Thursday, February 25, 2010

Learning the Craft: the Advanced Level

From the feedback I received from agents about my first novel, I decided I was a good writer but I was lacking that last bit of whatever needed to make my novels publishable. Writing advice books weren't saying anything new, so I decided on another route to learn what I'm missing. I've decided to spend time reading a lot of novels (2 per week) of a variety of different genre.

I'll read mystery/suspense/thrillers in search of ones that make my heart pound and compelled me to read more to know what happened next. The ones that succeeded, I'll study to identify what the author did to create that suspense. The ones that didn't, I'll try to identify why they failed.

I'll read historical novels to discover how much detail is good, what type of detail creates a sense that this story really happened, and what just bogs the story down or gets skimmed over.

I'll read to discover how to engage the reader's emotions--how to make them feel what the characters are going through even if the reader isn't like that character in personality or values or even if a character didn't start out very likable.

And so on.

We'll see what I can learn.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Character Relationships

R. L. LaFevers gave some interesting advice in her June 23, 2009 post of Things Left Unspoken:

...It is the things left unspoken that define the relationship... is the things we are too afraid or too angry to say that often define the shape and quality of our personal relationships. That betrayal you felt from your sister that you never dared to tell her about will shape all your future dealings with her. The fury you felt at your father, or the heartbreak your husband unknowingly dealt you; all of those emotions will bend and distort your interactions for years to come.

And it occurred to me what a powerful tool that would be to use in our writing, what an effective layer of subtext. So consider asking yourself, what is left unspoken between your characters? And how does it distort and drive their relationship to each other?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Settings are Important

From this article about SF/F:

O'Neill: Probably the best piece of advice I can give an aspiring writer is to pay as much attention to your setting as to your plot, characters, and prose.

When I'm reading an unsolicited manuscript, I'm reading to reject....So you've got a few precious minutes to grab my attention, and you better use them.

It's hard do with plot. If your plot is simple enough to communicate in the first two pages, I've probably seen it a hundred times. It's hard to do with character, for similar reasons.

It's easy to do with setting. Two pages is more than enough space to paint a picture of your world that grabs my attention, if it's fresh and intriguing. You can't compete with [other things demanding my attention] when all you have to offer is yet another version of the tale of King Arthur, or a generic medieval setting, or a tavern filled with rangers, dwarves, and a half-orc with a dungeon map.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Non-Typical Settings

Jessica Faust wrote:

To make an international setting work in genre fiction I think the locale itself almost needs to become a character. The reader needs to be transported into another world and not feel like the book could have just as easily taken place in Houston, Omaha, Reno or Scranton.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Carolyn Jewel wrote:

...we are not writing a story about the backstory of our novel. We’re writing about what happens BECAUSE of the backstory.

And that's how you know what backstory information to include and when. Work in the information about why the character is acting the way she is when she acts in a way that doesn't make sense or seems odd or off-putting to the reader if he doesn't have that information.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How I Revise

I tend to get very little writing done in the spring because I'm spending so much time planting and weeding my garden along with other outdoor spring activities. However, those activities are now slowing down for me, so it's time I start thinking about getting back to revising my second novel.

The problem is that I've hit a mental block: My first readers are impatiently waiting for me to get this novel revised and to them so they can read it, so I want to revise as many aspects as possible in each pass I make over the manuscript. However, there's so much I need to look for that I mentally can't even get started because it's not possible to effectively cram these steps together.

So I'm making a nice, neat list of what things I'm going to look at for revising on each pass. Feel free to point out in the comments anything I missed or tell me how you revise your manuscript.

First Pass - First Fifteen Pages
1) Is it clear who the protagonist is and what her problem is? Is the problem vital/big enough (even if just to the protagonist) that it will raise the reader's interest?

2) Is it clear where and when the action is occurring, what's happening, and why the protagonist is involved? Is the pacing too slow because so much information is dumped at the beginning instead of worked in later?

3) Are too many characters or too many technological, magical, or cultural concepts being introduced at once? Is it clear who is talking and what their relationship to each other is? Am I telling the reader about the characters or letting the character's actions reveal their personalities and engage the reader's interest?

4) Is the tone of the whole story revealed in these pages (i.e. dark and gritty, lighthearted, serious but optimistic, etc. as well as level of bad language, sexual content, and violence levels)? Does it foreshadow or reveal the novel's primary conflict and the obstacles to come?

