Tuesday, November 30, 2010
There are two things I've learned from a course that I'm taking to help cut down on information dumping, back story, extra words, phrases, scenes or even chapters (or whatever else you can include in this list).
Ask yourself this as you edit:
1. Does it strengthen the character?
2. Does it pull the story forward?
What's in your toolbox?
Saturday, November 27, 2010
So I packed my three-year-old and my new baby into the car and went elevator hunting.
I drove to the nearest multi-story building I knew of--a satellite campus of the local community college. As I parked I told my three-year-old that we were going riding in an elevator. He was thrilled.
With baby in the stroller and pre-schooler in tow, I breezed in through the front doors like I belonged there. I found an elevator, let my son push the button, and waited.
Fortunately, no one else wanted the elevator at the moment.
We rode up to the top story and back down again. Plenty of time for me to memorize the inside of the elevator, and even try putting my foot on the handrail to give myself a boost up to the emergency hatch on the ceiling. Back on the ground floor, I wheeled the stroller out to the car, buckled everyone in, then drove home to finish writing the scene.
What's the craziest thing you've done for a research trip?
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
You know how you want to be a fly on the wall when someone’s reading (or in our case, listening to) your story?
Well, nothing beats the honesty of young children. Everyone knows that. If they’re bored, they don’t politely yawn and pat their mouth and look at their watches. No, they moan, roll their eyes and collapse over something.
On the flip side, when they’re entertained, they laugh, they giggle, they can’t hold still. They actually cheer and do jigs – well ‘jigging’ is a bit old-fashioned – it’s more like munchkin break-dancing. Anyway, it’s exciting when the reason for so much excitement comes from the product of minds and hands you know.
Yesterday, that happened to a friend and I got to be there. It was awesome! A fellow writer and I went into a fourth grade class. My friend has written several children’s books, one of which I’d illustrated. She read her story with a great aplomb, giving each character voices and accents. (Watch out Jim Dale, you have competition.) I held up the illustrations and watched the children’s reactions.
I wish my friend could have seen how they responded to her story (she saw bits, but had to look at the pages she read), because it was delightful.
They laughed, frowned, and gasped in all the right places. I actually saw a jaw drop and hands clapped over a mouth. One boy’s feet started going ninety miles an hour under his desk.
It was true entertainment – at least to me, because I really admire this friend and love to see her story being truly appreciated by her target audience. And I can’t wait to do it again.
Monday, November 22, 2010
What writing books would you recommend?
Rebecca recommended Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace to me a while ago, and I still recommend it to others that want to boost their craft. I recently purchased Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft, based on a recommendation from a talented author/speaker at a conference. Sadly, I've purchased many books on writing that weren't worth the money, or the time. I find recommended books from talented authors I respect tend to be the best.
Which is where you come in!
I'll take any recommendations and add them to my TBR, but in particular, I'm looking for books that talk about plotting or storytelling.
Thanks, me hearties!
Saturday, November 20, 2010
It's NaNoWriMo, that festive time of year when folks send the internal editor on a long vacation and try to get as many words on the page as fast as they can. There's something wonderful and free about charging headlong into a writing project. Who cares if its 50,000 words of slush?
Actually, I do care, because I'm going to want to revise that slush.
I know I'm not supposed to think about it too much while I'm drafting, but there's got to be something of merit happening somewhere to make all those words WORTH revising.
What do you focus on when you write a first draft?
For me, the first thing that comes is the dialog. I hear the characters talking to each other. Then I put the scene around them, where they are, how they look, what's happening. My husband says I should be a screenplay writer because my first drafts are all dialog and stage directions.
But this time I'm trying something new. I'm focusing hard on how my pov character feels and what he thinks. So far, I like the results.
I don't draft at 1000 words an hour. More like 600. That's because I like to stop and draw floor plans, scour the internet for the perfect name for a walk-on character, research how my characters might make gunpowder from scratch, stand up and act out a scene so I get the blocking right, meditate on the most apt metaphor, or simply dream myself further into the setting. In other words, I have more fun if my fingers don't have to be flying every second.
