Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: XK9 Rex

BFFs Lynette M. Burrows and Jan S. Gephardt.

A Pair of BFFs Talk about Writing

By Jan S. Gephardt and Lynette M. Burrows

A note from Jan to her readers: My longtime friend Lynette M. Burrows and I belong to some of the same writers’ groups, and first met through the Kansas City Science Fiction & Fantasy Society (KaCSFFS). We bonded over (among other things) our interest in writing, and we’ve been friends literally for decades. We regularly check in with each other to “talk shop” or be each others’ cheerleaders. Earlier this summer, I suggested we co-write a post in which we talk about writing, our personal writing journeys, and our books. This post is the result of that conversation.

Before we Talk about Writing, Who is Lynette M. Burrows?

Covers for “My Soul to Keep” and “Fellowship,” the two books so far published in the Fellowship Dystopia.”
From Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though that might be fun! She writes thrilling science fiction for readers who love compelling characters with heroic hearts.

The White Box Stories, which she co-wrote with Rob Chilson, appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. My Soul to Keep and the series companion novel, Fellowship, are available at most online bookstores. Book two, If I Should Die, will be published in 2022.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.

Who is Jan S. Gephardt?

Covers for “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
Covers courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing. Cover artwork, L-R © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk, © 2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Jan S. Gephardt commutes daily between her Kansas City metro home in the USA and Rana Station, a habitat space station that’s a very long way from Earth and several hundred years in the future.

She and her sister G. S. Norwood are the founders and co-owners of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Her XK9 “Bones” Trilogy and its prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear, feature a pack of super-smart, bio-engineered police dogs called XK9s. They struggle to establish themselves as full citizens of the space station where they live, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys.

The Other Side of Fear tells how the XK9s and their humans found each other. What’s Bred in the Bone begins the tale of XK9 Rex, a dog who thinks too much and then acts on his thoughts. Even after his human partner Charlie is injured and out of the picture. A Bone to Pick was just released last month. In it, Rex and the Pack have new and different problems, even before Rex’s enemy from the past comes gunning for him. Jan’s now working hard on Bone of Contention, in which the dogs must prove to a critical panel of judges that they are truly sapient, before the Transmondians manage to exterminate their kind completely.

Now, let’s Talk about Writing!

Lynette and I developed a list of questions, then each of us answered them. The rest of this post continues in a Q&A format. We hope you’ll enjoy this “conversation,” in which a pair of BFFs talk about writing!

What’s your most recently- or imminently-to-be-published title? What’s it about, and when/how/where can readers find it?

LYNETTE

This banner for “Fellowship” has a photo of a person in a snowy forest and the words, “The AZRAEL are real. The Cleaners are coming. Run, Ian, run!”
Banner and cover for Fellowship courtesy of Lynette M. Burrows on Twitter.

Fellowship, a companion novel to the Fellowship Dystopia, series, is my most recently published title.

Two years before Miranda begins her journey, tragedy shatters a high school senior’s dreams of being a journalist when his parents are Taken by the Angels of Death. Hunted by government agents, Ian and his younger siblings run for their lives. He leads them to the Appalachian Mountains. He knows how to survive, but resources are scarce. The mountains are unforgiving. And winter is in the air. If they are to survive, Ian and his siblings need help. But who can he trust?

I had intended to write a short story in the same world as My Soul to Keep, Book One in the Fellowship Dystopia, series. When Ian came alive on the page, Fellowship, a longer story about trust, was born. Read how, while writing this novel, My Story Went to the Dogs.

Fellowship is available at most online bookstores.

JAN

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick is widely available in a variety of formats. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

My most recently-published novel is A Bone to Pick, Book Two of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It should now be widely available in a variety of formats.

The protagonist of the whole Trilogy is XK9 Rex, who becomes recognized on Rana Station as the Leader of the Pack for the Orangeboro XK9s. But an enemy from his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Meanwhile, his human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. Injured and out of the action for most of Book One, Charlie now works to recover from  his catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

What is your current work-in-progress, and how does it fit into the rest of your oeuvre?

LYNETTE

I’m finishing up edits of the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia, series titled If I Should Die. It takes place in the same world as My Soul to Keep and picks up Miranda’s story.

