April 20, 2011 • No Comments
It takes me forever to write a proposal. I’m fairly sure my agent just doesn’t believe me anymore when I say that I’m going to produce one.
It’s not laziness on my part, nor is it lack of ideas. It’s trying to connect my germ of a concept with the finished product. There are a lot of obstacles, not the least is which requiring great tracts of time to ponder the whole thing and answer some key questions.
One number one: what genre is this? For some, this is easy. For me, not so much. I tend to write in between, around, or hopping to and fro genres because that interests me. It tends not to interest industry professionals quite so much, despite their vaunted love of mash-ups. Eventually one has to settle on what a proposed book MOSTLY is, just so folks know where to file it. If one colours too far outside the lines, the marketplace tends to shy away. Sucks, but true.
Two: who is the main character? The standard answer is “whoever changes the most.” I’d rather say: “whoever I think I can stand hanging around my head for the next six months.” The point is things get a lot easier if you have one focal character, even in a romance. If, like me, you are prone to ensemble casts, it becomes critical. One very important reason is that readers like to have a character to cheer for. The more time they spend with the protagonist, the more sympathy has a chance to build. It’s not that the other characters aren’t nice people, but readers like that familiar touchstone.
Three: how much world do I really need to build for just a proposal? Um, all of it? The more unfamiliar the landscape, the more work has to be invested. This is what sucker punched me on the current WIP. I finished the first draft of the first fifty pages last night and realized those gaping holes were due to bad preparation. I hadn’t made enough decisions about the universe, so (shockingly) it didn’t manifest on the page. I had created universe lite (all of the cosmos, none of the gravity) and it worked about as well as artificial sweetener. An easy fix, but it goes to show sloppy doesn’t pay.
So, yes, it is possible to spend hours working on your book without actually writing a word. You need to dream up a world, decide on your market, research your market, and ponder your cast list before much else happens. This is why it is entirely permissible to sock someone who sneers at your paltry page count and says, “Gee, you’ve been at this for ages and is that all you got done?” Grrrr.
Better yet (and more productive than outright homicide), keep a notebook of these decisions so that progress is still measurable. Check off what choices you’ve made and jot down why. Word count isn’t everything, but work accomplished certainly deserves reward.
April 13, 2011 • 2 Comments
Lately I’ve been dipping into my someday-I-gotta-read list of classics and catching up on gems like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. They’re novels written for pure entertainment. Sure, some things about them are dated, but as adventure yarns they stand the test of time. There’s ticking clocks, secrets, comedy, conflict, exotic scenery, betrayal and heroism.
These books break a great many “rules” espoused by today’s fiction-writing experts. Not that Doyle and Verne would necessarily care. They must have been doing something right to stay in print for at least a hundred years—but we do see some things in the nineteenth-century novel we don’t see much of in today’s pulp fiction.
Point of view is one. The Victorians weren’t shy about using the wide-angle storytelling lens, aka the omniscient view. With that, an all-seeing narrator sets forth long passages of description about a location, society, or milieu. It makes me think of an opening sequence of a movie, where the camera lovingly pans over the countryside to set the scene before the star enters the picture. Today, we’re told get into the action and deep POV as soon as possible. That’s great, but there’s something to be said for taking time to set the scene.
Another interesting difference is that the authors way back when weren’t shy about what we’d call authorial intrusion. That is, the author expresses their opinion about what’s going on in the story, sometimes very directly. While I’m less tolerant of this, I’m forced to admit that part of Dickens’ unmistakable touch is his personal opinions—be it around social injustice or the right kind of Christmas office party. Though these interjections would be chopped out now, his exhortations add a huge amount of character to his books.
Another custom fading into the sunset is a certain level of narrative complexity. Even in the seventies, there were sprawling best-sellers with a bazillion characters, all with their own points of view and story arcs. In genre fiction, these days (and, yes, this is a sweeping generalization with significant exceptions) we get the hero, heroine, maybe villain, and rarely anyone else. And, they’re generally focussed on one main storyline with only piddling subplots. Even juicy double couple romances are becoming hard to find. Why the push to keep it simple? After all, readers aren’t stupid and surely could follow more than one story arc.
