Tag Archives: writing

From the Dreaded One’s Desk: the Demon of Procrastination

ardythava3“Gotcha!” The Dreaded Author punched the button on her evil controller and the poor unfortunate monster before her exploded in a small puff of flame.

“Um, your dreadfulness?” A minion poked its head around the side of a stack of nearby books. “I thought we were going to–”

“Not now, I’m busy slaying,” snarled the Dreaded One. “Unless you want me to slay you instead.”

“But your evilness–”

“Quiet!” The Dreaded Author leaned forward, intent on the scene before her and ready for another kill. Only everything dissolved into blackness before her.

“Arg! I hadn’t saved yet!” roared the Dreaded Author. “What’s wrong with this stupid thing?”

The minion nearby jumped back in fear, however, another minion stood up behind the blank screen in front of the Dreaded Author. “I pulled the plug, actually,” the scheduling minion said, holding up the offending object in its hand.

With a series of curses, the Dreaded One tossed the now useless controller at the scheduling minion, but it only ducked.

“I’ll flay you alive!” The Dreaded Author was in a terrible mood.

“That game is nothing but a trap,” the scheduling minion said, entirely unfazed. “One that has stolen away not only your productivity but is stifling your creativity as well.”

“Nonsense.” The Dreaded Author scowled and folded her arms. “A good friend gave me that game.”

“You mean the Demon of Procrastination?”

“Well, I–”

The scheduling minion held up a claw, forestalling any excuses. “You really don’t think he might have ulterior motive?”

“Er…”

The scheduling minion brandished his clipboard. “Now see here, you have the proofs back from your editor on your newest Calico Avenger book, which means only the art is holding up the book from getting published–art you agreed to do personally.”

“Well I was getting to it…”

“Not to mention!” The scheduling minion tapped his claws on the clipboard. “There’s those revisions to your novel you planned from attending the Darcy Patterson retreat, including a brand new ending.”

“You see, I was–”

And you have those last minute line edits from your Dreaded Brother’s proof reading to fix on Dragon Boy, which I might mention is out on submission. What if someone requests it? Those definitely need to be fixed right away!”

“Oh, fine, fine.” The Dreaded Author sighed dramatically.

“Don’t fine, fine, me,” snarled the scheduling minion. “We have five weeks’ worth of things to get done in three weeks! You’d better get started!”

“I said fine.” With a vicious snarl the Dreaded Author reached for the laptop and the pad of drawing paper. “See, I’m starting.”

“Good.” The scheduling minion marched out of the room, clipboard held high.

“Just as soon as I finish this book,” muttered the Dreaded Author pulling one off the top of the stacks of books.

The other minion dared a peek back around the stack. “Isn’t that the Japanese novel the Demon of Distraction sent you?”

“Yes.” The Dreaded Author cocked an evil eyebrow at the minion. “And if you don’t get me a nice cold smoothie and a bar of chocolate to go with it, I’ll flay you alive.” Then she settled back to enjoy her book as the minion scurried away.

Five Reasons to Write Fanfiction

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Fanfiction, while exceedingly popular, can often get a lot of scorn from authors. I think this is ridiculous. There’s a long history of re-imagining established stories and characters in literature. All the famous Greek playwrights wrote in one sense, fanfiction in that they took well known stories and characters and made them their own, creating new adventures or re-imagining older ones. In fact, I’m willing to go beyond just saying fanfiction is not a problem and people ought to write fanfiction (if they are inclined to).

With one caveat though: Always respect the authors’ copyrights. Don’t steal work and illegally sell stories based on their characters and worlds. Making money off other people’s work is wrong. But when done properly, there’s definitely five great reasons to consider writing fanfiction.

1) Learning Your Craft 

Fanfiction in some ways makes things easier for a beginning writer. It supplies the world building and the characters ready made. Sometimes it even provides plot, big events happening in the mainstream story that you can use in your own re-imagining. When trying to write for the first time, it can be overwhelming to create everything you need on your own. Trying fanfiction allows you to practice writing and gain skill in it with the support of elements you know are solid. I think of it a bit like tracing when learning to draw. Or copying masterpieces in learning to paint. These common exercise are used to educate beginning artists in how to do things right. It helps you learn to pick out elements in your own work that need further development when you compare them to your favorite stories.

Much of my earliest writing was Redwall or Star Wars fanfic. When I look at it, I can see ideas that I added to these worlds that were good strong ideas. Later on I kept some of those concepts and characters that originally came out of fanfiction and developed them further into original stories.

2) Keeping Enough Enthusiasm and Confidence in Your Story 

Another common problem beginning writers struggle with is believing your story is good enough to actually get to the end of it. Often writers will abandon a project because somewhere along the way they lost faith in it as a good idea. This can happen with any story, even fanfiction, but I’ve found that where fanfiction differs is you have the original story that excited you no matter what. You love something about this world or these characters, something about it got you so excited about it, you weren’t done when the story was over. You wanted more. Your brain is giving you more, filling in new ideas about what these characters are doing or how this world is changing. I find it easier to hold onto my confidence in the characters and the world when it’s so obvious popular with many people. This can help the writer stick with the story longer and thus learn more from writing it.

3) Feedback From People Who Care as Much as You

When you’re starting out as a writer, getting feedback on your work is essential. It’s the biggest way you learn and grow as a writer, to hear reader comments about how you can improve. However, as anyone who is a writer knows, it can be pretty difficult to get anyone to read your stuff. Friends and family get tired of you begging them to, and often don’t give good feedback. Joining critique groups is quite helpful, but sometimes you end up in groups where the people critiquing you don’t have the same interests in reading as you do. You might find what you’re critiquing in exchange just as boring back. While you’re all writers, you have different tastes.

