Category Archives: Writing Craft

NaNo Update and PoV

I actually stayed up late last night and wrote! I didn’t quite hit my 2,000 word goal, but I got close (1818). I fleshed out my outline while waiting for trick-or-treaters on Monday night and I’m feeling pretty good about the overall structure of my novel.

While opndering my outline, I was reading through some articles that Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, The Codex Aleria) put on his LiveJournal a few years ago and it got me thinking. I love the Dreseden Files (urban fantasy) with a consuming passion, but I was way less enthusiastic about the Codex Aleria (fantasy). I think part of the difference in my reaction is about genre – I’m out of the fantasy mood the last few years, even though for the bulk of my life it’s been my preferred genre. But as I ponder these books with a writing eye, I realzed that it’s more about HOW the two series are written.

Each series shows Butcher’s characteristic complex plotting – multiple story lines, insurmountable odds, everything coming together at the last possible minute when the hero grasps victory. But the Dresden Files is first person and the Codex Aleria is third… And I think that’s my issue.

The character if Harry Dresden is engrossing. He’s witty, irreverent, sarcastic, and kind of a jerk. But he’s still a hero. And he makes heroic choices at great personal cost. And that’s just so attractive! And from a first person perspective, I feel like I really get to know him through the books and so I’ve really invested. But in the Codex Aleria, there are multiple points of view and I don’t think I ever really commit to any of them. By the second book there’s a clear “main” character, and I like him and his story, but Butcher switches back and forth between him and his story line and a handful of other characters and I just don’t care about them enough to sustain my interest. So I found myself skimming through those sections and that’s never good.

So, I started thinking about my other favorite books and I realized that many of them are first person – or at least, third person limited. And I write in first person (I started my current project in third, but every time I went back to re-read I discovered that I’d slipped back into first person. So I gave up). So clearly I’ve got an ingrained preference. But I think it’s a good observation about reader investment and splitting that investment between too many characters. I feel like my interest is totally focused in the Dresden Files – I like the other characters but they aren’t fighting over my affections. In the Codex, my affections are split too many ways and so I never love any of them enough to really commit. So, I guess I’m a literary monogamist.

That being said, I still bought all the Codex Aleria books. I guess my love of Jim Butcher is focused enough to sustain me through books I’m lukewarm about. Another lesson on reader loyalty? Good for you, Jim Butcher.

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A Tantalizing Opening

You know how you meet someone and then you can’t remember their name later? And you keep meaning to ask, but eventually it’s too late and you’re too embarrassed to admit that you can’t remember? That’s how I feel about this blog. I got distracted and stopped posting and when I finally remembered that I HAD a blog, I realized that to start posting again meant admitting that I’d stopped in the first place. So I’m sucking it up and admitting it. Here goes:

Sorry, I got really distracted… But it was for good reasons, I promise. Reasons like a new novel. And a 4th birthday (I got carried away with the fairy theme). And my daughter’s daycare getting shut down unexpectedly. Lame. I feel especially bad about my timing as I had joined a blogfest thing and completely chumped out on it.

I went to this great conference, I got all these ideas, I decided to scrap my (mostly) completed manuscript (that I got critiqued and actually pitched and everything), and I spent a ton of time researching and fleshing out this idea for an urban fantasy that I am so, so, SO pleased with. The planets have totally aligned with this idea and I just can’t stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, with my eldest daughter NOT in school two days a week and some major teething going on with the baby, I haven’t had as much time to write as I’d like. On either my project OR the blog (obviously).

So here’s a random topic that is marginally related to both my new project and to the RMFW conference. Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency said that she wants to see the genre within the first few paragraphs of a novel. And I though, dang. That’s tough, especially for an urban fantasy where I want to introduce the creepy stuff slowly. I’m working on it, though – I’m trying some intimations of creepy in preparation for the actual creepy. But as I was thinking about this problem, I finally got to have a date with my husband.

You see, I have these two little kids and no baby sitters. But my mom came to visit for the aforementioned birthday party and my husband and I took the opportunity to go see a movie. Now, I know many writers are rabidly opposed to using movies as models for novels, but I feel like structure is structure. I think there’s something to be learned from any artistic genre – movies, tv, music, art, whatever. They’re all trying to communicate a story, right?

