MERC vs. BOOK: Revising A Novel, Part 7–Gaming the Process (part 1)

HELLO AND WELCOME! ūüėÄ This post is more about my craft & process in writing. It ties into the series of novel revision posts, but is going to tackle a wider variety of examples. ^_^ It’s very long, so I’m splitting it into two parts. This is part one.

Oh yeah, and I pulled out the Wacom tablet to make some illustrations. *drumroll*

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.41.56
from “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustad


Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 (you are here) | Part 7.2  | Part 8

I’m drafting a lot as well as revising.

I’d like to define how I’m using specific words in the context of this project (The Collars We Wear) and these blog posts.

Drafting = New words, scooped raw from the mines, hauled in keyboard-shaped containers and stacked in the shipping yard known as The Draft.

Revising¬†= Previously-mined words, already organized in containers (sometimes called ‘scenes’ or ‘chapters’) are sorted into categories of “good” or “needs repair” or “delete.” Containers get hauled around by forklifts and rearranged according to the Overseer (also known as an Author). Sometimes containers tip over and spill words everywhere, resulting in the need for clean-up crews and hazard tape to mark off the area. In this stage, big picture restructuring, organizing, ripping out or replanting of words for¬†The Draft occurs, with smaller clean-up done as needed–fixing up a broken container, sweeping up stray words, etc.

Editing = The Draft, now renamed Revised Draft, is shipped whole to the Edit Plant. Here, dozens of polishing drones scrape and smooth and shine the words–now properly organized, patched up, dusted off, and arranged into aesthetically pleasing structures–until the Overseer deems it satisfactory. Sure, sometimes a drone malfunctions and misses a spot, but in general, the Overseer decides the Revised Draft is ready to be Seen when it’s enticing, clean, shiny, and looks good on the Overseer’s resume.

Summary:  draft is new words; revision is fixing those words into coherent form; editing is making those now-coherent words shine like dragonflies in the sun.

That said, because–as noted previously in this series–I’m still doing a lot of drafting, I wanted to reawaken a series of thoughts I semi-articulated awhile back about how I visualize things when I’m writing.

You Enter the Dungeon And See a Dragon Sleeping. What Do You Do?

When I was at 4th Street Fantasy in June, I tweeted some rambling thoughts about how I visualize narrative, scenes, and how different elements are constructed (or deconstructed) in my brain when I’m writing.

The Storify is here.

Tweets are screencapped below as relevent for ease of reference.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.37

I’m going to use my short story “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” as a reference for the illustrations, since you can read it free online, and also it has dinosaurs. ^_^

Anatomy of a Scene

Each scene needs to accomplish something: plot, characterization, excuse for dramatic music, etc. Whole books have been written about scenes, and what they do, and how to create them, so let’s just assume that¬†scene = something happens/changes to move the story along.

A scene is a unit of measure in writing but it has no specific size requirements, and can be as short or long as needed. The length, however, tends to lend itself to pacing and can be used for dramatic effect. A long scene in which two principal characters talk about Plot might give the reader a breather after three short, punchy scenes in which characters run from a horde of bloodthirsty gerbils and are now holed up in the cafeteria of the local middle school.

In “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie,” the first scene is exactly three words long.

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.37.57.png

Why? Well, I wanted to establish that something dramatic had happened and changed things (the world, in this case, being¬†EX-702’s surroundings) in the fewest amount of words possible.

The second scene begins with¬†EX-702 wakes up from the above mentioned explosion, and finds a dying mother¬†Deinonychus. EX-702 decides to adopt and care for her eggs, since they hatch into adorable baby raptors, and this pushes the rest of the story forward:EX-702 is an android programmed to preserve human life, so first it must find any human survivors of the apocalypse. ¬†EX-702’s choice in the second scene–to care for and raise the baby dinosaurs–reflects the thematic tension in the rest of the story (what is consciousness? what is life and why do we wish to save it?).