With fanfiction you have an immediate community with other fans. These people are just as excited about this particular world and these characters are you are. They’re eager to read it. You’ll find their writing more exciting as well as it features the same things that excite you. On a fanfiction forum you can meat lots of people to share and connect with and to give you thoughts and reactions on your writing. It’s a fantastic way to grow as a writer.

4) Gaining Fans That Carry Over

If you have an active fanfiction community and fans who enjoy your work, sometimes that can carry over to your original work as well. These people know and love your fanfiction. They like your treatment of characters and find your style interesting. It’s also likely that your original work will have lots of the elements of the established worlds you love. I’m not saying copying, but more like they’d be in the same genre. My original books aren’t copies of Redwall or Star Wars anymore, but you can see the influences in things like animal characters, complicated family relationships, a hero on a quest to save his home or country, and other larger themes.

Many of the people read your fanfiction will likely enjoy your original work as well. Several authors have had success publishing original stories after having a large number of fans of their fanfiction work. It helps you to build up a platform from which you will eventually sell your own work.

5) You Can Make Money in Fanfiction 

Now, just to be clear, I mean LEGALLY, not trying to sell stories still under copyright. There’s several ways you can do this. First, some older properties are no longer under copyright. Notably, recently copyrights expired for Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island. You can now legally write stories with those characters. There’s a lot of great older stuff like Alice in Wonderland or the Jungle Book. Just double check to make sure the property you’re selling actually is public domain before you charge money for it.

Sometimes, when a property is still under copyright, there are ways to get permission. If the owner of the copyright is willing to sell you or the publisher the rights, your story can be published. Peter Pan for example goes through the Children’s Hospital in the UK. Also, some larger publishers regularly put out books in various worlds like Star Trek and Star Wars. Someone has to write those books. If you’re good enough and they like your ideas, it could be you. Recently the Jim Henson Company held a contest to pick which author they’d hire for a Dark Chrystal prequel novel. If you really love the right fanfic universe, you just might be able to write in it. Just do your research about who holds the rights and the best way to legally write for them.

These days, you can even self-publish in a few established worlds. Amazon has purchased the right to sell fanfiction in several worlds through kindle publishing. These copyright holders receive a percentage of your story’s income. It’s worth checking out their list of allowed worlds to write in to see if any of them are worlds you enjoy. While it’s a limited list, it ranges from something as literary as Kurt Vonnegut’s novels to as pop culture as GI Joe. Each world has rules though that have to be followed before you can publish a story with it, so make sure your fanfiction follows the unique guidelines. Hopefully more copyright holders will be interested in joining the program in the future.

Now if only they got the rights to Redwall… and I might just return the field of fanfiction.

What kind of series is best?

One of the most powerful marketing tools of our time in any form of story telling is the series. Every summer movie 2 or 3 or 4 comes out in some series. Books too, have lately been more and more series. Harry Potter, Twlight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. People just can’t get enough of series these days. Readers like knowing what they’re getting and a series promises more of the great story you love.

Yet, how do you write a series? A book is difficult enough, but three books? Four? Six? In my experience, there’s actually several ways to write a series. In considering the various ones I’ve read, here’s some categories to help think about what kind of series is right for you:

One Long Book

LOTR seriesOn one end of the spectrum, there’s a series that is basically one story, one very long story, and so it’s broken into several parts, Lord of the Rings being a good example. Reading just one book, you don’t get a full story arc. The story just stops and the next part picks it up. You have to read the whole thing to find out what happens to Frodo and the Ring, or Aragon and his kingdom.

The advantage of this kind of series is that you have it as a full idea. You know where you are going from the beginning. You have a built in hook that keeps your readers coming back, wanting the resolution of the story. But that can also be a disadvantage. If you get stuck on one book, all your books are in jeopardy because none of them can stand alone. Readers aren’t going to be pleased waiting around for the next installment because nothing is resolved. Or they may wait until all the books are published. Hearing the first two Hunger Games books ended on cliffhangers, I assumed it was this sort of series and didn’t bother to read any of the novels until the series was fully published. Or, if your story isn’t one that really needs this many words to tell it, you end up with too much padding and it will bog it down.

A series that is one long book is a big time commitment for an author. Make sure you have a story that you love enough to work that long on it, and this kind of series may work well for you.

Episodic

boxcar seriesOn the other end of the series spectrum, in my mind, is an episodic series. In this form, each book is a distinct episode, complete in every way. Rather like a TV sit-com where. As a kid, such series like “The Boxcar Children” or “Encyclopedia Brown” were like this, and adult mystery series are often in this category as well. A non-mystery example would be something like “Hank the Cowdog.” The same main characters show up each book but have a different adventure. In a truly episodic series, the characters don’t change much, if at all between books. You can often read the books out of order and it doesn’t matter too much, since each one is contained.

The strength of this sort of series is you can write a fresh story each book. That usually means episodic series can last a lot longer on average than a one book series. People don’t need a long attention span to recall the overall situation because that changes each time as the characters face a fresh problem. The weakness is that the characters don’t tend to grow or change. They are fairly stagnant and after a while might feel repetitive. For those reasons, it’s harder to write deep books or great works of literature with this sort of series.

An Overall Character Arc

HP seriesThis sort of series takes a middle ground between the first two. Each book stands somewhat on its own, with a full independent plot and structure, with climax and resolution, but the series as a whole is following the personal journey of the main character. This culminates in the climax of the final book where themes and characters from earlier points in the series often come together for a final confrontation. Often there is a villain who has shown up in smaller contests in a couple of the earlier books who is the main problem of the final book.

Harry Potter obviously follows this format. We meet Voldemort in book one, but he hardly shows up in book 3, and while he’s behind events in books 5 and 6, other conflicts and delving into the past are more central to those plots. Another great series of this format is “The Song of the Lioness Quartet.” While Duke Rodger is young Alanna’s nemesis of the series as a whole, book 3 for example, is entirely about other challenges the young lady knight is struggling with. In a character arc series, what holds the books together is the development or inner journey of the main hero across a number of plots, not just one… and yet these encounters culminate in a larger climactic end as well.

