Archive for the ‘Writing Craft’ Category

So you want to be an author. You read avidly. You love shifter or vampire or historical or…whatever genre it is, there’s always a book open on your lap under your desk when you’re supposed to be working on those spreadsheets your boss asked for. It’s ok, it’ll be our little secret. But the point is, you’ve been reading for years, absorbing all the nuances of the stories you love; words are beginning to stream through your mind; characters are talking, moving, demanding their stories be told…

It’s time to sit down and write your book, right?

Slow down just a sec, because I’ve got a bit of advice you’re completely free to ignore…but if I were you, I wouldn’t – because I’m one of those people on the receiving end of aspiring authors’ hopes and dreams.

My advice is simple. Corporate spying. Well, not really, but what every aspiring writer should do is start researching the publishers of their favorite books, in fact all publishers of the type of book you want to write. See who’s writing them. How they’re writing them. What elements have they included? Get a true feel for what is already being published. And then write your book, right?

Wrong. What you need to do next is realize that those publishers already have those books, and some of them are selling really well. So why would they need yours? Hmm…good question, right? Now you need to figure out, within the genre you love and wish to write, what’s missing. What haven’t your favorite authors done? What fresh angle can you bring to the genre? How can you bend or change the rules in a way that will make an editor suddenly sit up straight, blink twice, and experience that surge of adrenaline that only comes from discovering something exciting. And new. And special.

As I said at a writing conference last week, don’t build your book around something that’s already being done. Begin your world-building from the ground up. Make new rules. Surprise us. Thrill us. It’s what we live for.

Oh, and please remember to give the manuscript a good proof before you send it. ūüôā

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As an acquisitions editor,  I see a wide range of submissions both in subject matter and writing style, but one thing in particular really perplexes me sometimes.

It’s getting a manuscript I absolutely love, but can’t offer a contract on because there are just too many issues, often minor, but that would add up to quite a headache for our copyediting department. I’m talking about things like word/phrase repetition, grammatical errors, and, more importantly, plot holes that¬†would bring readers to a screeching¬†halt partway through the story.

You might be wondering¬†how I could love a manuscript¬†that had issues like that. Well, because there are other areas where the author did a fantastic job: premise, characterizations, emotions, dialog, pacing.¬†Those can all be wonderful and make me long to accept the work, but if there are too many issues that¬† need to be addressed before the book¬†can “go to press” as it were,¬†the bottom line is I¬†have to say no, at least for¬†the time being. And that¬†actually¬†breaks my heart a little.¬†

So yes, grammar matters –¬†in each and every sentence you write. Active phrasing and concrete nouns matter – in every case.¬†Knowing how to tag dialog matters.¬†And please, PLEASE, learn the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, and when to use them. And when not to use them.¬†You definitely don’t want technical stuff to be why an editor rejects your work…but trust me, it happens. If you don’t know¬†grammatical rules, learn them.¬†I personally have a subscription to the Chicago Manual of¬†Style, but there are free sites as well, such as¬†http://grammarbook.com.

Finally, when a manuscript is finished, rather than race to¬†submit,¬†the author needs to take¬†take four steps back, breathe,¬†and then view the work with¬†her most critical eye, because that’s how an editor will view it. If the conflict¬†doesn’t quite feel believable, dig deeper into your characters’ backgrounds to strengthen it.¬†Motivate their actions, or their actions just won’t feel believable. Give them goals. Make them proactive rather than reactive.¬†¬†And keep them talking and interacting with each other. I’ve found the best way to develop a plot with good forward momentum is for the characters to be constantly playing off one another.¬† Every scene should propel your story forward, never backward (yes, I’ve seen scenes that do this). And never let the story resolution come too easily – make the characters work for it.¬†You always want to¬†sustain the romantic conflict till the end, or readers might stop¬†turning pages.

¬†These are all things that can stop me in the middle of an otherwise engaging story, and regretfully decide that, despite¬†a world of potential, it has to be¬†a no, at least for now.¬†Sending those emails is¬†the hardest part of my job – it’s proabably as hard for me to hit send as it for the author to receive it.