Two years ago, former rebel soldier, Miranda Clarke, vowed she would never pick up her gun again. Vowed to help instead of kill. She created the Freedom Waterways and rescued fugitives from the Fellowship’s tyranny. With every rescue, she heard about nightmarish suffering and loss, and her dream of peace grew more and more desperate.

Until the day she received two simultaneous requests: a loved one on the Fellowship side wanted her help to bring peace to the nation, while a loved one on the rebel side would surely die without her help. No matter which choice she made, it would cost her. Dearly.

In a deadly battle between her dreams and loved ones, will she stick to her peaceful principles, or risk everything to settle the score?

JAN

I’ve recently started two projects. One is a short story tentatively titled Beautiful New Year, It’s set on Rana Station and features Rex’s partner Charlie, before he and Rex teamed up.

I’m also at work on the third novel in the Trilogy, Bone of Contention. Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that blows up spaceships in the Black Void.

But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny any wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves. Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

How did this series start? What themes did you know from the beginning that you wanted to address, and why? Have you been startled by other themes or ideas that developed in the course of writing?

LYNETTE

This has been one of those stories that cooked for a very long time. I knew I wanted to create a heroine who had survived abuse and ultimately makes the choice to thrive. Exploring abuse of politics, power, and people was a logical offshoot of my original idea.

The thing that startled me the most was that I would think I’d written a brilliant scene about abuse and violence until a first reader started questioning me about the scene. The way I’d written it, the abuse and violence were always off stage.

It took a long time for me to write more active and direct scenes.

JAN

This series started with a “what if?” I’ve been a dog-lover for a long time, and I’d been wanting to write a mystery set in a science fictional milieu. Reading about police K-9s used for scent tracking, I found a quote from an investigator: “It’s not like we can put the dog on the witness stand and ask him what he smelled.”

“Oho!” I thought. “But what if we could?” Science fiction is full of uplifted animals. It was a pretty short intuitive leap from there to Rex and the Pack.

This meme image shows a German Shepherd with its paw on a Bible held by a police officer, in what looks like a courtroom. It says, “ his look of determination: ‘I saw, heard, and smelled what you did. You’re going down, David!’”
Meme image courtesy of ImgFlip.

And when we talk about writing themes, my stories always seem to have an internal “compass.” One way or another, they end up being about interactions between people of different cultures, as seen through a lens of equity and social justice.

How did your book change from the first day of writing to your last day of the final draft?

LYNETTE

I started writing My Soul to Keep as a fantasy with dragons and a Cinderella story arc, which stalled out pretty quickly.

Then I tried setting the story in the future, but it smacked too much of The Handmaid’s Tale. And the writing stalled out again.

What I needed was a world that allowed me to explore the theme of thriving despite abuse. My husband suggested I write in the style of a 1950s Noir Mystery. So I explored that option, knowing this was a character growth story, not a murder mystery.

From there, it morphed into an alternate history. Once I had the alternate history idea, it was a small step to using the Isolationist movement of the 1920s and ’30s to turn America into an isolated religious tyranny.

JAN

It took me a while to research, think, write through, and develop the science fictional elements. I wasn’t sure at first how smart to make the dogs, or how they’d communicate with their humans.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that my first concept for Rana Station wouldn’t actually work, for a lot of valid reasons. So I surveyed space habitat designs that have been proposed by sf writers and actual space scientists. Then I mixed, matched, and came up with my own (pardon the pun) spin on their ideas. After that, I had fun extrapolating how the inhabitants would design and use the interior.

What is your writing practice? Do you have a ritual to start your day? What time of day? How many hours, and how many days a week? How do you write (machine, dictate, hand write)?

LYNETTE

When I first started writing, I had a ritual. I’d light a candle or incense and start music and then do writing exercises in a journal. Those, I usually hand wrote. Then I’d re-read the manuscript pages I had written the day before. Finally, I’d put a blank sheet of paper in my IBM Selectric typewriter and re-type those pages, revising as I went. Then I wrote the next scene.

I had an infant when I started writing, so I wrote during his naps. Later, I wrote while he was in preschool (about two hours twice a week), and while he was in school.