The advantages as an author is you can have the building pressure of an overall conflict, like in one long book, but without the restriction of sticking to one plot. Your main character can take a year off battling the ultimate evil to find himself traveling with nomads, or exploring some distant area of your world. But as Rowling herself recently admitted over the Ron-Hermione romance, you can also fall into difficulties trying to keep the framework of your larger story while handling your characters developing and changing during all those side plots. If your characters change too much, some of the end you originally had envisioned won’t feel true anymore.

Historical or Generational

redwall booksThis is also a bit between the first two kinds of series, not all one book but also not entirely episodic. However, unlike a character arc bases series, this sort of series is centered around something other than a character. A period of history, a dynasty of kings, a family across six generations. Each book generally does stand as a separate work, with it’s own character arcs, problems, and resolutions, but then the next book is the next chapter of history or the next generation of the family, and their new struggles. Unlike a character arc based series, there often is not a building culmination to some final contest. The point is more to follow a place or people through time and enjoy the many stories involved.

I haven’t read “Game of Thrones” but I understand from my friends who have, that it is more this sort of series. The very successful Redwall series is this sort, following the history of Redwall and Salamandastrom across the ages with different heroes, different villains. Some books a direct sequels, but no hero gets more than two books before we move on to their child, grandchild, or some other young animal upon who the sword of Martin and the office of warrior is bestowed. It generally helps to read the books in this sort of series in order, but they often don’t have to be… nor are they always written in historical order.

Not having an overall building focus to the series can have a lot of advantage as an author in opening up possibilities and new directions. You don’t need to write your books in order in this sort of series either, if suddenly something from an earlier time interests you more. However, like an episodic series, it doesn’t have a clear hook and your readers may like some books considerably better than others or skip around in the series. To balance that, some authors will write several smaller series, two to four books long following one character, all set in a larger country, world, or time period, combining the two together to try to have the best of both.

Companion Books and Looser series forms

Most series tend to follow one of those four forms, but there are a few other creative ways of connecting books, such as writing Companion Books. These usually are several books that tell the same story, but from someone else’s point of view. A recent good example is Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, which both chronicle the same war, but from the point of view of a different character. The events are not exactly the same, since the characters perceive things differently and it’s hard to say which is the “true” view of the events.

Another loose series format is to take a less important character from one book and give them their own story. Each book follows a separate plot of people who all know each other. Romance series often follow this format. We’d be disappointed if the couple we’ve invested so much energy to in book one broke up so they could fall in love with different people in book two. Instead, the hero’s brother, sister, best friend, parent, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is the one to next fall in love in the further books. Sometimes these books can overlap in time, sometimes they’re sequential. Perhaps if you have several unconnected books and want to make them into a series, giving them a character, place, object or theme in common can turn them into a looser sort of series. The danger of this sort of series is that readers might not get the elements they love in your original book in the following ones and thus give on the series.

A series is a great tool as an author, so it’s important to consider what sort of series is right for your stories. Writing a straight out sequel can work, but it isn’t the only way. I don’t think there’s one sort of series that works better than any other sort. It’s more about finding what’s right for the stories you have to tell. It’s important to figure out what’s true to the heart of your story, and make a series that actually works, instead of forcing your story into a form that doesn’t.

From the Dreaded One’s Desk: The Evils of Illustration

ardythava“Erm,  your dreadfulness?” the Art Minion asked.

“What?” The Most Evil Dreaded Author bared fangs while trying to carefully ink the lines of her picture over the make-shift light table.

“I think the cat’s head is crooked… maybe you should start this one over.”

“And maybe I should boil you in oil,” grumbled the Dreaded One.

The Art Minion shut up.

The Editorial Minion sidled up for a closer look. “I think that arm is the wrong angle, and why does that dress have pointing lace on one side and rounded lace on the other?”

“Lest me show you why.” The Dreaded One flashed fangs and bonked the minion on the nose with the pen.

“Ow. No need to get so prickly,” the Editorial Minion muttered and slunk off.

“I demand silence! The next minion who speaks before I do gets toilet scrubbing duty!” The Dreaded One glared, mollified a little by the minions’ cowering. Trying to ignore her increasing frustration at trying to draw, she could fully recall why she didn’t do it often. Seconds later, the ink pen  lingered over the paper a fraction of a second too long, leaving a blotch of ink.

“Arg! I hate this,” the Dreaded One roared, throwing her pen across the room.

The Production Minion decided this was the moment for a status update. “It’s looking very good, your evilness,” he said, bowing, and ignoring the tantrum. “But you must finish by tonight if you are to make your Dreaded Deadline.”

“I’m the Dreaded Author!” snarled the Dreaded One. “Author. Not Illustrator! What is this nonsense? Get someone else to do it!”

“Your awfulness,” interjected the Budgeting Minion, “We don’t have the funds at this point to hire an artist.”

“Besides,” added the Art Minion, “All your family and friends agreed you were the perfect artist for this project. Your personal evil style is exactly what it needs.”

With a roar the Dreaded Author snatched up the Production Minion and threw him into the others. “I don’t care! I’m an author! Not an illustrator! Out!”

They scurried through the door, while the Dreaded One sat back with a sigh and a grumble. The half-finished cat drawing eyed her back. It had a decidedly smug look on its face.

“No you don’t,” muttered the Dreaded One. “I don’t care about you. Not at all! No!”

The drawn cat smirked. “I’m just too much a challenge for the likes of you,” it whispered, blotchy whiskers and all.