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.40.46
Anubis and EX-702

The second scene is much longer than the first, because it requires a slower build. EX-702 is waking up to an entirely strange new world, in which extinct species are emerging and evolving rapidly.

Scenes after that vary in length depending on what they need to accomplish.

Near the end, when¬†EX-702 receives a virus from its creator that will destroy it for failing its mission, there are several scenes that are short, but roughly the same length. They are ramping up the tension–will¬†EX-702 survive? Can its raptor family save it from human shortsightedness?

How does this end?

When writing, and then working on edits after Mothership Zeta editors Mur Lafferty and Sunil Patel bought the story, I visualized this a lot like a page in a graphic novel.

illustration by Merc Rustad

You’ll notice that the panels are not the same as scenes, but rather, they are components of the scenes. There are close-ups on¬†EX-702 and¬†Anubis, because close-ups signify importance and emotion. When you want to hone in a specific emotion or highlight something integral to the story, getting in close can be¬†effective.

(Also, if you just saw this without reading the story, it may be ambiguous about what Anubis is doing. That’s ‘coz I am not very good at drawing, you guys. xD)

There is a cutaway of Anubis typing on a keyboard, which shows her trying to stop the virus. The largest panel is of¬†EX-702 during the shutdown sequence. Then there’s blackness, when¬†EX-702 goes offline. The last panel is a single word, “Unit?” which acts as a hook to make the viewer turn the page to find out wha happened.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily translate into words as clearly. That’s the tricky part about adapting a visualized medium into a written medium: they are both¬†story but they¬†are not identical in how they are presented.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.45

What I do is look at the¬†effect I want to achieve. If I’m filming and I want a strong emotional reaction–say, fear–then¬†I consider how effective an extreme close-up on the actor’s face will be for this shot. Can she express terror with most of the frame being just her eyes? (Eyes are stunning things, when you think about just how much you can convey with looks.)

When writing, I have to translate my visual instincts into a different style of storytelling. What details can I write that will convey the emotion I want? How does the fear feel to this character? Do I describe something, perhaps a physical reaction? Is this a case where I need to dig into POV and internal reactions for the character? Maybe both?

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.56

Bones Of A Scene

As far as determining how to structure scenes, I tend to start with a generalized outline:

X, Y, and G need to happen. Somehow.

(Don’t get me started on past!self writing vague and incoherent plot notes that consist solely of ‘something cool happens here’. WHY, past!self, whyyyyyyyyyy.)

It’s kinda like archeology. So you find a bunch of bones, right? And you might be able to see where joints connect and things match up in a general skeleton shape. [Disclaimer: I am not an archeologist. I’m sure it’s much more complicated and awesome than this analogy.]

Then you maybe hand over a sketch to the conceptual artist in your brain who designs the skin and scale and feathers for your skeleton, so you can see what it might have looked like. Then the scientist in your brain has a brilliant idea: LET’S CLONE THE DNA AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS! So you concoct a bunch of SCIENCE¬†in a lab, and create a creature.¬†Victory!

Maybe that creature is an adorable fuzz-covered herbivore who wants to cuddle.

Or maybe it’s a giant carnivore who, oops, is a lot smarter than you and why did we think this was a good idea oh god it’s escaped ruuuuuuun–

The point is, working off an idea of the scene can result in unexpected things. Or it might come out just as you intended. Maybe your outline is much more detailed, a series of scene beats that map out exactly what needs to happen and you just fill in the blanks.

Whatever works! It’s cool. (Just be careful of the raptors. They’re clever.)

When I’m drafting a scene, I definitely like to have a general aim for the drama. What needs to happen here?

Who’s involved?

Why does it matter?

I wrote awhile back that I needed to pause in drafting Winterblade’s POV in order to write a scene where he and Bane meet.¬†I wanted to break that down and illustrate it as an example of how I visualize things akin to comics or video games, so that post is will be¬†Part Two (coming soon).


An intriguing problem I’ve come across in my novel¬†The Collars We Wear is how the three POV characters handle fear.

