Now that the first draft is completed, the plan is to let it ferment on my laptop for about a month or so. After Moscow Airlift – the sixth novel in the Josh Haman series – comes out in March. In a week or so, I should get the last version from the editor and go through that. Then Moscow Airlift goes into proofreading. Someplace in there the cover will get done and the book will be released.
This will give me a mental break from the The Assassin. So, what are the next steps? The first one, strangely enough, is using the grammar and spell checker built into MS Word to run through the manuscript. It takes about two days. I am less interested in its grammatical corrections than the way it helps me standardize the spellings of words and names. For example, Aliyah one of the main characters can be spelled without an ‘h.’
At the front of the manuscript, I keep a page called “Notes to the Author.” As I am writing, if I think of things that need to be added earlier than I am in the book or stuff that needs to be included in future chapters, they all go there. For example, I wrote “Create more internal conflict within the Skylar family.” Before I finished the manuscript, I added passages earlier in the book and when I got to the appropriate point, wrote a one more.
When any individual note is executed(?), then it gets deleted. At anyone time, there are five or six of them on the page. Some I work on when I finish the draft because it is easier to go back and do rather than interrupt the flow. Others are written when I finish a passage and need to go back and remind myself to modify something earlier in the book. Taking care of these notes is step two.
With that done, step three - the editing process - begins. I read it out loud to myself as I edit. The audience is my three Poodles who have had all my books read to them. Doing this helps in the proofreading because if it doesn’t make sense as I read and hear it, it won’t make sense to the reader. As I come across changes, they get made.
If I delete a whole or major section of a passage, I don’t just delete it. The paragraphs get cut and pasted into another word document called “Stuff cut from The Assassin.” This way I preserve the writing and can either put some or all of it back in the book or adapt it to another one.
The first edit is an agonizingly slow process because as I go, I am checking the dates off on a calendar to make sure they flow, rewriting sections and adding notes in the “Notes to the Author” page. How long does it take, my guess about a month working roughly 40 – 50 hours a week.
O.K. now that the first major edit is done, what is step four?
The process repeats itself. I let the manuscript sit for a month or so to give me a break from the story and then do it again, this time focusing on polishing and smoothing and less on content.
So, you ask, what happens if I find a flaw in the story? Great question. Depending on how bad or ugly it is, I may do what I call “deconstructing” the book. This sub-process, if you will, begins creating a new version of the manuscript with page breaks between each section and printing it. It burns up a ream of paper! Each scene, if it is more than one page is stapled together. Now, I lay it out chapter by chapter on the dining room table so I can see the sections. Some are moved, new scenes are identified and some have to be deleted. I write notes on those that need changes and then put all the scenes back in order.
With that done, it sits next to my laptop and I make another editing pass. Deconstructing the manuscript can add weeks or months to the process. Have I done it before, oh yeah! Render Harmless, Moscow Airlift (to be released in March 2018 by Penmore) and The Sumushir Island Incident (to be released in the fall of 2018 by Penmore) all got this treatment.
In most cases, it takes four or five versions/major editing and polishing passes. The most is 19!
Now that the first draft is more or less done, the story takes 123,904 words and 425 pages to tell, not including the glossary and a section called Historical Context. Together, they’ll add about two thousand more words when written.
If you’re a real statistics nerd, according to MS Word, the manuscript has 678,143 characters including spaces in 3,514 paragraphs and 22 chapters. All in all, it has a mere 11,954 lines of text.
By the time I get through the editing process and cut some passages, add some scenes, take words out, it may still be in the 120 – 125K range, but who knows because I haven’t done it yet. What’s odd is that when I edit the manuscript the first time, I find passages that are duplicates, notes from my outline that never got deleted and all kinds of other debris left over from my writing. And, I often use ten words to describe something that only needs four.
Does all this matter? No. Two things matter. One, I got The Assassin out of my brain. And two, when I finish the editing process, what matters is that a publisher will take it on and you get to read it!