With a snarl, the Dreaded One grabbed a fresh sheet of paper. “Oh, I’ll wipe the smile right off your face! On this next drawing. With you drowning in the ocean. I’ll lock you up in prison next, and then get you skewered with a sword.”

The cat at least looked properly miserable in the next few versions.

“Not bad,” the Dreaded One growled, looking them over. “But I still think I’ll stick to writing next time.”

Sasha behind bars 001

Five Thoughts on Critiques

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Once my aunt asked me with novel writing if there’s some hard and fast objective way to tell if you as a writer are “good” or have “reached a professional level” before submitting to publishers. I had to answer that honestly I didn’t think there was, because writing, as an artform, is one of those nebulous things where what is “good” writing and what is “bad” is always going to be debated, even among professionals. It doesn’t mean there isn’t that line somewhere between brilliant and utter garbage, it’s just everyone’s going to have a different opinion about where various books lie along it.

She was a bit dismayed when I was trying to explain that the main way most writers improve and judge their writing is through peer critiques (sometimes professional paid critiques, but there are no standards for becoming one so I feel they often come out the same). Basically you’re asking someone else’s subjective opinion on your writing. No matter how many degrees they have or books they’ve published, ultimately they could still be wrong and completely miss the genius of your idea. Yet, on the other hand, if you completely ignore everyone’s advice you’ll never improve as an author. You’ll be ignoring important suggestions that can actually improve your writing. As the author, sometimes you’re just too close to your work to see your own flaws.

I’ve found five rules for myself to help me balance keeping my vision for my writing with accepting and using critiques.

1) Ask for a wide range of feedback 

There’s a lot of readers out there, and a broad range overall opinions about a story in revision can be extremely valuable. Perhaps most of the feedback won’t actually be helpful, but it will highlight the range of reactions the final book will get. Try to get some target readers who are into the genre that the book fits into as well. For me, that means children, since I write children’s fiction. While these readers won’t be able to offer me line edits or detailed feedback, knowing when they get confused or bored while reading is invaluable. I also need feedback from parents and teachers, since those are the people who buy the book ultimately. Pretty much, I’ve found a reader reaction from anyone, even if I don’t use any of their suggestions, is valuable, because it gives me a greater perspective on my work.

2) Always give a positive thank you, even if the crit is pretty much useless

This person took the time to read your writing. It’s a gift and the professional thing is to say thank you. If the person offered something you found helpful, list what it was specifically and the thank you will mean more to them. What if the crit was rude or demeaning or the person was lazy and only read a couple of paragraphs before telling you how horrible they thought they were? Well, there’s no need to be enthusiastic I suppose in that case, but I still think a thank you is in order, even if it’s a one sentence email that says: Thank you for taking the time to read part of my story.

First, why sink to their level. Take the moral high ground and thank everyone. Secondly, it’ll effect your reputation and professionalism as an author if you get into arguments with people who read your work. You don’t have to ever ask that person again to read your writing, you can just move on. Obviously if a crit makes you too furious to say thank you, it’s better to say nothing than get in a fight, but in general it’s best to manage at least a polite sentence. It’s also better not to mention if you ultimately decide to disregard the person’s advice entirely. You’re going to ignore a lot of advice that’s not right for you and your story, but there’s no reason to rub it in people’s faces. It’s ultimately your work and the critiquer ought to know that, but no reason to stir things up unless you’re genuinely asking them to further explain their suggestions.

Furthermore, I believe in thanking paid editors as well. Yes, I’ve hired them for a service, but editing means putting a lot of thought and soul into making suggestions and these people work very hard for us. Even in that case while I might debate an issue with a paid editor to try to explain what I’m doing better so the person can fit their suggestions to it, a big thank you for their hard work is the right thing to do along with paying the bill. If a paid editor really doesn’t see the vision of a story correctly, then you thank them (and of course pay them) for their time anyway and find a different editor for the story, but there’s no reason you can’t be professional about it.

3) Keep the heart of your story in mind while looking at critiques

The biggest danger of taking advice from others is that sometimes your unique intention for a story can get buried. So, before looking at critiques I find it best to either list or at the very least make clear in my mind what’s most important about the story to me. What am I saying ultimately? What are my major themes? What is my character arc? What aspects of my world are non-negotiable to me? What is my voice/tone for the story?  This helps me to recognize which advice might strengthen those aspects and which while perfectly fine for someone else’s story, doesn’t fit mine.

Sometimes hard critique comments create quite a big inner debate. When half my readers found my main character unlikable in one of my books, I really had to take a long difficult look at what aspects of my main character’s personality were important to me. Was what was making her unlikable so important to me that I had  to keep it? I ended up keeping some of her personality traits but changing others in order to create a character more people could relate to, but still one who kept my central vision of her internal journey across the book.

4) Lean on a few people who really understand the vision/heart of the story

Once I have a wide range of feedback, I often turn to just a few people who gave me the advice that felt best for further critiques on the novel. A story will naturally resonate with some people over others and when I can see a critiquer really understood my story, that leads me to turn to them again with revisions, if they’re interested. Once I’ve gotten a wide view of opinions, I find no more than 3-5 beta readers is usually best for honing late stages of revision. Too many opinions later on tends to muddy both my focus and that of the book. I know some people use that same group of people and only that same group for all their novels, but I’ve found each book finds its own group of core people who love it in particular and that’s not always the same people.

5) Critique other people and give the sort of critiques you want to receive

I feel like giving critiques has been as important to me as receiving them. For one thing, this is the best and biggest thank you that you can give other writers when they critique your work–returning the favor. Second, you have more distance from other people’s work. By articulating what works and doesn’t work for you in someone else’s work helps you later recognize what works and doesn’t work in your own. I’ve learned a great deal about revision through critiquing other people’s work. It also helps you learn to be diplomatic when explaining what you feel doesn’t work in a way that’s helpful and constructive, so you can better understand how to take criticism when you receive it.