Probably there are many reasons, and some of it is undoubtedly just our current tastes. One, I’m sure, is the price of paper. More complex = more pages = more expensive. Not a good thing unless you’re an ebook.
Anyway, I’m not saying these older practices are better or worse, just that it’s interesting that some very successful and long-lived stories don’t adhere to the current concept of “good” writing. This may seem obvious. However, my experience reading some older works was a bit of “wow, this is different” combined with “huh, that works okay.” And it also reminds me that storytelling comes with a very full toolkit. Surprise and variety are good. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that.
March 30, 2011 • No Comments
The interesting thing about awards is that they can mean a lot and not much at the same time. Conventional wisdom says that shoppers and therefore publishers pay no attention to book awards. They do not help sales and they ultimately do nothing but collect dust on a shelf. But, like most such grumpy assessments, I don’t think that’s the whole truth. I have won awards before, and as shiny dust collectors go I think they are mighty fine.
My third book, Unchained: the Dark Forgotten, has been nominated for a RITA® Award in the paranormal category. I really, absolutely, utterly did not expect this. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a great book, but there are a lot of great books out there by bigger names than mine. I am hugely honoured and humbled.
For those that don’t know the RITA®, it’s awarded by the Romance Writers of America and is considered the Big Deal in romance awards, rather like an Edgar or a Hugo are regarded in their respective genres. One would think such news would involve champagne and confetti. My initial response was disbelief; I’m good at that. I finally figured out it wasn’t a mistake later on in the evening of the announcement day, when I was poring over the two-page email from the RWA outlining what I had to do by what date to keep my nomination in play. Apparently, if you want my attention, send paperwork.
Then came gratitude, because I suddenly realized that some people out there read and understood my vision, and it made them happy. The book I wrote gave them a few hours of escape and pleasure. That, above all things, is what an author wants. And maybe, just maybe, this nomination will help me keep on telling my stories to a wide audience. That would be the biggest win of all.
So when people wonder what good awards (especially ones without cheques attached) can do for an author, this is it. They act as a guarantee of quality. Maybe they’ll open doors. More important, it lets the author know someone out there gets what they’re doing. Suddenly, this weird one-sided conversation we engage in has a response. In this case, a thumbs-up.
What else really matters?
March 23, 2011 • 1 Comment
One of the oft-overlooked hazards of the business is that if one a) sits at a desk to write instead of, say, dictating while bouncing on a trampoline and b) has a desk job besides, there is every danger that one might soon resemble said desk.
Naturally, we all wish to avoid a future as furniture–especially the overstuffed variety. Hence the number of places where one can gain wholesome advice about calories, fibre, and self-flagellation. Enough such web sites abound that I’m not going to discuss actual facts here (as a fiction writer, facts are typically a last resort). Instead, I would like to point out three observations—by way of mythbusting—of practical use to writers:
ONE. Of course there’s no time for exercise. Everyone knows that.
Who doesn’t want more hours in the day? Most authors will do some pretty silly things to squeeze in extra minutes of writing time—but we all have our limits. I have made repeated protests that I am NOT a morning person and cannot possibly write at 5:00 am. This is still true. I am zombie girl until at least 9:00 and am quite possibly dangerous until 8:00.
But I can work with that. I can show up at an exercise facility at an early hour. No one who goes to a gym at 6:00 am is there for conversation, so I don’t have to be nice. The benefits of this schedule are twofold: It frees up time later in the day when I can actually think and write, and with luck I don’t actually remember any of the sweaty morning torture session. Hence therefore, it IS possible to write and maintain a fitness routine—just go when you’re not at your intellectual peak anyway. Besides, it’s nice to have a chore completely finished by the time the work day starts.
TWO. I can’t write without chocolate.
No, I don’t WANT to write without chocolate. Or cheese curls. Or a small lake of black coffee. But I actually write better without them because I won’t feel like my head is stuffed with packing pickles.