Second Pass -- Whole Story
Read the manuscript out loud. Look for misspellings (especially ones like "peek" instead of "peak"), dialogue that sounds unnatural, awkward sentences, and characters that aren't acting "in-character." Also look for story elements "coming out of no-where" (i.e. that weren't appropriately foreshadowed), often-repeated words, overuse of adverbs or adjectives, and for the other basic "writing rules."

Third Pass -- Whole Story, In Each Scene
1) Is there a balance between dialogue, action, description, back story, and motivation (internal dialogue)? (i.e. How is the pacing?)

2) Are the details given in the physical descriptions (or people, places, or actions) necessary and revealing? Do they quickly invoke a vivid mental image? Or are they so packed with detail or metaphor that the reader can't process it all without pausing?

3) Are the descriptions occurring in large chunks or worked throughout the story as it's needed? Only give the reader the information that's absolutely necessary for them to understand that scene.

4) Are the senses engaged? Imagine yourself in the scene: what sights would catch the main character's attention, what sounds would be heard, if any strong or unusual smells are present, and (if applicable) any taste and touch. What's the air inside the room or weather like and how is it affecting everyones actions and moods? What are the "background" people (and animals and setting) doing and how does that affect our main characters?

5) Look for dull or listy description. Either cut it up and distribute it throughout the action or discard it. Or, if the information is necessary and important and has to be in a chunk, make it clear what the Point-of-View character thinks or feels about the person/thing being described or make it clear why the POV character is spending so much time looking at the person/thing. Or add motion to the description (from wind, animals, other people, etc.) or somehow have the POV character interacting with it.

6) Is dialogue, body language, etc., being used to reveal the reactions and motivations of non-POV characters? Do secondary characters have varied characteristics, quirks, and motivations?

Fourth Pass -- Whole Story, In Each Scene
1) Is it clear what the POV character's motivation is for acting the way she is (via introspection, dialogue, or actions)? If there are several ways she might deal with a problem, why does she chose the one she does? What does she feel about the situation? Always make it clear what's driving your main characters because that is what makes the characters understandable and engaging.

2) Does each scene serve a purpose? If the scene was cut from the story, would the story flow still be understandable? If so, then the scene needs to be cut or fixed.

What changes between the start of the scene and the end? What's the conflict and/or what's at stake? If a question is answered in the scene, is another question asked or a promise of future conflict foreshadowed before the end of the scene so that the reader will continue reading?

Fifth Pass -- Whole Story, In Each Scene
1) Is there tension?

1a) Are the main characters likable? Do they have faults, ideals, regrets, or even strengths that cause them to land themselves (and maybe their friends) in trouble when faced with the current situation? Are the characters too good (either morally or in succeeding against opposition) to be interesting or someone the reader can relate to? Or do they have such a disgusting or off-putting characteristic that no reader would want to spend time with them?

(Writers who deliberately create unlikable protagonists need to make them interesting and/or show early on that they have a redeeming characteristic that foreshadows future change for the better.)

1b) Are the characters aware of the danger and acting like it is danger even if the author knows nothing will come of it? Does the character stay tense and ever-mindful of the danger until it is diffused? What's at stake? Is there foreshadowing of danger even if the character isn't totally aware of it's presence? (The reader at least needs to know of the danger, though you also need to be careful to explain why the character doesn't see it or dismisses it.)

Overview Look:
1) Have the characters changed any by the end of the story?

2) What was the point of the story? What was the theme or what did the reader get out of it that will bring them back for more? Is the story emotionally satisfying?

3) Is the story promised at the beginning of the novel the one delivered by the end of the story? Are all the major loose ends tied up satisfactorily without the story dragging on too long after the climax?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Beginnings...

Kathleen Dalton Woodbury gave this advice on where, exactly, one should start their story:

...the story should start when something starts to happen, and that's usually when the main character gets involved.

So, if you wanted to start with a fight scene, for example, you wouldn't start with the first punch. You'd start with the main character minding his own business, when some idiot comes up and tries to pick a fight with him. Of course, the main character, being smarter than to want to get into a fight with some stranger, tries to defuse the situation (and provides the author with a chance to do some characterization and get the reader to care about the main character), but when the idiot goes ahead and throws the first punch, the fight can start and the reader is more likely to be hooked.

Probably one of the main reasons for flashbacks is to try to show the reader why the main character is in the opening situation in the first place. If that "why" is at all interesting, the author should consider starting the story with it instead of starting it later.

One of the biggest problems with flashbacks is that they tend to stop the current story action (which, if the author has hooked the readers into caring, the readers are not going to want to have stopped) while the story goes back in time.

You don't EVER want to stop your readers as they are reading, because they may decide not to start up again.