So don’t¬†sabotage your own career – don’t let the little, easily-fixable¬†things keep you from realizing your dream!

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A couple of weeks ago I had dinner at a friend’s house. She had invited her two cousins, both of whom have read my books and were excited at the idea of having “dinner with the author.” It was a really lovely “girls night” with fabulous food and good conversation. Of course, one of the questions they asked me was how did I get started writing. I mentioned my lifelong love of writing, how I’d always kept diaries, written poetry and stories, long letters to friends…you name it, I wrote it. I also cited my fascination with history, probably beginning with the fairy tales I’d heard/read as a young child. I talked about how when a friend¬†published her first novel, it really inspired me to sit down and give¬†it a try.¬†¬†And then…

…my friend added, “Not to mention reading a lot of books and thinking ‘I could do this so much better.'”

Do you think I politely let this statement pass? My reaction went something like this:

Screech! Whiplash! WHAT?? No, no no!!!

If there is one thing I’ve learned in this journey of mine, it’s that those who¬†make that claim, that they can do it better, generally CAN’T.¬†Oh, it’s¬†a common misconception held by avid readers and I couldn’t really fault her, but I¬†immediately¬†endeavored to¬†set her straight.

Not every book an author writes is going to be fantastic. Sometimes life throws obstacles that affect¬†one’s creativity, but with a deadline looming a writer does her best.

Until you walk in someone else’s¬†shoes, you can’t judge their performance. If you say you can do it better, then¬†try doing it under the¬†exact same circumstances as the author, and see how it turns out.

It’s all so subjective. What you believe could have been done better, might be someone else’s idea of the most wonderful book ever.¬†¬†

Writing is 100% harder than most people think. It isn’t simply sitting down and recording your daydreams. It’s more like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces look the same until you decide what part of the image will go on each one.

Oh, I could go on and on. It’s perfectly valid to say, “I didn’t care for that book, and here’s why.” But to say “I can do it better”? Watch out! Someone just might challenge you to do it.

And then you’ll see. Boy, will you ever! ūüôā

 

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So you might be wondering….have I taken up a new cause? Maybe I’ve decided to champion petite people everywhere? (Hey, I am one!) Or then again, “the little guy” is often used to refer to plain, ordinary people. You know, the ones who tend to get stepped on by the big shots of the world. We could certainly use defending¬†against them, right?

But no, in this case I am bravely standing tall and taking a firm stance in defense of…

One of the tiniest entities in all of literature: the comma.

Yes, that’s right. The maligned, ignored, misused¬†comma. It’s a simple bit of punctuation that, when placed just right, properly separates¬†phrases and imbues our language with much of its nuances. And yet, for decades now writers have been warned off the comma with such claims as “they slow the reader down!” Really?¬†When¬†was the last time a comma hooked itself to your eyes and refused to let them¬†move¬†across the page?¬†¬†

But the real problem seems to be that a lot of writers have forgotten the proper use of the comma – or maybe they never learned. Besides being a writer, I’m also an editor, and in addition to that right now I”m judging contest entries. And I’m constantly seeing things¬†like, <“Hi Mary.” He said.> Or <“Hi¬†Mary,” he smiled and waved.> or¬†<Mary, smiled and waved to her friends.> or¬†<Smiling Mary¬†waved¬†to her friends.>¬†In that last one, Smiling Mary¬†would be her name, right? I could go on and on, but the point is that the placement of a comma affects the meaning of the sentence. It’s not¬†random, and it’s not up to the whim of the writer.

Do I sound like I’m pet-peeving?¬†Darn right I am. Or should that be: darn right, I am? But I spend more time moving commas around from wrong places to where they’re actually needed than I do focusing on story content. There are a lot of great writers on the horizon when it comes to theme, emotion, character interaction, etc., but if I had to make an estimate, I’d say a good 90% of new writers have little or no clue about punctuation.