I feel as a published author now, critiques are just as important to me as when I was first starting. Perhaps writing isn’t a peer reviewed, bar exam sort of profession, but I do feel critiques ground and clarify my work and allow me to reach my full potential as an author.

The Writing Life: Story Puzzles

puzzle 2I rather enjoy puzzles.  I like them a bit of a challenge, but not too challenging.  500 to 750 pieces is about right, usually brightly colored with lots of interesting things going on in the picture.  There’s a satisfaction to fitting each piece exactly where it goes. To seeing the picture slowly come to life.  To picking up each piece and looking at the juicy bright colors, the hint of the picture, to wonder exactly where it goes or what it is, and see how as soon as it goes in its place, the lines and colors expand to have a new meaning in the context of the pieces around it.

But sometimes I end up with a puzzle that’s harder than I like.  Usually this happens because I shop for all my puzzles second hand (who wants to pay ten bucks for a puzzle when you can get it for one dollar or so at a second hand store).  Which means I’m far more interested in finding pictures I like than paying attention to other details like the size of the puzzle.  While I know 1000 piece puzzles (especially in limited colors) try my patience, I end up falling in love with the picture as something I just really have to try.  Dragon puzzles are especially bad for hooking me like this.  I am not sure why all dragon puzzles seem to have to be in the 1000 piece range.

So, I start out hopeful, thinking, perhaps this won’t be so bad. It is a very splendid dragon, after all.  And at some point am reduced to the frustrating and tedious process of filling in large areas of indeterminate color completely by shape.  Which means trying a piece in ever possible opening until it either fits or gets set aside for later, once the edges are more filled in.  It’s long and frustrating and means the puzzle ends up taking weeks instead of a day or two. I get bored and have to do it in short bursts.  And I mutter to myself about if the dragon is really worth it.  I enjoy the sense of accomplishment when I finish it, but still!

Usually by the time I see yet another dragon puzzle though I’ve forgotten all about this and just have to get it. Sigh. And it happens all over again.

puzzle 1My novels though, bear a striking resemblance to puzzles.  There’s a lot of pieces, they’re supposed to fit together into a coherent whole.  Some of those pieces are delightful and interesting, some of them indeterminate and difficult to place.

Unfortunately my current novel feels more like an 1000 piece puzzle, or maybe a 1500 or 2000 piece one.  And worse, unlike a puzzle, there’s more than one way to put a novel together, it’s just a lot of those ways are bad.  I suspect on most of my books I don’t wait for all those pieces to fit perfectly together, instead I cram them into fitting, particularly all those pieces of sky and background, because they’re too boring to get just right.

Except this novel, it’s one of those magnificent dragon puzzles, I think. I think it has a picture that’s breathtaking, if only I can get it together.  And so I’m reduced to trying each piece, blindly by shape, to see if it fits.  Taking each scene and writing it, rewriting it, rewriting it again.  I think I will have written at least 250,000 words for a 75,000 word book by the end of it, maybe more.  But this is one puzzle, I really want to get right.

The Writing Life: 8 ways my writing has changed since 2007

The view from my hotel window today... gotta love a liminal lifestyle.
The view from my hotel window today… gotta love a liminal lifestyle.

In May I made it my project to rewrite one of my first novels, a rewrite that was almost entirely a narrative rewrite.  The story itself has long been clear in my mind, but I’d let the project rest for six years after getting distracted by finishing (and publishing) other novels.

Returning to it caught me by surprise.  I’d changed a lot as a writer in the last six years, in ways I hadn’t realized.  In part because I’d been seriously writing for at least that long before writing the book, and had at the time rather plateaued as a writer.  I felt in 2007 that my craft was solid and that it was more my plotting and characterization that needed work, and thus that was my focus more than the craft itself.

It turns out I had a lot farther to go.  The writing so didn’t match my current style, that it was easier to rewrite the whole thing than edit. I feel very good about the result.  After I had all 75k rewritten (and down from an original 80k), I realized I had a pile of unused crits from the 2007 version, so I opened them up and started going through them, chapter by chapter to make sure I’d covered those changes and plot holes.

Looking at both the text and the comments I discovered several overall themes in how my writing has shifted.  Here are the 8 biggest early writer’s mistakes I made with the 2007 draft:

1) Passive Description — While people banter around terms like “passive voice” and “show don’t tell” I often find that people don’t actually understand what these mean.  Often frustrated with people poking perfectly necessary be verbs or inappropriate placed people insisted I needed to show more, I tended to ignore this advice.  However, time has proven some specific passive areas in my older writing that I’ve since changed, in particular, qualifying all my description with “he/she heard” or “he/she saw” etc.

Sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell are great to add to the story, but when the POV is clearly already in the main character’s head, it’s unnecessary and passive to keep qualifying it’s the MC who’s doing the sensing.  “The army charged forward” is better than “He saw the army charging forward” and so on. I constantly was rewording things into just describing and when I put the MC into it, I put him in with his physical and emotional reactions instead.

2) Boring Verbs — Similar to passive voice, it isn’t so much that these words are passive, it’s more that they’re dull.   My biggest culprits were looked and turned.  They’re fine and necessary verbs, but were overused.  Now when I write, I rarely use them because I naturally find more interesting things to communicate what I mean.  I slow down, picture the scene, and try to put more creative voice into the action.

3) Word Echoes — Both of these first two issues result in word echoes, or the repetition of a word close to itself in the text, but I found a great problem with echoes all through the novel in the older draft.  In action scenes words like forward, towards, and moment were chronically overused.  Battle scenes had too many slashes or blocks, and sometimes a more unusual word would get used a couple times in a chapter, which while that isn’t a problem with common one, you’re going to notice something like discombobulated if its used more than once a chapter.