In a fit of who-knows-what, I gave up all forms of grain and sugar. One the shock (and grumpiness) abated, I was astonished to have tons and tons of energy. According to the diet I was raised on, I should be starving and tired, but I’m not. The secret is to not stick to a “three squares a day” regime, but to frequently eat little bits of vegetables and protein to rev the metabolism.
THREE. I’ll accomplish so much more if I just keep my bum in the chair for the next twelve hours.
There are times when more is not more. Still, focussed concentration is great, but only for a few hours at a time. After a certain point, diminishing returns set in.
The key is getting food and oxygen to the brain, which means circulation. You know: Beating heart. Pulse. All those things vampire characters lack.
It’s bad when the author tries to emulate the physical state of the Undead. Vlad may be okay with zero blood oxygen; authors just get stupid—so get up and move around from time to time. Eat something nutritious. The cliché of the author hunched over the keyboard, eating junk and drinking their own blood volume in coffee and cola is not a model for real life. Not if you want your brain to stay friends.
I have a tricky enough relationship with my brain as it is—but at least now it occasionally comes when called. Up till now, its specialty has been playing dead.
Interested? Here’s a blog worth reading:
March 16, 2011 • No Comments
I was thinking, “hmm, what should I write about?” and then my critique group started up a discussion around theme. Because I own the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and never get to use it, I looked up theme:
Properly speaking, the theme of a work is not its subject but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly. For example, the theme of Othello is jealousy. See Leitmotif; motif.
But if we see Leitmotif, we might have to see Wagner’s Ring cycle, and I think one has to go into training for that, rather like an Olympic event. Let’s stick with theme.
In my experience, theme got a bad rap in school because it was presented like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. Somewhere in every work of literature, a theme was hiding. It could be found, guessed at, or otherwise produced as a complete yet simplistic idea. It’s what a story meant, with all the subtlety of a 2×4 between the eyes.
Probably not the most effective use of the technique. To my mind, theme is more like the dryer screen that collects lint as the story tumbles to its conclusion. Lots of stuff in a story relates to an organizing thematic idea, but in more complex stories it’s often oblique, multi-faceted, backward, or even contradictory. It’s more about how a concept shows up in different ways in the story world without actually being a Holy Grail the characters chase. It’s that attitude, idea, or circumstance that impacts all the major players in different ways, and each example illuminates the others.
Longer stories often have several themes. A good example in my mind is (speaking of rings) The Lord of the Rings. It’s about stepping up and taking responsibility. It’s also about exile. It’s also about good versus evil. It’s also about the inheritance of sin. It’s about how good Viggo Mortensen looks in leather, and the artistry of Elven hairdressers. There’s no one cereal-box prize, nor should there be. That would diminish the work.
Perhaps themes are just whatever is roaming around in the author’s mind. I don’t start writing with a theme in mind—or if I do, I veer off of it pretty quickly because I have the attention span of a gnat. It’s when I go back to rewrite that I see strands of actual theme in the text. At that point, I dig them out and highlight them, usually with a puzzled, “Oh, so that’s what all this was about.” Scorched plays with ideas of meaningful self-definition. Unchained gnaws on the female role in society. I wouldn’t say that’s what they are about per se, but what flavors them–or so I discovered after draft one was complete.
It’s interesting that theme and Leitmotif are terms literature shares with music. That’s pretty informative all by itself. In pop music, we’d call it a hook—that little spicy phrase that pops up again and again and helps make the piece memorable.
Of course, outside of English class, does anyone actually notice theme, or is it something writers do mostly for themselves? Is anyone out there conscious of it?
March 2, 2011 • No Comments
I just spent the weekend revising a short story and submitting it. I spent the previous weekend duct taped to my chair FINISHING the piece, which I had avoided doing until it was in burning crisis mode.
Burning crisis mode is (unlike burning bush mode) the state of having no idea what to write and actually needing divine intervention. My muse, being a joker, sent enough inspiration during those 48 hours that I not only finished, but finished at about 3,500 words over length. When it’s a 13,000 word piece, that’s a problem. Furthermore, the story was sufficiently complicated that I couldn’t just hack out a few scenes and call it a day. But I made it, ending up just a hundred or so words extra.
