Tuesday, June 29, 2010
And more often than not, I reckon, we authors get a little carried away with our inventiveness to the point that we ignore the fact that we should constantly be looking for ways to improve our writing.
Being in the situation where I wear both an editor's and writer's hat, I know what it's like on both ends of the spectrum. As an author, I love it when I receive reader feedback telling me that book two is an improvement on book one. As an editor, I'm absolutely thrilled when I receive a submission from one of my existing authors and I can see she's improved vastly in her writing since her previous manuscript.
So, as an author, what can you do to improve your writing?
1) Read widely, and outside your genre. Don't just read the kinds of books you write. Do your writing a big favour and read books by authors who are considered classics. Who are the Beat writers? How about some Tolstoy? Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes but much like eating your greens were good for you as a child, this is the kind of writing that's going to open your eyes to a world of possibilities that can only enrich your style.
2) Take your editor's words to heart. Contrary to popular belief, your editor is not "out to get you". Often underpaid, she's most likely only doing her job because she's passionate about it. Many editors for small presses have demanding day-jobs on top of wrestling with words after hours. Trust me, I'm not doing my stint for my health. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing an author twig how to curb her little writing gremlins and make an honest effort to improve. Similarly, authors who rush through manuscripts, who are resistant to good advice, make editors weep. We have so little time, rather work with us to make your writing so much better. Although we are only human, we take pride in our work and want to see you become better at what you do.
3) Find a dedicated group of beta readers. This may be as simple as getting hold of other authors who publish the same genre through your one of your publishers. Take the chance to get to know these people then find out if they'll scratch your back if you'll scratch theirs. Hell, start a writers' group if you must. It's really not difficult. Feedback from people who are at the same or slightly different level to you is often invaluable. I would be lost without my dedicated group of betas and although I don't always follow their advice to the letter, they often offer me valuable insight into my writing depending on their viewpoints.
4) Read blogs, follow tweets. You may not take the internet all that seriously, but if you know where to find the information, there are scores of blogs out there by authors, editors and agents, who share valuable information about the industry. I only wish I had had these resources when I was growing up and I had to bump my head quite a few times before I finally started getting to the point where I could fumble my way around the submissions process. You really don't know how lucky you are. (Yes, I'm that old.)
5) You're never too old to learn. This last point is perhaps the most important. If you can admit that the old dog is never too old to learn tricks, you've equipped yourself with one of the most important tools to becoming a successful and better writer. Never stop learning. Never be too proud to take criticism. Never be too wise to apply new technicques to your writing.
Monday, June 28, 2010
I completely forgot about the blog this morning! Well, in my defense, I have been out of town (out of the state, even!) for more of June. So here is a short story to -- hopefully -- amuse you!
It’s All In The Cards
He lifted the beer to his smiling lips. The scent of old peanuts and stale smoke permeated the bar, but he didn’t notice anymore. He hadn’t really paid attention to those scents in decades. Besides, there was something much more important to notice standing in the doorway.
She was a classic beauty. Maybe not much by today’s standards, but she would have been considered a knockout just a few decades earlier. When had those standards changed?
She looked through the bluish-grey haze as if searching for someone in particular. She took a few tentative steps while he watched, not breathing, from behind his beer mug. Maybe he would get lucky and she would grace the empty barstool beside him.
“Excuse me. Is this seat taken?” Her voice was as sultry as he’d imagined it to be, with a Mid-West accent he couldn’t quite place.
“It is now.” He motioned to the bartender. “Let me buy you a drink.”
One drink let to another and soon he knew all he needed to about the young woman seated next to him. She was indeed waiting for someone — a man she’d been chatting with on-line. She was a receptionist for one of the CPA firms downtown and lived alone.
Actually, he already knew all that. He had been corresponding with her via the computer for a few months now.
