2017 In Review: Words and Games

With 2018 on the horizon, I feel a little like Dante surfacing from the circles of Hell and looking at Virgil and being like, “What the fuck, dude?!”

Gustave Doré’s Dramatic Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Yeah, 2017 was A Thing That Happened. It had a lot of bad. A lot. But it also had quite a few good things, and it’s important to highlight the good things when you’re playing on nightmare mode and have no save slots in the game.

So hey, here are some things I accomplished this year! Good things. Things I am proud of and hope to repeat in the future. Just, you know, maybe while not running around a hellscape with some ghost-poet bro.


Screenshot 2017-12-31 17.05.44

So it turns out I actually wrote a lot of words this year. That snapshot above? Yeah, that’s from my GYWO spreadsheet. Holy fuck, you guys. o.O  I wrote about 334,240 words in 2017. That’s a lot of taps on the keyboard.

It breaks down something like this:

18 finished short stories
4.5 finished novelettes
2.5 finished novellas
1 finished novel
And about 56,000 words on my COG game (which is on hiatus at the moment and is going to end up around 200-250k when done).


The rest of the words are split between unfinished short story drafts, nonfiction, ideas and notes, and other things I chose to count. That’s a lot of fiction words. If you’d asked me last year (2016) how much I expected to produce, my goal for Get Your Words Out was 150k and I thought that was really gonna push my limits.

You know what’s funny? The moment I look away from my spreadsheet, my brain is like, Well you didn’t do very much this year, slacker. Which is a lie, of course. And this is why I keep detailed stats of my progress and projects, because when the doubtroaches surface, when the depression hits hardest, when the anxiety crawls through my ears into my thought neurons, I can look at this Excel page and be like, “See? That’s not nothing. So shut the fuck up, doubtroaches, and go away. I don’t have time for your lies.”



I have an awards eligibility post here. In 2017, I had 14 original stories published. And my debut collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press! I’m super proud of these stories. I will have six original stories/novelettes coming out in 2018, and I’ve been solicited for several different anthologies. That is so cool, guys. It’s gonna be an exciting and busy year! 😀


dishonoredPrey_cover_artshadow of war

Video games are a safety net for my mental health, along with being one of my favorite pastimes. It’s telling how horribly long 2017 has felt, because I could have sworn half of these were last year. But nope, I looked at my achievements listings (thank you, Xbox date stamps!) and everything on this list is squarely in 2017. So here are the games I played & finished this year.

Dishonored: Definitive Edition (x2)

First playthrough was in High Chaos, because I am really bad at stealth. XD Then I started a new game and aimed (and succeeded!) for Low Chaos. What I love about this system is how it affects everything: from the dialogue and NPC chatter to the weather and the aesthetic, to the big show pieces such as the climactic chapter of the game. I love so much about this game, even with its flaws: the world-building, the whales, the small details woven through codex entries and songs; the relationships that play out between characters; the gameplay mechanics and UX; and really, just running around being a garbage rat murder-dad was such fun.


The Knife of DunwallThe Brigmore Witches

In these DLCs for Dishonored, you play as Daud and see the story from—before the scene in the game, and after—unfold. It delves into the world more, has a lot of feels, and is so much fun. Daud is my favorite. (I mean, hell, I loved these games so much I wrote fanfic where Daud and Corvo are dogs…)

Dishonored 2 (x2)

Again, I played the whole game twice: first in High Chaos (as Corvo), and second in Low Chaos (as Emily). It’s fascinating to see and hear the differences both for each PC choice, as well as whether you go high or low chaos. This game is beautiful, too: everything is shinier and the Clockwork Mansion is a masterpiece of visual aesthetics.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

The last chapter in the storyline preceded by Dishonored, this brings a close to Billie, Daud, and the Outsider’s stories. It’s a gorgeous game where you get to play a disabled bisexual Black woman, and it is amazing. Billie is such a fantastic protagonist, so snarky and with much commentary about her world. Plus the ending resolution, if you choose the non-lethal option when you find the Outsider, hit me in ALL THE FEELS. It was perfect.

Doki Doki Literature Club!

This game is fucked up and terrifying and brilliant in the use of game mechanics and metadata to mess with the player’s head. It starts like a dating sim and then it just gets unnerving.

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (x3)

This is the first dating sim game I’ve ever played, and it was such a delight. It’s charming, relatable, and wonderfully designed and animated. Dadsona may be one of the most relatable dad-characters in gaming, let’s be real. And Amanda is top-notch adorable.

Layers of Fear

I loved the visual aesthetics and creepy atmosphere of this game. It’s a first person exploratory, psychological horror story about an artist who is trapped in an ever-changing haunted house. It’s delicious and unnerving, even if it has a lot of puzzles (I hate puzzles). Plus, I love when games have multiple possible endings.


A beautiful, creepy game with snark and ghosts and time-travel fuckery. Which is all my jam.


S C R E A M I N G I loved this so much! It hits so many of my favorite buttons: shadowy monsters, set in spaaaaace, you get to eat things, and also you can have a shotgun or hit things with a wrench. It reminded me strongly of BioShock meets Dishonored, and I was delighted by the two ending options you could choose. You can also make adorable little cubes and shapes and craft stuff, which is soothing af. What’s also wonderful was how many casually queer characters are in this. And POC! And so few white men! It was amazing and so refreshing, even as you realize that everyone is doomed. Plus, “Intrinsic Value” may be my new favorite (accidental) achievement ever. xD

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (x2)

I picked this up in March when a coworker described the Nemesis System to me and sold me on that alone. Then I played and fell in love with everything about this: the Orcs, Talion, the storytelling, the gameplay mechanics and UX (although the menus were annoyingly confusing at first). But let’s be real: the Orcs are the best thing about this series. They’re hilarious, charming, delightful, brutal, snarky, endearing, and I adore the Nemesis System so completely. One of my favorite parts in this game is sneaking around and just eavesdropping on the Orc chatter. And any time an enemy kills Talion, I laughed and laughed in delight. Never has it been so much fun to get your character killed in horrible ways!

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

What Shadow of Mordor set up by the end (the forging of a new Ring), Shadow of War paid off beyond my expectations. Everything in this sequel is just as good or better than the first game. And the main storyline? COMPLETELY DESTROYED MY FEELS. In the best way. It was perfect, exactly what I wanted, and so satisfying. Talion’s journey is epic and deeply personal. (I give no fucks about how this slots into the timeline; it can be an AU in Middle-earth if need be, but it is perfect for me.)  The siege and conquest system of fortresses is super fun; strategy and tactics come into play, you get shiny armor and weapon upgrades, and my favorite is all the cut scenes when you face off against Captains and Warchiefs and Warlords. The dialogue is brilliant, the animation is gorgeous, and it’s so visceral and satisfying on so many levels. I love Shelob and Sauron and Bruz and all the other hero Orcs, Carnan and the Balrog, plus the Gondorians and the Nazgul and everyone else. Also, someone please pay me to write “The Continuing Adventures of Ranger and Ratbag,” because I will write that novel SO FAST.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt + Hearts of Stone & Blood and Wine (replay)

This is, perhaps, one of my favorite games. In 2016 I binged the entire Witcher franchise (yes, starting with the clunky and awkward first Witcher game on a PC). The Witcher 3 will probably be a game I replay yearly: it’s unbearably gorgeous, fun, and soothing with familiarity while still being entertaining and satisfying. (I mean, I haven’t gotten all the achievements yet, so…)

And Looking Into 2018…

So. New year, new start, all that, right?

Yeah. I don’t necessarily have grand resolutions. They are small things, achievable things: be kind, raise up others’ voices, support artists, continue creating, focus on mental-health and self-care, and bring as much joy to others as I can. I love seeing people happy. It is my greatest pleasure to encourage and support and praise and enjoy others’ work. I love squeeing about awesome things, and since 2017 proved I am out of fucks, let’s go all out. Let’s celebrate art and people; let’s create and revel in the things we love; let’s support each other in ups and downs; let’s make this world just a little better, one action and word at a time.

Happy 2018, everyone! Be the badass mofos you were born to be. ❤ Peace.