So what do you do when you first draft?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
It took me some time to learn how to take feedback from test readers.
The very first time someone (other than my mother or my husband) read a manuscript I'd written I couldn't wait to talk with her about it. I had a chance to drive her to the airport, and was so excited to have her to myself for forty-five minutes. Once we got in the car I launched into what I thought she wanted to know--the entire history of where I'd gotten every brilliant idea and how I'd developed every charming character. She listened patiently, and when at last I wound down she offered, "Do you really have to start the story with someone making photocopies?"
Oh. That. Yes, maybe I should have thought of a more compelling opening scene.
Many drafts and many readers later, I had learned to keep my mouth shut and listen to what the reader had to say about the work. But I noticed something interesting about their comments. Often, a reader would point out something wrong and make a suggestion of how I should fix it. After I got over my bitter disappointment that my manuscript wasn't perfect yet and went back to take a look, the reader would be right about there being something wrong, but often it wasn't what they told me. There would be some other thing, some underlying thing that only I could see, only I knew how to fix.
This has come to guide both my response to critique and my giving of critiques. I no longer try to tell another writer what's wrong or what I think should be done to repair it. I say vague things like, "I didn't buy that." and "This confused me." I only go into more detail if asked. I also like to heap on the praise when good stuff is happening, because that's what I want to see! More good stuff!
And when someone tries to tell me what's wrong with my manuscript I listen carefully, knowing that my reader has probably detected a flaw even if my reader can't quite pin down what the flaw is. We all know that feeling, when reading a book, that something isn't working. I can be blind to that in my own work, just like my own children look beautiful to me even when they have tangles in their hair and watermelon smeared on their faces.
So thanks to everyone, everywhere, who has ever helped me comb the tangles out of a manuscript! I've learned so much from you, and I look forward to working together again.
Monday, November 15, 2010
I'm to the point in my latest novel where I've sent it out to my usual wise readers - different people have different names for these, if they have them at all. The term "wise reader" comes from Orson Scott Card, as far as I'm aware (he may have borrowed it from elsewhere), but in any case it refers to readers who know you well enough to be willing to read your draft work but are also invested enough in your career to give you honest feedback, even when it hurts. They don't so much tell you how to fix your writing, but rather give you a blow by blow of what they felt when they read it, i.e. "This part dragged" "I really don't like this character" "I don't understand what happened here" "This part was nice! Can you do more of that?" You then need to figure out why they had the reaction they did and thus be able to retune your manuscript accordingly.
It's taken me ten years to get a stable of wise readers. They include people from my Clarion West class, other writers I've met through conventions, my husband, and by far the most miraculous, a former housemate. Said housemate became my housemate when I didn't really know her very well, but her living situation and mine were compatible, timing-wise, so we moved into the same house. I soon learned that when she was a teen, she read in one of her favorite author's books a thank you to a best friend who read all of the author's rough drafts, and she really wanted to someday be that best friend to an author. She also has a degree in English. I forewarned her that I was probably not the author for her, since my stuff was still far from publishable, but she's stuck with me all these years and pesters me when I don't have anything for her. You'll always find her at the top of my acknowledgements. She must like me if she's been so devoted, but at the same time, she'll send me blunt, straightforward, honest comments. People like her are rarer than diamonds.
Where do you guys get your wise readers? I assume many of you have each other, but does anyone else have any quirky stories of unexpected helpers found along the way?
Saturday, November 13, 2010
It would be interesting to see a psychological study done on writers. Yesterday, I got one of those letters. The ones that send the angel and demon on my shoulders into a conniption fit. Here’s a snipet of their conversation:
Me (staring at my rejection letter): Oh booger.
Demon (laughing): Another one? Get a clue! Do me a favor and grab all those worthless manuscripts in your closet, and turn them into a bonfire. Your writing stinks. You stink.
