Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Posting/Critiquing Marathon Part 2: In Conclusion, What I’ve Learned

Each summer the Speculative Fiction Group on Agent Query Connect holds a posting/critiquing marathon. It's an intensive 12 weeks of feedback and opportunity. People post 1-2 chapters per week and everyone else reads and critiques them. In this way, submitters can get a good assessment of what works in their chapters and what doesn't from writers who read and write in their genres. It's also a private forum so work posted isn't open to the masses on the internet and doesn't stay on permanently. All in all, it's exhausting, fun, and a pretty positive environment.

Most submitters have gotten through their first 10-12 chapters by now. I admit, due to outside constraints I had to duck out of the last three weeks but here’s what I have learned from the second half of the marathon:

The Watch List:
  1. Sagging middles. I can’t emphasize this enough—the middle is the most important part of the story. This is where everything happens, where the growth occurs, and where the journey takes place. Sure you need an enticing beginning and a satisfying ending but without a strong middle the book is sunk.
  2. Whirlpools. This is where a writer keeps cycling the same type of events or bringing back characters that were eliminated. It’s boring, frustrating, and the reader quickly grows disillusioned. Forward motion died off. I don’t know if this is due to the comfort zone of the writer, where they feel they pulled off one thing well so why try something else? Or in other cases, the characters keep rehashing the same facts, details, and arguments. It’s like the writer didn’t have enough story to fill out a book or got lost somewhere from A-Z.
  3. Plot plunges. The first chapters of a story were strong, the obstacles clearly defined, and the protagonist(s) chugged steadily ahead toward their goals. Then all at once, the story isn’t so interesting. It’s not that the goals have died or the obstacles disappeared, but everything feels stagnant. In these cases, the writer has stopped introducing new, fun, or dangerous elements. They’re playing with the exact same clay they started out with. Or there is a lack of growth and opposition for the characters.

For the most part, to beware putting all of your punch and energy into the beginning and ending alone. I found this to be a huge red flag. This is where writing with an outline during the editing and revising process is so valuable. Write the first draft or two by the seat of your pants if you like but then when you’re ready to really roll up your sleeves and pound the molten metal that is your story into something polished and refined, you need an outline. Take a step back and look at the broad picture of your story and how each event works.

The other big thing I’ve learned all over again is the importance of beta readers, particularly beta readers who also write. Those fresh pairs of eyes strip away our blinders and can show us what is working and what isn’t. Also the importance of finding beta readers that work well with you. Anyone can beta read but that doesn’t mean they’ll like your genre, your writing style, or even the story itself. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer and look for beta readers who can help you in those weak places. Say punctuation is your bane; find someone who can juggle commas, hyphens, and semicolons in their sleep. If sentence structure, clarity, or passivity is a problem, look for a beta reader who’s a grammarian. If your story takes place in a specific time period or setting it doesn’t hurt to ask someone who’s an expert on that time or setting to read through to make sure your research paid off. If you want someone to be very frank with you as to whether your story is making sense, whether characters or events are believable, plot holes abound…you get the idea. Look for honest readers who know what they are talking about. If you find that a reader does nothing but snark on everything you write without pointing out anything you do correctly, don’t continue with that person. If someone hates your genre or type of story, maybe let them read a different project later on.

The scope of writing submitted this year in the marathon went all across the speculative board. There was something for nearly every reader. The talent ranged all over the chart too with everyone sharing their strengths and weaknesses. The most beautiful part was seeing some writers who continually received lengthy feedback on their writing swallow their pride (if any) and work hard to make their writing stronger. You could see them improve and develop as the weeks went by. I’m in awe of these people. They didn’t give up. They didn’t classify the feedback as subjective and ignore it. These are writers who I expect to see on bookstore and library shelves one day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Opposition is a Good Thing

Okay, so you have a great story idea, one where your hero/heroine is going to transcend all emotional barriers and rise to fame, glory, and readers will ponder for a long time the impact of your story. Sounds good. You start writing, dive into the story with gusto and once finished hand it over to your first beta reader. But wait, the reader is frowning, they’re using a lot of red pencil all over your masterpiece, they don’t feel like finishing it…what happened?

The answer could be any number of things but I’d like to write about the importance of opposition today.

Say your protagonist is going to be a save the world type and with each obstacle the story throws in their way they leap over the problems growing more and more powerful. The problem with this is you haven’t allowed your protagonist to struggle, to fail. Without the nasty taste of failure in their mouth they won’t taste the full sweetness of victory when your climax comes about. Neither will the reader. For maximum impact, if you want your save the world type protag to not only save the world but to take the reader on a rush of triumphant emotion along with your protag, you need to let them both go through the lowest possible failures and disappointments.

Or say you have a protagonist who is destined to experience a great love in your story. They’ll need to experience the opposite of your climactic moment in order for that climax to hit the roof (or beyond.) Whether the protagonist is actively looking for love and can’t find it, or they are shying away from it and being pursued, or they have gone through a massive breakup with someone they were very close to—the reader needs to see and feel the contrast with the protagonist or the climactic romance moment won’t do the job you intend it to.

Think about it, it’s just like real life. We don’t know the sweetness of being healthy if we’re never sick. We appreciate anew our bodies after they’ve healed from being broken or injured. We appreciate our loved ones after an absence or a hurtful misunderstanding has been cleared up. We can’t comprehend the simple joys of our every day luxuries unless we’ve had to do without them. The importance of an education, the satisfaction of holding down a job, the excitement of making a discovery or breakthrough, being able to eat regularly, having a place to live or a means of transportation. Look at your own life. You’ll probably find you have a better appreciation for those things you’ve had to do without or have experienced the opposite of.

