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Building the Novel: One Step at a Time

September 5, 2017

Tags: writing, novel, techinque

When I sat down to write my latest novel, A Fine Line (Chicago Arts Press, June 6, 2017), I wasnít embarking on a new project. The project was old. The protagonist, Sebastian Drake, was old, and the idea for his story had been in my mind for over five years. Over those years, Drake and I had shared some experiences, had learned about each other, and I knew he and his story had to be shared in novel form. He made me do it.

Since my earliest days as a writer, I have always been apprehensive about big and lengthy projects, the novel in particular. Itís been a fear Iíve had, that I would spend months or even years on a project, tens of thousands of words down onto the page, only to realize that the story wasnít any good. That would be a shame, and an unfortunate mismanagement of my time. I had to start small and build an idea over time, one successful step at a time. Iíve been writing that way ever since.

When a story idea is pressing on my mind, urging me to act upon it, I always try to explore and develop the idea quickly and with a minimal investment of time, as a poem or a short story or any shorter form that might work. After a couple hours or days, Iíll have something finished and concrete. If itís good, I can consider publishing the poem or short story. If itís very good, the story idea will not leave me alone; it will nag at me to continue. At that point, I might consider developing the story further as a screenplay or novel.

Thatís what happened with my protagonist, Sebastian Drake, and his story, A Fine Line. In April of 2010, Drake first appeared in a short story titled, Letting Go. The story was my first effort to find out who Sebastian Drake really was, and what he had the potential to become. I needed to know what he was doing at the time, and I also needed to get some insight into his past, his demons, his special skills, and his possibilities for the future. I sat him at a table in a coffee shop, across from a friend he hadnít seen in twenty-five years, and I let them talk. What happened in that coffee shop scenario changed my writing career forever.

When I finished the story two days later, I found that I had created more questions than Iíd answered. Actually, Iím not sure I answered many questions about Sebastian Drake at all. But I was intrigued by what happened in the story and I thought I might want to know more. Actually, I needed to know more.

Subsequently, in January of 2012, I wrote a twenty-two-page screen treatment based upon Letting Go, which outlined the screenplay I was going to write for a feature length film titled A Fine Line. Sebastian Drake was going for the big screen. It took me a year, many long days, and a severe amount of revision and cutting, and when I was finished with the screenplay, Drakeís story had taken another big step forward.

At each step along the wayóthe short story, the screen treatment, and the screenplayóthe character of Sebastian Drake had become more interesting, more challenged and conflicted, and I was compelled to find out what was next for him. He simply would not leave me alone. Iíve often said that as a writer, I donít always get to write the stories I necessarily want to write. More often than not, I write the stories I need to write. Something (or someone?) in my head nags at me until I finally give in and get to work, and ultimately, until the deed is done. Those ideas and characters that repeatedly pop into my mind direct me as to what I will work on next, and Sebastian Drake was on my mind a lot. He still is.

Two years ago, I embarked on a project to bring Sebastian Drake to his ultimate story platform: the novel. In a reverse adaptation process and using the screenplay as a basis (the same process that I used for my first novel, Recalled to Life), the newest chapter in the life of Sebastian Drake took form. His story was complete. The book was published in June and is now being shared with the world. I wonder where he will take me next.

Writing using this building-block process works for me, and when I finish a larger project, Iím comfortable that the story is good, because I have put it to the test at each step along the way. There are other benefits to the building-block process as well. Most important, with a smaller and completed project, I have a basis, a springboard, for moving forward. I also have another marketable product. Itís hard to become a successful writer based upon one book or project. With each new project I complete, whatever form it make take, Iím better able to substantiate my credibility as a writer.

I especially enjoy the process of adapting a screenplay into a novel. Iím a big movie fan, and I love the visual and dialogue-driven aspects of films. I find it beneficial to visualize the characters and story, like I might see it on the screen, and that visualization guides me as I develop a story. When I finish a screenplay, I have a solid plotline in place, along with all the characters and what they have to say, all in 120 pages or less, a reasonable investment of time and effort. Then, to develop the story as a novel, itís a matter of adding the necessary exposition and description, which is no easy feat, but Iím not starting from scratch. Iím building upon my past, completed work.

Are there any negative aspects to my building-block approach? I really have not experienced any, except for the fact that it might take me longer to get a bigger project, like a novel, completed and published. I can live with that fact, because in the end I know the project is well thought out, is more fully developed, and Iíve given the story the time necessary to come to life.