Angel (patting my back): Don’t listen. It’s okay, just part of the writing adventure. Add it to your, well, impressive stack, and keep going. Remember, you love this.
Demon: Are you kidding me? Get a life! Right now, you’re missing an excellent re-run of The Simpsons.
Me (banging head on my manuscript): I don’t want to watch the Simpsons.
Demon: Gah! You’re missing all the fun. You know you want to give up.
Angel (folding arms and glaring at Demon): Quitters Never Win and This IS fun.
Me (sighing and adding the letter to my impressive stack): This is so much fun.
Yup, and since yesterday, I’ve hit all five levels of the mourning process:
Denial (Hey, it’s a mistake.)
Anger (This stinks. The world stinks. My undone laundry stinks.)
Bargaining (If I just rewrite the beginning, middle and end, maybe they’ll reconsider.)
Depression (I’m never going to write again.)
Acceptance (All right, at least I have Nano. I’ll write a fun book just for the joy of it. And I really do love writing.)
Well, okay, I’m still wallowing a little.
You know what’d make me feel better? Fess up. What’s the real story on how you react (first day) to rejection? How long does it take you to bounce back? Any secret solutions (like chocolate or bubble baths)?
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The cap'n is mighty proud today to announce that one of our jolly crew will be holding a book signing for her debut novel! Yes, one week from now, Susan Quinn will sign copies of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit at a couple of her local book stores in Illinois. You can see more details here.
So all come round and give Quinn a hearty thump on the back! Hip-hip-hooray! We're pleased to celebrate this landmark on your voyage with ye. And we look forward to a full report next week.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Drafting takes focus. I rope off several hours a day and put up a big sign: This is a no e-mail, no blogging, no phone call area. Then I get in my backhoe and start digging.
DANGER! KEEP OUT! NO TRESPASSING! Deep pits, piles of dirt, stacks of re-bar, cinder blocks and lumber, pipes and wires snaking everywhere, it's not a pretty sight. But no one else is going to look at it. Ever. Except for me.
As for my internal editor, I've sent her on an expedition to hunt for polar bears in Antarctica. She can come back when the first draft is done.
See you later! I'm off to do some more drafting.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
I’ve never done Nano (National Writing Month) before. I wasn’t going to. A very good friend convinced me otherwise and I’m oh, so grateful.
This is my first time and it’s been interesting. You learn a lot about yourself as a writer.
I learned that my internal editor is a slave-driver, and it’s liberating to shut if off and just write for the joy of it.
I learned it takes approximately two uninterrupted hours to write 2,000 words.
I learned just how many excuses (99%) I can safely throw into the sea and watch float away without any remorse whatsoever.
And I’m excited. Writing 50,000 words in a month is possible, is reasonable, and for me at least, a great lesson I’m eager to relearn. (I wrote my first novel in six weeks. It stunk. But it was sure fun to write.)
So, I have a question for you. If this is your first Nano, what have you learned about writing and/or about yourself this week? And if you’ve done it before, what is the best thing you learned?
Three years ago when I began to venture into the world of book publishing, the query process seemed so unfair. How could an agent judge anything about my manuscript by a few paragraphs on a single sheet of paper? And after all that work of drafting a novel, revising, drafting again, rewriting the ending three times, revising some more, NOW I had this--this HOMEWORK assignment! Write a query letter? Bah.
Now I have a different attitude. What can an agent tell about my manuscript from my query letter? More than I thought at first. But equally important is what the agent can tell about me.
When you meet someone it doesn't take long to get an impression of who they are. A query letter is the same way. It's a first impression, and it can be very revealing.
Here's a few things I'd be looking for if I were an agent:
1. Is this writer competent enough to draft a good business letter? This includes conventions like grammar, spelling, and formatting. Writers who can produce great novels but who can't write a decent business letter may exist, but they've got to be extremely rare.