I almost always write too long, so I’ve had plenty of practice doing liposuction on my prose. It has been said that 10% of any draft can be safely removed. With me, it’s about 20%. Look at all the silly things I do:
YA short story opening, take 1:
Broad daylight was safe. Safer, anyway. Maybe even kind of dull.
Two o’clock on a September Saturday afternoon meant that the streets were drenched in a warm liquid gold even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but the summer still held sway for a little time yet—as did the light.
Dori didn’t know the city all that well, much less this part of the downtown. It was the kind of place some called funky and others desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.
Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next cluster of stores wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the street corner. Besides, the alley was just a space between two old buildings. Crumbling pavement heaved and split and the graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse. Not much adventure here.
1. I think I’m trying for a folksy opening, but I end up doing a prose mumble. Three sentence fragments robs the first paragraph of punch. The middle one has to go.
2. Passive verbs (such as “were drenched”) usually indicate a convoluted structure. So do things like “meant that,” “It was/wasn’t the …”. Turning the sentences around to cut out those phrases strengthens the action.
3. The sentence about the alley being a space between buildings seemed kind of redundant. Where else would an alley be? On the roof?
YA short story opening, take 2:
Broad daylight was safe. Maybe even kind of dull.
At two o’clock on a September Saturday, golden warmth drenched the streets even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but bright summer held sway for a little time yet.
Dori didn’t know the city well, much less this part of the downtown. Some called the district funky and others said it was desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.
Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next street wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the corner. So, she headed down the narrow strip of crumbling pavement. The graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse.
I’ve cut 30 words out of this opening, and don’t really miss them. The meaning is all still there and what’s left is crisper writing.
If you feel like driving yourself crazy some afternoon, sit down with ten pages of your writing and challenge yourself to cut out 30 words from each page. I guarantee by page 5 you’ll have a better sense of your bad habits than you could learn in months of formal classes. What’s more, you start to spot junk words from a mile away.
The one cautionary note is that the exercise is a bit like pruning bushes – it’s easy to get carried away. Don’t do more than about 5 pages at a sitting, or you’ll end up with a telegram by the end.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Russian. French. Dead. Depressed. The End.
February 22, 2011 • No Comments
I don’t have a lot of “tricks” or rules when I write. Most of how I string words together is pure instinct. I don’t think about adverbs and dangling whatevers because, despite the English degree, I’ve lost what grammar rules I knew. I have just enough remaining to keep editors this side of abject despair. In case of emergency, I have some decent reference books.
On the other hand, I use my ears a lot.
One technique I think is very underused is being attuned to the effect of certain vowel sounds on atmosphere and pacing. For instance, these are the first two lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
We hear the long “i” five times in those two lines, like a tolling bell under the rest of the sounds. As well as the (for want of a better term) harmonic value of the vowel, it slows the reader down. It’s stately and measured. This is totally appropriate to the situation of the speaker (standing around looking at an ancient vase) and also to the timeless dance of the figures around the artifact.
For descriptive passages, the value of this technique is obvious, but it could be used just as easily in dialogue or an action scene. Different vowels give different effects—imagine if all those long “i” sounds were shortened. The rhythm as well as the tone would be dramatically altered to a clippity-clop.
Another thing that I love to play with is meter. Yes, time for another quote, this one from Coleridge:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree;
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Cool imagery aside, look what he does with the structure of the words. He keeps pushing the verse forward by making one line complete the idea of the one above it. We keep reading to finish the thought.
Good prose writers do this, too. Forget the schoolroom lessons on how to structure a paragraph with an opening sentence, details, and summary sentence that make it a closed unit. Wrong! Bad!
What we’ll see in exciting prose is paragraphs that follow seamlessly one to the other, one thought picking up from the next just as in “Kubla Khan.” This may be achieved in several ways:
*Sometimes this is done by relentlessly following an action or idea with no real resting place between paragraphs (kind of an expanded version of what Coleridge is up to).
