Aaron Rosenberg: Five Things I Learned Writing Digging Deep

DANGER RUNS DEEP.

New York. City of millions. Home to the largest subway system in the world. Miles of tunnels stretch far underground, home themselves to a vast, displaced populace.

But now someone—or something—is slaughtering these homeless. Along with anyone else foolish enough to venture underground.

And whatever it is, it is slowly rising toward the surface.

Can a young empath, a finicky professor, a flighty linguist, a foreign hunter, and a lone cop stop the threat before it spills out into the rest of the city?

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Knowing Isn’t Enough

Digging Deep is set in New York City. My parents were both born and raised in New York City. I wasn’t, but I used to visit my grandparents here when I was growing up, my wife and I moved here many years ago, and I’ve lived and worked here ever since. Which means I know this city pretty well. More than well enough to write about it.

Or so I thought.

Turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about this city. Oh, sure, I can tell you where there’s a good Thai restaurant in Midtown (Topaz, 56th between Sixth and Seventh) or the nearest Citibank to my office (the one on 53rd and Fifth is marginally closer than the one on 53rd and Park) or which subway is the quickest way to World Trade (the E goes straight there but the 4 or 5 to Fulton is a lot faster, and only a block away). But I didn’t know which subway station was the deepest underground (that would be the 191st Street stop on the 1) or that NYC doesn’t have a SWAT unit (it’s called ESU here, Emergency Service Unit, instead).

These are all things I needed to know for my story, though (well, the subway info and the police info, not the bank or restaurant locations).

Which is why it’s crucial to do your research, even if you think you’re already an expert. Because all it takes is for one reader to go “Hey, wait, NYC doesn’t have SWAT!” and they’re thrown out of your story. Then they’ll tell their friends, “Eh, don’t bother, he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

And okay, maybe it isn’t critical to your story whether the cop is in SWAT or ESU. But it is critical to earn the reader’s trust. It only takes a few minutes of Google-fu to find the right answers, and a read-through by a few other locals to make sure you didn’t miss anything obvious.

Why not take that time to be sure you’ve got it right?

The Three Types

With the exception of the DuckBob novels, I tend to write in third-person limited (“Malana felt the pain and grief and terror washing over her again. She reached out toward the cops with her mind or soul or whatever it was that felt such things, using them to anchor her so that the wave couldn’t sweep her away.”). In Digging Deep, I switch between the main characters from chapter to chapter, so that each one gets proper attention. One of those characters, a rather uptight anthropology professor named Tidijin, refers to everyone by last name (“Ms. Tai” instead of “Malana”). My editor wanted me to change that—not in his dialogue, just in the narrative for his chapters—to keep it consistent.

One thing I’ve figured out over the years is that notes from editors and beta readers fall into three categories, which I call “D’oh,” “Eh,” and “Um”:

D’oh: These are the ones where you say, “Crap, why didn’t I catch that?” This is why you have beta readers and editors, though, because often you’re too close to your own manuscript to see the actual words on the page. You’re still seeing the glorious construct in your head, so you need someone who doesn’t have that to tell you “hey, you’ve got him shrugging on a heavy coat here but a page ago you said it was sweltering out.”

Eh: These are the comments where you think, “Yeah, okay, I guess.” It’s like when you’re getting ready to go out, hold up two shirts, and ask your wife, “Which one?” You don’t really have a preference. For that matter, if your wife said, “Why don’t you wear your green one instead?” you’d probably shrug and say, “Okay, sure.” You’re not sure these changes really enhance your manuscript, but they don’t hurt either, so why not make them?

Um: These are the ones where you scratch your head and wonder, “did I do such a bad job conveying what I meant, or did it just not work for you?” With a good editor, this becomes the start of a conversation, as you explain what you were trying to do and either figure out how to do it better or realize that there’s simply a disconnect between what you wanted and what they think should happen here, and decide where to go from there. The “Um’s” are the ones you fight for, but you need to be careful. Not every comment is an “Um,” and you need to pick your battles. Only fight for the ones that really matter to you because they really change the intent or the feel of your story.

In my case, I thought about it, talked to my editor, and finally said, “no, I’m not changing that. I think the readers are smart enough to remember that Malana’s last name is Tai, and changing the names in those chapters is necessary to convey Tidijin’s mindset.” And my editor said, “okay, fine, have it your way, it’s your book.”

Listen Closely and Learn to Parse

After I finished the first draft I sent Digging Deep out to several friends, most of whom have beta-read for me before. Two of them are fellow writers, two of them are avid readers. All four of them came back with really good feedback. Not all of it consistent, of course—one character annoyed the hell out of one beta-reader, for example, but the others didn’t have a problem with him at all. But all of it useful.

Of course, once I’d gotten their notes I had to collate them and compare. As a general rule of thumb, I divide comments into the three categories I mentioned above. Then I look at frequency. If all four readers gave me essentially the same “Eh” note, that’s reason enough to make that change. If more than one reader gives me the same “Um” note, I really need to take a hard look at whatever they thought needed to be changed, because clearly it’s not working for a number of people. But if only one person made an “Eh” comment, I probably wouldn’t bother. If only one made an “Um,” I queried the other readers, like I did about that one character, to see if it was really an isolated incident or if they’d also had problems with that element but hadn’t even realized it consciously.

