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A Writing Challenge

This blog post is coming to you extremely late. I’d have skipped it altogether, but I left you hanging last Tuesday and I really need to finish laying this foundation, because tomorrow we’re going to build on it.

For what it’s worth: I’ve got a great excuse. I’ve just been so busy with the final review and publication of the very exciting book we’re going to be talking about below. But let’s go ahead and talk about it, huh?

Extraordinary Complexity

As I said, last Tuesday I introduced my friend and fellow writer Joshua Unruh, and told you a little bit about my attempts to help him out as a writing coach. I ended the story when he’d just asked me for advice on a new story idea that blended pulp noir story stylings, ancient English linguistics, and deep Norse myth in a package that would make a publishing company sales department wail and gnash their teeth.

And I told him as much. I told him the story sounded too complicated and, ultimately, really difficult to sell. More than that, I recognized a trend.

  • He’d wanted to write a supernatural/urban fantasy series, and decided to make it a viable Western (with all the trappings), too (Hell Bent for Leather).
  • He’d wanted to write a noir mystery, and decided to make it steampunk, too. (Copper Lincoln, Robot Detective).
  • He’d wanted to write a dark fantasy, and decided to make it classically noir, thematically postmodern, and narratively archaic, too (Mythreaver).

I told him my best advice, as his writing coach, was to stop making things so hard on himself. I couldn’t get away with accusing someone of being too ambitious (that’s a defining character tag of mine), but every project he came up with was really complex.

It was all good. I can’t wait to read finished versions of all three of those novels. But I wanted to see what he could do with something simple and straightforward. Just a fun little adventure in a recognizable category. As I’ve said recently, I think the categorical focus of Taming Fire is a lot of reason it was able to find success (while my most complex stories, the Ghost Targets books, are languishing).

The Baseline Challenge

So I challenged him to write a baseline novel. I said it would be a good opportunity for me to see where he was as a storyteller writing something that wasn’t constantly fighting back against him. It would also give him an opportunity to get his own foothold in the marketplace (like the one Taming Fire has given me), and once he was established he could do all the complex, ambitious projects his heart desired.

He took the challenge, and doubled-down with the old NaNoWriMo challenge, and last November he wrote a young-adult spy-fi adventure called TEEN Agents in The Plundered Parent Protocol. In one fell stroke, he demonstrated my special genius as a writing coach.

Fine, fine! What he really did was demonstrate his special genius as a storyteller. The novel perfectly served its purpose. “Young-adult spy-fi” is still playing things a little bit complicated, but at least it was a genre I could reasonably discuss. Moreover, it was a new enough playground for Joshua that he was willing to be a little more open to input.

Writing by Committee

Oh, and he got input. Last December Courtney played the role of Acquisitions Editor while I was still frantically putting the finishing touches on The Dragonswarm. She gave him feedback on every page.

Then he handed the story off to several moms of young teens and got direct reader responses. Then our editing intern Allison started working through the story, pointing out all the awkward edges (and rightly changing “that” to “who” nine times out of ten). And then at last I waded in.

I told him to cut the prologue. I told him to do more to introduce his characters, and then to make those introductions more interesting. I told him to stop building monstrous, convoluted sentences (and showed him over and over and over again exactly which sentences were monstrous and why they were convoluted).

We worked on dialogue attribution and smooth scene transitions. I pointed out places where he used good cinematic techniques that made bad prose.  I questioned his fundamental understanding of physics (although I wasn’t always right on those issues).

And, Haven’s name, we found our fair share of typos. Yeesh.

Making it Better

We did a lot of work to turn Joshua’s NaNoWriMo baseline novel into something we’d be proud to publish. But underneath all that work lay two absolutely critical points:

Solid Foundation

The story itself was good.

The technique needed work, but the story arc, the characters, the motivation…those were all dead on.

That was our foundation, and even with all the cracks and flaws on the surface, the foundation was solid.

Hard Work

And Joshua did the work.

If you glance back up at my slanderous section above, you’ll see that I pointed out a whole lot of problems. I didn’t fix them. I didn’t rewrite the novel for him. I said, “Here’s what’s wrong, and here’s why I think it’s wrong, and you need to make it better.”

And every time I did that, he came back with something really impressive. In the end, I told him, I would much prefer to get a good book and watch a writer respond to criticism and make it great, than to receive a book that’s utterly perfect in the first place.

That’s my position as a writing coach, because it keeps me in business. It’s also my position as a publisher, because it means I’ve got a much better idea what Joshua will be capable of next time.

If this book is successful, it won’t be a mystery how he managed to write something good. I’ll pat myself on the back (and all our editors, of course), and whatever he serves up next time, I’ll know we can make it something we can all be proud of.

TEEN Agents in The Plundered Parent Protocol

In this case, there’s no question. This novel is awesome. It’s fun, it’s imaginative, and it’s just plain smooth. You’ll have to check it out.

It’ll officially be releasing for Kindle tomorrow (Tuesday, January 31), and for the first 24 hours it’ll be available free. But just in case you forget between now and then, you can come back here tomorrow and here a little bit about the novel from the man himself.

One Response to “A Writing Challenge”

  1. Heather says:

    Awesome! We can hardly wait!