Madness to the Methods (On Editing)

In lieu of blogging last week, I instead worked on the first round for editing on “Bones and Bourbon” before it releases. However, this was technically an optional round; my editor isn’t actually starting his work until February. I had a couple reasons why, so I figured I would share the most important ones with you dear readers. Even if you aren’t an author in the midst of the writing/editing process, I hope it still provides an informative look at what goes on backstage before a book goes live.

1. How Do These Work Again?

As I was originally querying for “Bones and Bourbon,” I was also working on the other books in the series. The second book was finished and sent to my beta reader and I began work on book three. Amongst other things, the third book prominently features the furaribi, Japanese fire-spirits first seen in “Bones and Bourbon.” When I started working on that, I decided to brush up on furaribi facts for ideas…and realized that more information had been dug up about these obscure supernaturals, which I had missed out on while writing the later “Bones and Bourbon” drafts because I’d lived in The Middle of Nowhere with all its dial-up internet glory.

I’d fixed most of these details before sending the novel to NineStar Press. However, now that I’ve written about half of the third book and settled on a few other worldbuilding details, I wanted to make sure that all the details for the furaribi worked between the two books. A minor example of one such detail was that originally, Aimi mentioned being only sixteen, and furaribi lifespans were implied to be much like human ones. After the research and edits, furaribi are much longer lived—Aimi still looks like a teenager, but there are hints that she’s far older than her looks suggest…

Other supernatural details also had to be doublechecked for logic and consistency, such as how huldra bodies operate (could/would a hollow body still be able to produce sweat and tears?), whether the details of the occasionally-used alchemy made sense, and so on. After seeing how other authors have changed the rules of their magic mid-story and thus created plotholes (unless Harry Potter’s Hagrid is MEANT to secretly be the most powerful wizard who taught himself wordless magic), I’ve decided to err far on the side of caution when it comes to making my universe work.

2. Wait, That’s Offensive!

Not only do I hail from the Middle of Nowhere, without access to much media, and also in a predominantly small town of predominantly average white folks. Most of what I learned from diversity was learned from my time at Mills College down in California, and then by actively seeking diverse voices in literature and social media since then. Much as I try, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about being a good ally.

As I discussed earlier in a twitter thread, I didn’t realize that albinos were often portrayed as villains or enigmatic, otherworldly beings, and how damaging that stereotype is. It makes complete sense when thought about, but not knowing any albinos personally, I simply didn’t think about it until someone brought that up. Problem was, “Bones and Bourbon” originally implied that main antagonist Nalem’s original body and thus true form…was albino. Erk.

Thus, during this edit of “Bones and Bourbon,” I removed all references of Nalem being albino and even changed a couple scenes and concepts around to fit this. I could’ve chosen to ignore the stereotype, clung to how long the character had been this way (I even had commissioned art of that particular design), and simply resolved to make it up in a later story while maybe subverting the stereotype somehow in this one. But if I did that, I still would’ve added to that damaging stereotype now, and potentially hurt my readers in the process. I’d rather spend a few hours changing details in my novel than spread harmful stereotypes for however long my book is read.

Another note I should add is to doublecheck words that refer to a minority group—be it race, sexuality, disability, or any other group—and make sure that the group that word is referring to doesn’t find it offensive. Some words used to be in common use and are now considered offensive (I know I caught one that had somehow snuck its way into my book). Others are words we’re told are offensive, but the minority group actually prefers it (such as discussions I’ve seen about those who are disabled preferring that term instead of “differently abled” or other such tip-toeing phrases). We creators don’t get to decide what is and isn’t offensive to people outside our experiences, so make sure to defer to the experts who’ve lived it.

3. A Season of Consistency

When I first wrote “Bones and Bourbon,” the story was set in Autumn, right around protagonist Retz’s birthday. It was full of pure Oregon atmosphere, full of pouring rain, falling leaves, drowning rain, apple harvests, early frosts, and even more all-consuming rain. For a variety of reasons, I decided that atmosphere was better suited for the second book, and thus I booted “Bones and Bourbon” back a couple months, to the end of July and beginning of August. Contrary to popular belief, Oregon does mostly take a break from the rain during the summer, especially during the last couple years where it’s instead been on fire.

I thought I’d edited out all the rain, save for one scene where I planned to keep it in (because what’s Oregon without at least a little rain?) Readers, I had to rearrange whole fight scenes to remove mentions of splattering mud and blood intermingling with the rain. I even found other consistency issues I’d somehow glossed over, including a reference to an encounter that was no longer in the book. Glad I caught that before readers could ask what that fight was about and how a taser got involved.