Computers are wonderful things. They allow people to live lives they never would otherwise. She thought she’d been conversing with an accountant, a mild-mannered gentleman, divorced and balding. Instead, he had never been married, had a full head of hair and was definitely not an accountant.
The drinks kept flowing, and a game of pool allowed them to continue their conversation. Hours passed and he knew she was none the wiser.
He invited her back to his apartment, never letting on what his plan was or that he had known all about her for quite some time. There was no need to make her uncomfortable. That wouldn’t suit his purposes at all.
Once inside the third-floor apartment, he offered another drink. Wine this time, in a crystal chalice. She sipped the red liquid quietly and with appreciation. He was beginning to regret the way this must end. There was no other option, though. It must end this way.
He coaxed her to the couch. She sat, taking in her surroundings. He casually glanced around the room, as if trying to see what she was seeing. The dark wood furniture matched the flooring, but was a beautiful contrast to the light fabric he had selected for the cushions and pillows. The walls were a subtle hue and a light-colored painting he found at a yard sale was the only wall hanging. Everything in the room was selected for its ability to put people — women — at ease.
“Do you live alone?” He couldn’t believe she asked that. Was she trying to move things too quickly? That would never do. Things must be done in order, of their own accord. He ignored the question and guided the conversation to the cards sitting on the table.
“Here, let me tell your future.” His smile conveyed a message of jovial frivolity. There was no reason for her to decline. He reached for the Rider Tarot deck without waiting for her to respond. It was a deck he was used to, one he cherished. Purchased at a mall fifteen years ago, this was the deck that gave him a purpose for his life. It was not the deck that spoke to him these days. No, that one was put away where she would never see it, but this was a deck many people had seen at one time or another. It was a deck that was easy to explain with its more primitive artwork.
This step was important. She didn’t know how important it was. There was no way to take the next step — the step that must be taken — without the approval of the cards.
He handed them to her and asked her to shuffle. She did and he dealt three cards for her: The World, The Magician, and Judgement.
“What do they mean?” Her hands reached for the Magician — the same card that decorated the box. He grabbed all three cards before she could touch them. It wouldn’t due to have her leaving too large an imprint on them.
“The World tells me that you have had many experiences,” he said. He watched her eyes, wondering when the drug would start to take effect. They usually didn’t last this long, but maybe she had a higher tolerance for the chlordane he’d slipped into her chalice of wine. Experience told him that she would show signs of the poison anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours after she consumed it. It had only been about forty-five minutes, so there was still time. Plenty of time.
She nodded. “Yes. I’ve done some interesting things in my life.”
“I can tell.” He stood, taking the cards with him. The World also meant “end of a journey,” but she didn’t need to know that. She didn’t need to see the end coming for her.
He showed her the next card — the Magician. “This is the first card in the deck. It means self-confidence. It tells me you’re a very confident woman. But I could see that already.” Another smile and a nod to her. There was no need to tell her the card also meant things are not as they seem. She’d find out soon enough.
“What about the last card? Judgement doesn’t sound so good, does it?”
He took another step into the kitchen, calling “I’ll tell you in a minute. Let me get something first.” Grabbing a glass of water and the butcher knife, he knew it was time to make his move. He held the water to his lips, sipping the cool liquid and feeling it wet his dry throat. The knife, he slid into the waistband of his Dockers, feeling the pressure in the small of his back.
The three cards he’d dealt her never left his hand. They told of her future and he must obey them.
Entering the living room once again, he placed the glass on the table. He couldn’t turn his back on her now. That just wouldn’t do.
“Judgement isn’t such a bad thing. We must all face it, you know. This card, particularly, tells us there will be a renewal.”
“A renewal? How interesting. I wonder what that could mean.”
It was time. Everything in his being was screaming out “NOW!” He came to a stop directly behind her. “I think you’ll find out before you know it,” he whispered into her ear as his left arm encircled her neck, his right hand reaching for the hidden blade.
What happened next was a bit of a shock. She said something — he didn’t catch what it was — and there was a crashing behind him.
