Novel writing

A long and twisting road: The story behind “The Mosaic”—Part 1

From Rick:

There’s an old joke that the difference between a sadist and a masochist is that the masochist tells the sadist, “Beat me, whip me, punish me,” and the sadist tells him, “No.”

A parallel in self-publishing might have the sadist saying, “Please, self-publish” and the masochist says, “Can I watch?”

Seriously, self-publishing is painful ONLY IF you don’t bother to do your research to find out how to do it properly. If you don’t, you deserve whatever pain you get.

Whoever told you that self-publishing was easy did not lie. I might have been one of those people. I don’t recall with certainty because I have so much on my mind these days that I can’t remember if last night’s dinner came from something that mooed, oinked, clucked, or came from a garden and was reposing in silence on my plate. The only thing I can claim is that any advice I give you is intended as good advice and that’s it’s never only my personal opinion (unless I say so specifically).

Here’s the truth, honest: The self-publishing part is easy. What’s hard is what you have to do BEFORE (writing whatever you hope to publish) and AFTER (getting people to buy it).

Back on November 7, 2016, in that blog post I talked about the writing of The Mosaic from the perspective how long it took Chris Keaton and me to write it (lots of years). I didn’t go into much detail.

In this post I want to go deeper into the history of it—the BEFORE publishing part—and maybe once you hear the story you’ll take pity on us and help with the AFTER publishing (by buying a copy of the novel and telling your friends about it).

Further back, in 2009, when I was still young and stupid (as opposed to being old and stupid), I thought I was a pretty good writer because I already had one published novel (from a regular publisher), another novel to be published later that year, and a third (sequel to the second) that I was finishing up. I also had several other projects waiting to be given attention.

There I was, with more than enough to keep me occupied at the time. This blog had not come into being, and I was not yet involved with what was to become Silver Pen Writers. In other words, there were almost enough hours in my day to do most of what I needed to do. (Whether I used those hours wisely was another matter entirely.) Certainly I did not need another writing project.

However, I let myself be wooed to the Dark Side. A writer friend told me about this other writer who was looking to have his YA fantasy screenplay turned into a novel. (And my wife had been suggesting that she thought I would be good at writing YA fiction.)

This writer had already approached several other writers who either didn’t have the time or (in at least one case) who told him that they did not want to deal with the pressure of having a possibly successful novel. Apparently someone saw potential in it.

The writer friend who had contacted me had also declined the project for lack of time. I said that I really didn’t have the time either but that I would be willing to look at the script (curiosity, I suppose).

In late March of 2009, Chris Keaton sent me his screenplay to read. I loved it, and thus began our journey. I did not tell my wife about it until that December, after I had finished a first draft. Nine months from start to finish—that wasn’t bad and it boded well for the project as a whole.

But of course the novel wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. This was only a first draft. At that point all I had done was convert the screenplay into prose version, lengthening it from about 20,000 words to over 70,000 words. Again, not too bad. We looked at the finished draft and my wife read it as well.

Our conclusion: It needed work. It needed a lot of character development. Parts of it were pretty weak. And the ending needed a lot more punch and intensity.

Now this was not the only thing I was working on. Soon other projects began to suck time from this one. I was doing all of the writing up to that point because Chris’ novel-writing skills were not yet up to the task (his reason for seeking outside assistance). A few more drafts and a couple of years later, we then decided it was time to show it to some outside readers for opinions.

Well, the comments were mostly positive, but it had at least one major flaw: I had used way too many character viewpoints (like 12) in it. It’s not uncommon these days to use more than one viewpoint in a novel but rarely more than 3 or 4.

In order to cut those down, I went through it scene by scene with a stack of 3×5 cards in hand. Using one card for each scene, I jotted down the POV and a couple of notes about the scene. That done, Chris and I determined the minimum number of POVs that we could reasonably tell the story in was three. Those notecards guided the reassembly of the story. I cut or revised scenes where needed and added new ones. Along the way, I looked at how we could increase the tension and build to the final battle and make it stronger.

In case you’re wondering how I ended up with so many viewpoints to begin with, that came from the structure of a screenplay. When I converted its scenes into novel scenes, I adopted a POV for the scene. The thing is that I should have known better, but when we’re too close to something, we frequently miss the bigger picture. Chris was still in screenplay-mode, so he hadn’t seen it either at the time.

This rebuilding was a large challenge because we had to figure out how to tell the same story from three perspectives. You might be asking at if there was a way we could have avoided this messy rewrite in the beginning. Yes, we could have. In hindsight it’s obvious. When I began, in my enthusiasm to embark on this project, I assumed that all I had to do was to expand Chris’ screenplay. Instead, I should have seen it for what it really was: an outline only. I should have studied it carefully to decide things like the number of POVs upfront.

In my defense, I took the road of caution because, after all, this was not my story and I didn’t want to offend the original author by taking it over and changing it too drastically. Most of you likely won’t run into this situation. If you collaborate a project, you’ll likely sit down together and discuss it to decide what will work and what won’t. Chris and I live across the US from each other. Email was our only efficient means to communicate.

In part 2 of this story, I’ll talk about how we fixed it and about something else I should have recognized that would have made life easier. I’ll also talk about how the screenplay opened and how I tried to mimic that in the novel originally instead of how we ended up doing it. But before I end this part, I want to give you some practical advice so you don’t fall into a similar trap, regardless of the source of your novel’s inspiration and regardless of whether you work alone collaborate with someone.

A novel is a complex thing. Before you begin one, it’s important that you have more than just a vague vision of it. You don’t need to detail the plot, but you do need a roadmap, and you need to know whose story you’re going to tell, who you main character will be. It doesn’t matter whether you have one viewpoint or several. ONE of your characters needs to be the leader or focal point. In The Mosaic, the twins, Chloe and Zoe, are the central characters, so the story ultimately must focus on one or both of them. However, they are the only YA characters in the story. All the others are adults, so that made the decision easier.

Originally we used the POVs of both girls. One of the decisions we made when cutting out POVs was to use that of only ONE twin, Chloe in this case. We’ve decided to use Zoe in the second one.

Believe it or not, this seemingly simple decision necessitated some of the more major changes in the rewrite. Again, I’ll explain the reasons and give details next time. I’ll also discuss why screenplays and novels are so different from each other and why it’s usually easier to write a screenplay from a novel (which I’ve never attempted) than the reverse.

If you’re intrigued enough about the novel, don’t let me stop you from purchasing a copy. I’m pretty sure you’ll like it. We had released it ourselves previously, but now the award-winning publisher 13Thirty Books has just released it.