Sunday, March 20, 2016

In the Hands of a Master - Having a Novel Edited by Stephen King's Editor

Visiting ThrillWriting is Michael Dow.

Michael spent 25+ years in
corporate America, in roles ranging from software developer and proposal writer to management consultant, Vice President, COO, and CEO. He has worked at companies ranging in size from start-up to over one billion dollars in revenue, and in locations across the globe, from Washington DC to Saudi Arabia. Dark Matters is his first work of fiction (though his competitors have been accusing him of writing fiction for decades). In 2012, he sold his share of a Washington DC-based management consulting firm, and turned his full-time attention to writing. 

When he did so, he created a $25,000 kick starter project for his book. He used the money he raised to hire professionals to advance his works. Importantly, he chose Patrick LoBrutto as his editor. Patrick LoBrutto worked in-house at Bantam and at half a dozen other major imprints. Over a career spanning three decades, he’s worked with Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Eric Van Lustbader, Walter Tevis, the Louis L’Amour Estate, Don Coldsmith, Jack Dann, F. Paul Wilson, Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Herbert, and hundreds of others.

Michael's manuscript was in the hands of a master.

Fiona - 
You decided to go Indie instead of going the traditionally published route, siting timing issues and the political scene of 2016. When you started this course to publication, you had to set up your own teams. I am particularly interested in how you chose your editor. Can you tell us about that process?

Michael - 
After a year of writing to develop my first manuscript, I was a bit at a loss as to next steps. I started asking friends and colleagues that were in the business - some authors, and some editors and publishers from the traditional publishing world. Given it was my debut novel and first work of fiction, they strongly recommended finding the best possible editor.

I went to a few conferences and started asking around. But in particular, I asked a college friend who also happened to be an editor at TOR to give me the name of the best sci-fi editor he knew. He gave me her name, and I hunted her down at a conference in DC. Not surprisingly, she had a long waiting list and couldn't fit into my time-frame. But she recommended someone else, and after several long discussions, that person (Patrick LoBrutto) became my editor.

Pat was amazing, and really added enormous value to the Dark Matters story. What I didn't realize was that the process would take 6+ months. That's how I found myself with only a few months left to publish before the 2016 election cycle.

Fiona -
Patrick LoBrutto has an astonishing curriculum vitae. Did that make you nervous?

Michael - 
It was a bit intimidating at first - his answers to a lot of my questions would start with something like, "Oh, I remember this time when <insert famous author here> said..."

But I also had my business background to fall back on, including public speaking and time in corporate boardrooms and in meetings with senior executives from around the world. So that helped.

In the end, Pat applied the fire-hose method to earning a master's degree in writing sci-fi, and in particular, to world building. I expected him to tell me I had a good story but my writing needed work. Instead, it was mostly the opposite. He liked my writing style but wanted to work on the story line and world building.

The Dark Matters story revolves around three central characters. Pat's first comment after reading the manuscript was to say, "You really need to develop this not-too-distant-future of extreme income inequality as your fourth main character. It's fascinating and has great potential." So of course, we did character development and other editing, but I bet two-thirds of our work was in world building.

Fiona - 
Take us through the process - you sent in your manuscript and then. . .

Michael - 
I sent him the manuscript. I think he spent a month or so with it, then we had a few phone calls, over several hours, to discuss what he liked and didn't like. I was definitely nervous on that first call; he was the first 'stranger' to have read it.

So I was surprised at how positive his initial comments were - so much so, in fact, that I forced him to tell me some things he didn't like. Which he did.

During those first calls, he told me that the writing itself was really good, and I just needed to flesh out this future world and some other plot and character development details. He gave me about a page of comments - things like, "the last half of this chapter doesn't work for me, and here are the reasons...". After those calls, I spend a few months incorporating his suggestions. And in a few cases, I even went out on a limb and ignored his comments. Then we went through that entire process again. He read it, and then we spoke and he gave me feedback.

The third and last iteration I thought was the most interesting. He challenged me by saying, "Go find 40 or 50 more fascinating facts about this world of 2075 that you've created. From technology to politics to entertainment, environment - whatever. Then try to insert them into your story, in as few words as possible. How many times can you add to the world view, plot development, and character development in less than 10 words?" (I'm paraphrasing here...)