4. Making a Career of Evil

Villains are fun to write. Villains are also hard to write, because it’s so easy for them to seem funny instead of scary. Dracula may sound scary, but how terrifying can an elder vampire be when he’s seen bashing himself against a window in bat-form because there’s too much garlic in the way?

Many great villains get a chance to monologue about their evil plans, and Nalem gets his chance to shine in the middle of the book. When I read through this speech during my edits, however, I found it to be all style and no substance. His rivals were right to mock him, and I almost joined in! You can’t take a villain seriously if even the author thinks he’s all bark and no bite. I’d also developed a bit more about his past schemes and modus operandi while writing the later books, so I rewrote his speech both to sound more sensible to his audience and to better fit his plans later in the series.

These are by no means the only edits I did, and I’m sure the editing process is far from over, but at least I got these four main issues out of the way. Now more than ever, I’m excited that I’m actually in the process of publishing my first novel, and in a few short months, it will be available for the world to read. I must admit that it’s a little scary too, mostly because once this book is published, so many details for the rest of the series will be set in stone, and that means no more last-minute edits to fiddle with details like this. As an author, that’s just something I’ll have to learn to contend with: to finally let the story just be.

Hope you’re as ready for the final form of this story as I am.

~Dorian

Cut and Drive

I just returned from a brief trip to California for a memorial service (a sad occasion, but a lovely time was had), and as is tradition in our family, we drove all the way down (and back) in one 9-10 hour stretch, with only two pit-stops in between. We’re militantly tough drivers, partially because we don’t mind being alone with the scenery and a case full of classic rock CDs. Some of my best brainstorming comes from letting my mind wander during these trips.

As I remembered this trip, sometimes building also means destruction. This is true in fiction more than anywhere else.

Much as we want to keep every great idea we scribble in our notebooks, the truth is, we can’t hold onto them all. Too much of anything, be it plot threads or characters, and the story gets weighed down. Some authors can go on for a few hundred thousand words longer than the rest of us, but I’m sure even George R.R. Martin has had to cut content from the Game of Thrones series. Even outside of books, there’s a reason that extended cuts and b-sides exist, but aren’t kept in the core content.

I found myself doing a lot of story trimming this weekend. One task was simpler, streamlining a novella I’m working on for NineStar Press’ LOST collection. I cut out a couple characters (I have a great fear of bogging down a story with too many characters, after my first NaNoWriMo attempt landed me with a novel of 16+ characters in 50,000 words) and rearranged relationships around, which on paper sounds like no huge deal. And really, it isn’t. I have to scrap the opening to the novella again, but elements of those first attempts can still be recycled. If nothing else, I learned more about the world and the people within it, so the demolished wordcount at least lead to some worldbuilding. Like tearing off a bandaid, it stings a bit, but the pain passes soon enough to forget.

Then there’s the hard cut: I scrapped an entire book.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done so for the Deadly Drinks series; the first draft of “Bones and Bourbon” was similar only in name and protagonist to the novel releasing next April, and its in-progress sequel had so many restarts before I finally finished the first draft. I’m lucky in that I hadn’t started book four (seeing as book three isn’t even done yet), but even though words hadn’t hit the page yet, tossing it still hurt. Why was this?

Because it had so much I WANTED. The magical world intruding on the mundane. Playing with Frankenstein’s Creation (I refuse to call him a monster–or, stars forbid, Frank). Secret societies! Magical cyborgs! Ghost-powered transportation through other dimensions!

But from the time I revved up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot with Santana tunes blaring from the speakers, I knew it didn’t fit. When writing a series, one has to consider not just developing plot and character across one book, but over the series as a whole, and this book didn’t fit the direction the series needed to grow in. Such a fantastical tale would raise the stakes for the entire setting too much for a mid-series book, and the Gallows brothers were taking the back seat to all the cool elements I wanted to include.

So I let it go. I burned the images in my head and picked a few pieces out of the ashes that I did need for what book 4 will become. The rest of it gets tucked away to percolate in the back-burners of my mind, likely emerging on another long road trip as a new story all its own. I collected sights and snippets of songs to inspire a story that’ll fit better with my narrative arc, and if I’m lucky, I might still be able to sneak some interdimensional ghosts in there. (But first, we finish book three, edit book two, publish book one. I like to work well ahead of schedule.)

It’s a matter of weighing what we want to write with what the story needs. Let your mind wander, but know when to reel it in when it drifts too far.

Now that I’ve spent so much time cutting content, it’s time I got back to work creating again.

~Dorian

PS: Speaking of road trips, I did sneak a couple of my favorite details along I-5 in “Bones and Bourbon.” I also refrained from making any jokes about the State of Jefferson, but I can make no promises for the finished product…