was the editor! Oh how arrogant . . .

Once that epiphany hit me, I stopped. Then I really began to read her story through her words. By doing so, I began to unfurl her style – different than mine, unique, and in many instances, better. The primary reason her style trumped mine is because of just that – it was hers, and this was her story.

I trashed the majority of the initial edits and started the process again. This time, I read to uncover her fluidity of prose, riding the descriptors and the twists and turns as she wove her unique tapestries. Instead of taking the blanket and tossing it out in favor of another I liked, I began mending small holes here and there, preserving and (hopefully) enhancing her artistic uniqueness. The work remained completely hers this time – as it should be.

I’m not a professional editor, nor am I trained as such, but I imagine there are courses that teach what I learned above through experience, If there are not, there should be. After all, editors may be writers, but their creativity must be tempered when refining another’s work, else there exists the danger that the original tale, with all of its intricacies in word and form, may be watered down or lost completely.

The Rainbow Bridge

Foxy 2011I haven’t blogged for a while. Truth is, I’ve been quite busy with completing my third novel, editing another book whose author is very special to me, and standing up my consulting business (security, not writing). All this points to life moving on, which it does, all around us. Sometimes that movement is not as pleasant as we’d like.

My wife and I have four adopted dogs, all rescues. One had to learn to hoard food to avoid starvation, and still does to this day, though she has not known a day of hunger for a decade and never will. Another was a tool for breeding, banished for what to her surely seemed like an eternity to a dirty, chicken-wire floored cage, milked for her offspring – she never will live another day without a warm, plush bed. A third kept finding forever homes that were not forever and has separation anxiety, though she never has to worry about lack of attention or abandonment anymore.

Then their is our “red puppy,” adopted nearly seven years ago, found on the side of a road, malnourished, with worms, navigating on a lame foot, and a huge scar on her side that many thought came from acid. Clearly she had been abused. If not for the kind rescuer and the fostering, she would not have survived. When we met her, we instantly fell in love with her because, despite the imperfections, she radiated love in her eyes, if sometimes not her actions. She could be aggressive – who wouldn’t, given her past?

We have loved on this mixed breed with the funny limp for nearly seven years. Early on, no toy was safe, with guaranteed destruction and artifacts manifested as colored poop in the backyard. Her lame leg became an inspiration for the name of one of my home brewed IPAs if only because doing so was so outlandish. She weaved her way though our house, onto our couch, and into our hearts.

Today she is old, quite old. We don’t know her age, but by human years, she is likely about 110. She suffers from Cushing’s Disease, though various treatments have helped. Her quality of life has been strong, but is beginning to fade. We know that the inevitable trip across the Rainbow Bridge is not too far away. I could not finish typing this without tears, because I’m selfish. I know she has to go, likely soon. That sucks.

When we write, inevitably we always draw from elements in our own lives. We transpose emotions onto characters. We make them feel because we feel – they love because we love. We can write about love, and apply it across many instances, because of our experiences – all experiences. Every relationship, human or not, in some way, influences every imaginary interaction we create.

This “red puppy” sleeps soundly at my feet at the moment, after an uncertain day when we thought at today’s sunrise she may not see another sunset but by afternoon she had regained all of her life spirit to continue on. She is still loving life. One day, likely soon, she will silently leave us, or let us know it’s time to let her go. On that day I will gain more experience about loss, but I am so not looking forward to that, despite that it will deepen the well of my experiences from which I draw from when I write.

Goals


Just as every journey begins with the first step, every novel starts with the first word. Ideally, both lead to desired goals. Most don’t begin to travel a road aimlessly; they have a destination in mind. Perhaps it’s the same for authors beginning novels. I can say each of the four I’ve written started with some goal, and with each my reasons and desires for writing have evolved.

My first novel sits in my basement, a collection of wrinkled, dog-eared notepad paper. I have not published it, nor am I sure I ever will, unless my popularity as an author skyrockets to the point of fans demanding early material. One can dream. My reason for writing “The Balance of Power” in high school was to see if I could. Like all budding novelists, I had (have) dreams of breaking through, but back then I think I knew those words would not likely be seen by many. Thus it sits, unread, a heavy tale of a mid 1980s Soviet takeover of the United States, a topic well out of my league then, and perhaps now.