Now, my dogs and I go to my office after breakfast. I might turn on some instrumental music or I might write in silence. I might review the latest pages. Just as often, I start where I left off. I write for at least two hours, but if the words are flowing, I will write for ten hours or more. I write six days a week with rare exceptions.

An adorable photo of Lynette’s Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo.
Yorkshire Terriers Neo and Gizmo in Lynette’s office, courtesy of Lynette’s Facebook Author Page.

JAN

I’ve never particularly made a ritual of creating a setting in which to write, but I do need to self-isolate. Attempts to write in a coffee shop or library result in people-watching instead. I write best between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. when there are no interruptions, and I write every day, if possible.

Let’s talk about writing tools. I started with crayons on cheap paper when I was four, but I’ve “traded up” a few times since then. I wrote my first complete, novel-length manuscript in 1976-78 on an Underwood manual typewriter. Later I went through two electric typewriters, a Kaypro computer (using WordStar) in the late 1980s, a succession of other PCs, and several Macs. I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro.

For early drafts I use Scrivener. It creates a separate file for each section. That makes it easy to switch their order and keep an eye on word-count. Closer-to-final drafts get copied over into MS Word. It creates a .docx file that’s easy to share for critique, print, or import into Vellum when it’s time to publish.

More specific to this book—do you write with music, tv or radio or silence? Is there a specific soundtrack you used for your book?

LYNETTE

When I started writing My Soul to Keep, I developed a specific soundtrack that I played on repeat. These days, about half the time I write in silence and the other half I’ll write with that soundtrack running or instrumental music that provides the perfect mood for the scene I’m writing. Music from epic movie battle scenes works well for me.

JAN

Sometimes I can write to instrumental music, or to songs with lyrics in a language I don’t speak. I love Two Steps From Hell and movie or show soundtracks. Current favorites include selections from The Mandalorian, as well as Raya and the Last Dragon and Captain Marvel. I grew up listening to Classical music and still enjoy it, particularly when it’s played by my sister’s band, The Dallas Winds.

However, when I’m trying to compose finished work I go silent. I need to listen to the internal cadence of the words I’m polishing, and music drowns that out.

What did you research the most? Did any of your research surprise you?

LYNETTE

What I researched the most is hard to say. It might be a three-way tie between the location and the history of the American Isolationist and the Eugenics movements.

My research constantly surprises me. I start off researching some small piece of history I recall and, in the process of that research, find a snippet that leads somewhere interesting. One of those surprises that became a large piece of My Soul to Keep was the eugenics programs that existed in the U.S.A. prior to World War II. You can read about the Better Baby Contests and the Eugenics movements on my blog.

JAN

I’ve done deep dives into both dog cognition and space habitat design. Like Lynette, I turned both of those inquiries into blog posts. My “Dog Cognition” series explored how much normal dogs understand, surprising canine word comprehension, and canine emotions. The “DIY Space Station” series offered an overview, then specifically looked at Dyson Spheres, Bernal Spheres, O’Neill Cylinders, and the Stanford Torus.

Not surprisingly, I needed to do lots of research into police standards, culture, practices and procedure—and wow, did that ever put me on the cutting edge of current events last year! You’ll find echoes of that research in the way police operate on Rana Station.

I think some of my most surprising research started when I was searching for sources of protein that one could sustainably produce in a space-based habitat. That led me to cultured milk, eggs, and meat and branched over into some of the ideas that underpin the speculative medical technology my characters call “re-gen therapy.”

When you started fleshing out your ideas for the book, did you start with plot, character, location, or something else?

LYNETTE

I almost always start with one or more characters. For me, character starts with a voice or an attitude that I find interesting. Plot and theme arise out of the characters’ needs and wants. And I choose locations because of real-life history, the mood I want to evoke, or an event that needs to happen. I also created locations that are totally fictional, but they provide an element that strengthens the theme or plot.

JAN

My whole series started with the idea of a dog who could testify in court. Stories can start literally anywhere. But it’s not really a story until there’s a character with a problem.

A character wants something, but they’re blocked from getting what they want. The character, their desire, and their obstacle(s) are the initial setup. Without those essential elements you can’t build a plot, although you can (and probably will) imagine snippets of action that may eventually become part of the plot.

Would You Like to Ask Us Other Questions?