C’mon, people, get a clue! (not: C’mon people get a clue).

Oh, and P.S., the comma, semi-colon, and colon are not interchangeable! 

 

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I once heard a very famous plotting/story guru touting the notion that writers should never rely on instinct, but should take a more objective, intellectual approach to their work (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the¬†gist.)¬†Instinct, he said, is really nothing more than the sum total of everything we’ve ever read or seen in movies, and will therefore lead us to rely on cliched and unoriginal thinking.

Well, I agree that during the editing/revision process, we do need to switch from our right-brained creativity to a more left-brained, critical mode, and yes, we need to think “outside the box” to use a truly clich√©d term. But I¬†SO disagree that we should ignore our instincts when writing that first draft.

Something happened yesterday that illustrates the point I want to make. My husband and I were getting on the turnpike through the sunpass¬†lane, and realized suddenly that the car ahead of us had come to a full stop and was just sitting there – waiting for what, I don’t know. I’m sure he didn’t¬†have a sunpass¬†and didn’t know what to do. Anyway, my husband had to hit the brakes, and since the road was wet we fishtailed a bit. Without even realizing he did it, hubby thrust a hand out in front of me to hold me in my seat. Pure instinct. Intellect might have told him that I was wearing my seatbelt and wouldn’t have been thrown forward into the dashboard, but his instinct warned of danger and urged him to protect.

It left me with a warm feeling that lasted all day. My hero! But here’s my point. Instinct reaches deep down to what is most important to us at the core of who we are. It’s our humanity, when you strip away all the outer trappings that society tells us we need. It’s what inspires us to feel, to be spontaneous, to love. Maybe I was missing the plotting guru’s point, but I do know that¬†when a writer over-intellectualizes and over-perfects¬†their story,¬†they run the risk of losing the spontaneity of the characters, the depth of the emotions, and the magic that reaches into a reader’s deepest core, grabs¬†their heart,¬†and leaves them sighing at the end.

So don’t be afraid of your instincts. Embrace them. They’re you at your most honest.

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“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?” ~ John Steinbeck in describing the character of Catherine in EAST OF EDEN

When writing fictional villains, we’re told we should make them three-dimensional, that no one is ever all bad, or all good for that matter. A well-rounded character, no matter the role they play in your story,¬†should be motivated, possess both strengths and vulnerabilities,¬†and have some kind of redeemable quality, however small. Maybe your villain was abused as a child,¬†or watched his family lose everything, or¬†was the victim of some other kind of misfortune. OK,¬†there’s the motivation for why he or she¬†does rotten things. But maybe that person has a fondness for¬†cats or¬†birds or plants, or some other positive interest or even a cause¬†that makes them seem more human, more real.¬†More interesting to the reader.

But in Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN, the beautiful Catherine was a monster, plain and simple. There were no particular reasons for the things she did–she was simply evil. Did Steinbeck err in creating this two-dimensional character?¬†In not outlining any real motivating causes for her appalling behavior,¬†did he strip away the character’s inherent humanness, or was he suggesting that some human behavior, and the lack of remorse that goes along with it,¬†simply defies explanation, is unforgivable, and renders that person wholly irredeemable.

I can’t help but think of that book, and the quote above, as I watch¬†bits of the¬†Casey Anthony trial on the news. The defense is trying to come up with motivating factors to explain if not excuse some of her behavior. I’m not on the jury and it’s not my job to judge her, but I will say that¬†this young woman’s own¬†words and behavior, caught on camera and video tape, are painting a disturbing portrait that eerily resembles¬†Steinbeck’s Catherine: cold-hearted, self-absorbed, and utterly unaware of the wrongness of her actions. Is¬†she a monster? She certainly doesn’t look like one, does she? But¬†even if her daughter’s death was an accident as the defense is suggesting, Casey’s behavior after the fact defies explanation,¬†and even now she seems far more sorry about the trouble she’s in, than about her daughter’s death.

