Steven James Scearce is the creator of the speculative science fiction web series Unknown Transmission. His printed work appears in a number of anthologies including Rigor Amortis, Cthulhurotica and In Situ. Mr. Scearce has just completed work on his first novel-length manuscript, a supernatural horror story called Cottonwood. He is a web marketing professional who lives in Kansas City. He takes his coffee black. You can follow him on Twitter @ShinkaiMaru5.
On March 1st of 2011, I began writing a novel-length supernatural horror story called Cottonwood. I’d spent two months in planning and preparation. I’d drafted a seven-thousand-word treatment in three-act structure and revised it until I thought it was water-tight. I created a chapter-by-chapter outline and a stack of 5×8 note card “call sheets” for each day’s writing. I made a map of the town where the story takes place. I wrote character profiles.
Going into the actual writing – a plan that netted me 192,000 words in 255 days – I felt confident. I had, for Christ’s sake, thought of everything.
At 9:30PM on October 17th, I watched in terror as the cursor stood blinking next to the last word and the final bit of punctuation. The room was dead silent. I’d been stabbing at the keyboard for 36 weeks straight. It was done. I wanted to celebrate but couldn’t.
I called fellow horror writer Jacob Ruby for advice. “I finished Cottonwood,” I said. “What the hell do I do next?”
At the time, Jacob was still working on his first novel. “Take a break,” he said.
It was too easy. “What?” My head felt like it was full of hot roofing nails. “But the story is fresh in my mind. I have all this momentum built up and…”
“Take a fucking break,” he said. “You’ve done enough. Jesus, you worked for eight days while in Hawaii for your brother’s wedding. Step away from the story. Read a fantasy novel. Go see a bad movie. Write some short stories. Anything else.”
I hung up.
So much shit to do. I wanted to get into editing the story right away. I wanted to reach out to beta readers, get some feedback. In short time, I could see myself pitching the story at conventions, as well as querying agents and publishers.
Take a break. Really?
Ten days later I was in San Diego for the World Fantasy Convention and surrounded by writers, editors and publishers. I grabbed a beer with Sandra Kasturi, Co-publisher at ChiZine Publications. She agreed to hear about the Cottonwood manuscript and talk to
me about next steps.
“Take a break,” she said. “At least two full months, more if you can stand it.”
I began to tear the label on a bottle of Beck’s with the edge of my thumbnail. I kept quiet.
She shook her head. “Right now, you’ve got this huge story deep in your headspace. You need time away, so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.”
It began to sink in.
When I returned home, I left the Cottonwood manuscript alone. I bought another whiteboard to create my outline for the post-novel-writing process. I, like Edgar Allan Poe, believe that writing is methodical and analytical. Editing should be no different.
I marked 60 days out on the calendar. Two months. I’d go back to Cottonwood on December 17th. Then, one of the Inkpunks asked me to write an article about my process. Great! Er… uh… shit. I really needed a plan. I started by sending out a few e-mails.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a helluva writer with three published novels under his belt. His first, Mr. Shivers, won a Shirley Jackson Award. His latest, The Troupe, is available from Orbit Books February 12th. I knew Bennett from the World Horror Convention in Austin, Texas last year. I reached out to him for some advice. He sent me a 900-word answer. It was good stuff.
“First, put it aside,” he wrote. “And I mean really, seriously, put it aside. Lock it in a goddamn safe if you have to, and give the key to a trusted loved one with instructions not to give you the key until such-and-such date, which should be far enough out for you to kinda-sorta forget the nature of the novel. Do not go back on your own and rewrite chapters independent of the work. Avoid having new ideas. Distract yourself – do not think about the novel. I would suggest drinking a lot, or getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness, or possibly being imprisoned for a minor felony.”
First Ruby, then Sandra, now Bennett. Understood. It went on the whiteboard.
1. Take a two-month break.
So far, so good. What next, then?
“Then, come back and read what you wrote,” Bennett wrote. “Now is when you hate yourself. And you will hate yourself. If you don’t – if you love what you read, and think, “Well, this is the best gosh darn stuff I’ve ever read!” – then you, my dear sir, have fucked up.”
2. Read what you have written. Prepare to hate it.
So far, it’s all solid advice. This I can do. I’ve been writing stories and making up tall tales since I was in elementary school. I’ve been through numerous re-writes for the smallest pieces. I have no illusion that my first draft will be anything but a draft. The best writers re-write and re-write. I read through the rest of Bennett’s e-mail and added to the list on the whiteboard.
3. Find what doesn’t work. Make changes.
4. Reduce. Boil down. Rewrite scenes, but with 40% less words.
Ah, 40% less. There’s a hot one. Boil it down. Reduce the oxen to a bouillon cube, as John le Carré once said. Noted.
5. Find beta readers. These are people who will read your manuscript for free.
Important note: Beta readers, in effect, will save you from yourself. Why is this? Because the human brain is programmed to skim. This is why we can’t see all of our own typographical errors, composition problems, wordiness and bullshit.
By the way, Jacob Ruby has also written a great piece on beta readers for the Inkpunks.
To make the most of the beta reading process, I made a plan to turn my manuscript over to readers in stages. I first sent it out “as is” to an old friend. She’s not a reader of horror fiction, per se, so if my gruesome little tale held her attention I might just have something of value. Also, I thought that it would be beneficial to get feedback from her at certain critical points. So, we planned three Skype conversations as she read.
The first conversation was at the end of the first 50 pages. This is the point in any long-fiction piece where poor planning and weak plot points make for a sorry transition into the second act. This is where bad writing shits the bed. The second conversation was at the end of the third-to-last chapter. Here I made her stop and tell me what she assumed would happen in the climax and resolution chapters. If I had actually written a decent story, she would still have a few surprises waiting for her. The last conversation was after she’d finished reading the final chapters. In this we talked about how well the third act worked to cap off the story.
During our three conversations, I listened and made nine pages of notes.
Note: when you write a lengthy piece of fiction with a number of major characters, minor characters and a few intertwining plot lines, you’re bound to leave a few loose ends. A good beta reader will notice the missing pieces.
I took what I learned and added a few things to the list on the whiteboard.
6. Listen to your beta readers and take notes.
7. Be brave and make the changes that are necessary.
8. Read through it all again.
9. Send it out to more beta readers (different ones with different competencies).
The beta reader process is absolutely necessary, painful as it may be to hear constructive criticism of your work – by your peers. In his e-mail, Bennett talked at length about the beta reader process. “This is incredibly important to your work,” he wrote. “Because some books are for some people – there is a certain audience you are writing for, even if you didn’t know it. Some things just can’t connect. Find someone your stuff should connect to. Then they can tell you how it did or didn’t connect.”
I made a plan to send out the Cottonwood manuscript to three other readers at the end of January – after I had made the first round of edits.
10. Repeat items 6, 7, and 8 – all the while cutting until you can’t cut any more.
In the end of his e-mail to me, Bennett talked at length about cutting. “The idea is to make the book become more of itself,” he wrote. “Cut the fat away, the stuff that doesn’t belong, the stuff that just doesn’t work. Keep reducing. Cut until the knife is a nail file. Make it perfect, then cut 5% more.”
This was what I needed to hear. My whiteboard list was complete. Now I know what to do. I think.