My second novel took twenty years to finish, and my reason for beginning it was vastly different. Going through a divorce, I wrote as therapy. I liked the basis of the story, a time-travel tale to erase mistakes made that led to a heartbreaking split (art imitating life), but no one else did, at least no literary agents. One offensive rejection letter stated the protagonist should have been a woman. Sorry, my life, my story. But it really was not my story, and, truth be told, the first version was sappy, for lack of a better word. Even the original title, “Second Chance,” brought images of cheesy romance paperbacks. Thus, that manuscript sat in a drawer of a filing cabinet for about eighteen years until the self-publishing niche exploded. As a bucket list item, I decided to revamp and self-publish, removing the sap. The work became “Forgiveness,” with the goal of teaching a lesson or two on, wait for it, forgiveness. 

Having figured out all of the nuances of self-publishing (writing is the easy part), I dove into creating the third novel, “Temptations of the Innocent.” My goal was to create a trilogy around “Forgiveness,” with “Temptation” as the prequel. I wrote, and rewrote, and discard, and cursed, and wrote some more, and eventually produced a product that was extraordinarily complex, too much so in hindsight. I met my goal, but learned a lesson, and opted to put the final chapter of the trilogy on hold. I needed a lighter project. I wanted to write about something meaningful.

“Leaving Darkness” draws on my experiences as a volunteer for a Christian-based small group therapy organization and my walk of faith as a Christ-follower, but is in no way autobiographical. I hope to show how both can lead someone lost in the darkness out of depression to experience a full life. My aim is not to be preachy, just to take a simple character that perhaps some in the clutches of darkness can relate to and show how this person, through the small group experience and letting God work in his life, finds peace and fulfillment and discards weighty anchors of guilt and regret. This project has been, without a doubt, the most satisfying to date. My goal? That this light work of fiction helps others.

As authors and as humans, we grow and evolve, and so should our writing goals. As for me, perhaps once I have completed “Leaving Darkness” I will journey to the darkness of my basement and dig out an old manuscript . . .

A Writer’s Calling

 

My original intent was to write as my third novel the final chapter in what I sometimes refer to as the “Grace of Innocence” series. My first two novels, Temptations of the Innocent and Forgiveness, paint an interaction between this world and the next, where unborn children are given a second chance at life, time folds in on itself, and good and evil fight it out. I intentionally left several questions unanswered partially because I had created a massively complex backstory. I did not yet have answers to some of those loose threads.

While planning that project, I had several occasions to ponder why I was writing. I Sunrise Natchez Trace Bridge Augustlikened those internal discussions to similar musings after nearly ten years of flying my own small, old airplane. Visions of frequent family visits, vacations to exotic locations, and Angel Flight volunteerism had given way to dull weekly hour-long local flights to keep my piloting skills current and the plane in operating condition. I was not particularly enjoying the experience anymore.

One day I had a revelation, in the form of a question. Was I flying for God’s glory, or my own? I knew the answer, and within three months, I had sold my plane. I decided I would fly again when the time was right. It’s been eight and a half years since then, and the desire hasn’t returned. God had other plans for me, and I’m quite thankful for His hand on my life.

Why was I writing? Was it for God’s glory, or mine? My first novel started as therapy, a coping mechanism when my first marriage dissolved into darkness. I created a fake world where a couple’s strife ended in happiness and love. Pure fantasy, but it did the job. I survived, and the manuscript found a long-term home in a manila folder buried in a filing cabinet.

I returned to that project years later when the indie publishing field emerged. What had been therapy morphed into a completely different story with the key lesson that abortion for convenience is wrong. When I self-published Forgiveness, I felt proud, because I believed in the message it was sending. One of the main characters was so compelling that I needed to write his backstory. Temptations of the Innocent followed two years later, and I was exhausted. I felt empty after its launch.

I realized the source of that void not long after. Forgiveness conveyed a lesson, whereas Temptation was simply a story. I’m not diminishing the second novel; I believe that one day, when I’m a famous author, readers will revel in the genius behind the story. But that’s not today. I had little desire to finish the trilogy now. I wanted to shift gears. I wanted to write for God’s glory, not mine.

Leaving Darkness pulls from both my experiences with a Christian-based support ministry (Restore Small Groups) and my walk of faith to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My hope is to convey what I believe is the remarkable healing a Christian-based lifestyle can bring. It is not preachy; rather a contemporary view of how such can affect one’s path. I envision Christians and non-Christians to gain from reading the story I am weaving.

Creating this story is my writer’s calling at the moment. I sincerely believe God whispers in my ear as my fingers float over my Dell laptop’s keyboard in the pre-dawn stillness before work. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve maintained discipline to this calling.

