Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Peel the Layers

My co-host, Scott G.F. Bailey over on the Literary Lab is talking about character change today. He makes the point that characters don't really change more than they discover things about themselves. I agree with him. He says:
My current theory is that characters don't actually change. The way they are at the end of the story--the endpoint of the character arc to which we're moving--is actually no more and no less than how the character really is, already. His true self, if you will, is already there, but it is hidden or repressed somehow. The dramatic action, the primary conflict of the story, is created because the protagonist is unable to express that true self. Or, it can only be resolved once the protagonist expresses that true self. (Scott G.F. Bailey)
If you'd like to talk about character change, step over to the Lab and leave a comment. For here I'd like to discuss how we as writers are in our journey. Do we change as writers? Or do we simple discover things about ourselves? Does our writing change?

I'm preparing to rewrite a novel of mine in the next few months, and as I look at previous drafts that I've written over the past 15 years I'm very surprised to see that the writing hasn't change all that much. It's still my writing. It's just that certain things were "hidden or repressed somehow," just as Scott says above. I didn't know how to command my language as well, how to structure as well, how to control my descriptions, how to make certain character mannerisms work for the story, etc. I didn't even know what was missing! But, the basic building blocks were there. It makes me wonder how and what I'll discover in the next 15 years. It's an exciting journey, and I prefer to think that whatever I publish in my life now will not bring me shame in the future. It will still be my writing, my words, my talent. I will have just discovered new things to show in my writing later - like a beautiful package where I keep peeling back the layers of tissue paper. It won't be the gift inside but the experience of opening the package that will make all the difference. Practice and persistence are what get us to peel the layers. So keep at it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Setting the Pace

If there is one thing that early writers struggle with, it is paaaaaaacccccciiiing, paCing, yeah, pacing. Keeping the readers interest without either blasting them with a firehose, or boring them to death like a dripping faucet takes skill. It's hard, and there's only one way to learn it, practice.

Early writers are usually in such a rush to get to the "good" part of the story, that important setup details are glossed over at warp speed, and the reader doesn't get a chance to understand their significance. When the "good" part of the story is finally reached, there is no impact. The reader has forgotten those important details and the story falls flat.

Those forgotten details were put in for a reason. They were added to heighten tension, or add in layers of emotion . When they don't work, neither does the story.

On the other hand some writers spend so much time painting the most vivid setting and describing every detail of their characters in such detailed minutiae, that the reader simply falls asleep from boredom. If you finally do manage to get through the setup, the author has most likely followed the same pace through the rest of the book, and the reader spends the next 15 minutes wiping off the drool after passing out on the pages.

The best and most interesting books have a balance of action and details. The author maintains a speed limit as the story unfolds, alternatively speeding some sections, and slowing in others, with the intent of keeping an average speed that the reader can follow, and enjoy.

You might think that in this modern age of video games, television, and sound bites, the speed limit has increased so dramatically that you no longer have to worry about it. It has, but it is still not infinite. Even today's writers have to maintain a reasonable pace.

I tend to be in the first category. My stories include supersonic bullets and speed of light computer bytes, flying in every direction, but I do recognize the need to stop once in a while and let the reader rest. I purposefully stop the action once in a while, to let the reader process the significance of what just happened. I let the reader anticipate what's going to happen before it does.

When the reader anticipates what's going to happen next it builds emotion. Depending on the situation, it might create a feeling of dread, maybe excitement, or if I'm feeling feisty maybe even an amorous anticipation. The point is, it builds an emotional connection, and that boys and girls is what writing good stories is all about.

There are a number of techniques to stop the action, or speed it up. As I said most of the time I need to slow things down, so I try to do this through bits of humor.

Humor works for me for a couple of reasons. First, I'm fairly cynical so I can usually come up with a self deprecating quip, or an ironic observation that releases the tension and slows things down.

Secondly I like the fact that humor contrasts sharply with tense action. The effect of injecting bits of humor is that I can make the following action scenes seem even more tense than they might otherwise feel. The action speeds things along, while the humor slows them up. Using a combination of the two, I can maintain an even pace.

Writing is a balance. You need strong characters, an interesting plot, and a vivid setting, but it has to be delivered at the right pace.

How about you? How do you handle pacing? Do you need to speed or slow? What techniques do you use?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Obsessing Over You

I had an awful dream last night about getting online and seeing that everyone had posted something they hate about me. It was terrible. It's amazing I didn't wake up crying because...well, I kind of obsess about people liking me. It's a huge flaw. It's something I hate about myself.

What I wish could have been tacked onto the end of this dream was a big sign that said:


Yeah. I need that stapled to my forehead. This obsessing over what others think about me has gotten so bad that it has entered my dreams. It has gotten so bad that as I've tried to work on my novella, THIRDS, I keep stopping every other sentence to ask myself who will hate the line and why. It has gotten so bad that every single post I put up on Twitter or Facebook or my blogs runs through my head all day long as I ask myself, Who will find something offensive in this? Do I sound too selfish? Did I say what I want to say in the most political manner? 