Overall, he wasn’t too surprised when the police broke down the door. The Judgement card had also told him that harsh criticism was coming.
Her last words were the unexpected surprise.
“You’re under arrest. We’ve been after you for a long time. And now the Tarot Card murders will end and you will become like one of your cards — the Hanged Man.”
Saturday, June 26, 2010
This room is very much mine and has been since we bought the house. When we lived in an apartment I usually wrote in the living room at the desktop computer, and that usually took place while my husband was at work. When we bought this house we decided that the second bedroom would partly serve as a library since we have a forest worth of books, strained shelves overflowing with hardbacks and paperbacks. (I badly need an ereader so that we don't have to add onto the house just to have room for books!) The room also holds my desk, which is where I do most of my writing since we bought me a laptop. I think it's important for a writer to have a space to call their own. The portability of a laptop, or even a notepad and pen if you want to kick it old school, is great and a change of scenery can sometimes be just what the muse needed. But having that special area, your home-base as a writer so to speak, is important. It's good to have a place where all of your reference books and notes are located and organized. Having a physical space that is set up for writing can help me get my head into "writing mode." Privacy is a good thing, too. It's pretty much impossible for me to carry on a conversation while trying to write and if my husband knows I'm in here working he's great about leaving me alone until I'm through. I'm more productive since getting my own space, and especially since getting my own laptop. I think every writer would benefit greatly from having a room to call their own.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Saturday, June 19, 2010
It was several years into the Harry Potter phenomenon before I read the first book. I liked the first one well enough to read the second, but it was Prisoner Of Azkaban that really got me hooked. JK Rowling created such an amazing and thoroughly realized world, the more of it I read the more I wanted to step inside and wander around Diagon Alley. Take a ride on the Knight Bus. Order a butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks. Spend part of the summer at the Burrow with my friends the Weasleys. Every time I see a reference to the ongoing World Cup, I think of Quidditch. Reading about the new theme park in Florida, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, has made me want to borrow someone’s kid just so I have an excuse to go.
The generation of kids that grew up with Harry Potter are showing signs of holding on to the love of books they learned by following the adventures of The Boy Who Lived. I wonder if they’ll always love books with a fantasy bent, full of wondrous magic and terrifying monsters. Will it be something they come back to from time to time, and maybe even teach their own kids? Can you remember what books you read as kid that helped to shape your reading habits for life?
Thursday, June 17, 2010
“Serena gave it to me before she was murdered. She said if she didn't or couldn't come back for it, I was to give it to you and only you. Otherwise, mum's the word.”
She watched as Gabriel laid the statue on the kitchen table and got the meat mallet out of a drawer by the sink. The garishly painted face was in pieces before Lea realized what he was
going to do.
“You broke it! I know it was ugly, but…”
He pulled a velvet pouch through an opening at the bottom and shook the contents out on the table.
“My God.” She hissed in a breath. “Are those…”
“Yes, the missing diamonds.” He turned toward her. “The last of Gueraldi's men went free because of these. You had them all along. I could charge you with withholding evidence.”
“Not if I didn't know about them, and I can promise you I didn't.”
“Ms. O'Neil.” Gabe cocked his eyebrow. “You've got to be kidding me. She had to have told you.”
“Leannan, but you should probably call me Lea, seeing we've become so well acquainted. And no. She didn't. I knew something was bothering her, but she wouldn't talk about it. Just that she couldn't involve Jack. I never guessed she'd hidden something inside the statue. How could she have done that anyway?”
“Ever seen Romancing the Stone?”
“Only a million times. It was Serena's favorite… Oh.”
A loud crack interrupted the conversation. Glass shattered from the window behind him. Lea screamed. They'd found her. “Did I forget to mention them?”
