May 2, 2012 • No Comments
There is plenty of advice out there on how to write ‘em. Keep it short and simple, no more than two pages. Keep the tone of the work you’re going to write. Use the present tense. Be focussed on the key points of the book.
None of that is bad, but it’s only conditionally true. In reality, the right way to produce a book outline is a) any method that will get it from your brain to the page in a coherent and meaningful fashion and b) it has to be in a form that your editor/agent wants to receive it. The bottom line is that they want to find out, with as little effort as possible, what you’re going to write about.
These two points, in my opinion, cut out a lot of stress. I long believed myself to be the worst synopsis-writer on the planet, and so laboured long and hard to produce a perfect specimen for my editor. Two pages, not a word over. I tracked the romance arc to perfection, touching on all the grey, black and purple moments. Began and ended with catchy phrases and had many a chuckle in between. It was great, she said, but what happened in the story? She knew everything but the details of the plot. I was about to protest that all the books said that was the one thing that didn’t matter, then fortunately stopped myself. The only thing that mattered is that she wanted to know, and I had to tell her.
The next outline I stuck to just the facts. I wrote was a ten-page blow by blow, chapter by chapter account with separate sections on character background and world-building. Crazy? Overblown? Flying in the face of received wisdom? Perhaps, but she loved it. For her, the supersized synopsis was the right approach.
Ever since, I’ve tended toward these monster-sized tomes, some of which top 5K words. Yes, it gives the editor more to quibble about, but I generally get far less push-back in the end. My agent loves them, too. Plus, they can give far, far better feedback when they know the specifics of your proposal and if there’s something they just don’t feel will work, it’s better to have that discussion before you write the next 90,000 words.
This does not mean that every editor or agent out there is going to adore this method. That two-page rule came from somewhere, so a goodly portion of publishing professionals prefer it. The point is simply that it pays to ask the simple question: what does your editor/agent like? The guidelines on their web site might be a company rule, but if a publishing house has a herd of editors, their individual tastes could be quite different. If you have a chance to ask, do it. Throwing the rule book out the window did me a world of good.
In some ways, that’s the hardest lesson to learn in an industry where advice is plentiful and hard facts are rare as cream puffs at the Hunger Games. Always ask what actually works.
April 27, 2012 • No Comments
April 26, 2012 • No Comments
I love Jane Austen and I love British mysteries, so P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley sounded like a sure winner. James opens the story some years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth and Darcy have two small sons. All the period detail (at least as far as I know) is caught with careful accuracy, and Austen’s characters and their histories are faithfully rendered.
Perhaps this is part of the difficulty I had with the book. There is no larger than life detective, derring-do, or scrapes with death. Everyone (especially Darcy) acts exactly as individuals in that time and place ought to. True, there is a death, a coroner’s inquest, and a trial, but they are delivered at arm’s length. For the most part, the main characters do not take an active part in the investigation, nor is anything other than their good name on the line. Darcy is by turns painfully correct, worried about failing the Pemberley legacy, and glum, but he does not roll up his sleeves and start interrogating.
I personally would have liked something a bit more down and dirty, with the characters in the crosshairs of more than potential gossip. But that’s my problem. Austen wrote with most of her action off stage, never bringing scandalous activities directly on scene but only reporting them after the event. As little as I like it, the author is being faithful to the model.
However, I missed Austen’s caustic wit. For the most part, Lizzie is reduced to a cipher, as is her chemistry with Darcy. There is no irrepressible female viewpoint to lampoon the pretentions of society. The lightness, spirit, and incisive eye for character—that which made Austen memorable—fail to materialize. Most of all, even if the characters won’t be impacted by more than scandal, I need to care about the outcome. Because the Pemberley folks are so far removed from any real consequences, this was difficult.
I think this is the problem when one anticipates a book with great relish. If it does not deliver the expected treat exactly right, it’s hard not to judge it harshly. All I can say is that this wasn’t what I was hoping for.