I apologize. Maybe I shouldn’t have blogged about this. But a writer’s job is to explore all facets of human behavior and¬†delve into¬†the human psyche. We look to the real world, to friends, family, acquaintances, strangers on the street, for examples of the human condition. And just when we think we’ve got a handle on it, something–or someone–comes along and blows our perceptions out of the water.

So I guess I’ll leave you with one question: do you believe in monsters?

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Are you a “Looker?” A “Was-er?” How ’bout an “It-er?” If so, you’re not alone!

I’ve been doing some editing on the side for a small e-publisher, and the work has really made me aware of the kinds of habits authors ‚Äď myself included ‚Äď can fall into, oftentimes without realizing it. In fact, one of the things I hear repeatedly from authors I’ve edited is, “Oh! I hadn’t even realized I do that!”

Passive wording is the number one culprit. The first thing most people think of when it comes to passive wording is the overuse of “was.” That’s the obvious one, but there are others, lying in wait to rob your prose of its impact. Here are some I see frequently:

Repetitiveness. Using the same words or phrases, sometimes within paragraphs and even sentences, creates echoes that trip the flow of the narrative. OK, but if you’re not creating echoes, why is repetitiveness passive? Because not taking the time to vary your word choice throughout the manuscript not only shows a lack of effort, but also limits the imagery, action, and emotional depth of the story. If you want your story to progress, your action to intensify, and your emotions to build, you can’t let your narrative become mired in familiar and worn out phrasing.

Weak words. I mentioned “was,” but there are other nondescript words that flatten the texture of your story. For example: got/get, went, feel, cause, it, thing. Words like these fail to create a mental image, and suddenly the reader is seeing words on the page instead of pictures in her mind. Although I don’t believe any particular word should be completely banned from a writer’s repertoire, choosing concrete nouns and verbs is always the better choice. “He went” tells the reader nothing but that the character moved from one place to another. “He strode” tells me he moved with determination. “He stomped” tells me he moved in anger. “He shuffled” lets me know he was tired or hurt or defeated, depending on the context.

“Cause” is, for the most part, an unnecessary word in narrative. Describing the action of a scene already deals with cause and effect, so why say, for example: “Mary pushed John, causing him to fall over,” when you can simply say, “Mary’s shove toppled John to the floor.” Would you say, “He caressed her nape, causing goosebumps to erupt down her back,” or, “He caressed her nape, and goosebumps swept her back.”

“It” or “thing” reduces an item or emotion to a meaningless object rather than a catalyst for revealing the character’s mood or disposition. For example: “Father scowled. It made me feel bad.” Or, “Father scowled. His disapproval lodged like a stone in my chest.” In the latter example, the scowl takes on meaning based on the life experience of the pov character, and even imparts a morsel of information about the relationship between the two characters, i.e., that Father’s approval is important to the pov character.

Using “looked” is another form of passiveness. “Mary looked across the room and saw John searching for the book.” Why not, “Across the room, John searched for the book.” If we’re in Mary’s pov, we know we’re seeing what she’s seeing. I’ve read manuscripts with an inordinate amount of looking going on. Characters looking at things, characters looking at each other. It becomes a kind of crutch for the writer and an unnecessary lead-in for the real action of the scene. Better to focus on dialogue, body language and your character’s thoughts. Besides, if two people are in a room together having a conversation, we can assume they’re probably looking at each other. In fact, NOT looking at each other is more significant, because a wandering or darting gaze implies nervousness or an attempt to hide one’s thoughts or feelings from the other person. But if they do look, infuse it with a bit of emotion: stare, gawk, gape, gaze, glance, for example, all give a visual image of the character’s action along with a hint at her mood, while “look” only implies focusing the eyes on something.

Those are some of my editorial pet peeves (and yes, I’ve been guilty of some, if not all, at one time or another), but I’m learning to be aggressive when it comes to avoiding passiveness. What are some of your pet peeves and pitfalls?

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