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Sometimes I feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein when I first start to put together a new character. Some little something about Person X will capture my attention and make it's way into a character. Some attribute or quality that's either endearing or irksome. A funny story from Person Y's bad day at work, and maybe there's a Person Z with a quirky habit. The character won't be based on any of these various people, but I think taking little pieces from real life can help keep characters grounded and make them more believable.
When it comes to a character's appearance, I have a strict policy of never basing a character on a person I know in real life. To be honest, it gets confusing to me if I start to put a "real life" face on a character. What happens if that character starts acting like the real person, instead of remaining a fictional character? If a character takes on too many attributes and qualities of someone who might by chance read the story, that get could awkward fast. To avoid this, in addition to the Frankenstein method I have a folder saved on my laptop labeled "central casting." That's where I save various pictures I come across online of people that could be used as potential "models" for character appearance. Here's some examples: for a character that's something of a bohemian type, unconventional and even a bit otherworldly, just the right picture of Johnny Depp might be perfect. A picture of Christian Bale would be good for a dark, intense, and brooding character. I've got several pictures of Henry Cavill saved if I ever decide I want to write werewolf smut, er, paranormal romance. That central casting folder comes in handy, plus it's fun.
This covers only how I start out a new character. Friends who play role playing games have suggested I use character sheets that have you fill out all sorts of details and minutiae to get to know them better. I've tried it but it's never worked for me. I don't really get to know a character fully until I get deep into the writing. They will reveal themselves to me, and frequently surprise me. They'll whisper secrets to me, secrets that sometimes don't even make it onto the page. It's a strange, organic process that I don't fully understand. Getting to know a new character can be frustrating when it seems like I can't figure out how to coax them into talking to me. But then once they do, it can really kick a story into overdrive and send it into new and exciting places. More than once I've liked a character so much that I wished I did know someone like them in real life.*
Do you have a particular method of creating characters? Do they arrive in your head fully formed, or do you have to get to know them over the course of writing the story?
*This remark is not at all in reference to any possible Henry Cavill werewolf smut, I swear.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Some immortal opening lines exist. One of my favourites is from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol: Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do…
Or Douglas Adams, from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: This time there would be no witnesses.
Like it or not, the opening line of a novel is often critical to its success. A strong opening line makes readers sit up and pay attention. Now what? they’re likely to ask. Speaking as an editor, I am often highly critical of how an author opens her novel, looking not only at the impact of the opening line, but also where in the story an author decides to draw us in.
Stop and think about the person who’s going to read your book. In epublishing you usually get to choose an excerpt from somewhere in the novel where something exciting happens, and the excerpt is usually what potential readers look at on a website before they buy. But if you’re holding a book in your hand, at a bookshop or in a library, for instance, many potential readers will look at the cover then look at the blurb on the back. If they’re still interested after that, chances are good they’ll read the first few paragraphs of the novel to see if they’ll gel with it.
This is make or break. If a novel doesn’t grab a reader there, chances are good they’ll put it back on the shelf. I know I’m like that. Likewise, when I’m reading submissions while wearing my editor’s hat, I want an author to grab me from the start. I want to see a protagonist who’s busy doing something.
Most often an author will lose me at a number of points if their opening isn’t good enough. Bear in mind this is often after I’ve given the author the benefit of the doubt after plodding through a poorly written query letter and synopsis, so if I reach the actual submission and the author’s done a hash job there, these are the most common reasons I’ll say “Thanks, but no thanks”.
Prologues must die. In 99 percent of the instances I’ve encountered prologues they’ve either given away key plot bunnies or they’re a thinly veiled attempt at squeezing in back-story. The mark of a good prologue is a short piece of writing with a high degree of tension that acts almost as an advertisement enticing readers to plunge into the story. If you want some good lessons on how to write prologues, go take a look at the big-name authors out there and really analyse how they do it. In most cases, I’ll suggest my authors lose their prologues and a novel is often much stronger for it.