*Writers can use linking words (and then, just as, so, well y’know, etc.) to glue one paragraph to the one before it. This works especially well with a folksy narrative in first person.
*The first line of one paragraph can echo a word from the ending sentence above.
*Sometimes a question is asked and then answered
*Sometimes sentence fragments are split between paragraphs
*Sometimes one uses repeated initial words to bounce the rhythm forward
* and lots of other things—just go look for them.
When they want the flow to stop, often a short, sharp sentence will deliver the needed punch.
This is an excerpt from FROSTBOUND, in which I’m attempting some of this by using the beats of the action to keep the reader moving from paragraph to paragraph:
His quarry was only a stone’s throw ahead now, dark clothing a blur against the night. Lore lengthened his stride as far as he could, lungs straining against the chill air. The pavement was slick with frost, the sound of pounding feet magnified by the cold. He lunged forward, snagging the rough wool of the runner’s sleeve.
The figure jerked away, springing forward with a desperate burst of energy. Lore bounded, using both hands this time to grab the coat. The runner crumpled to the ground with a frightened cry, Lore pinning him with his weight.
They both grunted as they hit the ground. Lore rolled the figure over, smelling the sharp tang of smoke on his clothes.
“Madhyor!” cried his captive. Master.
With a wrench, Lore saw the runner was one of his own people.
Crafting the prose so that the eye keeps going forward is stock in trade to thriller writers. I learned the technique from poetry (see, that degree was good for something!) but the principle is exactly the same. If one wants to keep the audience up all night turning pages, tidy blocks of prose won’t do it. It has to spill forward in a rush, tumbling the reader with it.
And that, class, is the end of the lesson. I can put my Norton Anthology of English Literature away now.
February 16, 2011 • No Comments
On Monday at www.SilkandShadows.com, Jessa wrote about false starts or what I call variously the Chapter 3 or Chapter 5 crisis. It usually comes once the initial burst of wonderfulness has faded from a new idea and the real work begins. Sometimes, the result is major book stall.
At this unfortunate point, one might be tempted to give up because:
a) There isn’t enough plot to hold up the story
b) The story started okay, but it doesn’t feel right anymore
c) A prettier butterfly just went past.
Problem A is solved by doing the necessary homework. If there’s no structure holding up the story, it’s going to collapse like melting Jell-o. What works for me is to plan a new crisis point every two to three chapters and work toward those high points one at a time. The benefit is twofold—it’s like a fresh burst of energy every 20 to 30 pages, and it keeps plot movement in manageable chunks. I think of those plot points like the pilings of a bridge; the more there are and the better they’re placed, the sturdier the structure. No sagging middles.
Of course, to do this effectively (that is, to come up with disasters at once logical and surprising) means layering in all sorts of perils for your characters, whether emotional or of the man-eating variety (who left their alligator in the bathtub?). That’s a whole other blog.
Problem B is a bit more airy-fairy. I’ll often start a book that has a certain something I really like – atmosphere, feel, flavour, whatever. Fifty pages in, I’ve lost it. Since I can’t name what the magical something was, I can’t figure out how to get it back. The only solution I’ve come up with is to backtrack to the point where I still like the manuscript and pick it up again from that point, doing everything I can to preserve the vibe. Sometimes this means wearing a certain sweater, drinking the right tea, putting on the right music, and other silly writing rituals. Once the book is solid, I can usually return to my haphazard ways, but until I’ve got it on the right track, I have to rely on authorial voodoo to woo my muse.
The above method works about half the time. Sadly, sometimes the book just turns into compost. Not all ideas are winners.
Problem C (butterfly chasing) can be put down to lack of discipline (who, me?) or the fact that sometimes books just aren’t ready to be written. The prettier butterfly comes along and we chase it because it’s the worthier prize. Our poor little caterpillar books will have their day, just not yet. I had a recent encounter with this, and the proposal had to be released back into the wild. It’s nearly there, but there is still some cocoon time in its future.
How do I deal with letting go? There is a balance between forging ahead because we refuse to give in and knowing when to walk away. I have faith in my “nose” about my own work. The hardest part for me is being patient and sitting with an idea until it shows its true colours. Is it a hummingbird or an eagle? A bon-bon or raw steak?