Beginning

Earlier I wrote about my challenges in my approach to wring my second novel and my adoption of a new method for creating the third. Today I finished the first scene of Leaving Darkness, my second working title for this project. “Let Me Help” was the first, but that seemed too, uh, “blah.” sunriseThere is still plenty of time to land on the final title, but I’ll return to this in a bit, as the title itself holds more significance than I had realized before.

The beginning is an important part of a novel – maybe the most critical. The challenge is in creating the hook by teasing the story in a few sentences to engage the reader to want to read more. While there likely have been studies performed to validate my theory, I suspect that many times novels are not read past the first chapter or even scene, having not proved to the reader why they should invest their precious time in assimilating several tens of thousands of words more.

My first draft beginning is as follows:

Lowell Ferguson sat in the cab of the Kenworth assigned by the company, eyes fixated on the flier that claimed the unattainable.

This had been an especially difficult week in the darkness. How he came into possession of the piece of paper he cradled in his slightly trembling hands itself was an odd coincidence.

I have introduced the main character, his occupation, and his struggle in the first sentence and conveyed his failure to overcome and his resistance to try another road that promises resolution but ends up failing to deliver. The second sentence reveals he suffers from depression and the third shows his reluctance to attempt to take initiative to solve his issue, supporting the first sentence.

The other element, one that I am continuing to learn and understand its significance, is the interaction with the title. Leaving Darkness implies the main character will succeed in his struggle, and indeed that is the outcome, sorry to spoil the ending. The power of the story, however, is how the main character reaches that goal. Let Me Help conveys none of that, and thus fails as a title.

Of course, all of this is one person’s opinion, somewhat (all right, heavily) biased. I am involved in a peer-editing group that provides feedback on writing style and content. When the time is appropriate to solicit feedback (likely when I’ve finished the first chapter) I’ll gain insight as to whether my perspective is on track or not. As I have written before, one of the pleasures I get from writing is the learning that accompanies the projects. Realizing the benefit of implicitly weaving the title with the beginning sentences of the book to help create that hook is just another self-taught lesson on the #indiewriting journey.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

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Recently there has been much in the press about Congress “taking away” the Internet privacy of United States citizens. Internet Service Providers can now intercept and sell usage data. There is quite an uproar, and a push for the “necessity” of using Virtual Private Network (VPN) services to keep privacy intact.

Much of this has elements of perhaps not “fake” news but certainly overblown sensationalism. This is a prime example of what we refer to in the infosec industry as spreading FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

Read closely, friends – nothing has changed. There was a law passed to enable restrictions that would have gone into effect late this year; that will not happen now. Your privacy online is the same today as it was yesterday.

I, like many writers, enjoy writing when the mood hits. That may mean taking out a notebook on a bus or bringing a laptop to a coffeehouse or bar for a drink and a session of keyboard-pounding. I use a cloud service so that my content is synchronized across devices automatically. Use of the public WiFi comes in quite handy.

“But I thought using public WiFi is insecure, and to never do so?”

Well, yes and no.

I do use a VPN service on all my devices, not because I am afraid the government is spying on me or that my ISP is selling my web surfing habits on the open market (I buy aluminum foil to protect against those threats). No, I primarily use my VPN to mitigate risks of Man in the Middle attacks at public WiFi spots.

My fundamental philosophy about information security is it is risk management. Perpetuating FUD does little to help the problem. Do people not drive at all because of the risk of getting into an accident? Of course not, they mitigate that by ensuring brakes are inspected and operating effectively, driving at a safe speed commensurate with conditions and skill, stay focused (no texting and driving, applying makeup, binge watching, and so on), and choosing routes wisely. Does this mean they will never have an accident? No. But they have reduced the chances substantially.

The same applies to cyber. Understand the risks, then mitigate to a level acceptable to your risk tolerance. Yes a VPN service will help protect your privacy if an ISP opts to sell traffic information, but navigate through the FUD and make your decision a risk-informed one. And stock up on aluminum foil.

(Image shutterstock #574193302)

Divide and Conquer

When I was a network engineer, I leveraged a common if perhapsswitch-2064090_1920 inelegant method to troubleshoot a misbehaving, large computer network I referred to as”divide and conquer.” When the network is so contested that it cannot be managed “in-band,” the offending computer must be physically located.

The basic premise of “divide and conquer” was to pick a spot in the “middle” of the network – usually some core device, a switch or a router (which is what we used to call Layer Three switches back in the day), and examine the device. A badly misbehaving network manifested itself in all lights blinking fiercely or, in extreme cases, almost completely solid. The little green LEDs indicated traffic activity. Bad network events often created a saturation of traffic, thereby clogging the network pipe for those trying to do actual work.