So anyway, we finally got to see “Cowboys and Aliens”, which I found delightful. And that opening scene was so perfectly aligned with Megibow’s discussion of the first pages of a novel, which I’d been thinking about anyway – a perfect storm of circumstances. I’m pretty sure the opening was in the trailer, so hopefully I’m not spoiling anything here:

The camera pans across a western landscape, complete with dusty scrub and towering orange mesas (sets location). A man sits up suddenly, dressed in grubby 19th century western clothes – complete with bloody patches (inciting incident – sets time period, characterization, and intimates the circumstances). He looks around, confused, noticing a big, weird looking metal cuff on his wrist (sets sci-fi genre – obviously there’s something more than a western going on here). Then he sees a photo of a woman in the dirt next to him and you can tell that he doesn’t know who she is. Then he kicks the butt of three mounted, armed ruffians (intriguing action). This is, what? The first minute of the movie? Amazing.

Now, I understand that you can’t convey information this quickly in a novel. It takes a lot longer to create this kind of setting in writing than in a visual medium. But still, dang. I was so impressed at how quickly the movie established everything you could want in the opening of a story – everything Sara Megibow wanted, in fact. Genre, inciting incident, setting, time frame, character, mystery, action… Again, amazing.

So the take away is about details. The judicious allocation of pertinent details can immediately submerge your reader in your world – details can establish your character, your motivations, your setting, etc. Not too many or there’s overload and tedium and slow pacing. Not too few or your reader has no connection or investment. But just enough and just the right details can set everything up while still leaving the mystery intact. Tantalizing. That’s what you want, right? Tantalizing while still building expectations for your reader.

I like the word tantalizing. It’s underutilized. And doubly appropriate when talking about Daniel Craig.

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What one agent looks for in the first 30 pages…

One of the sessions I attended at the RMFW conference was on the first 30 pages of a manuscript. It was led by Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency. I thought it was very interesting – in addition to being very entertaining. She basically just talked for 2 hours but it was such an engaging presentation. She had four main things NOT to do and one thing TO do – based on the understanding that she represents genre fiction and that she isn’t looking for the exceptions. These were her rules and she said that if you didn’t want to follow those rules that was fine – but she wasn’t the agent for you.

DON’T fight the formula. She says the formula exists for a reason – becasue that’s what sells. It’s what a reader is expecting and so you need to meet that expectation. To find the formula for your genre, she recommended reading books in that genre – how novel!

DON’T hide the inciting incident. She wanted it within the first few pages.

DON’T info dump. Duh.

DON’T hide the genre. She said she wanted to guess the genre within the first few paragraphs. Whew – that seems tough, especially for a genre like urban fantasy where you’re starting in the (mostly) real world. But I guess she meant that you should set a tone early on.

These “don’t”s don’t mention the obvious things like writing correctly and following the submission guidelines. Her point was that these four points are things that will prevent her form having an interest in the project. She then gave lots of examples of books that fulfilled these criteria – and a few that didn’t and why it was OK. Then she answered lots of questions that centered around the idea that the questioner’s project was so awesome that they should be able to defy these rules with impunity.

The only DO rule she had was to have “effortless” writing. This one was a lot harder to quantify, of course, but I know all of us can think of books that match that adjective. How to achieve it is something else, though.

Anyway, that was the jist of it. It was neat hearing an agent talk about her process – and I really enjoyed listening to her. She had a ton of energy. I think that was my last session of the conference and it was a great note on which to end.

I’ll try to make some notes about he other good sessions the next time I take a break from research – don’t you love it when a project works so well you can’t stop working?

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RIP WIP

Whew! I’ve been so busy working since I got back from the conference that I totally forgot to update here – I also missed the first writing challenge for the Platform Builder’s Campaign so I hope any visitors from that will forgive me.

So the RMFW conference was totally awesome. As with all such conferences, some sessions were better than others but I got a ton of inspiration/ideas/confirmations/exposure and I’m feeling re-invigorated and ready to work. But there was one unexpected ramification: I have decided to scrap my current project.

I’ve been working on this project for three years or so. I took two years off in the middle and when I came back to it, I just didn’t love it any more. I still think it’s a cool story and, with some of the plot revisions I’ve been working on over the last several months, I think it could still be a viable project. But I have to admit that my characters are just a touch boring. It’s not that they aren’t three-dimensional… they just aren’t that cool. You know those characters that are vibrant and sexy and you just can’t wait to read more about them? My characters aren’t like that. I really liked them when I first wrote the book but they just haven’t stayed with me like I wanted. So I am going to shelve it and start on the urban fantasy that has been nagging at me for the last month. It’s based on Russian folk lore and I found some serendipitous history that turned my cool idea into a bad-ass world-concept that I just can’t get over. I love it so very, very much. But I have so much research to do…

When I wrote my first book it was based on science and politics that I already had in my head. I went back after the fact and fixed/added in details, of course, but it didn’t stop my writing. My research was primarily after-market. But this project is different. I just don’t know that much about Russia. Or russian-american settlement. Or US Geography. Or Russian geography. Or… I studied russian for four years in college so I know enough to get started with research but I need so much background information before I can start. And it’s a testament to how excited I am that I’ve spend four days doing fairly boring statistical research without getting discouraged or loosing steam. I’ve got a really neat historical context for my family, I’ve got basic character sketches done for everyone, I’ve got a basic premise for my antagonist (she is going to be SO cool!), I’ve got an outline for a modified medieval marriage ceremony, and I just decided on a location for my family estate (dang, that took forever). So I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I have so much more to do!