Six Years and a Book: Finishing A Novel After A long Hiatus

This is the blog-ified version of a series of tweets I made after finishing my novel, FIVE DEATHS AND A GOD. The storify is here.  ^_^


November 30th, 2017

*whispers* I finished my first novel yesterday after a six year hiatus.

I’d like to tell you about my novel-writing journey thus far, because it’s been…interesting, shall we say.

Screenshot 2017-11-29 10.12.43
This is a thing that happened.

Okay, so.

I wrote my first *finished* novel in 2003, and it was about an adorable little weasel who goes on a quest to help save his (future boy)friend’s kingdom.

(Wilfy is totally bi. I just didn’t consciously understand or realize that when I was a tiny smol!Merc.)

2004 was the first year I did #NaNoWriMo (I won), finishing my second novel. That was a massive (and hysterically terrible) epic fantasy. It was something like 150k and was the first book in a duology.

That high of finishing a REAL LIFE BOOK-SHAPED THING was addictive. And because I do not have the greatest track record of taking on reasonable amounts of work* or anything less than moon-high ambitious challenges, the next year I set out to write _two_ novels during NaNo.

(*There was a time when smol!Merc asked their piano teacher if they could learn Chopin’s etude No. 14 in F minor because “it sounds so cool.” Teacher wisely, but kindly, said “Let’s wait until you’ve got more experience, okay?”)

giphy-downsized (4)

ANYWAY. In 2005 I wrote 1 complete 50k novel–and got 84k into a second that I never finished.

In 2006, I wrote 2 complete novels (one at 50k, one at 110k), and wrote 80k on a third novel I never finished.

In 2007, I wrote 3 adult novels (57k, 94k, 55k) a 20k MG novel, a 30k novella, and a 38k novella. In the unfinished category, I had: one project at 50k and one at 36k.

(Yes, I tried to do five of these in one month for NaNo. Please don’t try this at home, kids. I hurt my brain and my wrists BAD, and the burnout effect began kicking in.)

In 2008, I wrote 1 novel of 74k, a novella of 18k; unfinished, I had a 50k novel and 30k novel. I was constantly at the edge of burnout. (I had also been living with undiagnosed depression and anxiety, in a toxic emotional living situation, and had for years. I just didn’t know it.)

In 2009, I wrote WOLFBOOK1 at 95k, a short MG novelette of 14k, and a horror novellete of 16k. Unfinished projects included: 22k on a novella and 19k on a novel. I also moved to CA for six months, got laid off from my job on New Year’s Day (2010), and moved back to MN.

And then I burned out really badly. I just didn’t quite let myself accept that. So I tried to keep going.

In 2010 I wrote two books: one (a ground-up rewrite, basically a new thing) at 77k, and its sequel at 95k. Unfinished: a project at 37k. Collapsed into a black hole of super toxic work environment as well as living space.

books stack
Photo of finished and uninished manuscripts (hard copy for archival) with an Xbox One controller for scale.

I was convinced I would never write anything again.

(All this time, by the way, I was still also writing short stories and flash.)

In 2011 I wrote COLLARS. It was super short at 65k. And then I got exactly the wrong kind of feedback on the novel, which shattered my resolve and belief I could write this.

I poked at novels from end of 2011 (tried to write one in 2012 but only got 18k in) and for the six years that followed. I never finished anything. From 2012 to 2016 I was in college and allowed myself to not work on novels because, y’know, college. I focused on short stories a lot during collage, and still consider 2014 the year where I made a commitment to writing professionally.

Always in the back of my mind was that terrifying thought: what if i can never write a book again? What if this is it, and all my novel-writing energy is gone forever?

When I graduated and got a job (my current work, which I love), I thought I could start writing novels again. Hahaha, nope.

I mean, 2016 was a thing that happened. In November I toyed with the idea of NaNo, because I had just moved into my apartment and I had my own space and stable work and surely it could improve? Well. We all know what happened on Election Day.

In June of 2017, overwhelmed with personal chaos and trying to enjoy #4thStreetFantasy convention, I poked away at a novel fragment. I was sure it wouldn’t go anywhere. Nothing had in six years, why start now?

After all, it was a ridiculous book. It was like DISHONORED meets We Rate Dogs: a secondary world urban fantasy where everyone is queer and all the dogs are good ofc. Plot: A guy wants to save his boyfriend, and his city, so he kidnaps a god to solve the problem.

It was funny, goofy, heartfelt, full of bad jokes and puns and magic. I made a Pinterest board and everything.

Screenshot 2017-11-14 14.17.17
An alignment chart I made for my book (if all the characters were doggos)

And hell, it was 2017 and everything was on fire.

I had stalled out on revising my dark fantasy novel COLLARS, which is deeply important to me. But it’s just too hard when fighting smoke and trying to dodge, rather than nonchalantly walk away from, explosions.

I needed to take a hiatus from my COG game writing, because my mental health has been fucked in all directions. (JSYK, the people at COG? Top notch humans, and my editor is utterly fantastic, understanding and supportive. Couldn’t ask for better, even when I am a moldering series of loosely held together wire and gears.)

“Who would want this book?” I wondered, as I wrote late and early and on breaks, laughing and having feels and getting super excited and making photoshop alignment charts. Who would want it?

Me. And a bunch of other people who are awesome, whose opinions I respect, and to whom I am deeply grateful for the support and encouragement. ❤

FIVE DEATHS AND A GOD is a book I didn’t imagine existing before June. It’s a finished novel before the end of November. It has been a huge life raft for my brain the second half of this year. (Also video games.)

It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s honest, it’s exciting, it’s ridiculous, and it has dogs. So many good doggos. There’s a masquerade ball. Trickster gods. Killer shadows. Everyone’s queer. (Except maybe the one antagonist.) There are trans ppl and NB ppl and POC and queer people and disabled people and autistic people, and many intersections of all the above.

I indulged the fuck out of my id on this, and it shows.


After six years, I wrote and finished a new novel. In many ways, it feels like my first time doing this book-thing. I’m elated and excited and happy about how it turned out.


So, here’s the point, really. Everyone’s process is unique. Slumps happen. Life happens. Whether it’s your first novel or your fifth or your fiftith, there’s no proscribed process. Each book’s gonna be it’s own weird thing and that’s okay.

It’s okay if you can’t write all the time, or don’t want to write every day, of if you can only write once in awhile. You’re still a writer. If you’re working on a novel? Huzzah, you’re a novelist! Write at your own pace. There are no bonus points awarded if you finish in X time vs Y time. Do what works for you.

It’s okay. We’re literally _pulling whole fucking books out of our heads and hearts. Do you know how wild and mind-boggling that is?! Think about it. A thing that never existed until you wrote it down…BOOM. Now it exists. It’s a real thing. You created it. Pretty cool, huh?

So that has been my journey this far. Is 5DAG better than my other efforts?

Definitely! I’ve grown as a writer. I’m filling my prose with doggos and queers and adorb trans ppl.

Does 5DAG still need a lot of work and revision?


And that’s okay!


I’m just super happy and proud and excited to have written this thing. 🙂

Never give up, never surrender.

You can do it.

I used to think that was true for everyone but me, but that’s bad!brain lying. I can do this thing, too. Thanks for reading. ❤


MERC vs. BOOK: Revising A Novel, Part 7–Gaming the Process (part 1)

HELLO AND WELCOME! 😀 This post is more about my craft & process in writing. It ties into the series of novel revision posts, but is going to tackle a wider variety of examples. ^_^ It’s very long, so I’m splitting it into two parts. This is part one.

Oh yeah, and I pulled out the Wacom tablet to make some illustrations. *drumroll*

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.41.56
from “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustad


Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1Part 2Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 (you are here) | Part 7.2  | Part 8

I’m drafting a lot as well as revising.

I’d like to define how I’m using specific words in the context of this project (The Collars We Wear) and these blog posts.

Drafting = New words, scooped raw from the mines, hauled in keyboard-shaped containers and stacked in the shipping yard known as The Draft.