It has gotten bad enough that I feel I can't even be myself...that being myself is a bad thing.

It's selfish to obsess over this, and it's got to stop!

Do you have any suggestions for me? I'll go hide in a corner now as I worry about what you think about this post...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Query Submissions

I sent out another batch last night so I have a question. Do you hate them as much as I do?

I'd like to say that the entire process feels like a roller coaster ride, but a roller coaster doesn't take a year to ride to the top of the mountain, and there's no flaming heap of rejections at the bottom, or else no one would ride the darn thing.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could send out a query when you had the idea mapped out on paper, but not yet complete, so you could get feedback on whether it's going to be interesting to any agent or not?

Wouldn't it be nice if once you finished the first draft, an agent would take a look and tell you "you need to change this" or "you need to change that"?

Wouldn't it be nice if after finishing the book, and sending out a query, the agent would tell you "I don't represent that type of book, but what's her name does, and why don't I call her for you?"

Of course, and wouldn't it be nice if I could buy one lottery ticket and win 50 million bucks?

First of all, there are way too many books, and not enough publishing slots to hold them all. Secondly, there are way too many bad books that need a lot more work before they are ready to publish. Third, agents do not have the time to babysit every author who wants to get their book published. There are just way too many of us out there.

So what's an author to do?

Write a book that stands out from the crowd. Write the best book that you can possibly write. Don't settle for mediocre on anything you do. Make every word the perfect word. Make every sentence sound as good as it can be. Give your characters life.

Read authors that you like and try to understand what it is that you like about them, and then emulate them.

Yes it would be nice if agents were waiting in line to hand you money, but I'm afraid life doesn't work like that.

I'd like to say that I had the magic idea for how to make things better, but I don't. When there is too much supply and not enough demand, it's the way things work.

What about you? Do you hate queries as much as I do?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

*SPOILERS!* Do They Really Spoil ANYthing?

I think movies have ruined us all for writing novels. Is the point of a novel really to surprise the reader with hidden twists and turns and gasps and shrieks at what was unexpected? Or are books - and stories in general, I might argue - really about the beauty of how they are written and told?

More than once I've talked with other writers about their stories where at one point they refuse to give something away. But I'll read it anyway, I tell them. I'm trying to to help you out here since you're asking for my advice. I can't help if you don't tell me what happens.

But it's a secret! You won't be surprised if I tell it to you now.

Really? Because as far as I understand it, millions of people keep reading Harry Potter over and over even though they know what happens. The last Harry Potter movie will be a huge box office seller - even though a huge percentage of people who go see it will already know what happens...

Imagine that.

When I read Lord of the Rings for the first time I had no idea how Gollum got the ring from Frodo in the end. Someone spoiled it for me a few chapters before I was finished by whispering the end into my ear. I was pretty upset, but looking back I realize that the end wasn't really spoiled for me at all. I still enjoyed reading the rest of the book just as much as I would have otherwise because the book wasn't all about that ending moment. It was about a myriad other things all layered together.

I think we storytellers often overlook one critical thing when it comes to telling a story: CRAFT. It isn't necessarily about keeping secrets. It's about telling the story. We all know how Cinderella ends, but we keep telling the story in a million different ways. We all know Hamlet dies at the end of the play...along with almost everyone else, but it is one of the most beloved tragedies of all time.

Especially keep this in mind when you write queries. I've written one query in my lifetime and I was so blasted scared to give away the end of the book that I think it ruined my entire query.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How do you write a synopsis?

Of the 15 agents that wanted to see more from my pitch at Thrillerfest this summer, nearly all of them wanted a synopsis to go with the first few chapters. In the past I have sort of "winged it". I flipped pages like a speedreader, waiting for interesting points to reach out and grab me.

That sort of worked, but I thought I would try to be a little more organized this time.

There are a couple of reasons for the change. First, the length of the synopsis the agents wanted, varies from agent to agent. Some agents wanted 1 page, another 3 pages, and another wanted 5 pages. Clearly one size wasn't going to fit all.

Secondly, using my unorganized approach, I tended to forget important points, or include points that weren't necessarily relevant to the main plot. They were points that just happened to reach out from the page and grab me on a read-through.

This time around, I've taken a different approach. I am reading each chapter, and writing down the salient actions that happened in that chapter in a notebook organized by chapter. For each chapter I classify whether it is character development, moving the plot forward, or backstory, and then write down notes about what happened.

I am writing these notes out by hand for the moment, but when I get even more organized, I will use the corkboard feature of Scrivener. (FYI, this has the added benefit that I am giving the manuscript yet another read, and finding little things that need to be corrected).

Once I have all of the notes, I will pick and choose interesting actions, or summarize a set of actions, to create the synopsis length that I want.

Sounds easy, but it's not.

I once tweeted that writing a synopsis is like trying to crush a car into a shoebox, and I don't think it's that far off. It takes a significant amount of time to get it right, but in the big picture, it can be very important.