Writing A Fine Line was a rewarding process, but to make the book perfect and ready for publication, I knew I had to have a great book cover. It was essential that my cover be eye-catching and able to both fit in and set itself apart from other covers of published books from my heroes in the mystery genre. Thatís where Reedsy stepped in to help. I learned about Reedsy.com from a friend, and I quickly set up my profile and project on the site. Within days, I had five, interested book cover designers. The process was simple and efficient. I knew what I wanted, and it was easy for me to select Tom Sanderson (www.the-parish.com) to help me design the perfect cover. I live in the U.S. and Tom was in the U.K., but with Reedsy, geography is no barrier. Tom was great to work with. I told him that I wanted my book to ďfitĒ nicely on any bookstore table between the books of Lee Child and James Patterson. As you can see, Tom hit the mark.

Writer's Quick 5 - Kelly Weiss Interview with Author Dan Burns

June 27, 2017

Tags: A Fine Line, writing

Originally posted 6/26/17 at www.kellyfumikoweiss.com

KELLY WEISS:

This week itís an honor to bring you insights from author, screenwriter, and poet, Dan Burns. Dan is a fellow Chicago Writers Association member and his fourth published book (third work of fiction) A Fine Line was released on June 6, 2017 by Chicago Arts Press.

Another highlight I want to mention is a short film that Dan wrote, Out of Touch. The film is absolutely worth watching and was named an ďOfficial SelectionĒ for the Chicago International REEL Shorts Film Festival and for the Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival.

You can find information his books, screenplays, and MUCH more on his website.

Letís see what Dan has to sayÖ

KELLY: Question #1 - Where do you write and why do you write there?

DAN: Every morning, I walk from my home to my office in downtown La Grange. I have this great, small office above a restaurant, like one of those private eye offices in old noir movies, that provides the quiet and secluded environment I need to be productive. When I'm at home, there are too many distractions and I have no self-discipline, so having a place to get away and get my work done is a necessity. In my office, I'm surrounded by my books and memories of my writing mentors and have no distractions. No phone. No Internet. Just writing. If you're interested, you can check out this short video of my office environment.

KELLY: Question #2 - What is unique about writing for your particular genre?

DAN: For me, what is unique is that I'm not locked into a particular genre. I love the boundless flexibility of being able to write in a variety of forms and genres. My first novel was a contemporary family drama. My second book was a collection of short fiction that really pushed the boundaries of genre. My newest novel is a Chicago mystery. My hope is that every story I write pushes me out of my comfort zone to try and explore something different. Writing a mystery novel was my most challenging project to date. Research was a necessity to make the story believable, and I spent an extensive amount of time understanding Chicago politics and police procedure. My protagonist, Sebastian Drake is an expert marksman, and I had to spend dozens of hours at the gun range, shooting his gun, to fully understand what was possible. Plot also played a big role in my mystery novel, more so than my other stories. Nothing can be left out and every question must be answered. The writing process was quite fun and extremely challenging at the same time.

KELLY: Question #3 - What are some of your grammar or punctuation pet peeves?

DAN: What drives me nuts are all the grammar and punctuation errors that I'm guilty of, and my first drafts are laced with them. The editing process is critical to get my story ready to publish, and I'm fortunate to have a number of editors and trusted readers who allow me to get the story down onto the page and then help me to make it perfect. I find that I just get too close to my work, so close that I can't see the errors. I can edit and revise a story a dozen times, and then my editors and readers help me to realize that I'm not a very good editor. But I'm learning. I find that the editing process is the most important step in helping me to become a better writer.

I find that I'll often get stuck on a word, maybe like it too much, and then use it too often throughout a story. I have to cut the repeat offenders. Adverbs also seem to come easily (you see!) as I'm writing, and I have to go back through and search for all the "ly" words and cut them all. Adverbs seldom add value to the sentence. I don't think much of the word "got" and try to eliminate it from my writing. For dialogue attribution, I use "said" and "asked," nothing else, and I try not to use them only when necessary to maintain flow and understanding. Contractions and hyphenated words also seem to find their way into my stories, and I have to go back and review each one to make sure they're correct and appropriate. Spelling is a killer for the reader's flow of the story, so spell-check and people-check are critical steps. The most valuable aspect of the editing process for a book is the Advance Reading Copy. After I revise a manuscript a dozen times and go through several iterations of developmental editing and copyediting, it's important to print the book and get it into the hands of my trusted readers. They are the ones who let me know if it's ready to officially go out into the world.

KELLY: Question #4 - At what point in your writing process do you start to bring other people in to review your work?

DAN: I bring people into the process when the story is finished. Often, there are so many potential roadblocks for completing the story, that I have to focus on that single goal. For me, "finished" is flushing out an idea fully and getting the words out of my head and the story down onto the page. Afterward, I let the story sit for a month before going through and revising to the best of my ability. Then it's time for a fresh look from different eyes and perspectives, from people I trust to tell me honestly about how to improve the story.

KELLY: Question #5 - What advice would you give to a new writer about the writing process?