Revising = Previously-mined words, already organized in containers (sometimes called ‘scenes’ or ‘chapters’) are sorted into categories of “good” or “needs repair” or “delete.” Containers get hauled around by forklifts and rearranged according to the Overseer (also known as an Author). Sometimes containers tip over and spill words everywhere, resulting in the need for clean-up crews and hazard tape to mark off the area. In this stage, big picture restructuring, organizing, ripping out or replanting of words for The Draft occurs, with smaller clean-up done as needed–fixing up a broken container, sweeping up stray words, etc.

Editing = The Draft, now renamed Revised Draft, is shipped whole to the Edit Plant. Here, dozens of polishing drones scrape and smooth and shine the words–now properly organized, patched up, dusted off, and arranged into aesthetically pleasing structures–until the Overseer deems it satisfactory. Sure, sometimes a drone malfunctions and misses a spot, but in general, the Overseer decides the Revised Draft is ready to be Seen when it’s enticing, clean, shiny, and looks good on the Overseer’s resume.

Summary:  draft is new words; revision is fixing those words into coherent form; editing is making those now-coherent words shine like dragonflies in the sun.

That said, because–as noted previously in this series–I’m still doing a lot of drafting, I wanted to reawaken a series of thoughts I semi-articulated awhile back about how I visualize things when I’m writing.

You Enter the Dungeon And See a Dragon Sleeping. What Do You Do?

When I was at 4th Street Fantasy in June, I tweeted some rambling thoughts about how I visualize narrative, scenes, and how different elements are constructed (or deconstructed) in my brain when I’m writing.

The Storify is here.

Tweets are screencapped below as relevent for ease of reference.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.37

I’m going to use my short story “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” as a reference for the illustrations, since you can read it free online, and also it has dinosaurs. ^_^

Anatomy of a Scene

Each scene needs to accomplish something: plot, characterization, excuse for dramatic music, etc. Whole books have been written about scenes, and what they do, and how to create them, so let’s just assume that scene = something happens/changes to move the story along.

A scene is a unit of measure in writing but it has no specific size requirements, and can be as short or long as needed. The length, however, tends to lend itself to pacing and can be used for dramatic effect. A long scene in which two principal characters talk about Plot might give the reader a breather after three short, punchy scenes in which characters run from a horde of bloodthirsty gerbils and are now holed up in the cafeteria of the local middle school.

In “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie,” the first scene is exactly three words long.

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.37.57.png

Why? Well, I wanted to establish that something dramatic had happened and changed things (the world, in this case, being EX-702’s surroundings) in the fewest amount of words possible.

The second scene begins with EX-702 wakes up from the above mentioned explosion, and finds a dying mother Deinonychus. EX-702 decides to adopt and care for her eggs, since they hatch into adorable baby raptors, and this pushes the rest of the story forward:EX-702 is an android programmed to preserve human life, so first it must find any human survivors of the apocalypse.  EX-702’s choice in the second scene–to care for and raise the baby dinosaurs–reflects the thematic tension in the rest of the story (what is consciousness? what is life and why do we wish to save it?).

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.40.46
Anubis and EX-702

The second scene is much longer than the first, because it requires a slower build. EX-702 is waking up to an entirely strange new world, in which extinct species are emerging and evolving rapidly.

Scenes after that vary in length depending on what they need to accomplish.

Near the end, when EX-702 receives a virus from its creator that will destroy it for failing its mission, there are several scenes that are short, but roughly the same length. They are ramping up the tension–will EX-702 survive? Can its raptor family save it from human shortsightedness?

How does this end?

When writing, and then working on edits after Mothership Zeta editors Mur Lafferty and Sunil Patel bought the story, I visualized this a lot like a page in a graphic novel.

illustration by Merc Rustad

You’ll notice that the panels are not the same as scenes, but rather, they are components of the scenes. There are close-ups on EX-702 and Anubis, because close-ups signify importance and emotion. When you want to hone in a specific emotion or highlight something integral to the story, getting in close can be effective.

(Also, if you just saw this without reading the story, it may be ambiguous about what Anubis is doing. That’s ‘coz I am not very good at drawing, you guys. xD)

There is a cutaway of Anubis typing on a keyboard, which shows her trying to stop the virus. The largest panel is of EX-702 during the shutdown sequence. Then there’s blackness, when EX-702 goes offline. The last panel is a single word, “Unit?” which acts as a hook to make the viewer turn the page to find out wha happened.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily translate into words as clearly. That’s the tricky part about adapting a visualized medium into a written medium: they are both story but they are not identical in how they are presented.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.45

What I do is look at the effect I want to achieve. If I’m filming and I want a strong emotional reaction–say, fear–then I consider how effective an extreme close-up on the actor’s face will be for this shot. Can she express terror with most of the frame being just her eyes? (Eyes are stunning things, when you think about just how much you can convey with looks.)

When writing, I have to translate my visual instincts into a different style of storytelling. What details can I write that will convey the emotion I want? How does the fear feel to this character? Do I describe something, perhaps a physical reaction? Is this a case where I need to dig into POV and internal reactions for the character? Maybe both?

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.56

Bones Of A Scene

As far as determining how to structure scenes, I tend to start with a generalized outline:

X, Y, and G need to happen. Somehow.

(Don’t get me started on past!self writing vague and incoherent plot notes that consist solely of ‘something cool happens here’. WHY, past!self, whyyyyyyyyyy.)

It’s kinda like archeology. So you find a bunch of bones, right? And you might be able to see where joints connect and things match up in a general skeleton shape. [Disclaimer: I am not an archeologist. I’m sure it’s much more complicated and awesome than this analogy.]

Then you maybe hand over a sketch to the conceptual artist in your brain who designs the skin and scale and feathers for your skeleton, so you can see what it might have looked like. Then the scientist in your brain has a brilliant idea: LET’S CLONE THE DNA AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS! So you concoct a bunch of SCIENCE in a lab, and create a creature. Victory!

Maybe that creature is an adorable fuzz-covered herbivore who wants to cuddle.

Or maybe it’s a giant carnivore who, oops, is a lot smarter than you and why did we think this was a good idea oh god it’s escaped ruuuuuuun–

The point is, working off an idea of the scene can result in unexpected things. Or it might come out just as you intended. Maybe your outline is much more detailed, a series of scene beats that map out exactly what needs to happen and you just fill in the blanks.

Whatever works! It’s cool. (Just be careful of the raptors. They’re clever.)

When I’m drafting a scene, I definitely like to have a general aim for the drama. What needs to happen here?

Who’s involved?

Why does it matter?

I wrote awhile back that I needed to pause in drafting Winterblade’s POV in order to write a scene where he and Bane meet. I wanted to break that down and illustrate it as an example of how I visualize things akin to comics or video games, so that post is will be Part Two (coming soon).


An intriguing problem I’ve come across in my novel The Collars We Wear is how the three POV characters handle fear.

Winterblade cannot feel fear (it was taken away from him) and that’s precisely why he wants it back. Bane is terrified of just about everything and doesn’t cope well with that constant exhaustion. Rajosja keeps her emotions tightly locked down due to trauma and it is not helping her relationship with her wife. All three need to face what they fear most (even, in WB’s case, he can’t actually feel it–so there are other emotions and reactions he can indulge in when faced with what he is running away from) and they do so in different ways.

Showing this in prose? That’s tricky.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.05

Bane has a lot of physical reactions and body language, coping mechanisms and strategies both external and internal that show how he deals with fear. He’s the POV character who is able to actual think in terms of ‘I am afraid.’

Rajosja just tries to shoot everything, because it’s effective and gives her an outlet for repressed emotion that is not reacting in fear. (Her supervisor is really not happy about the paperwork that results in.) Her POV is one that relies heavily on negative space, on not saying things, and allowing the reader to infer what it is she’s dealing with. Which is a hard balance to maintain, especially when female-ID’d characters are so often held to ridiculous double-standards. (I say fuck it, she can do what she wants.)

Winterblade, uh…resorts to creative means of feeling anything. His POV the most trippy and disturbing because he’s acutely aware of what he’s missing, what he is, and what he’s capable of doing to get what he wants.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.14

If this were all visuals, I would be considering shot design, color palate, how the actors move, the dialogue chosen, the editing choices…

…which I also have to do in prose. It’s more of a translation issue from my brain onto paper.