April 25, 2012 • No Comments
I’ve seen lots of information on world building that helps an author lay out the rules of their universe. There are tons of things to consider: climate, currency, social castes, political systems, and on and on. One can draw maps and list all kinds of flora and fauna and cuisine. It’s all good.
What I rarely see is information on how any of that contributes to the story beyond setting, such as why or how, let alone how much.
I had a lively discussion recently about just this thing. I’d given some chapters of a fantasy to a beta reader (poor thing) who came back with a recommendation for more world building details. Piqued that my genius would be questioned—after all I had tons of just such info in mind—I reread to see what I had (or had not) done. She was right. I’d fallen to the low end of the world building spectrum because I hadn’t used my ideas effectively.
· Low end of spectrum: the Stingy Approach. Don’t introduce anything unless you absolutely need to.
· Gone crazy end: the Victorian Bordello Approach. Don’t bother with the plot, the fun is in the gizmos and webbed feet.
Needless to say, there is a happy medium. However, the underlying problem in my story was that I had not thoroughly examined what role the world building elements in my book played.
Example: let’s say our fantasy society has an economy based on solar power. That could translate into: their jobs, where their family money came from, do they live above ground or under it, are there medical consequences, what crops do they have, can anybody access the power, has it affected population migration or birth rate, do they sell the power somehow? Why did they go to solar power and how did they learn the technology? Does it have spiritual or religious implications? What about the rest of the ecology?
Once the author has deeply pondered this squirmy mass of connecting ideas, the trick is then to drop in just the right details, as if in passing, to imply all of the above. Reference it as a fait accompli the way we talk about catching the city bus. After all, one’s point of view character probably lives in that world.
Example: They wouldn’t ponder the caste system of their planet. They’d simply kick the scum into the gutter and move on. Show, don’t tell.
It’s a casual slight-of-hand that makes the difference between the plodding obviousness of bad sci-fi and the opportunity to draw a reader deep, deep into the playground of your imagination.
To take this one step further, one has to ask why a certain element is pertinent. How do the two-headed dog packs on planet x affect the choices available to the protagonist? Where does it impact the central story conflict? Does it say something important about the state of society?
Example: planet x is a mining planet digging up a dangerous mineral. The resource conglomerates are telling the inhabitants the two-headed dogs with five tails are a naturally occurring species, but really their ancestors were cute little boxer pups and these are a mutation caused by the mining operation. Our hero discovers this secret just after his wife conceives. Cue plot motivation.
So, that is the worldbuilding lesson I learned. If I had done my homework, I would have known when and where to use my fantasy elements with the precision of a master chef seasoning a dish. Scrap that. They would have been essential ingredients to the meal, driving my characters and their actions.
Now let’s see if I can take my own advice 😳
April 19, 2012 • No Comments
Okay, so I’m not a big sports fan, but I thought these skaters were cute. Saw them dangling from the ceiling of a tiny but lovely Vancouver bistro called Aphrodite’s just down from Banyen Books. They’re actually quite large, and had pirates and mermaids to keep them company.
April 18, 2012 • No Comments
I long for the days when all I had to do about meals was show up. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking and I’m good at it. I have shelves of recipe books. But organizing myself when I’m super-busy is at times more than I can manage. Then comes the, shall we say, less responsible food choices.
So call this a product review if you like. For me, it’s a sigh of relief.
I signed up for Groupon a while ago and got an online subscription deal to The Fresh 20. This company, run by a dietician, sends weekly menus, shopping lists, and recipes to your inbox. The menus are for five nightly meals (Mon-Fri) that use no more than twenty ingredients all told. There’s an hour of prep work for the week, but the nightly cooking takes about a half hour. For me, that means dishes are done by 7:30 so I can get writing.
The menus are designed to use up leftovers so you don’t have suspicious entities lurking in the crisper two weeks later. The ingredients are those in common use, so most grocery stores should have what is needed (and most of the listed staples I had anyway). Best of all, customers can choose plans for a traditional, vegetarian, or gluten-free diet.
