Episode 37 - Interview with John Helfers, Part 2
This week we finish up our conversation with special guest, John Helfers.
John is an award-winning author and editor. As an author he has published more than fifty original short stories and twenty-three novels. He has published a number of non-fiction articles and seven non-fiction books.
Tech Focus – John’s writing tools
What tools does John Helfers use to write?
The short answer: Microsoft Word.
John was forced to use Microsoft Word is college, used it extensively while working at Techno Books, and simply doesn’t have the desire to learn anything new. The comments and notes features of Word give him everything he needs to write.
There isn’t a need for all the fancy things tools like Scrivener have (the cork board and drag and drop chapters). John just cuts-and-paste
Excel is very useful as well if he needs to put together an outline for a story (and it’s where he tracks his money!).
With the newest versions of Microsoft Office that runs across the iPad, Macs and PCs, John feels he has everything he needs to get his work done, and can do it from any device he owns.
“This is an important distinction between an actual working writer and three guys who procrastinate by trying to not write and find all kinds of writing tools.
John’s writing process
John writes in one hour blocks, and his goal is to simply write as much as he can in that time period. It’s pure first draft to get the words down. He turns off the critical part of his brain and then goes back to see if it works or not. Since he’s written a number of books, he has a good feeling for what works and what doesn’t as he writes.
I don’t envy your guys’ journey, it’s certainly worth it and I hope you stick with it, but those first couple [of novels] are a slog because you’re finding your voice, your craft, what works for you and what doesn’t.
John usually gets 1500-2000 words an hour down.
The next day John sits down for a half and hour and reads and edits what he wrote the day before. In total, John works 4-8 hours a day, 1-2 are actual writing time.
John doesn’t track his changes in his drafts, but he does use comments extensively to remind himself where he needs to fix things in the prose.
“I love comments. Comments are fantastic.”
John writes linearly. He doesn’t feel like working in a patchwork method would work for him. He usually knows the ending of the story when he starts, and has not been surprised by the ending of any of his works. He did have one novel that surprised him in the middle, but still finished as he expected.
He has the main ideas of the beats for the story and its three acts. He likes to make the middle act exciting because he feels many books fail in the middle.
Mike asked how John keeps track of characters and settings for the novels. In tie-in work he’s writes extensive outlines that are between 10 and 15 pages.
For the Mack Bolan books, his outlines are 2-3 pages setting up the scenario, bad guys, where the story is going, and how it wraps up.
There’s a bit of flexibility in the settings. For example, in one book he changed a location from Amsterdam to Paris. It didn’t cause much of an issue and made the story a little more exciting with Paris’ famous landmarks.
Everything swirls around in John’s head, but once he starts to commit to paper he has a pretty good idea of how the story goes.
Writing is half research and half sitting down and doing it.
John hasn’t collaborated with very many authors, but he did write a Shadowrun novel called Aftershock with Jean Rabe. They split up the chapters and bounced the file back and forth between them. Each author reviewed the previous chapter and edited it, then wrote theirs and passed the file back. By the end, it was impossible to tell which author wrote which chapter.
Collaboration is a give-and-take, and until you have some experience it isn’t something John recommends. Approach with caution.
The conversation turned, at this point, to Eric, Mike and John (Uhri) as John (Helfers) was curious what we used to write.
Eric starts with Notepad and flee-flows some writing. Then he moves to a simple markup editor (StackEdit.io) and saves his documents to Github for its versioning and backups. When he starts the later rewrites, he uses Scrivener.
Mike uses Google Docs, primarily, for the same reasons John uses Office. Mike likes the autosave and the fact that it’s on the cloud so it doesn’t matter what device he is using to write. He writes by scene, so being able to jump around is important for his workflow. He doesn’t use Scrivener, but does use some other tools to separate the scenes. If he tried to write from beginning to end, he’d get lost in his work.
John (Uhri) typically drafts in Classeur and then moves over to Penflip to store the “master versions” of his work. Penflip isn’t as nice for writing, but it’s built over git so he has the backups and revisions.
Neil Gaiman used to hand write his first drafts.
Craft Talk – Getting a work ready for editing
Since John is a professional editor and we’ve been talking about editing in the last few episodes, it seemed like a good idea to get his thoughts on getting a novel ready for an edit.
Finish the work!
NaNoWriMo is a fifty-thousand word story. That’s actually short for a novel, so the first thing is to make sure the story has its full beginning, middle and end. Partial manuscripts should never be sumbitted to an editor or agent.
Use the standard professional formatting
There is a standard format for novel submission. Use it. Love it.
Know what kind of edit you want
There are several kinds of edits
This is the most extensive type of edit, where the editor will break your story down to the bare bones. The editor will look at the pacing, plot and characters. Is the antagonist realistic, for example? Is the hero’s journey make sense? A professional developmental edit will run $1000-$5000.
Less intensive than the developmental edit, a line edit looks for general consistency, checking for logic holes and making sure character traits don’t change throughout. In a line edit, typos will also caught as they are found.
“Don’t type like crap and assume the editor is going to fix everything.”
Try to make your manuscript as neat as you can. Warn the editor if you know you have a weakness like overusing commas, etc.
A line edit assumes the story is solid and the line edit is there to polish it.
A copy edit is best when a story is 95% complete, and the final polish is done. This edit looks for typos and consistency.
This is only a check for obvious typos and continuity errors.
Treat your writing as a business
If you’re going to write professionally, either self-professionally or before submitting to a publisher, treat your writing like a business. Business requires investments of time and money. Readers will catch you in errors and it pulls them from the story. Make sure your work is as solid as possible before its published.
Not everyone needs to have an editor, but it never hurts. Someone looking at the manuscript with an objective viewpoint makes it better. Professional editors bring their experience to your story.
Every editor’s job should be making the book the best it can be.
John does edits in Word using track changes and comments. Sometimes editors will still use paper copies, but John finds the computer to be so much easier.
For his clients, John is willing to edit a sample chapter to see how the collaboration between the author and editor works. At the same time, John feels he needs to be enthused about the work he is editing. He hasn’t turned down anything yet!
John is best found through his LinkedIn profile and has also found work by networking at conventions. Word-of-mouth has been the best way John has found work.
John attends GenCon and the Writing Symposium at the con. The Symposium is a tremendous place to learn about writing. He divides his time between the Symposium and the Catalyst Game Labs booth.
Read and Critique – $1000 up to 100,000 words and prorated for longer work.
Developmental Edit – $1500 up to 100,000 words and prorated from there.
Writing that Pays
Catalyst Game Labs
Battlecorps.com is a paying writing site for the BattleTech universe. There’s some retooling that needs to be done to the site, but they pay for new fiction.
Shadowrun is also getting some submissions for experienced authors looking to write in a tie-in universe.
Both of these worlds are part of Catalyst Game Labs.
Ralan.com is the premier listing service for paying writing. The site looks a bit 1998, but is the place to go if you’re looking for places that pay.