How much of the wardrobe do I describe, and which details are important to the POV? (Bane will notice clothing in relation to how it denotes class and danger. Rajosja will notice it in terms of practicality and if it gives her clues to her investigations. Winterblade…doesn’t really notice beyond how it inhibits, or doesn’t, body movement.)

I noted in this post that I have a series of ‘flavor’ words for each story. This is equivalent to my color palate and lighting design when I’m filming. What is the mood I want to convey? How does the character voice reflect compared to other POVs? (I prefer each to be as distinct as I can manage so they contrast when there are multiple point-of-view characters.)

Writing a story involves a lot of style choice–which words you use (vocabulary), the sentence construction, what details are given prominence and which are ignored, how the voice of the character and/or author reflect in the prose and narrative choices, maybe the type of font you draft in.

I’ve thought a lot about the narrative choices I made in this novel. I’ll discuss those in a later blog post when the revision is further along.

And Now, Because This Post Is Getting Too Long…

Does all this sound like a massive amount of stuff to keep in your head all at once? THAT’S COZ IT IS. o.O At least for me!

But! There is totally hope. Depending on your process, maybe you need to know everything before you start. Maybe you wing it as you go along. Maybe you get the bare bones down and flesh it out in revisions.

Whatever works for you is awesome. Don’t let someone else tell you that to succeed, you need to craft words The One True Way. It’s bullshit because there is no ‘one right way’  to write. 🙂 

The beautiful thing about words is that they can change. You need a draft to be able to change them, sure, but this is not carving marble. You can swap and change and tweak and polish and discard and create as many words as you need, as you like, in order to create the story you must tell.

Words are malleable. Stories are mutationous little things, changing and evolving and sometimes developing superpowers to launch a comic & movie franchise.

You still need to have content, words on a page, in order to manipulate them to your whim.

I mean, hell, I’m drafting an additional 30k words or so because I realized they were missing from the initial draft. However, I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t write that initial 60k draft. IT’S LIKE A TIME LOOP.

The point is, naturally, draft the thing. You can make it shiny (or shinier) in post. But you need to have a draft on which to hang the revision decorations.

Be aware of your choices, because they reflect on everything.

PART TWO breaks down a scene in illustrated form to better explain how my visual-to-prose mental translation happens.

(Bonus! Faint, echoing wails from Merc as they wonder why the hell they decided to do illustrations in the first place… xD)

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising A Novel, Part 6–Derailment and Finding Momentum Again

Aditional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 (you are here) | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8

Ever played an open-world video game with physics somewhat enabled, and you’re just walking along a mountain edge trying to get to some *&^$% spot on the map for a quest, and everything is going well because you’re not being attacked by random bears or dragons or whatever, and you’re almost to that glowy marker on your map–

–and then you slip and fall off the cliff and your character dies on impact and you realize you didn’t save as recently as you hoped, and now you have to climb up that damn mountain all over again?

Well, revision is not quite that bad for me–but the loss of momentum and starting over definitely remind me of many frustrating hours spent trying to climb mountains in Skyrim.

Screenshot 2016-07-26 12.45.11.png
Screencap of my GYWO spreadsheet

The image above shows a section from a spreadsheet. The left-most column is the date, followed by daily word count, then the Year to Date words, then Project, then that project’s wordcount for the day. Under the Project column, I list what I was working on. (The date is scrolled down so it shows the 13th of July through the 26th of July.) Then I log the word count for that project on the day I worked on it.

Since this screenshot cuts off the week previous, it won’t show that from July 6th through July 17th I was working on novel revisions and adding new material consistently every day.

What it will show you is that from July 17th through July 26th (with a single day on the 23rd, which was a lot of fiddling with Scrivener) I did nothing whatsoever on the novel.

This may or may not seem like a big deal. In the grand scheme of Merc!things, it’s not. But in the short-term, it was really jarring because up until the 17th (over ten days since I started!) I was immersed in this project. I was working on it daily, feeling like the momentum kept going, and that I would blast through the rest of the month on a success high.

Then in the RPG of the writer’s life, my character fell off a cliff and I had to restart my game.

Aside: Yes, there is a day where I finished a short story, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry,” with a pretty stellar word-count-wise day. I expected the following day to be a crash-landing, as that always happens when I finish a short story. Whether minutes, hours, or a day or two after, I inevitably get swarmed by doubtroaches and collapse under a mental pile of oh god I know nothing everything sucks I will never write anything else again why do I do this–etc.

It passes. It doesn’t feel like it will, but it does. In the moment, it’s not pretty.

And later, with some sleep and perspective and supportive people, I get back on my feet and do it again. ^_^

What caused the slip off the metaphorical mountain?

Life and work. And the unbearable sauna-pocolypse that was the weather for a week in Minnesota.

It happens. It’s okay.

I adore my dayjob–it is a perfect setting for me. (Minimal intense sensory input for hours at a time due to dim lighting, no overhead music, and lack of fluorescents is like working a miracle on my ability to function. Also cameras and audio equipment and hella awesome coworkers and management! ❤ )

But when you add extreme weather and lack of AC, plus a lot of driving, it’s hard to sleep and find much motivation, and so I didn’t do much on the novel for days in a row.

The other component is that when you get off-balance and lose some of that momentum you built up, it’s harder to restart things. You wonder if it was a fluke, if you can even find the same enthusiasm again, if you shouldn’t just spend your time playing video games forever.

So my method of getting back on that mountain, hiking towards that glowy marker on my map, is to revisit what got me so enthusiastic in the first place, and taking into account the Physical Personspace Elements that may be affecting productivity.

Step 1: Dividing the Space-Time Continuum. I re-focused on making a schedule for writing/revision time around dayjob shifts (and additionally filmmaking). Setting blocks of time that is mine.

Step 2: Environmental & Physical Considerations. Is it super hot? The library has air conditioning! (I love my library.) Fill up a water bottle and stay hydrated. It’s sometimes hard to remember (or find energy) to eat when it’s really hot. Having small snacks and drinking water helps me stay functional until I can make myself eat a proper meal. Also getting enough sleep–I know, I know. This one is hard. And not always possible, so you do what you can. I sleep with a fan on to keep the air circulating, and listen to my iPad NaturalReaderPro app read things to me.

Step 3: Revving the Engines. As I mentioned earlier, using a robot to read to me–in particular, the novel draft and new material I’ve written so far–while trying to fall asleep got the words and story and characters freshened up in my brainspace. I also organized my files, worked on assembling a Scrivener project (as I’d intended to do but got sidetracked earlier), and in general re-immersed myself in this novel.

Step 4: Remember Why You Do This. I’ve been collecting little snippets and screencaps of nice things people say to me when I’ve talked about this book (in a private forum, so I will not share pics here). These are just for me. But I can look at them, and remember: Other people believe in this, too. Other people who are not me want to read this thing I am creating! HOW FRICKING COOL IS THAT?! 🙂

It helps keep the doubtroaches at bay. It inspires me, because I know so many outstandingly amazing, awesome, kickass writers and artists, and when they say they want to read this? WELL. I am really motivated to get this done so they can!

I also find that having a tangible record–a private file, a collection of snippets or saved tweets or photos–helps fend off the doubtroaches who will always try to gaslight you into believing that the nice things other people said never happened. I will remind you that doubtroaches are lying liars who lie. Wave a few quotes in their face and they go scuttling away to sulk in a corner.

Also rereading those nice things people said to me? Gives me a warm fuzzy glow and sparks motivation again.

Never underestimate how much a little encouragement, a kind word, or an enthusiastic ‘you can do the thing!’ can mean to someone else.

It can mean the world.


Screenshot 2016-07-26 13.58.40
Setting up Scrivener project for real

So I’m working on novel revisions again! Yay! I’ve almost gotten the various pieces of text placed appropriately and can write/rewrite the pivotal meeting between Bane and Winterblade that kicks off the plot.

If you get sidetracked, remember: it’s okay. You don’t have to make excuses or punish yourself for screwing up momentum or a schedule you set. Things happen. Life happens. You’ll get back into the game. Try to be kind to yourself for hitting a couple potholes or getting lost when the GPS fails.