I promise I’ll write up some reflections on the better sessions I took at the conference (an agent session on the first 30 pages; designing deliberate secondary plots, characters, and villains; publishing research for profit; building a brand/website; and writing a pitch). It’ll help me crystalize my impressions, anyway, but I need to loose my new-idea-high first.

I will say that I had a group critique session that went really well – I got a lot out of critiquing the other five projects and listening to the editor who was running the session, but I got very few criticisms. There was only one small suggestion from the editor and, while two people in the group had criticisms, everyone else disagreed with them. So that was nice! Even though I’ve decided to shelve that project, it’s reassuring to have such positive feedback. It means that my writing, itself, is on the right track. I also had a pitch with a New York agent (who was the most adorable person) and, while she did agree to look at my first two chapters, she seemed far more excited about my russian project. I just need to get a move on with writing it! She actually told me I was a tease for telling her such a great idea without having a book for her to read! So, a good weekend for my ego. And I feel so good to have finally admitted that I don’t want to finish the thriller. I’ve been fighting with myself for months – thinking that I just didn’t want to do the re-write because it was hard or it wasn’t as exciting as a shiny new project… but I feel really good about switching projects. It’s better for me and, conveniently, it’s better for the market right now. And much as I love the process of writing, I also want to sell a book. Shocking, right?.

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When Words Fail Me

So, I have really cinematic dreams. Some of them are cohesive and I jot them down to use as stories later. But some of them are just scenes that, once awake, never resolve into something useful. Like last night. In this dream there were four people (I was in the perspective of one person but it was third person omniscent, like most of my dreams) exploring some magical cave. As the narrator, I understood that this system was a series of connected caves, all of which were diffrent. It was magical or something – I’m not sure. And the idea was that no one had made it past the first few caves and returned to tell the tale.

The part of the dream that is pertinent to my thoughts today is as follows. The POV character wakes up (the four had gone to sleep in an abandoned farm yard – in a cave. Remeber how I said it didn’t make sense?) and the other three are gone. She walks down a short passage and sees the next cave through a hole in the rock wall. Through the hole is a huge cave full of steaming water with a massive rock formation in the middle. In reminded me of “Kubla Khan”, which is a column in Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona (If you’ve never heard of this cave, you should totally go look at some pictures. It is unreal). Anyway, the other characters are diving off the rock formation into the water and the POV character just stands in the opening watching them.

So, this sounds kind of dry but what it got me thinking about is how can I possibly describe this scene? It was hours ago and I can still see it in my mind. It was so vivid – I could feel the heat from the water and the damp steam. I could smell the wet rocks and hear the splashing water. And the colors were these vibrant browns and reds in the rocks and the water was this neat steely blue and the lighting was really moody. I can see it, but I know I’m not describing it right and it’s frustrating. So maybe I need to start trying harder to capture the imagery that pops up in my dreams as an exercise. It’s just so hard to put those sense memories into words – it’s like trying to describe music or dance. It seems so clinical and didactic when compared to the images in my head.

So, to taunt you, below is the opening scence form White Nights, a lovely movie from the 80’s starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. Describe this scene. I dare you. I guess that’s why music and dance and art exist – to describe images and feelings that transcend language.

 

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Dr. Horrible Demonstrates How to Crush Your Audience

I was re-watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog last night with some friends and I was reminded of it’s masterful construction. If you haven’t seen it, it is a three episode web musical written by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) and stars Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillian, and Felicia Day. It is totally brilliant. Totally. The premise is ridiculous, the music is delightful and well written, and for all it’s frivolous-ness, it is actually quite poignant and stirring. I know you can watch it on streaming Netflix and you can find it piece-meal on YouTube (see the above link) and you can buy it from iTunes. I really, really recommend it.

Warning: Spoilers…

The main character, Dr. Horrible, is a bumbling, slightly incompetent, and inappropriately lovable villain who has a video blog to document his evil plans. He is trying to get into the “Evil League of Evil” (let by the arch villain Bad Horse, the Thoroughbred of Sin) but is constantly foiled by his nemesis, Captain Hammer. He is also secretly in love with a woman from the laundromat, Penny, who works with the homeless. This doesn’t sound serious to you, does it? Nope. Dr. Horible even has a sidekick named Moist  whose henchman skill is making things soggy (“At my most bad ass I make people want to take a shower”). I suspect you can guess the tone of the piece.