4) Grammatical Echoes — This is where the structure of the sentences are too similar too close together, rather than the words used.  While some people are very anti-adverb, for example, rather than simply cutting all the adverbs, I think it’s more important to look at how they’re used and if they are creating a grammatical echo. Two places adverbs do this most are on dialog tags, and when they’re at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.

But there’s a lot of ways that sentence structure can get echoed.  The adverbs just jump out in beginner’s work. Now as an author I naturally seem to track what sort of structure I’m using and vary it, back in 2007 I did not.  It changes the entire rhythm of the narration.

5) Abrupt Transitions — I was rather surprised in places to find very little transition from one scene to the next.  One paragraph they’d be debating their plans, the next they’d be half a day’s travel from camp.  In several places I added material, fleshing out the scene, while in others I cut back scenes and had formal breaks.  Which is better depends on the style and flow of the novel, and the circumstances of the scenes.  It’s something I have a much stronger sense for these days.

6) Chapter Header/Footer Info-dumps — A lot of my chapter breaks were used to forward the novel in time.  In my 2007 draft I often had the first few paragraphs or last few paragraphs of a chapter highlight everything that happened during the time gap.  I didn’t want my readers confused, which is a great goal, but it made for less than snappy opening or closing paragraphs.

In some places I worked in this information slowly throughout the scene, but in many of them, I simply didn’t tell the reader what happened, just made it clear time had passed.  It surprised me to find a lot of the information I felt was essential originally actually wasn’t.  Did we really need to know they hadn’t yet had dinner that night?  Or that it was a 5 hour walk to the swamps?  I could just show them being tired and hungry and leave the specifics to people’s imaginations. This helped me control the novel’s ballooning word count. It’s supposed to be a middle grade novel! It’s still a bit long, but I hope to lose even more words on my next pass.

7) Lack of Scenification — While we think of novels being broken up into chapters, a scene is a much more important basic unit.  A scene has a beginning, an arc, an end, a place and time in which something happens.  I’m sure much better definitions are out there, but what I noticed was that some chapters didn’t actually have defined scenes, or large sections that didn’t properly have them.  Or that in others, scenes weren’t fully scenes, glossing over things a scene ought to have.

First, there were transitional chapters that sort of dipped in and out of the action, a couple of sentences of dialog, a few direct thoughts, a handful of actions, interspersed with a lot of narration.  I had to pick what actual scenes I wanted and develop them fully.

Then there were character focused scenes that dissolved into what I call “talking heads” or “telephone conversations.” These scenes were focused on people talking to each other and the MC’s reactions to that, that all sense of setting tended to dissolve.  The few actions involved were looking or turning to people, nodding, smiling, frowning, and tended to be repetitive.

In my rewrites I tended to pick something active people were doing while talking.  Eating dinner, packing their bags, or walking through a specific sort of terrain.  This gives far more interesting actions to frame the conversations, and in the few instances where people really were just standing around talking, I tried to bring out body language and have people touch each other. I’ve seen this technique overdone before, with the details being distracting, but there’s a balance between that and being pure informational.

On the other hand, sometimes my action scenes dissolved into just action.  I wouldn’t have enough dialog or interior emotion/thoughts to keep the character aspect engaged in a proper arc.  No scene should be all characterization or all action.

8) Overly Detailed Action — Going into the edit, I remembered that this draft suffered in the battle scenes in particular from too much detail. We don’t need to see exactly how the MC kills his enemies in epic Iliad style.  Battle moves needed to be carefully paced between overall narration of the battle so that readers got the sense of the action without getting bored.  The novel did need this, but what surprised me even more was how many other scenes also suffered from overly detailed action.

I remember rather clearly my eighth grade English teacher lecturing us on what she called a “bed to bed” narrative: the idea being you start with the person getting up in the morning and detail everything they do in order until they go to bed at night.  I thought in 2007 that I was only including the important details in my story, yet so many times people entering and leaving rooms, picking up and setting down objects, or turning or looking (again) at people in conversations were exactly the sort of nit-picky details I didn’t need.

Details can add a sense of being there, but only the right details.  The fact someone hands the character a plate with two golden sausages that smell deliciously tantalizing is a good picky detail.  That the MC picked one up, ate it, swallowed, then picked up a second one and ate it, and set the plate down, less so.  Apparently I’ve learned a lot about balancing that in the last six years.

I’m excited and proud to discover everything I’ve learned and all the ways I’ve grown, but the experience does make wonder–what will I be listing six years from now?  I will fascinated to find out, but I really hope this novel is finally published by then and it’ll be on some other project!

The Gorge: There and Back Again

Hood RiverIf I thought saying goodbye to the Columbia River Gorge was hard, what’s even harder is living a liminal existed commuting to the gorge and back every week.  Today when I checked into our motel of the week, the clerk at the desk asked for my driver’s licence.  “You live in Hood River!” he said, rather surprised.  “It’s complicated,” I answered.

Complicated isn’t the half of it, sigh.  The future is about as complicated as the past… at least my present is usually peaceful, depending on the moment.  When Ben got laid off in February, his whole company went out of business… or well, everyone but the CEO and owners, so it seemed pretty well dead to us.  With no prospect of a job in Hood River itself (the only other company in town with electrical engineers wasn’t hiring and even the Unemployment office sent a tactful letter suggesting he start his own business instead since he was likely to run out of benefits before finding a job), we decided to move back in with my parents in Lake Oswego.Dog mountain

The job market is not favorable at the moment, as any of you looking for a job knows.  Despite getting regular interviews and looking hard, Ben still hadn’t found employment when out of the blue, his old company asked if he could work again part time.  Well, three days a week driving out to Hood River would pay a bit more than Unemployment.  We couldn’t trust the company to stick around, but well, some money is better than none, so thus started my grand commute.  I’d hang out in the library for three days trying to write while he worked, and he kept apply to jobs.

top of wind mountainWhile it’s long, the drive is certainly beautiful. I’m sick of I-205 and would happily never see it again, but every time I-85 opens up just east of the metro area and ahead the sky and river spread out, every day I see a new stunning view. Clouds and mist, sun and glittering water, there’s endless variety on the gorge, sometimes all in one morning or evening’s drive, as we might go through several patches of rain, sun, fog, hail, rainbows, etc.  Even as it wears me down, it remains stunning.