You can do this. I believe in you.


Screenshot 2016-07-26 14.14.27
Progress again! 😀

WHAT’S NEXT? Probably something about playlists and how structuring scenes is like playing a video game. UNLESS IT’S SOMETHING ELSE. >.> *eerie music plays*

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 5–Recharging Batteries for Fun and Profit

Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (you are here) | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

Welcome back! I’m delighted by the responses to these posts so far, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.  🙂

BATTERIES, or, Refilling Your Creative Tanks

I love horror movies. Good, bad, hilarious, terrible–it’s all entertainment, and it’s all narrative. I believe visual/audio mediums are a perfect vehicle for horror stories. I just watched [REC] and the terrifying sequel, [REC]2. (As I said on twitter, these are a grand blend of zombie possession found footage.) On the queue I have a selection of movies pulled from this list.

I’m also listening to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (on Audible), and I have the latest issues of Nightmare Magazine and The Dark on my Kindle app.

Why so much horror, when I’m writing/revising a kinky, lyric fantasy novel?

Narrative recharging.

Screenshot 2016-07-14 18.25.37
Screencap from the abridged version of What Monsters Hide Beneath (a short film)

Similar to when you use any electronic device that runs on battery power, sooner or later you need to plug it in and recharge. Or it stops working. (And if this is a horror movie, you really do not want your flashlight or camera batteries dying on you in the third act.)

Brains have electric currents in them, and I mean, HOW COOL IS THAT? There’s also a creative component. For people who are focused on narrative construction–telling stories–we run off the storytelling batteries wired deep in our minds and hearts. We operate the story-apps, create new narrative, sketch artistic mediums into existence, and we do all this by pulling energy from ourselves. We use those batteries. So eventually we need to replenish what we used.

Everyone has a unique way of powering up again after depleting their store of energy. Everyone’s charge time until full is different.

Maybe you read a lot, or binge-watch a show on Netflix, or go hiking, or hide in a dark cave and hibernate until unwary adventurers disturb your crypt and unleash an ancient, terrifying evil into the world.

For me, I love watching horror movies.

Regardless of quality, they generally satisfy my three main criteria for battery-refueling:

  1. It has a narrative. Even if it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times, even if it’s barely there, even if it’s choppy and WTF, there is some semblance of story construction going on.
  2. It provides stimuli. Visual and auditory, often with a textual component since I tend to watch movies or shows with subtitles or Closed Captioning [CC] turned on. (It takes a lot of pre-planning and emotional prep to see a movie in theaters, because there is a thing as too much stimuli, so most often when I binge watch horror, I do so from the comfort of my couch, with headphones on and lights dimmed.) I’m a filmmaker as well as a writer, so I’m looking at the composition, the pacing, the lighting, the sound design, the makeup. My brain then subconsciously runs a translation program wherein it digests the visual/auditory input and churns out a low-frequency running commentary in my mind, wherein I’m narrating the story as I see it to myself as I watch. This translation process takes much longer with purely written text, and I’m a slow reader; but I can, comparatively, watch a movie in about two hours, and receive many of the same benefits from narrative deconstruction as I can from written fiction. I get prose-level feedback from reading (I’m consciously or unconsciously analyzing the specific words, placement, layout, etc), while I get craft-level feedback just as well from visual storytelling.
  3. It’s not the broadly-catagorized genre I’m writing in. Does The Collars We Wear have horror elements? Of course! It has some creepy as fuck imagery and ideas going on. But it is still not structurally or aesthetically horror. (I can also watch action movies in the same headspace as horror movies.) It has a specific feel for fantasy, to me, which is why, at the moment, I have a difficult time reading or watching straight-up fantasy to recharge. I need the distance of genre or aesthetics or trope-wrangling when I’m recharging. Once I am done with this project, I will happily devour more fantasy in all forms–shorts, novels, movies, art. Until then, when I need recharging, I turn to one of my favorite categories: horror.


Screenshot 2016-07-14 18.30.05
Obligatory cuteness

Thursday was my day off this week, and after I got up and fed Bucky (pictured above), I was about to open the laptop and do some words. But there was a very specific feeling of tiredness knotted around me. I recognized this.

Since Sunday, I have written–between blog posts, synopses, and fiction–9,500+ words. That is more than I have written in months.

REMINDER: There is no “right” speed at which to write. Fast, slow, interdimensional–what is right for you is valid, acceptable, and does not need to be compared to anyone else. There is no “right” way to write, either. You do not have to write every day to be a writer. All you need is to write. How, and why, and when–those are personal details. You do what works for you. That’s all that matters.

Okay? Okay.

I used up a lot of batteries this week. Blog posts are just as much work a brand new fiction, for me. 🙂 I love writing them, but they are not easy. So between all these words, I was getting low on battery.

In an attempt to be a smart!Merc and not wreck myself as I have too often in the past by trying to press through to unachievable goals or comparisons with others, I took the day off from fiction.

I watched horror movies, I listened to more of The Haunting of Hill House, and I took a nap.

You need energy if you want to run the various functions in your brain and produce creative output. It’s okay to take a break when you need it, to refuel and recharge.

I mean, even Energizer batteries run low eventually. (Don’t let the commercials lie to you.)

Whether you are writing new words, revising old ones, or running from zombies in a quarantined apartment building*, it is okay to take a break.

Rest. Recharge. Play games or read books or watch shows or take a walk or sleep or [your choice activity here]. Whatever works for you.

Burning out is, unfortunately, a thing that happens to everyone at some point. It sucks. If you feel fragile, if you feel depleted, if you feel down–it will pass, if you let yourself take the time you need and be kind to yourself if it’s not instantaneous. Self-care is a revolutionary act for many of us.

No, it is not always easy. Often, it is hard for so many reasons. Hard and impossible are not the same word, even if at times they seem indistinguishable.

I believe in you. ❤ I want you to take care of yourself, and it may take many different forms. I can’t tell you what to do on this front. It is as personal as the stories you tell. It may not look like anyone else’s version of self-care and recharging. (I mean, so long as you’re not a serial killer or something like that.)

You take care of your mental health needs, you recharge your batteries the best way that suits you, so you can continue to share your stories with the world.

*Maybe don’t stop and take a break if this is the situation. It might not end well.

So what’s next? Well, personally I plan to watch another horror film or two and then go to bed. (Hai there, anticipated WTF dreams… o.O)

After that? Well. Tomorrow I think I will feel more refreshed, more recharged, and can dive back into organizing sections into a Scrivener file and adding new words into the novel.

❤ ❤ ❤ to you all! Keep those batteries well-charged.

NEXT: [Merc gives up trying to predict the next topic in an ongoing series of blog posts at this point] WE’LL HAVE TO SEE, WON’T WE.

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 4–Speedbumps and Flexibility


K.M. Szpara is chronicling his process from getting an agent to novel revisions on his blog, and I encourage you to check it out–he has a kickass novel and the revision tactics (and gossipy stories) he shares are really cool. 🙂

Other posts in this series:

Part 0Part 1  | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 [you are here] | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9


I’ve tagged writing updates with #MercWritesABook on twitter, for those interested in following along!


Screenshot 2016-07-13 11.18.01
Progress page!

(I really like myWriteBuddy for tracking goals.)

So once I was about 3k into new material, I ran into a snag. While I know that a critical scene is in Bane’s POV, and needs to be there, I have not written it yet. It is a compilation of several different scenes in the first draft, and needs to be pulled together and fleshed out to serve its true purpose.

My original intent had been to write all of Winterblade’s scenes first, sew them into the draft, and then revise the whole thing. But it turns out that won’t work. If I don’t have this pivotal scene in place (where Bane and WB meet), then I don’t have a good frame of reference for how future scenes will unfold.

There seemed to be two options: 1.) write extensive notes and power through, potentially making more work in the long run, or 2.) make a detour to avoid the construction backup, and thus continue to make good time on this writing-trip.

There were definitely periods of younger!Merc’s life where they would have chosen option 1 out of pure stubbornness. And probably some convoluted rationale that would just provided more headaches later on.