The plan is for both of us to publish this as a post on our blog. We thought some of you might become interested in a new writer, or encounter a new idea. We hope you’ve enjoyed our talk about writing our stories.

If you thought of questions we didn’t ask, please ask them below in the comments! We’ll happily continue the conversation, because both of us love to talk about writing.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The banner with the covers from My Soul to Keep and Fellowship and the banner for Fellowship are from Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations. And the adorable photo of her Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo, is © 2019 by Lynette M. Burrows

The banner with the three XK9 covers and the one for A Bone to Pick are both from Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Cover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick is © 2019 and 2020 respectively, both by Jody A. Lee. The meme with the K-9 on the witness stand is courtesy of ImgFlip.

In the header image, the photo of Lynette M. Burrows is courtesy of her website. The photo of Jan S. Gephardt is © 2017 by Colette Waters Photography. Gosh. We look nothing alike, do we? Many thanks to all!

A Bone to Pick by Jan S. Gephardt

Almost There

By Jan S. Gephardt

To quote Red Leader Garven Dreis, we’re almost there!

In this case, I mean we’re almost to the point where A Bone to Pick is available and ready to read. Almost. We’re close enough that I can at last announce a presale offer on Amazon, in both the US and the UK.

I’m also almost to the point where Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are ready to go out as review copies. I’ll send them to my Street Team and other selected people (learn more about that process—and how to get one—when you subscribe to my newsletter).

The official release date is September 15, 2021. Take advantage of the presale offer to get it first thing on Release Day, and also to get it at an almost-half-off discount!

"A Bone to Pick.”
Pre-order A Bone to Pick as a Kindle ebook for a significant discount. Cover art © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

What is A Bone to Pick? It’s the way-too-long-in-coming second novel in my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s it about? Here’s a book description.

XK9 Rex is a dog who knows too much.

Now his past is gunning for him.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. So smart they’re considered uplifted sapient beings on Rana Habitat Space Station. Rex may be the Leader of the Pack on Rana, but his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Rex takes pains to evade his old enemy. His human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. He works to recover from catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

Can Rex and Charlie confront their pasts and secure their futures? Or will events force them to sacrifice everything?

“The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick.”
Cover art for The Other Side of Fear, a prequel novella about the XK9s, is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Covers for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are © 2019 and © 2020 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Almost There

I’m hopeful that I have made A Bone to Pick complete enough within itself that it will stand alone. Early returns from my Brain Trust look good.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I enjoyed interweaving a romantic subplot (and making things tough for the would-be lovers). The Izgubil investigation continues, of course, with new twists and revelations. The XK9s face enemies both old and new – and the complexities that come with taking on the responsibilities of sapient beings begin to baffle and bemuse them.

I’ve tried to make this book as entertaining as possible. Some readers may be pleased that I reached gender-parity with the point-of-view (POV) characters in this book. In What’s Bred in the Bone there were three: Rex, Charlie, and Shady. Kinda heavy on the guys. We get to ride along in the head of a new, fourth POV this time, with Hildie’s point of view. I hope you’ll agree that she adds a new dimension.

I could say more, but I’ve hinted at enough spoilers already.

I’ve poured a lot of energy and time into this project, as readers of last week’s post may have discerned. I’m excited for you to read it. But it’s the second book in a trilogy. A reader undoubtedly will get more out of A Bone to Pick, if they read the first book, What’s Bred in the Bone, first. If you haven’t yet read it, here’s your chance!

“What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Published in a number of formats, What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available from a variety of booksellers. Cover art is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

XK9 Rex is a dog who thinks too much

. . . and it could get him killed.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools, both smart and verbal. But there’s smart . . . and then there’s sapient. In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack.

Sold to a police department on an in-system space station, Rex trails a pair of murder suspects. But his rookie mistake in microgravity, plus a catastrophic spaceship explosion, sideline both Rex and his human partner, Charlie.

But Rex’s keen senses picked up a vital clue about the exploded ship. He knows he must get the humans to listen to him somehow, even if it means breaking protocol. He doesn’t realize that protocol hides an ugly truth: XK9s are more than forensic tools with cold noses and wagging tails. When Rex takes an independent hike to HQ, he blows open an international conspiracy that could destabilize the entire system . . . and place all XK9s everywhere in mortal peril.