Now, come June, now the company is asking him back full time.  Leaving us in a truly liminal position.  For one thing, Hood River is now filling up with vacation rentals, so anything not for vacations wants a year lease. We hardly expect the company to last six months, let alone a year.  For another going from 20 hours to 40 hours a week in Hood River is a big jump. We’ll be spending more time in a hotel than we will at my parents’ house.river from the side of wind mountain

Good thing under “occupation” I can put author, or I’d be a homemaker without a home. (sigh)

For the two weeks we switched from commute to motels.  They’ve been a parade of forgetting things, spreading cream cheese on the lunch bagels with the handle of a fork the first week, and eating cereal out of a plastic container every morning the second.  I think I have everything this week, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Small waterfall

The month of May at least, my writing did not suffer. I picked something straightforward, a full book edit of “Dragon Boy” and accomplished it.  Now I’m regrouping, and my focus will be on “Much Ado About Villains.”  I’m not sure how well I’ll hold up, but on the other side of things, I do have long periods of time in motels ahead of me, which at least is quiet and not too uncomfortable.  I think by the end of it though, whether we get an apartment here or Ben manages to get a job elsewhere, I will have done enough traveling and motel staying to be satisfied for years to come.  My idea of “vacation” will be to live in one place and go nowhere for longer than a year.

At least there’s mountains, rivers, and waterfalls.

The Seven Habits for Writers Part 2: Public Victories

A much spiffier cover than my ancient copy.Alright, I’m back finally for my promised second part to how I’ve been thinking over Steve Covey’s seven habits in regard to writing.  The first three habits are things a person does inside themselves, private victories as Covey calls them.  In writing, that’s our inner confidence, the story we’re picturing, the draft we pour out on paper, the long hours we wrestle with characters in that creative dark space within our minds.  For some writers, that private process is all they crave.  But a lot more writers, like me, want to share our writing with the world, and that’s where I found Covey’s habits 4, 5, and 6 were crucial.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

This is a simple idea, but a really powerful one.  The idea that in a situation or agreement, both people involved win–that is get a deal that’s beneficial for them out of it.  No one gets ripped off. If money is being made, both people make it. If success and recognition are being attained, both people attain it.  In a society full of win/lose situations, it’s important to remember that tons of situations don’t have to have a loser.  That making someone lose is completely unnecessary.

I do not think there is a more important thing a writer can do than think win/win in all their interactions with other people.  There’s a sort of toxic energy I feel when I encounter a win/lose writer.  Writing is one field where all of us are potential winners.  What is it that almost all writer’s have in common besides writing? Reading! Most people who love to write loved first to read.  There’s no good reason we can’t all have our work out there and lots of success.  Your book selling well ought to help my book sell well, or at least I really can’t see why not.  There’s room for each of us and our unique style and talent, our stories we care about.

When authors are jealous of each other, bitter about other people’s success, it creates an icky feeling I just can’t stand.  What is just as bad is when authors get negative about illustrators, agents, publishers, or even readers.  This is one field where everyone involved can and ought to have success!  This is really a field where there ought not to be any losers!  It’s a tragedy that so many people think there has to be.

Reaching out and helping new writers, encouraging people to read and supporting literacy, interacting with industry professionals, promoting each other’s work, everything we do really ought to follow a model of both sides can come out a winner, or we ought to refuse to have a deal together.  If you really can’t for some reason work in a positive way with a positive outcome for everyone involved “no deal” is the best solution.  Go your separate ways wishing the person the best.

Habit 5: Seek First to be Understood, Then to Understand

In Covey’s book, he uses this principle to talk about all communication efforts.  Another simple but powerful idea–to listen emphatically to what people are saying, to help them feel truly understood before you go about trying to make them see what you’re saying.  Obviously this is great for communication in general, but there’s several key places it can be used in writing.

In interacting with other writers, like in critique groups, it means taking the time to understand their view, their stories, their problems with it, what they really need, before trying to help them with their writing.  Doing that will make your advice better as well as helping the person be more interested in accepting it.  When receiving critiques or even professional editing, the same thing applies.  Even if you disagree with the person’s reaction, set that aside and really listen.  What are they saying? And is it actually about your writing, or is this more about something they’re feeling/struggling with?  Once you understand where the other person is coming from you, you can better decide what advice is worth using in your novel.

Even if you don’t end up using suggestions an editor or beta reader wants you to use, the power of actually listening to the other person will still make them feel validated. You’ll preserve the relationship and the other benefits it provides to both of you. By actively understanding an editor, they’ll be more open to hearing your vision and dream for your book and seeing where you are coming from in return.  That can only improve a project.

Listening is also important in marketing.  So many agents and publisher get queried by authors who don’t really understand their requirements, mission statement, or what sort of projects they’re looking for. As an author, I can reduce rejection and heartbreak by first seeking to understand each agent or publisher’s personal mission, tastes, guidelines, by looking at what other work they’ve published and then see if I really think it’s a good fit, if my project is one that really belongs here.  Then, these people will be more interested in learning about what I have to say.