Now!Merc, however, is much more interested in getting things done fast with as little stress as feasible.

I want to make this as easy on myself. So I decided to be flexible.

Step 1: Acknowledge that there is a traffic jam in the process. 

In my case, I know what I need (words!) but there are obstacles to getting what I want (…words).

I want to keep up my momentum (which I find easier to do when immersed in a specific voice), but I don’t want to add to the workload of having to rewrite massive sections of material a second time around–not when I could get it right the first time.

Time to strategize.

Step 2: Plot a new route.

Here’s what I did: I made a nifty bracketed scene holder in the middle of my ‘Winterblade POV’ document (I’m writing in a plain text file for minimal distraction) that looked like this.

pretty typical bracketed note for me…

Fortunately, I have enough sticky notes in my printed manuscript that guides the direction of this needs-to-be-added scene. So I’m not worried about losing the voice while switching POVs.

And when I get back into WB scenes, I will have the benefit of knowing what the hell I wrote in the meeting scene so I can move forward easier!

Step 3: Scrivener

I’ve dabbled with the program Scrivener before. I’ve heard many people extol its virtues, have also heard from people for whom it does not work, and have now decided to put it through its paces on assembling novelage. Because there will be a bunch of rearranging going on (per my To Do list in Part 1 of this series) I need a program that can handle large amounts of text, organize it, and allow me to shuffle it around as needed…without me getting entirely lost.

(Fun fact: I used Scrivener to organize a ‘found footage’ style superhero novelette I sold to Lightspeed earlier this year–and lemme tell you, “Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum” was an epic exercise in originational formatting! That test gave me faith that Scrivener could handle the workload.)

So I created a new project and made a bunch of folders. Then came MISSION: LABEL ALL THE THINGS!


(I love labeling things.)


A reason I like drafting in plain-text is that it forces me to focus on words, not the shiny formatting I could apply to them. >.>

So! With a Plan (write the necessary sections, as needed, to keep the flow, as well as organize chunks of text into better flow via Scrivener project) I will now dive back into the word abyss.

I’ve been so energized and excited about this project all week. It’s awesome, this feeling of genuine joy and flailing-about-with-eagerness. Allowing myself to be flexible when I need to change things up on the go vs. stressing about it not Fitting The Original Plan has been soooo helpful in maintaining that energy.

It did take most of a day (while at work) for me to realize what I needed to do, but that 10-hr shift was super useful for creating a definitive break in writing vs. thinking mode. (Also? I GOT TO BE THE CAMERA OPERATOR FOR A SHOW. HAVE I MENTIONED I LOVE MY JOB.)

Just changing physical space (from where I was writing to where I work) allowed a different set of brain-patterns to kick in and sift through various random thoughts until I settled on what was needed to keep up the enthusiasm, the energy, and the knowledge in this revision.

Guys, I’m just so pumped about this book. 😀


MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 3–The Next Big Step

Part 0 (what this series is about) | Part 1 (in the beginning) |Part 2 (synopsis and flail) | Part 3 (you are here) | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

You know those dreams where you are running through a swamp and jump into the air and will yourself to start flying higher and higher? While being chased by zombies and semi-trucks and tornadoes? And you’re really a robotic werewolf wielding a broadsword?

Yeah, that is kind of what revising a novel feels like to me! That surreal, adrenaline-rush WTF-is-happening feeling.

Less than a week ago, I decided to revise The Collars We Wear–a fantasy novel about a human sorcerer and a fae prince who become friends instead of enemies, which leads their peoples to the edge of war.

I set a goal for myself: I want this done by the end of August, 2016.

What I did not expect was this constant excitement-rush when thinking about the process! From marking up the manuscript to creating a list of things I needed to fix, from photoshopping myself into a noir setting to drafting a synopsis and pitch–it has been wild. Exhilarating.

So now it comes to the big step: writing new material to build muscle on the draft. 

word cloud_collars

What’s It Got In In Its Pocketeses, Precious?

The first draft of this novel has three point-of-view (POV) characters: Bane (the sorcerer), Damaveil (his mentor), and Inspector not!Javert Rajosja (from the Ministry of Arcane Crimes).

Bane and Rajosja keep their POV status, because they are major characters. Damaveil, while adorable, does not add anything meaningful with scenes from his perspective. I chose to cut his POV, and rework any necessary information into different scenes. I need to add more Rajosja scenes–since she mysteriously vanished in the middle and then showed up later to kick ass…and also because she’s awesome–and that will be the second part of a two-pronged drafting attack.

What is missing is the point of view of the other main character: Winterblade (fae prince). He’s rather crucial to the entire plot. If Bane and Winterblade never meet, then the book doesn’t exist.

So the first step will be writing all of Winterblade’s POV scenes and stitching them into the narrative where they belong.

Style, Tone, Shiny

A small tactic I’ve utilized when crafting new words is to pick a series of “flavor notes” that describe the tone, texture, or theme of the story. Example:

Winter Bride is a short story set in the novel world and was published in Kaleidotrope.

When you fall asleep, the dream — the terrible dream — comes again.

You stand in a desert, wind that never warms you blurring the dunes with dust, your ankles buried in sand.

“We will leave here,” says the sorceress, hidden in the darkness. Her voice is soft as a razor’s caress. She is the lord’s favorite bride, the untamable one. “Soon.”

You push aside the sand like curtains, but she is always just shy of your reach, a silhouette. You have no voice in the dream.

“I will take you away from him.” The sorceress is the mistress of illusions. It was how she won the Winter Lord’s favor. (She claims he cannot find her true nature, and so he tries, continually fascinated.) “Soon the moons will be dark and Winter will sleep. It is then we will be free.”

The sorceress is the only one you believe can manipulate dreams in Winter.

Still you cannot find her in the sands.

You panic. If she cannot see you, will she forget? You cannot stay here alone. You cannot.

The sand darkens, chills, and turns into snow.

Upon waking, you find the moons have waned and the pale, cold day has replaced them. There is no sun in this world.

The Winter Lord still holds you curled against his chest, his eyes closed. “You are so restless in sleep, pet.”

Your pulse trembles. The Winter Lord does not dream — so you spin a lie before he compels you to give him truth and betray what you saw. “I dreamed of the Spring Hunt, my lord. You were a doe and I a bear.”

He caresses your throat with one hand. “And how did it end?”

“How does it always end, my lord?”

–from Winter Bride by A. Merc Rustad (Kaleidotrope, 2014)

(It’s set chronologically before The Collars We Wear.)

For this story, flavor notes might be: brittle, cold, sharp. These evoke a sense of tone and style for me. It influences the voice and word choice, the flow and atmosphere.

I think a lot about flavor notes for different stories. Each story has its own voice, its own heartbeat;  word-flavors shift and change, but they are always present.

When I estimated that I need approximately 30k of new words for the novel, the bulk of that is a single POV–Winterblade’s. The upside of this is that I know what happens, I know the character well, I have my set of flavor notes for these chapters.

Winterblade’s POV has shades of shivery, haunting, pitilesshollow.


(Appropriate Tributes is my absolute favorite Twitter bot. You may have noticed.)

I’m experimenting with scheduling myself blocks of writing time before work, or on days off, and then treating those blocks as actual work-shifts. I need to be at the library or coffee shop (somewhere that is not near the Xbox or the couch) at a specified time, then I sit down and need to work. It’s a structure, a pattern, and a change in atmosphere that gets my brain into different grooves.

It’s early in the test-run (less than a week), but now that I generally have mornings free, and I am used to being up at ridiculous hours, I’ve been productive already. It’s glorious, you guys. ❤ Energy! Words! Coffee!

I read and very much enjoyed Rachael Aaron’s book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. I recommend checking it out–it’s short and to the point, charming, helpful, and refreshingly upbeat.

One of the many gems in this book was the idea of a triangle that’s composed of knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm.

Knowing what you’re going to write (I did that with notes, a list, and synopsis), having the energy to write (I’m aiming for mornings when my brain is functioning best), and being enthusiastic about what you write. This formula that makes perfect sense to me. That last part, the enthusiasm? HELL YEAH I’M EXCITED!