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no better time than the present to get your copy. But maybe you’d like to know more about the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s the idea behind it? Here’s the trilogy’s description.

Can a pack of uplifted police dogs find a home among the stars?

Or will their creators hound them to extinction?

The XK9s are super-smart dogs, bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But do smart and verbal equal sapient? In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack of canine super-sleuths.

When Rex, his Pack, and their human allies on Rana Habitat Space Station tackle a grisly mass-murder case, more than an interstellar pleasure ship blows wide open. Now the people behind the XK9 Project, and their sponsors in the system-dominating Transmondian government, are desperate. They’ll do all they can to erase the evidence of their international conspiracy, before inspectors from the powerful Alliance of the Peoples can investigate.

Will Rex and his Pack run down the perps and defend their sapience claim? Or will their enemies destroy them?

four running XK9s.
XK9s Tuxedo, Victor, Razor, and Rex are headed somewhere in a hurry! Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Almost There” is Relative

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited to have a finished manuscript of A Bone to Pick. It’s literally the labor of years. But it took fewer years by far than What’s Bred in the Bone. And I really, really hope that Bone of Contention will be ready even sooner than that.

So, then. When do we get Book Three? Well, I’m working on it now. I don’t have a cover yet, but I do have a title, Bone of Contention. And I have an ever-more-detailed concept.

How close am I? Well, I have an established world and characters. Also a lot of ideas, a handful of early-draft scenes, and a partial outline.

And a book description! Can’t forget the book description. It may not be the final book description. But more experienced hands than me have advised that it’s a good practice to write a book description as part of starting a novel project. That way, when inevitable conundrums arise when the author’s drafting the novel, the book description can help keep things on track.

XK9 Rex is a dog who dreams too big.

Now he may lose everything.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But they’re more than super-smart forensic tools with cold, wet noses and wagging tails. Their human allies on Rana Station claim the XK9s are sapient beings.

Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that explodes spaceships in the Black Void of space—killing all the souls onboard.

Mass murder in the Black Void is a hideous crime. But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all.

Inspectors from the Alliance of the Peoples are headed to Rana, to test the XK9s’ sapience claim. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves.

Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

Updates to “Almost There”

This post contains a lot more information than I usually give on “Artdog Adventures” or even “The Weird Blog,” about my projects-in-progress. Those blogs generally cover more wide-ranging topics. (These blogs have featured the same material in recent months, presented simultaneously. Both my sister and I found ourselves stretched too thin to write multiple blog posts each week and cover all the other things we needed to do.)

Why not take a look?
XK9s Petunia, Crystal, Cinnamon, Scout and Shady invite viewers to take a look at ways to get updates. Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

If you like more “behind-the-scenes” information about what I’m writing and how it’s going, the place to look is my monthly newsletter. Its readers get sneak peeks, bonus materials, and free giveaways that our blog readers never see. If that interests you, please give it a try!

Here on this blog, you’ll see more about A Bone to Pick when we get closer to the September 15, 2021 release date. Meanwhile, next week I’ll return to one of my favorite blog subjects—space stations, in science fiction and real life.

IMAGE CREDITS

Admiration, honor, and thanks to my marvelous illustrators, Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk. See cutlines on individual images for copyright notices. You may feel free to reblog or repost any images used in this post if you want, but please show respect: link back to this post and acknowledge the image creators and their copyrights. We appreciate it!

The covers of “What’s Bred in the Bone” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.

Writing “A Bone to Pick”

By Jan S. Gephardt

After I finished What’s Bred in the Bone and published it in 2019, I thought writing A Bone to Pick would be lots easier than writing the first book in the Trilogy. After all, I had an outline. I had scenes, cut from the first novel, all ready to go into the second one. It was partly written already! I should easily have it ready to go by 2020. A year, maybe 18 months, tops, because I know I’m a slow writer. But seriously. What could possibly go wrong?

Right? Easy-peasy!

Except, not so much. I published What’s Bred in the Bone (accidentally early) at the very end of April, 2019. I’ve now passed the 2-year anniversary, and I’m still waiting for the Brain Trust to deliver final thoughts on A Bone to Pick. So, what the heck happened?

