Dan Koboldt: Five Things I Learned Writing The Rogue Retrieval
Stage magician Quinn Bradley has one dream: to headline his own show on the Vegas Strip. And with talent scouts in the audience wowed by his latest performance, he knows he’s about to make the big-time. What he doesn’t expect is an offer to go on a quest to a place where magic is all too real.
That’s how he finds himself in Alissia, a world connected to ours by a secret portal owned by a powerful corporation. He’s after an employee who has gone rogue, and that’s the least of his problems. Alissia has true magicians…and the penalty for impersonating one is death. In a world where even a twelve-year-old could beat Quinn in a swordfight, it’s only a matter of time until the tricks up his sleeves run out.
HAVE A KICK-ASS PROTAGONIST
As a reader, nothing irks me more than a reluctant protagonist. I loved Lord of the Rings so hard, but I had trouble connecting with the hobbits. Not enough to go around calling them FILTHY HOBBITSES, but still. I’m an adventurer at heart. Bilbo and Frodo were not. It took the Nazgul or a dozen dwarves to get them out of the Shire. I admire how much they grew as characters, but I don’t think I’d be able to write such reluctant characters.
Besides, writing a kick-ass protagonist is SO much more fun. I’m not talking about a Mary Sue character who does everything perfectly without even trying, but it’s useful to have characters who bring actual skills to the table. The hero in my book is a Las Vegas stage magician. That’s not a career you can fake. He’s got quick fingers and charisma, which come in handy when you’re infiltrating a medieval world.
He’s not without flaws, and some of those flaws come back to bite him, but my hero keeps things interesting and loves to improvise. Hell, so do I. But he’s got more wits and charm than I do. I love how fiction lets me do that.
CRITIQUE PARTNERS ARE PRICELESS
When you write the first draft of a book, two things are likely to be true: (1) You’re alone most of the time, and (2) most of the writing sucks ass. So you go back and revise and polish it and spell-check. It’s better, but unless you’re Hemingway, it’s not even close to publication-ready.
And you’re not Hemingway. I know this because he follows me on Twitter.
The fact is that most of us are blind to certain aspects of our own work. As John Adamus wrote in a recent guest post here on Terribleminds, editing by someone who is not you matters! As authors, we’re too close to the project, so we don’t realize that we offered too much or too little backstory. We think all character actions are perfectly motivated and logical. After all, we created them, damn it!
A good critique partner points out these blind spots, and makes other good suggestions besides. No less than four critique partners read The Rogue Retrieval start to finish and gave me detailed feedback. Some are short-fiction specialists, others are novelists. One is a genre fiction expert, and another only reads contemporary YA. They pointed out things like hey, when your protagonist learns that his new employer has access to an entire other world, he should probably be freaking out more.
A diverse group of CPs may converge on certain issues with surprising precision, but often they complement each other. I have one who’s ruthless about nixing dialogue tags. I have another who will just comment, “I want more feels!” The more varied the feedback, the stronger the book can become.
It’s up to the author to decide which suggestions to take. Did I address every single critique for my book? No. But I nixed a shit-ton of dialogue tags.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS (OR YOUR EDITOR WILL)
My CPs weren’t the only people to critique The Rogue Retrieval. My literary agent, the fabulous Jennie Goloboy, offered feedback as well. I went along when she made me cut the prologue, but I balked when she told me I didn’t need my flashbacks to events that happened on the Earth side of the gateway (mine is a portal fantasy, in case you didn’t know).
No way– that shit’s IMPORTANT! I argued, just as I had when my CPs told me the same thing. My training montage was one of those. Who doesn’t love a training montage? I trimmed those scenes until they were lean and mean. I fought to keep them, and I won. I brought my agent and CPs around. It was sweet. Sweeter than a brownie topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup.
My editor, David Pomerico, acquired the book for Harper Voyager. The first thing he wrote in his edit letter was, “Those flashback scenes? I think they can be cut.” I’ll admit something: at first, this made we want to set the world on fire and eat popcorn while I watched it burn.
But then I got to thinking. This is someone who edits books FOR A LIVING, and he’s pretty damn good at it. He made a number of other suggestions that were spot-on. I’d whittled those flashbacks down as far as I could. It was keep-them-or-cut-them time.
The thing is, when you work with an editor, you have to pick your battles. The minute he brought this up, and I remembered what my agent and CPs had said. I finally conceded that this was a battle I probably shouldn’t win. So the flashbacks were gone, and I think the book was better for it.
COPY EDITS WILL TAKE YOU DOWN A PEG
When it comes to the technical aspects of writing, like spelling and grammar, I thought I was in good shape. Sure, I repeat the occasional word — a characteristic I blame on my distraction-filled life — but I thought I had the fundamentals down cold. Besides, by the time I’d finished my revisions with David, my manuscript had really been through the wringer. It wasn’t just clean, it was downright sparkling.
When it went off to the copy editors, I thought they might catch a mis-placed word or two. Maybe a fragment or cut-and-paste error that had happened during revisions, but that was about it. I can punctuate a damn sentence! See? I wasn’t intimidated by the copy editors; I knew my way around a semicolon.
Then the copyedited manuscript came back. It was a Word file with [suggested] corrections marked using Track Changes.
There were about 1,500 edits and comments. Fifteen hundred, in a 90,000 word manuscript. Perhaps you were not as strong as the Emperor thought.
Many of those were formatting changes, but there were typos, repeated words, and (gasp) punctuation errors. Apparently I don’t know how to use the hyphen nearly as well as I thought I did. They caught other logical issues, too, like the fact that I wrote “.45 mm” when I meant “.45 caliber.”
Copy editors, it turns out, are vital to the publishing process. They give a book the fine polish it needs to prevent hordes of ranting 1-star nitpickers.
EVERY BOOK IS A TEAM EFFORT
In the beginning, a manuscript represents the work of just one person: the author who sat down and put those words on the page. But it takes an entire village to get from there to putting that book on a shelf. Between the agent, editor, publicist, copy editors, and cover artists, a dozen people or more might touch the book between writing and publication.
You started this journey alone, just you and the blank page with the keyboard in between. By the end, you’ve got an entire team around you. Part of that means that the book isn’t entirely yours anymore. Everyone who helped you get this far has a little stake in it.
You hardly realize it until you start writing that acknowledgements page, and realize how many people there are to thank. That might be the most important thing I’ve learned while writing The Rogue Retrieval. It doesn’t just belong to me. It belongs to all of them, too.
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Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher who’s co-authored more than 60 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other journals. Every fall, he disappears into Missouri’s dense hardwood forests to pursue whitetail deer with bow and arrow. He lives with his wife and three children in St. Louis, where the deer take their revenge by eating all of the plants in his backyard.