One of the challenges in writing a novel is what to do with all the secondary and tertiary characters in the book as the plot comes to its conclusion. What happens to the main characters, well, happens. Yes is it's a bit contrived because as the writer, I have bird’s eye view and can tweak and adjust events to drive the plot.
Situations drive a character’s actions and emotions. For the main characters, what happens to them at the end of the book is plausible based on the story.
What I’ve found in other books as well as in The Assassin was that I have a few as in two or three minor characters and I have to decide whether or not I should leave the reader (and the character) in some sort of limbo, or write a passage that provides closure. Its like wrapping up loose ends.
In The Assassin there were really two that I had to figure out what to do with. As I neared the end, nothing popped into my brain as what was right (write?) for the character. In fact, in the last chapter, I literally had placeholders with the scene dates and the characters name and a row of question marks. I had no idea what I was going to do with these two men.
So what I did was wait until I finished the book and then came up with some ideas. It required going back and adding a scene or two and in fact, several scenes so that in the last scene in which the individual appears in the novel makes sense.
For the other one, I struggled. Do I leave him in limbo? Or, do I let him get away with what he’d done? Or, do I make him pay the price and if so, how? Yup, I had to pick one and in the end, I did. You’ll have to read The Assassin to find out what I did.
Some one asked me at a book signing an interesting question, “Do you get turned on when you write a sex scene?” So, I am going to answer that question and broaden it to “Do you get excited or emotionally involved when writing a battle scene, sex, fight or airplane emergency?”
The answer to the first question is yes to the degree that I am emotionally involved with the character as I write the passage. So, do I get sexually excited, sort of. It is not like the act itself, but if I didn’t then I couldn’t put the right (write?) words in the book that would get you, the reader, emotionally involved.
The answer to the rephrased question is yes, I get excited and feel the fear and angst. Again, if I didn’t, there’s no way I can convey it to you through words.
An unasked question is do I like writing these types of scenes and the answer is yes. There’s a fine balance between the number because as a writer, one wants to take the reader on a roller coaster. Sometimes the high is sexual, other times it is fear or excitement. All are good, but if you have too many, or they are one right after another, while it may be exciting to write, it can exhaust the reader. As a novelist you want the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next but not exhaust him/her so they will put the book down, fearful that it will be too tiring to read. In other words, you want to create a roller coaster of highs and lows all building to some sort of crescendo at the end of the story.
So, how does this apply to The Assassin. Short answer is that they are plenty of white knuckle scenes, a few graphic sexual passages with interesting twists as the story of a woman who when in her twenties and thirties earned the moniker The Red Star of Death one of the top free lance assassins in the world. Now, approaching fifty, she is dragged back into that world. Out of it, she finds a new purpose in life and a new love.
Toward the end of the book, there’s a scene in which a ship is captured on the high seas. Once I visualized the scene, or at least knew what I wanted to happen, then the hard work began and it wasn’t writing it. It was researching the ships and weapons to be used, figuring out the tactics by both the attackers and defenders and then choreographing the events.
To do that, I needed a sketch. Things like distances between ships, radar detection horizons, visual horizons, time of day, phase of the moon, all became important. Using a sheet graph paper, I laid out what I thought was the “formation” of the ships in the scene. With an old fashioned compass, I drew range rings in thousands of yards around the “target” ship.
Then the hard part began. Once you have two ‘things’ in motion, you have relative motion. Add in five ships, four rubber raiding craft and helicopters and you have lots of relative motion.
What went on the chart were velocity vectors (speed and heading) to plots of the movement of the ships relative to each other. Now that I had that solved, the next problem was to create a timeline outline who does what and when.
Now that I knew were all the ships were going to be at any one time, then it was easy, well not easy, easier to write the actual take down of the merchant ship. Getting information on the warships was easier than finding data on a merchant ship along with enough specs to include as needed similar to the one I wanted to use and then find pictures. It took two hours to find a ship, specs and useful photographs!
So with the pix of the merchant ship next to my laptop, I could actually start writing the scene! It's the main passage in a chapter called “Takedown.”