All you writers out there—what’s your acid test to know whether an idea is a firecracker in waiting, or just a dud?
February 8, 2011 • No Comments
One of my favourite mental games to play around Valentine’s Day is all about fictional dates I would love to have. You know what I mean—an afternoon of bounding through the heather with Highlander, dancing with Mr. Darcy, or skulking through ruins for a candlelit tryst with the darkling doomed. Half the fun of a good hero is to see if he could fit into one of these mental vacations. However, there are a few safety tips one must observe:
1. Tasteful editing is a must. Vampires especially benefit from a buff-up to rid them of blood breath, coffin hair, and that musty basement odor. Ditto for demons and that special eau de sulphurous damnation.
2. Choose your version. For instance, a barbecue picnic with Conan the Barbarian will always work better with the film version of the hero than the original Robert E. Howard. In the movie world, you’re less likely to be eaten by something gruesome while muscle boy spaces out in a big broodfest about conquering the neighbouring kingdom. For another, a Hollywood hero would never burn the burgers.
(Speaking of Hollywood, Last of the Mohicans is a huge improvement with Daniel Day Lewis. The film managed to almost never mention the fact that the hero’s name is Natty Bumpo.)
3. Historical heroes can be brought up to date where it counts. Yes, when it come to things like voting, we like our modern men.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. Once the man of choice is knocked into shape, the fantasy begins. Will the ride be a coach? A phaeton? A Lamborghini? A wild stallion tamed only by the strength of his manly thighs? And you will go to … the opera? A ball? The midnight pillage down at the oasis? Or will you skip all that and dine in on champagne and peeled grapes? The possible permutations are endless.
This is when it’s good to be a romance writer. On a good day, these fantasies are paid employment.
What’s my thrill? I’ve always favoured the idea of swashbuckling through seventeenth-century Europe, convincing the Duke of Buckingham to forget Anne of Austria and give me the diamond necklace instead, but then I’m probably the only person on earth who thinks foiling Cardinal Richelieu would make a fun night out. Lace, swords, and chase scenes … I’m in. The only thing better is to add a splash of magic.
So if you had absolute free rein, who would be your Valentine?
February 2, 2011 • No Comments
So what projects am I working on?
1. An annotated gastronomy of reheated pizza.
2. A collection of critical essays on Season 2 of The Vampire Diaries.
3. Reminiscences of my pre-cat furniture.
Seriously, I am working on:
• Another short story for the Mammoth books (a YA story about urban fey).
• Proposals that would look much better on paper instead of being pure imagination.
• Piles of research for said proposals (I never do anything the easy way).
• Stuff for my day job that spills over from work day into evening.
• The fitness plan that has me up far too early in the morning.
• The Evil Kitchen Reno (which is looking spiff but not universally so).
The problem is, of course, that projects can be teenagers. You know what I mean—there is the promise of things to come, but we’re in the awkward phase when things look out of proportion and a little hard to love. Witness the 5 a.m. wake up to go to the gym. Good theory, ugly reality, nuff said.
Fine, but what about the books? Oddly all this activity contributes to my work in progress, because it’s colouring my state of mind—and right now, all those colours are vital information.
What does that mean? Imagine you want to see a certain type of movie, but can’t describe what that might be, or you want to read a certain type of book, but you’ll only know it when you see it. What is that certain something? When I roll the essence of a daily vignette across my tongue, what is it I’m detecting?
I call that the flavour or scent of a work. It brings up an atmosphere or mood, and once you have a taste for that feeling, you crave it. You’ll haunt a bookstore looking for it. Only a certain café can evoke it. Only your best pair of boots feels it. Maybe a particular alleyway looks like it. Maybe it’s just the way the light shimmers on the side of a building or the taste of the morning on the air.
I have to have that flavour figured out before the first words hit the page. Once it’s nailed down, I can catapult myself into the story by concentrating on that feeling. It’s like the magic passkey to my story kingdom.
Is any of this making sense? How would you describe what I’m talking about?