I love this novel, these characters. The story hits all my narrative buttons. I want to share it. So yep, the enthusiasm is definitely present.

Since writing draft-things is easier to track for me on twitter, rather than extensive blog posts for each session, I will probably be live-tweeting writing sessions when I begin. (I’m @Merc_Rustad there.)

Then at the end of next week (or whenever I hit a good summary point) I will make a log about how MISSION: NEW MATERIAL went. 🙂

NEXT: Part 4–Untitled Release From Mercbrain Studios (2016)

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 2–Flailing, Synopsis, Noir

Welcome back! I’m delighted to hear people are enjoying these posts. They are motivating me to do more work so I have something to blog about. Win-win! 🙂 

Prologue  (what this series is about) | Part 1 (how it started) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

By the way, if you have your own post(s) about revising a novel, please do link me in the comments or ping me on Twitter: @Merc_Rustad. I’d love to compile a bunch of other perspectives to share!

After creating a list of major things I need to add, fix, delete, and rearrange, I wanted to hone in on the core elements of the book. What is it about?

Enter the synopsis.

But first flailing.


It’s not that I have what appears to be a writerly-universal dread of synopses. I like them! I actually enjoy trying to condense things into small, neat little packages. It feels a lot safer than big, sprawling novelthings with tentacles and too many teeth.

Rather, the flailing stems from the fact that holy mothballs from a magic wardrobe, Batman, this is a real thing I am actually doing and I need to make it coherent so people will want to read. o.O

*flail flail flail*

People. Might. Want. To. Read. My. Book.

Fun fact: one of my favorite things when describing a project is to do it in the style of the ‘they fight crime!‘ generator. So, The Collars We Wear would look something like:

He’s a neuroatypical sorcerer with a dark past! He’s a winter fae prince shaped into a living weapon! Together they…do not really fight crime so much as create massive rips in the fabric of reality?

It’s a start!

So, because I’m happiest when other people are happy, and I love being able to bring happiness (and sometimes tears, fiiiiine, I admit it) to other people through my work, I want these small, compact little descriptions to be good.

*flails foreveeeeeer*

Okay. So. What qualifies good? I have no idea! Next best strategy: write it in a way that reader!Merc would want to pick it up. That, if not necessarily quantifiable, is at least a metric I can flail at.



It wasn’t a dame that walked into my office that Friday night.

Through the smoke-haze curling up from the waste basket, I eyed the massive figure wide as my doorway that stood blocking out the only light. That light was a single bulb dangling in the hallway, where I would’ve had a secretary if I had the cash to pay anything. Thought it was the landlord’s newest goon come to shake me down for rent. Wasn’t, though.

My hand slid to the underside of my desk, where I kept my slug thrower. “We’re closed,” I said.

“Too bad,” the shape replied. “Looks like you’re working after hours.”

That silhouette–there was something familiar about it. Too familiar. I squinted, finger resting on the trigger under the desk. Damn. I recognized him now: one of Big Novel’s thugs. Synop, probably. We’d had run-ins before, and they weren’t too pretty.

“Well well well,” I said, leaning back in my chair. Never let ’em see you flinch. “Boss have you doing the dirty work again?”

Thunder scoured the muggy air outside. Shoving its weight around the clouds, making the rain piss down against the grimy window.

“Boss wants to see you.”

“I’m done working for–“

“Ain’t a request.” Synop tipped his black fedora. “Midnight. Be there.”

Damn. There went my plans for the weekend…

Instead of trying to construct a perfect, succinct synopsis on the first try, I began by crafting a very loose ramble that highlighted the core elements of the book, and examined each of the three principal characters’ actions and emotions throughout the story. It ended up over 2,000 words. Not exactly…tidy, but it did get the bones down. From there I could start shaping the mash of words into something a little more sleek and intriguing.

So then K.M. Szpara linked me to this nifty article on the subject of synopses:

How to Write A 1-Page Synopsis

It’s super helpful (with the bonus of using Star Wars as an example). I followed those steps and was pleased with results! The second synopsis attempt was closer to 600 words, and was much tighter.

The words might not be pretty, but they adequately conveyed what I needed: the story arc, the character arcs, the emotional impact of what happens, and explosions.

It was like zooming in on a high-resolution photo–I ratcheted the focus in tighter and tighter, while still retaining clarity. I wasn’t trying to make it perfect. The point of these synopsis drafts was simply to get myself used to summarizing in a way that intrigued reader!Merc (and therefore hopefully other readers).

Two-sentence take:

The Collars We Wear

A human sorcerer and a fae prince become friends instead of enemies, which leads their peoples to the edge of war–and everyone now wants them dead. They can save each other, but at what cost to both their worlds?

It’ll evolve, but this is the principle conflict in the novel.

Two people who are expected to be enemies are friends instead. This relationship affects both their worlds in big ways. Do they let war happen because of them, or do they make impossible choices to prevent it and keep the status quo?

What Comes Next? Or, Using A Synopsis to Guide Revisions

With all the work I did to hone in on the central plot elements and character interaction in the various synopsis incarnations, I now feel much more confident about diving into those big-picture revisions I listed in the last post. I have guidelines, a map, I can follow without getting lost in tangents.

When I get to writing additional material and shuffling things around, I can look at my levels of synopses and see if I’m staying on track for the global picture on this novel.

And besides, with some drafts already shaped, when I get around to crafting queryable pitches and synopsis? Hopefully there will be less flailing.

(Okay, let’s be honest, it’ll just be re-focused flailing. Flailing betterfasterstronger.)

Next: Tackling New Material, or, MERC-FLAIL PART 3: THE RECKONING. 

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 1–Robots, Bedtime Stories, and Thunderstorms

Prologue (introduction about this series) | Part 1 (you are here) | Part 2 (what the book is about) | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

Part One:

Robots, Bedtime Stories, and Thunderstorms

A few months ago I wrote about an app I use to help me sleep which, not coincidentally, is relevent to this whole revision process. Vital, even.

I put the draft of The Collars We Wear on my NaturalReaderPro a couple nights ago, expecting the usual routine: I turn it on, tuck the iPad on my night stand, and fall asleep to the rhythmic cadence of an artificial voice.

It was storming, the great rumble-hum of thunder, the scent of rain on the wind, the incandescent flickers of swallowed lightning in the clouds. (I sleep with the window open in summer for this reason.)

The app was reading to me. I turned up the volume just a notch to compensate for the storm…and could not fall asleep. Because I was listening to my novel. That thing I had written. And I wanted to finish listening.

“But I know what happens,” I told myself, confused. “I wrote it, didn’t I?”

Yes, my brain answered, but do you remember these turns of phrase? How the emotional impact works? The dialogue? How the characters interact?

I did not. I had hidden from this story; closed it away because it was scary, and I didn’t know what to do. And now it was showing me all the things I didn’t remember, and wanted to reclaim.

Exhibit A: evidence of the note-taking pass

There are many reasons we write. To share our stories, our dreams, out fears, our joy. Passion, philosophy, memory, revolution.

Stories take on innumerable shapes; stories have untold numbers of voices; stories can last forever.

If we do not speak, if we do not tell these stories inside us, what will become of them? How can the universe remember our voices, our hearts, if we do not share them?

A novel is a massive investment of energy, time, emotion, and self. A novel glitters with pieces of your soul, etched in prose, shining points of light towards your deepest heart.

It takes courage to write, and gumption to finish, and massive amounts of grit to step out from the draft and guide it into a book-shaped thing.

If you’ve written a novel of any length, you are awesome. Hell, if you’ve written anything at all, you are also awesome.

So, if–like me–you now have a draft…what comes next? I said in the previous post, I have no formulae. (I have no idea what I’m doing!)

We can go on an adventure and find out, though.

Log: Relevent Dates

On 7/6/16 I decided to do a terrifying thing: revise my novel, The Collars We Wear.

I chose an end date: I want a readable draft to send to betas by the end of August 2016. (And there you go: public accountability! Oh crap…)

On 7/7/16 I began the revision process.

Here’s how it starts.

Step 1: I began with a print-out copy of the novel.