2. Can the writer explain the story clearly in a paragraph or two, and make it sound exciting? If the writer can't do this then I'm certainly not going to be able to do it. How will I get an editor interested? How will we sell this book to the public?
3. Do I like this writing style? Is it engaging? Could I read a whole book in this writing style?
What are some other things agents can glean from a query letter? I'd like to see some comments.
When it comes to a query letter, what's between the lines can be just as important as what's on the surface. It's a first impression, and I intend to make it count.
How does your novel open?
My YA Paranormal novel opens in the hallway of a High School. Unfortunately, this is apparently a cliche, right up there with getting ready for school in the bedroom/bathroom, having a car crash, dream sequence, waking up, regaining consciousness, or weather of any kind.
An argument commenced in my head about how my cliche was different from other cliches and that my cliche was necessary and truly the only and best way to open the story. After all, it had all the other correct elements:
- Start with action
- Start with your MC making an important choice that foreshadows/hints at the main conflict
- Start with interactions of your MC with other charcters, so we see their character through action/dialogue
- Don't introduce your MC's love interest too early
- Don't have too much backstory
- Have a strong opening line
Except for one ...
- Start your character in a setting that defines who they are
The argumentative side of me, the part that doesn't like to be wrong, continued to lobby for the hallway: But it does define who she is, she's a high school student after all.
Yeah. Right. If that was her major characteristic, we'd be writing a whole different kind of story (my arguing side and myself).
So I went and looked at the opening scenes of novels I had recently read (and admired) and one I didn't (admire).
Behemoth: Starts with a fencing duel between the two MC's, who continue to duel (figuratively) throughout the story
The White Cat: Starts in mortal danger on the top of a roof, which presages the danger his abilities cause him
Paranormalcy: Starts with her killing a vampire, because she's sort of a Buffy-the-Vampire slayer type. But in pink.
Uglies: Starts with her creeping through the bushes to illegally break into Pretty Town.
AND THE ONE I DIDN'T LIKE: Starts in the High School hallway.
Gah! I hate being wrong.
So, the opening is going to have to change. And I'm slowly, grumblingly, adverbly deciding that it's a good thing. It is forcing me to stretch to define who my character is, what my story is, and how can that all be artfully captured in an opening scene that will intrigue and pull in the reader?
Note that none of the examples above starts with the main conflict, but they all reflect an aspect of the main conflict, which is revealed later on. I think that's important, because I think there is too much advice out there about openings that say Start with the conflict! Throw your character in media res! I think we need to know who our character is before the main conflict, else we won't give a switch how much trouble they're in when it arrives. But starting with some conflict, one that hints at the true conflict, is artful indeed. As Richard Peck says, "The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise."
So, yeah. I can do this. But it may make my brain hurt for a little while.
How do you decide how to start your novel?
Friday, November 5, 2010
I really enjoy doing these things for 3 reasons:
1. It indulges the writers in us
2. It creates a sense of friendship in sharing
3. It's so much FUN to see how it ends up (imagine the many genres we can come up with?)
So, without further a-squabblin' here be me start:
He's watching me.
Terror claws my spine and I try my best to keep it from showing.
your turn! ;)
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Calendars, goals, objectives, step-by-step plans: I love these tools for controlling the universe.
I am an engineer, after all.
But I also understand the randomness that there is in the industry (especially in the query process), and I'm clinging to my Zen attitude while my step-by-step plans get stepped on and my calendars become hen-scratched with delayed goals.
I had planned to finish most of my querying before the holiday season (Thanksgiving-to-New Years) was upon us, but I can now see that is unlikely to happen. I've heard that querying in the holiday time is not a good idea, simply because agents are frenetically busy just like everyone else, and may be less inclined to request pages.
What say you? Should I suspend my querying during that time?
p.s. I just sent off another round, figuring the holiday season hasn't started yet. But the vast Christmas tree display at the Walgreens argues otherwise.