My menus came on Friday, in time for weekend shopping, and so I trotted off to Thrifty’s to get my stuff. Week One, I seriously overbought. Helpful hint: these recipes are geared for a family of four, not one person. I ended up making about half the meals and eating a lot of leftovers that week. Good thing they were tasty.
The next run went much better, when I cut the amounts in half. Shopping went very quickly because the lists are grouped by department. Overall, my grocery bill was much lower, and I was able to squeeze lunches out of the leftovers. With take-out prices, that is a major savings all on its own. I’m pretty sure I’ve made back the cost of Fresh 20’s subscription already.
The end review? Definitely worth a try, so check out their web site for sample menus. There’s a three-month trial for $5/month.
I appreciate someone else doing the organization. It’s cheaper, faster, tasty and healthy. It’s not a weight-loss plan per se, but if you’re trying to cut crap out of your diet, this goes a long way. However, it’s flexible. I’ve swapped ingredients here and there and with five meals, not seven, there’s room for a night out or just some other dish you want to make.
Overall, the meal plans are helpful without being invasive. Now if only they’d do the dishes!
• 2 Comments
Once upon a time they used to torture people into confession by tying them down, putting a plank of wood over them, and then piling rocks on top until the victim was squished. I know, not a really attractive image, but a useful metaphor #1 for this discussion.
Metaphor #2: I had a really excellent story idea last night. It was still with me this morning, fluttering around like a colourful butterfly, bonking against my nose once in a while just to make sure I’m paying attention. Like most really good ideas, it is slowly coming into focus, showing more and more of its pretty patterns as I, all unwilling, try my best to ignore it.
Ignore it?? Why ever would I do that? Well, gentle reader, because I have absolutely no time to deal with it right now. Back to the guy under the rocks—or rather, me under my rocks. If I make it through to the end of June, I’m golden, but right now I have three impressive deadlines a few weeks apart. Completely doable, as long as I don’t drop any balls. What less convenient time for my muse to send a butterfly?
But that’s just the thing. The more pressure I’m under, the more I’m suffocating from workload, the more effectively my brain pops out excellent ideas. When I’m kicking back and watching the grass grow, I get nothing.
I’m not sure why it works this way. My theory is that new ideas are very delicate things and, like butterflies, not meant to be handled. If we try to pin them down too soon, they become specimens rather than living creatures. Therefore, the most logical thing for the muse to do is to send them along when I can’t mess with them.
Right now, all I can do is look and appreciate and wait till they grow up. Then, during the slow moments when I’m rock-free, they’ll be robust enough for me to coax to my hand without doing damage.
April 12, 2012 • No Comments
Duck love in a romantic setting. Took this photo last Thursday at VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver. The ducks are a little hard to see, but they were having a great time at the bottom of the waterfall. (you can see them if you click on the photo)
April 11, 2012 • 1 Comment
One of the odd parts of being an author is that sooner or later one has to do public speaking. Yes, take those engaged in the most introverted, ivory-tower occupation possible and shove them in front of a mic. Counter-intuitive? Oh, just a bit—but it turns out I had a great time!
Last week saw me visiting two libraries in the Fraser Valley Regional Library system : the Ladner Pioneer and White Rock branches. Both were lovely facilities with lovely librarians and well-appointed rooms for holding readings and lectures.
My assignment was to read a bit from one of my books (I picked Frostbound) and then give a short writing workshop. The total time allowed was just over an hour. I’ve done a handful of writing workshops over time, but this one was the best organized so far. I think the fact that I had to be very focused and brief helped me.
Things I learned:
• Think about how you’re going to read the dialogue in your story to differentiate the voices
• When computers go into sleep mode, they totally mess up your PowerPoint and need to be rebooted
• If you plan to sell books, bring a float
• Always bring an extension cord
Things I loved:
• People taking notes.
• People asking real questions about writing.
• Getting so excited by talking writing that I forget I’m talking in front of strangers
• The excuse to visit with friends.
April 5, 2012 • No Comments
In anticipation of the Easter weekend, it looks like spring arrived in the front yard!