So the first thing that I find so engaging about this show is that the villain is the protagonist. I mean, he keeps saying he’s evil and he wants to join the evil gang, but Dr. Horrible is really not that effective as a bad guy. His alter ego, Billy, is just neurotic and anti-social and his fumbling attempts to talk to Penny while doing laundry is endearing. And he doesn’t want to have a showdown in a park because there might be children around. But he wants so badly to be evil… It just isn’t working out for him and you kind of feel bad for him. And the “good guy” is a total prick. Captain Hammer is rude, chauvanistic, shallow, and egomaniacal. And he steals Penny just to mess with poor, lovable Billy. So as an audience, you are set up to like the villain and hate the hero. And because of that inconsistency, I think you spend the whole story waiting, expecting Billy to turn it around and embrace the good that Penny brings out in him. You just know that she’s going to trigger his epiphany and he’ll turn to the light side. Penny is like his conscience – Billy can’t ever really commit to being Dr. Horrible because he knows that Penny (good, sweet, pure Penny) would never love someone who was truly evil.

And then she dies. And it’s Billy’s fault.

You see, Billy is trying to kill Captain Hammer. He has to do it to get into the Evil League of Evil and if he doesn’t then Bad Horse will have Billy whacked. But Billy just can’t do it. He can’t pull the trigger because in the final moment, he really is a good guy – and that good guy urge is triggered by Penny. He doesn’t want Penny to see him commit a real act of evil and so his love for her makes him hesitate. You can feel the change coming as he lowers the gun… and then there’s some havoc and the gun explodes, and Captain Hammer runs away. Billy realizes that he’s won without any bloodshed and he’s stunned by his unexpected victory. As he looks around unbelieveing at his triumph he sees Penny, who has been fatally injured by the explosion.

And this is the moment that makes the whole piece sing for me (no pun intended). You see, up to this point the show has been so comical – they sing about laundry and there’s frozen yogurt and sporks and it’s just so random and silly. But then suddenly, in that climactic moment, the whole piece becomes this beautiful morality tale and it’s so unexpected. Penny’s death and Billy’s lyrical response is disarming and as an audience, you are so unprepared for it – and that makes it a million times more effective.

And I think that is the lesson here. Dramatic moments in a story are more effective when they blindside you. They can’t be totally disconnected form the story – they have to be believable. But if a moment of loss can be hidden from the reader then it will hurt them more. And that emotional surge will connect them more viscerally to the story. I’ve seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog dozens of times and I still cry everytime I hear the song he sings after Penny dies. Part of it is that the song, itself, is beautifully crafted to elict that response, but part of it is that I can see Billy die in that moment, too. I was so looking forward to seeing him choose Penny over evil and all my hopes for that happye ending are crushed. So I mourn that symbolic death of good.

Damn, Joss Whedon is good. Seriously, so brilliant. And it’s hidden in such frivolous camouflage. Masterful.

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My Inability to Concentrate Strikes Again

I am a little bit into my re-write and so, of course, I’m thinking about my next project. I have two exciting ideas and I just can’t decide which one to do first. My conundrum is two fold: which idea do I WANT to do more and which idea is a better choice for the long term.

The big problem is that the ideas are in totally different genres and neither genre is the same as my current project. And I keep reading the very logical advice that a new author should stick to a single genre so that whatever marketing they do for one book can be re-used for subsequent books. This really does make a lot of sense – building a readership and all. But I really like both genres… and I really LOVE both ideas…

So I’m stymied. So far the scales are slightly tipped towards the historical fiction as I think it has more obvious series potential. But that’s really the only inequality between the two. I think I’m marginally more excited about the other idea (urban fantasy) but I’m vacillating. I’m hoping that the conference I’m going to in September, which has sessions on both genres, will help me make up my mind. My own personal interest being mostly equal, I suspect that marketability will be a big part of my decision, but I don’t know which genre is selling better right now.

If I can pick a project and have some success with it, I can always come back to the other idea later. But which one should I start with? Argh!

So, out of curiosity, which one sounds better to you?

Option 1: Historical Fiction (14th c. England) involving a foiled assassination attempt on Edward III. There will be a heraldic tournament, a northern noble who is trying to save his people from bankruptcy, famine, and being overrun by the Scottish by knocking off the King. So, a sympathetic antagonist, torn loyalty in a feudal system, an epic ladscape, etc

Option 2: Urban fantasy. A mob city run by five chinese families. An outside group tries to take over by knocking the families off using Daoist sorcery and an army of ghosts.

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