How about you? How do you write your synopsis?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Are You Really Putting That Love Scene In?

I'm doing edits on my novel, Monarch, right now, and I've been thinking a lot about things I really want out there...forever. You know? If you publish something, it's out there. It lands in people's hands, on their shelves. It will get boxed up and sent to a donation center when the person gets rid of books, or it will get boxed up and sent across the country when they move to a new house. It will be picked up by their children in later years.

It will be read. With your name attached to it.

You know, that's a scary thought to me. Of course, I already have a book out right now - Cinders. At the moment 235 people have a copy of the book. 235 people....either on their e-readers or physical copies. 140 of those are physical copies that can't just disappear into an e-reader or computer file system. At least some of those physical copies are going to be around for a long time.

This made me stop and think as I was editing Monarch. It made me wonder what I'm really putting into my work. Do I want that love scene in there? Is it necessary? Do I need all those details? Really? No. I got rid of them weeks and weeks ago when I realized this. Do I need all those swear words in there? Really? What does everything I put into my novel say about me? Should I care what people think of me later on down the road?

To an extent, yes, I think I should.

Do you?

I certainly have my own set of morals and values and sometimes my characters, although they have completely different morals and values from me, are portrayed through my lens. I'm not some objective observer just relating their story. If physical intimacy happens in my novels, that's fine, but physical intimacy is a private thing to me that I don't personally feel comfortable showing in extreme detail of the pages of my book. Some writers and readers are okay with showing lots of detail. It's different for everyone. I do show some detail to get points across and tell a story, but how we handle things says a lot about us, for good or bad, and I do think every reader will interpret those things differently. I suppose the most we can do is stay true to ourselves.

Sometimes, I'm finding out, that is easier said than done.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Rookie and Writing

While watching the movie "The Rookie" last night, which by the way I love, I stopped and asked myself why. Why was it so popular, and what about that movie was so powerful?

In case you haven't seen it, it's about a baseball coach in a small town in Texas. His team has some talent, but they lose most of their games. The coach determines that it's because they don't want it enough.

In a pivotal moment he chastises his team for not following their dreams, for not wanting success enough. They fire back with the fact that he has done the same thing. He has a latent talent that would allow him to pitch in the major leagues, but here he is in podunk Texas, coaching a lousy team.

They go on to challenge him. If the team wins the district championship, then he has to go to a major league tryout and pitch. After some soul searching, he agrees.

(Spoiler Alert)

Of course the team goes on to success, he goes to the tryout, he ends up being hired as a pitcher for the minor leagues, and later ends up in the majors.

Overall it is a feel good movie about "the power of the human spirit".

Why are are these movies so popular?

This isn't the only movie of this type with this theme. Off the top of my head I can think of "The Karate Kid", "The Mighty Ducks", and many others.

What is it about this theme that so captivates the audience? And how realistic is it?

To me the theme is that "if you want it bad enough, you only need to give it your best and you'll get there".

Is that true in every case?

I would say no.

Can every kid who throws a ball become a major league pitcher? No.

Can every person who wants to become president get there? No.

I believe that to truly excel at most things you need to have some latent talent, or as in sports, you need to have the right size, strength, etc. Not everyone can dunk a basketball for instance.

There are activities where you can learn to be the best, though I think writing is not one of them. I believe that it takes a special kind of personality and creativity to be an exceptional writer. Lots of people can learn how to be a good writer, but the truly great ones have a gift.

Do you have that gift?

Do I?

I don't know? But does it really matter?

Do you think that every one of us has a great novel in us? Probably not, but like that coach, if we settle for what's easy, and not follow our dreams, we'll never know, will we? If we don't strive to be the best, stretch ourselves to the limit, push ourselves farther than we ever thought possible, we'll never reach the potential to be great, will we?

What about you? Are you following your dream? Are you writing the best book can possibly write?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Gee, no kidding...

Sometimes you've just gotta state the obvious.

To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn't mention the Ming dynasty because...well...it isn't relevant. Gee, no kidding. Well, that fact escapes many a fantasist who thinks that in order to create a believable world, you've gotta show all of your cards.

Which leads me to my second point: You can always tell when someone is lying, because they'll give you way too much information.

Why? The simple "truth" doesn't sound convincing to them because they know it's a lie. Therefore, they add detail to make it more believable.

Fantasy authors are without doubt the biggest bunch of liars around. We're not just lying about the story itself--the characters, the plot, the relationships--we're lying to you about EVERYTHING.

The grass. The trees. The water. Everything-freaking-thing.

So, how much is too much?

Good question. I think it's important for the author to know all of the ins and outs. But, pick only what's relevant to the story. Ask yourself if it were any other genre, would it be necessary. If not, scratch it.

In my humble opinion anyway.

OK, I kid, my opining is never humble. But, you get the gist here. This issue is one of the reasons that genre fiction gets the short end of the stick sometimes when compared to literary fiction. They know we're all full of crap.

We've just gotta become better liars...