The next step was to determine which half of the network contained the source of the activity. Often these core switches / routers had “backbone” connections connecting to two or a few other core switches / routers. In the simple example where the network has three core switches, unplugging one connection will result in one of two actions (usually): the lights will stop blinking ferociously, or they won’t. If they stop their manic dancing, the source of the problem is on that half of the network just unplugged; if not, it exists on the other segment. Repeat the process as best as possible at the downstream device, until the switch that feeds the misbehaving machine is identified.

As I cogitated on the approach to my next novel project, I wondered if  this divide and conquer – a method to traverse the beginning of a broad overview to the details of the subject at hand – could help bridge from concept to details. Sometimes the best way to answer such a question is to limit the thinking and initiate the doing – so I did just that.

I started with the basic premise of the book,  not much of a story, but having the elements of an interesting tale – a feel-good journey with a happy ending.  From that I developed three acts quite easily – the description of the problem, the path to resolution, and the new world. Here emerged two more characters: an external antagonist and a supporter. My first round of division, into thirds, had tripled the detail and taken little effort.

At this point I put the theory into practice. I divided each act into two parts, again adding detail to each of the acts but nothing detailed. With six sections, I repeated the process and then began again, with each iteration adding more detail. When I reach the end of the fourth division, I will have twenty-four chapter outlines, a healthy goal but not one that I will limit myself to. Each chapter outline contains two to four scenes.

I haven’t yet completed the fourth division, having finished only through the outline for chapter nine (and approximately 3500 words). Still, I have already found this method to be fruitful in drawing out the creative process. I’m not ready yet to call this method of creating a novel a success, of course – but thus far I see promise. Stay tuned for updates!

 

 

 

 

 

Indie Publishing – Where to Begin?

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With the release of From the Loft, I have self-published four works. Each provided lessons that have helped improve the process, beginning with the writing and travelling the entire road to marketing. I still have much to learn, but I am in a position now to relay knowledge gained to aspiring indie publishers. After all, to learn and to share are two reasons why I entered the indie writing realm.

At a recent display / signing at the #FranklinArtScene in @DwtnFranklinTN, a man probably about ten years younger than I paused at the book display table, picked up a copy of one of my novels, scanned it, and proceeded to ask about the plot. Excited at a possible sale, I proudly recited the same story summary I have said many times before. My anticipation of financial gain muted as I realized from his change in facial contour that the genre, or perhaps just my representation of such, did not appeal to his taste. Yet he continued to ask more questions, not about the content but rather the creation of the work. With a bit of my ego restored, I relayed my journey from the beginning of the self-publishing process. After a few more minutes of pleasant conversation, he thanked me and wished me luck.

The book remained, my financial stature did not change, yet I, and I hope he, gained from the conversation. Perhaps he was one like many of us who has the dream of writing a novel, who has a burning story within that he wants to express, and that I might have ignited a spark in him to drive forward. I remember when that happened to me. Several years earlier a colleague casually remarked at a social event that the company he worked for, Ingram, was about to launch a major upgrade to their indie author publishing service, Ingram Spark. I too had the dream of becoming a published novelist, having penned an 80,000 work of beauty (to me). However, the traditional path of query letters to publishers and agents had produced little response. I saw Ingram Spark as a possible venue for realizing my dream.

Self-publishing is not easy, particularly when one performs all of the actions. Just creating an eBook file, for example, can cause frustration (see my earlier post PlayOrder does not equal 1-Huh?). Roadblocks are (hopefully) eventually conquered, and with each another tidbit is learned. When I advise other aspiring indie authors, I stress that often the writing is the easiest component of book creation. I think that often such revelation is disappointing, until I point out that there are services that will do all of the post-writing work (editing, cover design, ISBN procurement, and so on). The disappointed look returns when I mention the estimated costs of such services.

Nothing in life is free, and if it is cheap, usually the product will also not meet quality expectations – you really do get what you pay for. I never discourage anyone from paying for services for economics, but for me I maintain complete control over the entire process because I strive to put forth finished products that are 100% my creation. I believe that some other indie writers feel the same, but do not know where to begin. Such is the primary reason I blog about my lessons learned and offer individualized indie publishing consulting services.

As with writing, my motivation is not monetary. I want to pass on the limited but growing knowledge I’ve gained, to pay it forward in a way. I gain great satisfaction in the hopes that perhaps I can help another achieve their dream of publishing a book. Perhaps someday in the near future the man who asked me a few questions at the art scene will join me again, but on the other side of the table, proudly displaying his creation.