DAN: Sit down and write, as often and as much as you can. Many people talk about being a writer, but only by actually getting the words down onto the page can you actually be a writer. Read books by authors who you admire and who have been successful writing the stories you want to write. Develop your idea, write your story, and don't stop until you're finished. Don't edit or revise until the story is written, for those activities can develop into insurmountable distractions and roadblocks. Better to have a completed story that you can improve than to have an idea that you never fully act upon that fades away. And keep a journal of all your ideas. If I don't write down my ideas, they tend to vanish, never to return again, and that's a darn shame.

KELLY: Thank you Dan for these incredible answers. I also keep a journal of story ideas! I also love the advice, ďDevelop your idea, write your story, and don't stop until you're finished. Don't edit or revise until the story is written, for those activities can develop into insurmountable distractions and roadblocks.Ē Iím guilty of this all the time, pouring over a passage over and over again when I should move on. Very good to keep in mind!

Please learn more about Dan and his books and works on his website. More importantly, go out and buy his new book A Fine Line. I have my copy! You can also follow him on Facebook, on Twitter, or you can subscribe to his YouTube channel.

DAN: Thanks, Kelly.

The Writer's Handful

May 5, 2014

Tags: bad workshop advice, giraffes, the School of Prolific Writers, writing

Many thanks to acclaimed author, blogger, and educator, Patricia Ann McNair, for allowing me the opportunity to participate in her "Writer's Handful" discussion. Learn more at www.PatriciaAnnMcNair.com.

May 5, 2014

Questions:

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

I did not write today, and it kills me to say so. I just released my new short story collection, and I am in the throes of a full-on, all-out publicity push. So, I set aside the day to promote my book, make some contacts, and set up some future publicity events. I certainly realize the importance of the publicity and promotion aspect of a writing career, but Iíd much rather be in my office, writing. Only when I am getting the words down onto the page do I really feel a sense of accomplishment. Itís a good thing that Iíll be back at it tomorrow. Iím in the process of revising my next novel, A Fine Line, which is a crime mystery thatís set in Chicago, and my year-end deadline is fast approaching.


What's the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

Itís hard for me to think back that far. However, I can remember the first ďrealĒ short story I wrote after I made the decision to purse writing as a career. I wrote the first draft of the story, No Turning Back, in August of 2006. In coming up with the idea for the story, I tried to think about what might be one of the most difficult acts a person might be forced to do in life, and then, what would it be like if the person had to do it twice?

I was 43 years old at the time and I remember how excited I was after completing the draft. I read the story and revised it at least a dozen times and I really liked it. I also remember the criticism I received after sharing the story in a writing workshop. Instead of providing guidance on how to improve the story, the instructor suggested that I change the story, and quite drastically. I remember she said, ďIf it were me, I would change the plot altogether and . . .Ē

Well, needless to say, I didnít feel very good after that discussion. I thought about the instructorís comments and I re-read the story many, many times. In the end, I decided that I liked the story just the way I wrote it. I can live with that decision. It may not be the best story I ever wrote, but itís important to me in that it really defines the beginning of my writing career. Iím happy to say that the story is included in my new short story collectionówhich also carries the title, No Turning Backóthat was just released on April 29, 2014.


What are you reading right now?

I tend to have a number of different books going at the same time, and Iím juggling a bit right now. Iím reading The Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. Iím also reading Brown Dog, the new collection of novellas by Jim Harrison. Lastly, Iím reading the new novel, Lost in the Ivy, by my friend and fellow Chicago Writers Association member, Randy Richardson. Each of the books is so very different, and I like switching back-and-forth between them based upon how Iím feeling on a given day. Diversityóitís good for me.


What's the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

I am a student of The School of Prolific Writers. I find that I am able to learn the most from those writers who have come before me and who have produced the most successfully published stories. You can take your pick of your favorites and there are a lot of them, but they will all suggest the same advice: get the words down onto the page.

We can talk about writing, plan for it, and study for it, but in the end, the only way to become a successful writer is to actually sit down and write.


If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because...

Iím going to stick my neck out (did I really say that?) and say that my writing is most like a giraffe. I donít think I necessarily do it intentionally, but sometimes when I am finished with a story, it seems that what Iíve written ends up being a bit outside of my comfort zone, that Iíve stretched out and reached beyond what I thought I might do as a writer. As a result, I might question myself on occasion. What will someone think of what Iíve written?

I write about ideas, topics, and things that interest me and that come to me based upon everything that Iíve crammed into my head over the years. I write what I feel I am supposed to write. In the end, itís important for me to just go with it, to finish the story and share it. Every writer has likely encountered the situation where he or she has questioned the validity of his or her writing. I know I have done it, and I think itís healthy. Itís good to evaluate yourself and your writing. However, you have to push your own boundaries. You canít let what anyone says, or what you think someone may say, stop you. You have to keep sticking your neck out.