Habit 6: Synergize

I think this chapter, habit 6, was the hardest one for me to follow when reading the book.  My best sense of what Covey means here, is that when a group is built using using win/win and seeking first to understand, that a creative and dynamic atmosphere forms that takes regular cooperation to the next level, a level where people can really appreciate and value their differences in view and opinion, because they are necessary to lifting the joint project above itself.

My husband and I debated a while on this chapter while reading it, because rather than being an actual habit, it felt more like being open to something that just happens.  But I suppose working to have all the right ingredients there at the right time and place for synergy to happen could be considered a habit.

I think the first thing that comes to mind in regards to writing is synergy in a brainstorming session with friends, when I’ve been stuck on a novel.  With the right atmosphere, suddenly the support of my peers sparks new and exciting ideas, their suggestions helping me build momentum, until I can see my current project in a whole new and exciting light.  The other place I’d like to find it, is someday between editor, illustrator, and marketers in a publisher, all coming together to push the project to the next level.  I still feel this is more something to foster than practice, this sort of environment, but I can see its value.

Next week, I’ll have a third and final post on habit 7 and writing, since I feel like it’s important enough to get its own.

The Seven Habits for Writers Part 1: Private Victories

A much spiffier cover than my ancient copy.Wouldn’t you know it, but just a month or so after getting laid off in Hood River and after we’d moved back in with my parents in the Portland area, they called my husband back part time.  So now, three days a week we drive out to Hood River and I live in the library and coffee shops while he’s at work.  While drinking all those Americanos and eating chocolate croissants while writing is hardly torture, the drive is an hour an a half each way.

So, my husband and I started having him read to me in the car.  We picked the iconic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” which I had never bothered to read back in the 80s when it was all the rage.  While Covey is a bit bumpy out loud in his sentence structure, I really enjoy listening to the book and debating it’s points with my husband.  Naturally though, as an author I tend to try to apply any and all informational books to the process of writing and how I can use it to further myself.

I think despite some of the dated stories and ideas, that the 7 Habits is still very relevant and useful, and applies quite nicely to writing. Yanking it off teh shelf and dusting it off was a good decision.  There’s a lot of life left in this classic. Let’s start with the first three “private victories.”

Fun list of all seven habits by Jake HuhnHabit 1: Be Proactive

Basically, this habit is about owning our choice to act/react to things.  No matter how small or narrow, we have a choice between when something happens and what we do about it.  We chose whether we’ll act or be acted upon and which emotions we let consume us, which attitudes we immerse ourselves in.  And this is true of a writer as much as anyone.

I’ve met a lot of “writers” who all say something along the lines of “I’d really like to write but…” filled in with a bunch of reasons why life doesn’t allow them to.  Jobs, kids, parents who don’t approve or consider creative work “real,” a world out to get them in some respect that just doesn’t allow them to have the “time” to get anything written.

The second biggest trap I meet people falling into is enmeshed in woe over the state of the industry.  In query rejection depression I’ve slipped into this one myself.  It’s so easy to take a victim mentality when dealing with putting your heart out there on the line and getting rejected.  Suddenly you’re “helpless” and all of society is holding you back from your dream, leaving bitterness and resentment.

Proactivity means setting aside the idea I’m stuck, that life is acting on me, and see myself as the person who acts.  To focus my concern on what is in my control–that I sit down every day, laptop in front of me and write.  That I do my research, edit my work, exchange my crits, write my queries, and put myself out there.  If other things in my life steal priority, that ought to be because they’re important to me, not because I’m a victim of life. And my writing happens for the same reason, because I chose it.

That’s a message we could all use hearing again and again.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

I don’t think I could come up with a better bit of writing advice when tackling a novel than Habit 2.  Before a book can exist on paper, it needs to exist in the author’s mind.  Now, before all the pansters start an uproar here, I don’t mean that we have to know the literal end of the novel.  This is “end” in a general sense.

What is this novel as a whole? What sort of dream is it?  Can you picture the book in your hands? The feeling it gives you when you read it?  What is it about at its heart, this idea, how does it move you? If I don’t have that for a book, regardless of how much of the plot I plan ahead of time, the book doesn’t live.

I need to know what I want to achieve through a novel when I start it, or it won’t have the clarity to keep through the heat and toil of actually getting the project done.  When writer’s block hits, when doubts overwhelm me both about the idea and my worth as a writer, I need that vision, that “end” to help carry me through to reaching it.

This also I think goes for career in general.  What is my mission as an author? What do I want to ultimately do and say with my writing? What does success look like for me?  These are important ends, that can guide my inner focus and determination.  And looking at how that evolves as I mature as a writer is also important.  Some of my goals remain unchanged, while others have changed into new  perspectives–such as ebooks and my belief in their importance and reaching young readers through them as well as print.  Having that mission, both for my career as a whole and each book, is crucial.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Nifty scheduling chart thingy.

This section of the book has a little chart that I pretty much need to post in front of myself as a constant reminder.  Covey offers a lot of great thoughts about organizing time and trying to not live always bouncing between important urgent crises and time wasting non-urgent non-important tasks on the rebound.  I think that it’s significant that most actual writing tends to be a non-urgent but important (quadrant 2) activity.  It’s often pushed out into the sidelines of life by the back and forth emergency and recovery sort of life style.

Within my writing tasks themselves, it’s also important for me to look at the goals involved.  What are my goals for new books, books currently in editing, my marketing, and what activities are needed for each.  All very practical and solid advice for planning it out and getting what I need to get done, done.  And no, I’m not quite managing it (thus doing nano left me neglecting the blog and so on), but it’s quite inspiriting.  As I come up on May, I want to dive into really embracing these three inner changes and adapting them to fit what I need to increase the effectiveness of my writing.

These three “private victories” I took listening to the book to be what relates for me most to the actual process of writing.  After I go actually do some writing, next blog article I’ll muse on what Covey calls “public victories” and how I consider these habits to be related to the world of publishing.