Yes. I agree. There are some big-name authors out there who get away with writing in reams and reams of exposition when opening a novel. I’ve also seen some big-name authors fail miserably (yes, I’m looking at you, Anne Rice). Until you are the next Stephen King, do yourself a humungous favour and resist the temptation of starting your epic saga with exposition. If you simply must share the information, find inventive ways to weave it in later, in small doses, when the need for the reader to have the information is relevant. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had a point when he said “Less is more” and apart from applying this to architecture, it works well for fiction. Don’t bombard your readers with facts right at the start of the novel. Trust me, after reading hundreds of similar-starting submissions, my eyes glaze over within the first two paragraphs.
A character waking.
I’ve lost track of how many submissions I’ve read starting where a character wakes. You know what, this is a really boring way to start a novel. It’s so boring, I’m not going to bore you further by going on about it.
A character involved in some mundane task.
Although not as plentiful as instances of a character waking, I’ve often encountered novels that start with a character engaged in some mundane task, usually at his/her place of work. I usually read a little further, usually a paragraph or three more than I would have with the “waking in the morning” scenario but when things don’t get any better soon, I stop reading. Enough said.
A nebulous he/she.
There is nothing more annoying when a novel starts describing the inner thoughts and physical doings of a nebulous he or she. Kick off with a character in a setting and jump in with chapter one. People like to know fairly soon how old a character is and some juicy bits, but please also refrain from resorting to the “character admiring his/herself in the mirror routine”. That’s a lazy way to introduce character attributes in chapter one and should be avoided at all costs. It’s so cliché I don’t even point and laugh any more.
So, what must you do? Find that opening line that excites you and makes you want to read further. Then introduce your main character doing something exciting. If she’s a bug collector who’ll later go onto collecting an alien, show her stalking and perhaps not capturing a rare butterfly. This will set the tone later for when she’s facing that ravening, face-hugging alien. Is your character a werewolf who can’t shift when he’s under stress? Bring him into the story at a point where his being able to shift is the only thing saving him from certain disaster.
See what I’m getting at? Now go out and write exciting stories!
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
This is what is known as a deep point of view.
Let’s consider the following passage:
Tommy crossed the field, hurrying in the direction of the big red barn. Here he discovered what remained of the brown hen, the wereweasel’s tracks clear around the mangled remains.
Sure, it tells a passable story from a third-person point of view but, you know what? I see dozens of authors whose writing is this lack lustre. As an editor, I’ll pass on this one because a) I’m not engaging with the character and b) the story is very “telly”. Nothing really happens to motivate me, as a reader to want to read more.
Now, consider the same story written in a deep third-person point of view:
Tommy felt the first stirrings of unease as he crossed the field, the dew clinging to the long autumn-browned grass dampening the legs of his jeans. Ahead, the bright red of the barn’s painted wooden walls screamed an obscenity against the sky and he quickened his pace. The interior of the building was dim, smelling of musty straw, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. The scraggly heap of bones and feathers in the centre of the floor was all that remained of the brown hen. Tracks as large as his own, but with longer toes and the obvious marks of talons, circled the remains. Tommy swallowed hard. The wereweasel had struck again.
Okay, so which version of the story did you prefer reading?
Unless you have the pulse of a lump of rock, you most likely engaged more with the second version, which gave a better idea of Tommy’s world, allowing readers to experience sensually from his point of view.
Writing a story is not just about putting words down. It’s about capturing your readers’ imaginations, about transporting them to a world where they can be a cool vampire police detective or a werewolf with a vendetta. People want to feel that, for a short while, they can forget about the world around them, about the bills that need paying, the annoying landlady or the mother-in-law who meddles.
As a writer you’re in the business of creating worlds for other people to enjoy. Granted, yes, part of what you do is for yourself, to please yourself while writing. But if you’re serious about getting published, you’re going to have to make damn sure your prose sings.
Make editors, agents and readers fall in love with your world by showing it to them, not just telling it to them.