Winterblade cannot feel fear (it was taken away from him) and that’s precisely why he wants it back. Bane is terrified of just about everything and doesn’t cope well with that constant exhaustion. Rajosja keeps her emotions tightly locked down due to trauma and it is not helping her relationship with her wife. All three need to face what they fear most (even, in WB’s case, he can’t actually feel it–so there are other emotions and reactions he can indulge in when faced with what he is running away from) and they do so in different ways.

Showing this in prose? That’s tricky.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.05

Bane has a lot of physical reactions and body language, coping mechanisms and strategies both external and internal that show how he deals with fear. He’s the POV character who is able to actual think in terms of ‘I am afraid.’

Rajosja just tries to shoot everything, because it’s effective and gives her an outlet for repressed emotion that is not reacting in fear. (Her supervisor is really not happy about the paperwork that results in.) Her POV is one that relies heavily on negative space, on¬†not saying things, and allowing the reader to infer what it is she’s dealing with. Which is a hard balance to maintain, especially when female-ID’d characters are so often held to ridiculous double-standards. (I say fuck it, she can do what she wants.)

Winterblade, uh…resorts to creative means of feeling anything. His POV the most trippy and disturbing because he’s acutely aware of what he’s missing, what he is, and¬†what he’s capable of doing to get what he wants.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.14

If this were all visuals, I would be considering shot design, color palate, how the actors move, the dialogue chosen, the editing choices…

…which I also have to do in prose. It’s more of a translation issue from my brain onto paper.

How much of the wardrobe do I describe, and which details are important to the POV? (Bane will notice clothing in relation to how it denotes class and danger. Rajosja will notice it in terms of practicality and if it gives her clues to her investigations. Winterblade…doesn’t really notice beyond how it inhibits, or doesn’t, body movement.)

I noted in this post that I have a series of ‘flavor’ words for each story. This is equivalent to my color palate and lighting design when I’m filming. What is the mood I want to convey? How does the character voice reflect compared to other POVs? (I prefer each to be as distinct as I can manage so they contrast when there are multiple point-of-view characters.)

Writing a story involves a lot¬†of¬†style choice–which words you use (vocabulary), the sentence construction, what details are given prominence and which are ignored, how the voice of the character and/or author reflect in the prose and narrative choices, maybe the type of font you draft in.

I’ve thought a lot about the narrative choices I made in this novel. I’ll discuss those in a later blog post when the revision is further along.

And Now, Because This Post Is Getting Too Long…

Does all this¬†sound like a massive amount of stuff to keep in your head all at once? THAT’S COZ IT IS. o.O At least for me!

But! There is totally hope. Depending on your process, maybe you need to know everything before you start. Maybe you wing it as you go along. Maybe you get the bare bones down and flesh it out in revisions.

Whatever works for you is awesome. Don’t let someone else tell you that to succeed, you need to craft words The One True Way.¬†It’s bullshit because there¬†is no ‘one right way’¬† to write. ūüôā¬†

The beautiful thing about words is that they can change. You need a draft to be able to change them, sure, but this is not carving marble. You can swap and change and tweak and polish and discard and create as many words as you need, as you like, in order to create the story you must tell.

Words are malleable. Stories are mutationous little things, changing and evolving and sometimes developing superpowers to launch a comic & movie franchise.

You still need to have content, words on a page, in order to manipulate them to your whim.

I mean, hell, I’m drafting an additional 30k words or so because I realized they were missing from the initial draft. However, I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t write that initial 60k draft. IT’S LIKE A TIME LOOP.

The point is, naturally, draft the thing. You can make it shiny (or shinier) in post. But you need to have a draft on which to hang the revision decorations.

Be aware of your choices, because they reflect on everything.

PART TWO breaks down a scene in illustrated form to better explain how my visual-to-prose mental translation happens.

(Bonus! Faint, echoing wails from Merc as they wonder why the hell they decided to do illustrations in the first place… xD)

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