The covers of “What’s Bred in the Bone” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
Cover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019, and artwork for A Bone to Pick is © 2020, both by Jody A. Lee.

As much Room as it Takes

I learned a lot of things about my craft while writing A Bone to Pick, for one. I also ran up against an immutable “natural law,” that I used to think was self-indulgent foolishness: a story takes as much room as it takes, to tell it well. Some story ideas naturally fit the “short story” length. Others need more room. Some need a lot more room.

One of my earliest mentors often said “there’s no manuscript that can’t be cut.” He was trying to help me be more succinct, and in that sense he was absolutely right. There is no manuscript that can’t be cut. Often, judicious cutting makes for a much better, more readable manuscript.

But “can be cut” and “should be cut” turn out to be two different things. In a recent blog post, I addressed some of the issues that can arise when a story is cut too ruthlessly. The short version of that post: if you try to squeeze a story into too short a length, you risk destroying the readers’ experience.

First-Draft Blues

I also discovered that in writing A Bone to Pick‘s outline I had made some leaps of logic that didn’t apply. Turns out, thinking that you have an outline all figured out, and even that you already have the book partly written . . . may or may not be a good thing.

It can be good, because revising is (sometimes) faster than writing from scratch. But it also can be bad, because working from previously-written scenes can partially constrain my thinking and make me miss things. It is likely that many of the partly-written scenes will end up more like writing prompts than recognizable scenes in the final draft.

When I first start working on a plot, For me it’s actually not so much like the Shannon Hale quote about scooping sand into a box that I’ve used in earlier posts. It’s more like I know how I think I want some parts to go.

But there are other parts where it’s a complete mystery.

“Then a Miracle Occurs”

Two cartoons. The first, by Sidney Harris, shows two men at a chalkboard. They stare at a long, complex equation, in the middle of which it says, “Then a miracle occurs.” One says to the other, “I think you should be a little more specific, here in Step 2.” The second, by Jessie Liu titled “How to Write Good Code,” shows a complex diagram for creating a project. At the top it says “Start project.” Next: “do things right or do them fast?” There’s a sequence branch for “right,” and one for “fast,” but no matter which steps you take, the arrows eventually lead to “Throw it all out and start over.” Next to that diagram is a smaller one. In it, an arrow leads from a large question mark to “Good Code.”
Turning a collection of rough ideas into an enjoyable novel involves similar processes. (See credits below).

Quite often, the “complete mystery” parts, the parts where “a miracle occurs,” or where the big question-mark somehow becomes “good code,” turn out to be the best scenes. But getting to them is a matter of feeling one’s way along.

In truth, it’s a difficult process to extrapolate a first draft out of initial ideas, partially-written scenes, and a vague sense of the novel’s general shape.

I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. Outlining is fine, in its place. But I’m not smart enough to discern all of the realities that writing through the events will reveal to me. I’m lucky to go five chapters before I stumble on something that takes me into new and interesting territory.

To use a different metaphor, it might be a scenic turnout on the “highway” of the novel. It might be a detour that takes me around a terrible wreck or a place where the road becomes impassable. Or maybe it wanders off into the hinterland to a dead end.

Clockwise from top: a scenic pullout, a detour, and a dead end.
When a writer deviates from the outline, it might be a scenic pullout (top) along the path of the story. Perhaps it’s a necessary detour (lower R) to avoid a problem. Or maybe it’ll turn into a dead end (lower L) in the middle of nowhere. It’s not always clear (See credits below).

A Context-Changing Midpoint

In plot structure, the Context-Changing Midpoint comes very nearly exactly in the middle of the book. Something happens, or the protagonist has an important revelation, and it changes everything.

While I was writing A Bone to Pick, I experienced a Context-Changing Midpoint of my own. Perhaps ironically, it came at what turned out to be almost the exact mid-point in my process of writing this novel.

A member of my Brain Trust told me that the first half of my book was a disaster (she used nicer language). Boring in some places I’d hoped were intense, the pacing dragged, the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere. What was wrong with me? I was a better writer than that, she said (angrily).

The Front End needs a Little Repair

The results of a crash test: the little yellow car’s front end is basically annihilated.
This was kind of how I visualized my project, after a member of my Brain Trust reacted badly to the first half (Green Car Reports).