That was a really interesting exercise, and ended with some of my favorite lines and moments of the book. For instance, when one of the characters casually comments, "You know, it's an oxymoron. Like Glacier National Park."

After those three rounds of edits, Pat did a full line-by-line edit on the manuscript itself. So when it was all said and done, the process took a bit over six months.

Fiona - 
How did it feel to ignore suggestions from Stephen King's editor? Did you have nightmares? Honestly, that's a hard thing to do to make decisions to hold to your voice or your vision of the story. Was this a gut reaction or did you try it the other way and it not work for you? How did you get to - no, I'm leaving that the way I wrote it?

It was hard, especially for a first-time writer of fiction. But Pat was also very good at telling me, "At the end of the day, it's your story."

(Of course, when he made the same comment two or three times, I began to realize which were suggestions and which were STRONG suggestions...)

Truth be told, of the hundreds of suggestions and comments he gave me, I probably ignored less than ten. Maybe even a LOT less than ten. But in those cases, I think there was a feeling in my gut that it was the right thing to do.

The best example is probably an entire chapter that Pat thought we could lose, with just a small bit of editing to add key info to other chapters. It revolved around one of the main characters telling a funny story from his past. I bet nine out of ten editors would have said to lose that chapter, and I totally saw Pat's perspective. But at the end of the day, that back story was important to me. Not just in what happened, but in how it changed our view of that character, and what he was all about.

Fiona - 
Name three things that you learned from the editing process that you'll take forward into your next WIP (work in progress).

Michael -
I'm 75,000+ words into Book 2 of the Dark Matters trilogy, so the lessons learned are being put to good use!

First, I would say that I spent too much time 'wordsmithing' in early drafts - only to have entire scenes cut. The perfect turn of a phrase isn't perfect if you cut the whole scene! So I've become more efficient in writing a first manuscript.

Second would be the world building process. I've gotten enormous positive feedback from readers in the way that I've built the world of Dark Matters, with frequent but often 'spartan' reference to aspects of that future. That's something I certainly took away from my work with Pat.

Third is to not be overly wedded to non-critical plot lines of the story. Some great scenes and twists in the first book came after the first draft was done. I have learned to be flexible in allowing those things to happen, and in letting my characters lead me through the story, as opposed to vice versa.

Fiona -
I believe that you were warned that here on ThrillWriting we have a traditional question: would you please tell us the story behind your favorite scar?

Michael -
Hmm, I only have one truly gruesome scar. I was a teenager, at a summer cottage in Northern Michigan. My brothers and I cut firewood by day so we could stay out late at the beach. I was using a bow saw (the kind with big, angry teeth…) to cut a large branch. The saw jumped from the branch to my left wrist, where I managed to cut right down to the bone. Not pretty. I vaguely recall climbing the 50+ stairs from the beach to the cottage and telling my parents, “Uh, I cut my arm” in as casual a manner as I could manage. Needless to say, mom dragged me to the car for a 30 minute ride to the hospital, where the number of stitches was only exceeded by the number of admonitions on the proper use of a bow saw.

Fiona - 
My very last question: though you used the great Patrick LoBrutto to do your final edits, did you also use beta readers to make sure you were on target?

Michael - 
Before I hired Pat, there were several beta readers that helped me smooth the manuscript and get it to a point where I was even ready to show it to someone like Pat. Three in particular: one was an avid reader of sci-fi and my particular genre; the second was someone that devours great literature, from Hemingway to Shakespeare; and the third, a professional editor that happens to be in my family. The three of them provided an enormous amount of help in not only improving the story and my own writing, but in giving me the confidence to take the story out into the cold, brutal world. 

Fiona - 

Readers, I know you're probably very curious to read Dark Matters for yourself and see Michael's points in action.

Dark Matters is a thought-provoking technothriller, set in a world fully polarized by the rift between the haves and the have-nots. It is a world of extraordinary new technologies–but also one of dwindling natural resources, and an ever-swelling human population. Dark Matters offers a unique, entertaining, and (mostly) fictional perspective on the topics of income inequality, the responsibilities of wealth, and our ultimate role in the universe. This dystopian adventure is the first book in the Dark Matters Trilogy. 

If you want to stay in touch with Michael:
Twitter: @darkmattersbook

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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