It’s crucial to be able to make those distinctions between what’s affected several readers and thus is a real concern and what just tweaked one person the wrong way. If you were to make every change every beta-reader or editor suggested, you’d wind up with a horrible mish-mash—book by committee—and it wouldn’t be recognizable as your story anymore. But you don’t want to ignore feedback either—you are ultimately writing for an audience, and if a significant portion of that audience has a problem with some aspect of the story, you need to figure out why and address that.

I had several “D’oh”s on Digging Deep, thanks to my beta readers, and wound up rewriting a large chunk of it. The book was infinitely better as a result, which is why I make sure to send each story out to them and the others on my list every time.

Change Is Good

Some of the characters in Digging Deep are new, but four of them had shown up elsewhere:

Wendell “Mack” Macklemore, the founder of OCLT and its resident tech-guru, first appeared in my OCLT co-creator David Niall Wilson’s novel The Parting, and then showed up again in my first OCLT novel, Incursion;

R.C. Hayes, OCLT’s head honcho, first featured in my OCLT novella “Brought to Light” and then again in Incursion;

Isabella Ferrara, the Italian monster hunter, appeared in Incursion;

Malana Tai, the young empath from Tuvalu, was the main character of my short story “Clarity of Mind,” which was included in the anthology Apollo’s Daughters.

Mack and R.C. are only incidental in Digging Deep, but Malana is one of the main characters. This was the first time I was writing her as part of an ensemble, though—or, for that matter, the first time R.C. wasn’t taking center stage. That’s a very different dynamic for both of them, which meant I had to handle them differently.

I could have gotten myself all tied up in knots worrying about how writing them like this was going to affect them both. They’re both really good characters, and I really like them, both in the sense that I enjoy writing them and in the sense that I think they’re actually good people, and I didn’t want to screw either of them up.

But in the end I forced myself to relax about it. I had a story to tell, and they were in that story, and if I worried too much about bending them out of shape I’d wind up distorting my story instead.

So I just wrote it. Wrote them. And they were fine. In fact, they were better than fine. Seeing R.C. as just support cast him in a whole new light, illuminating facets of his character that weren’t evident when he was forced to carry the weight of the narrative. And forcing Malana into situations where she had to react to, and work with, other people, people with their own unique skills and traits but with the same mission she had acquired, allowed her to grow a great deal.

Trying to keep those characters who they were in the previous stories would have done them a serious disservice, and marred Digging Deep as a story as well. I’m glad I let them change and grow instead.

Nothing Wrong with the Occasional Deviation

I get flack from my friends sometimes for how rigid my writing process is. I come up with an idea, then write up a short pitch, then turn that into a full summary, then flesh that out into a proper chapter-by-chapter outline, then sit down and start writing. Once I start, I work through from beginning to end, start to finish, with all my focus on that one project alone.

Except when I don’t.

The first time I deviated from this was when I wrote the first DuckBob novel, No Small Bills. A friend had dared me to do something different, and I hadn’t written comedy before, so I decided “what the hell?” It was also the end of October, and I’d always meant to do NaNoWriMo properly (I’d written parallel to it a few times), but that meant no time to outline. So I wrote the entire novel by the seat of my pants, no outline at all, only a vague idea of where I was going, mainly just letting DuckBob bang into things along the way and seeing what happened next as a result. That worked out pretty well—at least, I’m happy with the book, and the people who’ve read it have told me it’s a ton of silly fun—but I’ve never been able to replicate that completely carefree, no outline approach.

Digging Deep started out the usual way, for me. Except that the process got interrupted. I wound up having to set the manuscript aside when it was only half done and take care of a few other projects with more urgent deadlines. A few months later, I was finally able to sit down, get back to Digging Deep, and finish the first draft. It was strange for me, though. I’d never taken a break halfway through a novel before. I had to reread Digging Deep from the beginning, of course, and that was odd too, because it had been enough time that I’d gained some distance. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. There were pieces I really liked, which was cool. And others where I thought, “What was I thinking?

In the end, I’d say Digging Deep was a lot stronger because I got that new perspective on it. Because I deviated from my norm.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to be taking a break in the middle of all my novels from now on. But maybe when something forces me out of my usual pattern I’ll see it as an opportunity instead of an irritation.

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Aaron Rosenberg is the author of the best-selling DuckBob SF comedy series, the Dread Remora space-opera series, the Relicant epic fantasy series with Steve Savile, and the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series with David Niall Wilson. Aaron’s tie-in work contains novels for Star Trek, Warhammer, World of WarCraft, Stargate: Atlantis, Shadowrun, Eureka, and more. He has written children’s books (including the original series STEM Squad and Pete and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles, the award-winning Bandslam: The Junior Novel, and the #1 best-selling 42: The Jackie Robinson Story), educational books on a variety of topics, and over seventy roleplaying games (such as the original games Asylum, Spookshow, and Chosen, work for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Pinnacle, and many others, and both the Origins Award-winning Gamemastering Secrets and the Gold ENnie-winning Lure of the Lich Lord). He is the co-creator of the ReDeus series, and a founding member of Crazy 8 Press. Aaron lives in New York with his family. His new novel Digging Deep is available now from Crossroad Press.

Aaron Rosenberg: Website | Twitter

Digging Deep: Amazon | Crossroad Press