Bottom line, however: I needed to trash it. Start in a completely different place, beginning after the part she’d identified as bad.

First reaction: The heck I do! (I didn’t use language that nice).

Second reaction: But this is a member of my Brain Trust! She has excellent judgment!

Third reaction: The heck I do! (I didn’t use language that nice).

Fourth reaction: Oh, damn. She might have a point.

So, I looked at it again. I realized, first of all, that I was really committed to starting the book where I had started it, and including (somehow) the part she’d objected to. She was right about the pacing and drama in that part, however. It was too static.

How do I fix this Thing?

The realization gradually dawned on me that the problematic part wasn’t so much inherently boring, as that I’d handled it badly. For one thing, I’d robbed it of conflict. I’d placed the entire burden of carrying those scenes on one character. But the conflict he confronted was the sort that in most contemporary books demands two point-of-view characters.

Should I break from my original, three-POV pattern in the first book, and add a fourth POV in this one? I forget which Brain Trust member advised me that readers don’t care how many points of view there are. They care if it’s a good story.

Got that right, whichever one it was. So, okay.

Racing the Ticking Clock

XK9 Rex runs above a ticking clock.
I felt as if Rex and I were racing against time in more than one way (See credits below).

But if I added a whole new point of view, I’d have to do a major revision. A new POV would require more words, and the book was already running “on the long side.” Worse, I had already hit the date on the calendar when I’d planned to be completely finished with writing A Bone to Pick!

But did any of those objections mean I should stick with the version I had?

No. Of course not. So I sucked it up, hid all the calendars, and took another run at it. The book will be as long as it needs to be, and take as long as it needs to take, became my operating guideline. My objective was to write the best book I could. Any other consideration wasn’t relevant, because it didn’t have anything to do with that central objective.

The Denouement

I guess we’ll soon see how I did.

Early returns from the Brain Trust have been encouraging. Ultimately, we’ll have to see what readers think.

Next week I’ll write about the presale offer. Once the Brain Trust has had their say, I’ll try to get everything finalized so I can send out Advance Reader Copies in July (subscribe to my newsletter, to learn how you can get one!).

The Official Release Date is September 15.

So! When will we see Bone of Contention?

To answer the next question, yes, I’m already at work on the third book of the Trilogy. When will it be finished?

Well, I already have a partial outline. There’s a whole section of scenes I cut from earlier versions of earlier books, that I plan to use in this one. So, it’s partly written already! I should easily have it ready to go in 2022. A year, maybe 18 months, tops, because I know I’m a slow writer.

But seriously. What could possibly go wrong?

IMAGE CREDITS:

BOOK COVERS:

First of all, I owe deep gratitude to my wonderful cover illustrator, Jody A. Lee, who has created both covers for the Trilogy so far. The cover for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019, and the one for A Bone to Pick is © 2020, both by Jody. She persevered, even when the undulating terraces and weird perspective of Wheel Two in the background threatened to drive both of us crazy.

A MIRACLE AND GOOD CODE:

Deepest thanks to Sidney Harris and his original publisher, The New Yorker, for the “Miracle equation” cartoon, and to Amor Mundi where I found a decent-quality version of this much-memed classic image (and thanks to the Cleveland Centennial, for guiding me to the original credits). I offer up yet more thanks to Jessie Liu 刘翠 @jessiecliu on Twitter, for the “Good Code” diagram.

DEVIATING FROM THE ROAD:

For the gorgeous shot of the scenic pullout along the Oregon coast, I am grateful to AAA. Moving clockwise on the “Deviating from the Road” montage, I want to thank New Jersey 101.5 for the “Detour” sign, and Andrew Capelli’s Active Rain blog, for the photo of the “Road Ends” sign. I think it metaphorically did all of these things while writing A Bone to Pick.

EVERYTHING ELSE:

Many thanks to Green Car Reports for the photo of the crash test of the unfortunate little yellow car. In the final graphic, I am grateful to Lucy A. Synk for her © 2020 illustration of XK9 Rex at a full-out run, and to Dirk Ercken via 123rf, for the “Time is Running” illustration. All montages were assembled by Jan S. Gephardt.

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