Yesterday, I wrote about my experiences writing scientific review articles. I stopped writing for the journal in mid-2011, returning to a more technical role in the company. I retired in 2015, and began filling my time by writing fiction. My wife gave me a retirement gift—a new mouse pad that proclaims: I make stuff up.
I pulled a story from my computer archives that I’d written more than ten years earlier, before I became executive editor of the journal and found my creative energies zapped by that job and by the technical one thereafter. The story, Merlin’s Knot, is a 78,000-word contemporary fantasy that I’d finished in 2004. I’d gotten through a major edit of it before I set it aside.
I started a new edit, incorporating what I’d learned about sentence construction and grammar over the previous years of writing and editing science articles. Once finished, I immediately began work on the sequel, which I’d outlined back in 2005 or so. I felt a need to create, so I didn’t do anything yet to move the first book toward publication. I finished the second story in sixty-six days, writing between one and two thousand words almost every day. By then, I had already plotted out another novel, this one a riff on the Three Musketeers, and started writing it.
All this time, I figured I would at some point slow down and look for an agent and a traditional publisher. That began to shift when I attended Indiepalooza, a conference sponsored by the Houston Writers Guild focused on independent publishing. The speakers discussed the industry and I realized how much it had changed since I looked at it in the early 2000s. I started reading books about self-publishing. My science-writing experience had taught me the value of a good editor, so I interviewed several for my Merlin book. I also found resources online, including a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson on writing science fiction and fantasy. I was on my way to becoming my own publisher.
But first, I had lessons to learn about the differences in what I knew how to write, scientifically oriented articles, and what I wanted to write: fiction.
The first big lesson related to characterization. Alfred, the main character in Merlin’s Knot, is in the midst of an existential crisis when the book begins. Just before I got my first developmental edit back, I watched the Sanderson lesson on character. He pointed out three characteristics of a compelling character: being active, competent and likable. The character doesn’t need to be all three. Indeed some of the great evil characters are not likable at all. The better the readers see these three characteristics, and especially if they see them develop during the story, the more they will sympathize with and want to keep reading about the character.
As soon as I saw that online episode, I realized I had a big problem. Alfred was not active, competent, or likable. I had written him as moderately unlikable, but I hadn’t realized the importance of the other dimensions. When I got feedback from my editor, she indicated a worse problem than I had thought. Because she didn’t like or sympathize with Alfred, she saw him as sexist, racist, and lots of other bad –ists that I definitely did not intended to be there.
When I wrote science nonfiction, I didn’t worry about characterization, because I didn’t have characters. Fortunately, the other characters in the novel didn’t suffer the lack of sympathy that Alfred did.
Even after I did a huge rewrite of that character, he’s still not the guy you’d want to hang out with on a free Saturday, but he isn’t despicable. Life has knocked him around, and the reader can sympathize with the hardships that made him what he is. In addition, I added some areas in which he shows and further develops an area of competence that surprises the other characters.
I still have a tendency to underwrite character reactions when I’m first putting down the action, but I know that I need to go back and add emotional beats.
The next lesson dealt with to be words, mostly was/were. Now, I already knew to avoid passive voice, but I hadn’t paid nearly as much attention to the state-of-being sentences. He was six feet tall. Her eyes were brown. These sentences are flat.
I did a search of my 78,000-word document and found 778 instances of was. One word represented almost one percent of the total count of my story. Then add other 145 instances of were. It took me a long time, but I went through every instance of those words and worked to replace them with more active verbs. Sometimes, a simple word-shift worked: He stood six feet tall. A reordering of thoughts in the sentences nearby often worked even better: Her brown eyes captivated me. When I finished, I had only 274 instances of was and 70 of were. Many of the remaining ones sat inside quotes, where the character’s voice in dialog trumped the was/were dump.
I learned many principles of good writing during my career as a science writer. Although learning a new technology is generally going to be something of slog, clear and concise writing can make it a less onerous task. We kept the reader clearly in mind. We did what we could to keep the voice active, and we tried to tell a compelling story. All of those lessons have served me well in writing fiction. I had to learn some new ones, and I expect to continue to learn more.
Merlin’s Knot is currently on pre-order at Amazon, with a release date of May 5. I guess I’ll find out soon whether the changes I made worked for the readers.