2016-07-07 08.06.30

Small!Merc got into the habit of making hardcopy backups of all major projects, and thanks to past!Merc following that instinct, current!Merc has a double-spaced manuscript printed out and ready to go.

The draft is 63,000 words. Short, yes, and engrained with many [brackets] full of summary and placeholders. It’s okay! The story is finished and despite missing a lot in the middle, it has an arc I can follow.

I assembled it into a 3-ring binder for easy access and so I had a flat, physical surface I could scribble on when working. The tactile element is necessary–I’ve already seen this story on screen, and heard it read to me. Now, I need to hold the pages and be able to make notes with ink and paper.



Having already listened to the novel all the way through thanks to my robot-voiced app, I was familiar with the story again. It was fresh in my mind. I didn’t want to be trying to revise and constantly tripping up on wondering what was going on or if this section was relevent, or whose eye color changed mid-book.

(Perhaps you wonder: “Yes, but what is this book about, Merc?” I’ll get there.)

Macro note-taking

Taking a collection of Post-It Notes (shiny colors!), a pen (a nice ballpoint), and a yellow highlighter (easy to see and cheerful), I began skimming the novel from the beginning and plastering notes as I went.


With the story in my head, I knew a bunch of the large-scale changes I needed to make. It’s missing an entire POV from one character; I’m deleting the POV of a different character who kind of fizzled out as a perspective near the middle; I need to balance the three point of view characters’ scenes; I needed to do a few global find-replace for specific terms and words.

Basically, any big-picture stuff I already knew about (after listening to the book) and anything I noticed whilst skimming through pages, I noted with a sticker. Sticky notes provide me with a vivid, visual key so when I get to step 4, I can easily find what I’m looking for.

All the small, line-by-line nitty-gritty stuff? The polishing? That comes when the major reconstruction and additions are made to the novelthing.

Step 3: Macro, not Micro

The goal with the sticky-note-pass was simple: skim through the entire novel as fast as possible while jotting down notes on things that needed to be fixed, changed, added, improved, or cut.

(No, there is no color-coordination for the stickies. I just alternated with which color appealed to me most in the moment.)

The beginning is where the most work is needed: it’s lacking a logical progression, it needs additional information, and things need to be shuffled around for better impact and flow.

2016-07-07 11.16.17
Workspace–emphasis on “space” to work

Near the middle, I noticed I needed a lot of additional content–a new POV, additional POV scenes for a main character, plot-relevent information–so I would jot down things like, “Add R’s POV so she can continue her investigation” on a note, stick it somewhere on the page, and move on.

Big picture was my focus. Sure, I might have caught a few minor things and typos, but I just circled those in pen and continued onward.

I chose to do this on my day off, so I would have a large block of uninterrupted time in which I could power through this. My draft is just under 300 pages long, double-spaced, and I finished the sticky-note pass in about five hours (combined total).

Log: Time Spent

July 7th, 2016

8am to 10am [coffee shop]

11:15am to 1:15 pm [library]

7pm to 8pm [living room floor]



When I had done an initial pass through the novel, decorating it with colorful Post-It Notes to make it shiny, I took a short break.

The next step for me was to list all the major changes I’d noted while reading into one document and then compile them in once place. I decided to do this long-hand, like I’d done notes, because the tactile sensation was still pleasant and it kept me from fiddling incessantly with a digital file instead of working.

When I listened to my book, I could not change anything. NaturalReaderPro does highlight sentences as it reads, if you want to follow along, but you have no ability to edit in the program. This is good for me: I needed to listen, to absorb the story once more, and let it settle.

Creating an outline by looking at my notes did not take super long; I did not want to laboriously re-write out all the notes. I just picked the highlights and major themes I saw.

Screenshot 2016-07-07 20.15.07
bit of outline from notebook

Again, I’d chosen to do this on a day off so I could take breaks when necessary, but also cluster all the work into one contained “day” to keep up the brainspace and momentum.

With an outline in place, I could break down each of the city-sized tasks into smaller, more manageable things.

I created three major categories:

  • Additional Material (new POV sections, missing scenes, etc)
  • REARANGE ALL THE THINGS! (shuffling large chunks of text around)
  • Things To Cut (outdated information, wholesale scene deletion, etc)

I put this in the most important order. Writing new material is the hardest task, because (obviously) it means churning out new prose. I estimate I need an additional 30,000 words [30k] to fit in all the missing pieces.

Rearranging things is easier when you have all the pieces already available. So I need to write what I’m missing, and then I can sort it all out.

Cutting out material is tricky, sometimes, because a lot of the content in the soon-to-be-deleted scenes is necessary and I need to work it in elsewhere. I will have a scrap file to save all these scenes and paragraphs and snippets so I can take the information and weave it into the narrative when I hit the sanding & polishing stage.

(I rarely throw anything away. My sister complains that when I play video games, I invariably max out my character’s carrying capacity because I collect everything. xD)

I need to do the heavy lifting, the big scary tasks, before I can fine-tune anything else.

How long will all this take? I have no idea! I plan to designate blocks of writing time as I would schedule shifts at a job, worked around my current schedule, and tackle the first item on my outline: new words.

NEXT: What is this book about? And other fun things! (Also known as *flailing*)

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising A Novel, Part 0

Part 0 (you are here) | Part 1 (the begining) | Part 2 (what the book is about) | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

Prologue: In Which Our Narrator Explains What This Post Series Is About

So. Novels. Stories with a lot of words, yes? Yes. And yes, I happen to have written a few, though I’ve been on a hiatus of noveling for a while. But while I may have written some novels (*cough*many drafts *cough*), but I’ve never seriously finished revising one.

Because novels are terrifying things, huge and toothy and full of eyes, and they lie in wait to devour unwary travelers.

How do you wrestle a novel-draft? How do you comb its fur free of thistles, polish its horns and claws, and teach it how to drink tea in polite company?

A novel is born through needle and threaded words, thousands of syllables sewn into shapes scavenged and built, old and new; a novel is pieced together in laboratories full of lightning and ambition; a novel comes to life with raw, untamed bolts of electricity siphoned from the aether and channeled through sheer will.  A novel can breathe on its own, if you start its heart and lungs.

If not properly guided, a novel runs wild and wrecks havoc–smashing down trees, startling the fauna, disrupting the local villagers.

But we all know the novel isn’t the monster of this story. It doesn’t know any better at first. You need to offer a hand, teach it, nurture it, show it affection and compassion. Don’t cast it out for its appearance.

When I finished writing The Collars We Wear, I made Frankenstein’s mistake and ran away from the newborn draft. It was too scary and I had no idea what to do with this creation.

Fortunately, the tiny novelthing didn’t follow the Creature’s arc, and I didn’t follow the doctor’s. We met up again, both nervous, unsure what to say, but wanting to make amends.


The novel had been dreaming in a drawer, where it was cool and dark and safe. It yawned when I gently pulled it out, and it looked at me, and inside the novel I saw  all these gorgeous angles and bright lines and sharp edges and I hugged it close and it purred in greeting.

“Want to visit the world?” I asked.

Yep, the novel responded. Let me get cleaned up and install these recent upgrades. I think you’ll like the look of them.

And it was true: the new ideas and clearer understanding of what I wanted with this book were enticing. The novelthing was confident, solid, and ready to set out on a new adventure. I was excited. Still nervous, of course–I mean, it’s quite a climb up through the drafty forests to reach the open fields where the novelthing can spread its wings and fly. But we’ll get there.

After I talked to some good friends about this novel, sent some doubtroaches scurrying, and made a firm decision that I would revise this novel, and do so by a specific date, I had made the first step (the hardest: beginning) and was ready to start.

This series of posts is simply a chronicle of how I’m revising a novel. It’s “live” essentially, and I have no proven formulae or process yet. I’ll fumble and stumble, have some wildly euphoric moments of realization, and probably do a lot of epic flailing. Like I said, it’s going to be an adventure!

Also I’m taking lots of pictures and keeping notes of what I’m doing so you can come along for the ride, if you’d like.

revise a bookWhere do we begin with project: MERC VS. BOOK?

With robots, bedtime stories, and thunderstorms.