Tag Archives: 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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Filed under NaNoWriMo, Reflection, Writing Craft

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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Filed under Bloging, Conferences, Genre, Manuscript, Reflection, Writing Craft

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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Filed under Conferences, Reflection, Workshops, Writing Craft

I don’t want to write because of books. Weird, right?

So there was a blogfest going around about what book sparked your desire to write. I wanted to participate but I couldn’t think of a single book. Not one. And I thought that was weird. Then today I was watching the morning TBS syndicated showing of “Supernatural” (which I totally love, by the way) and the title sequence song was “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas. And it struck me that Kansas was why I wanted to be a writer.

If you aren’t familiar with Kansas, they were really big in the ate 70s (I think?). I was born in the late seventies, so my exposure to them was due to my father. He was a guitarist, you see, and he listened to music all the time (just like me – so is it nature or nurture, do you think?). Anyway, he loved Kansas. And the Beatles and Dan Fogelburg and lots and lots of classical music. It didn’t occur to me until I reached middle school that I could listen to anything else.

But I digress. The thing about Kansas is that, like many similar bands in that decade, they wrote story music. It was poetic and LONG and had lots of electric organ solos (which I hate). But I remember being on a girl scout trip when I was maybe 10 years old? And I was listening to a Kansas mix tape on my walkman. I was bored so I was really listening to the words instead of the tune, which was more normal for me. It was “Closet Chronicles” and it’s about a king who disappears. I can’t even summarize it or pull out a few salient lines because the whole song is the story. And as I listened to it and stared out the car window at the high desert landscape, a whole story unfolded in my head and I though “this is it”. And then I listened to “Nobody’s Home” and “The Wall” and they just evoked such vibrant images in my mind as we drove – images that interwove with the landscape and even now when I hear “Coset Chronicles”  I see the dusty colors of the mesas and scrub – I think we were driving near Lake Havasu. And when that story plays out in my mind, it’s set in a castle that looks like a towering rock formation.

So I don’t want to write because of books. I want to write because of music. I think that’s weird, but what can you do? I guess it’s all about living in an imaginary world, whether of words or images or harmonies. They’re all linked together for me, anyway. And Kansas has a lesson on story structure, too, but maybe that’ll be my next post.

So let me leave you with a few lines from “Carry On…” that still give me chills:

“You will always remember, that will equal the splendor. Now your life’s no longer empty. Surely Heaven waits for you.”

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Filed under Music, Reflection

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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Evocative Language

When I was in middle school I kept a poetry journal. Not mine, mind you. Like most middle school girls, I DID write poetry but it was pretty pretentious and crappy. I kept a journal of other people’s poetry and I set a lot of it to music when I was in high school and early college. Interestingly, once I stopped writing music, I also stopped keeping a poetry journal.

Well, when I started writing a few years ago, I decided to make a new journal. I love a beautiful turn of phrase and I think you can get away with much more lyrical language in poetry than in prose (not always true, I know). I went to a writing conference and heard Monte Schulz speak (This Side of Jordan) and one of his major themes was that there shouldn’t be this huge linguistic divide between commercial and literary fiction. Just because Stephen King doesn’t use poetic language doesn’t mean you can’t. He suggested keeping a journal of beautiful lines from any and all sources to use as an inspiration and so I did. In an ironic aside, I hated his book. He talked about finding the voice of a period (This Side of Jordan is depression era) and using the language as it’s own character. While I loved that as a theory, I only got half-way through the book before I got so annoyed at the stilted dialogue that I gave up (and I rarely give up on books). Oh well. He was still one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard and I felt like he’d given me permission to wax poetical even though I was writing in a commercial genre.

Looking through the new incarnation of my journal, I am finding a lot of song lyrics. You know how tunes get stuck in your head sometimes? I have this problem (perpetually) but I also get text stuck in my head (it’s even more tenacious when its a line with a lovely tune, too). So I thought I would maybe use these mini-lyric-obsessions for blog topics.

This week, I am listening to the King is Dead by The Decemberists. They totally cheat in the beautiful/evocative lyric category because their lead singer/somgwriter is actually an english professor somewhere. And the songs are not about normal modern song topics. They’re about british serial killers and highwaymen and the seventeenth century Spanish monarchy and Stalin-era genetic engineering. This album is about war in all its myriad forms and there are a handful of lines that I am haunted by. I’m curious how they communicate without the music – I can’t separate my feelings about the words form their tunes in my head so I’m not impartial. Here they are, in no particular order:

“This bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren bones”  & “There’s plenty of men to die, you don’t jump your turn” Rox in the Box

What a creepy image. If you think about it literally, you can imagine a soldier sheltering under the bodies of fallen comrades. I get the idea of those dead protecting the speaker and I think its such a beautiful way to say something that could be described very prosaically – like, “I was sheltering behind the dead bodies”. But the “fallen brethren bones” is so evocative. It gives so much mood but it keeps the image clean (there’s no decaying flesh or steaming entrails). And the second phrase makes me think of that character trying to die to avenge the other soldiers? Taking too many risks out of fear or despair or anger? I have a whole story in my head from just those two lines, but that story is only intimated. It gives me so much creative license and the language is so beautiful it really encourages me to make that story – and make it beautiful.

I lived a childhood in snow” January Hymn

This one is both literally descriptive and figuratively stirring. Again, I could write a whole character just from that phrase. This song happens to be very singable, and I love the way this line feels when sung. I just want to roll it around in my mouth.

“You’re standing on the landing with the war you shouldered all the night before” June Hymn

Can’t you just see this character? I actually get an image of Anne Shirley in Rilla of Ingleside when she finds out that her son is killed in WW1. Again, this phrase is beautiful and I get such an immediate flash of who it describes. The rest of the song describes flowers and birds and to have this line in the middle of a pastoral description is a cool effect – it almost gets lost, like you can be in a beautiful place and almost forget the horrors of the world. Almost. It also has a lovely sense of renewal – the war was “last night” and now the world is new and the birds are still singing and the vines are still in bloom. Delightful.

“A barony of ivy in the trees; expanding out its empire by degrees” June Hymn

Thats just a really cool metaphor.

“Come attrition, come the reek of bones” & “Bride of Quiet; Bride of all unquiet things” This is Why We Fight

Again, so creepy. And what active and interesting word choice! And the video is really neat – in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.

 

So anyway. That’s what I’m in the grips of this week.

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Filed under Poetry, Reflection

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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Filed under Conferences, Writing Craft