Then apply this to your characters. Don’t pamper them, don’t be nice to them. Make them appreciate what they gain or lose. Make their climaxes rise higher than you thought they could by putting your characters through the grist-mill.

A character in perfect surroundings, with a perfect support cast, and super powers with no weaknesses learns nothing. They don’t grow.

Finding and creating these contrasts can be done on all levels of a story, not only the big issues and conflicts but even the small, short moments of frustration can compound to make a character grow. To make that inevitable victory or moment of transcendence powerful. If you want your protagonist to change from being a snooty rich kid to one who willingly helps others, what should you do? Trip them up, let them take a long walk in the shoes of others, even better if it is other people they are prejudice against or they misunderstand. Let them feel what it’s like to be cold, hungry, homeless, misunderstood, ridiculed, and rejected. The deeper their experiences, the more they’ll learn. The more we learn as a writer too. And perhaps the exact goal we had in mind is changed by our new perceptions as we take the journey with our characters.

Some of the best books ever not only effect change in the story’s characters but in the lives of the readers as well. Often, these are the books that are read more than once or twice. They have good shelf life. They aren’t a one-time wonder which leave half-satiated fans eagerly searching for more from other sources.

Sometimes we experience insight through others around us. Maybe we have a friend who’s gone through a nasty betrayal or lost their job for reasons that seem innocuous to us. What can we learn second-hand to avoid similar problems ourselves? It’s the same for characters. Use your secondary and tertiary characters to help bolster the learning process for your main characters. But don’t fall into the pit of letting only your side characters suffer. If this is the case, you’re writing about the wrong people.

What do you want your character to experience, learn, or gain? Write down the opposite. Then write even more opposites. Find the appropriate places to put them and get to work teaching your characters the hard way.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fun Ideas and Tips #6: Dialogue With Someone Else

This idea works well if you are struggling to make dialogue unpredictable or are having a hard time distinguishing between two characters’ voices.

Get with another writer friend, preferably someone who is familiar with your story or style of writing. Brainstorm the general plot of the scene you’re about to write or rewrite. Don’t get into too many details but both of you should know where it begins, where it ends, and what vital information or action needs to be revealed or happen. Then choose who will write from which character’s POV. Take some time to get into your character and remember that you can only write from inside that character’s POV.

Take turns writing out the dialogue and action. The beauty of this exercise is that you won’t exactly know how the other person is going to express their character or even exactly what the other person is thinking or going to say. It’s like a real conversation, unpredictable.

In the end read back through the scene together and maybe iron out a few details for clarity. Discuss the vision of both characters in hindsight and make adjustments accordingly. You won’t necessarily have to keep this draft of the conversation but it might give you that push you needed in order to make the scene work.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Balancing the Details

Too much detail or not enough? It’s something I ask myself with every scene I write. A boring info dump gives readers license to put the story down and never pick it up again (unless it happens to be a subject of interest to them.) When I try to understand what makes me like reading a certain story, I realize that it is the details—those bits and pieces of information that do all the world-building or that show the POV character’s perspective of things and people around them.

So then the next question becomes: Do I have the right kinds of details in my story?

What are the right details? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that. Each story has its own flavor. In a story about magic I’d expect to find quirky magic details and a world where magic is a part of daily life. In a story about biochemistry I’d expect scientific details that furthered the plot and opened the way to a resolution. For a place set out of the real world, I’d want to know what it look, sounds, and feels like. I’d need to know what makes this world different from the real one.

Sometimes it’s easy to get sidetracked. Perhaps we’ve brainstormed/researched our world or culture in depth. It’s tempting to pack a story with every little thing we’ve thought of, to drown our audience in the tsunami of our brilliant ideas/discoveries. It’s important to keep a good handle on when to share certain details and only to use details that enhance the plot or characters at those times. Keep in perspective what details matter for that particular scene or that will throw in some subtle foreshadowing.

Details make up the bulk of a story. They change an ordinary conversation into something extraordinary and fun to read. They alter what might be generic blah into a sensory reading experience. From setting description to what phrases and unique words people use, details drive a story.

For example:

Without detail:
He walked carefully outside and took in the view at a glance. It was beautiful and strange at the same time. Nothing like home. Strange plants and animals, a strange sky, and a road waiting to be explored. 

With detail:
He walked down the ramp onto the soft ground and wished he wore a pair of boots rather than standard ship’s slippers. The crimson sky spanned from one horizon to the next without breaking for mountains, trees, or clouds. Large asteroids floated above and dark silhouettes with broad wings flapped off to the north. A patch of glowing insects came over the nearest rise, playing hide-and-seek amid the tall stalks of some brittle looking plant. Shadows deepened along the ground creating long lines where the ground dipped. The beaten-down path wound through the parched landscape. The pits and gullies seemed to swallow it up and although he could see a long way off, there was no inkling of his destination. The air sucked his skin dry and he worried it would tighten and crackle. Maybe he’d need that bear grease after all.

The second example gives the reader a much more accurate picture of the world and its strangeness to the POV character. The first example left much open to reader interpretation and the setting could have been anywhere.

For fun, take the first example and write up a different detailed example and, if you’d like to, share your version in the comments.

Do you have a favorite book/series or two where the details really pop and make the story come alive? Please share.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

More Bloggerly Love

Last week I was tagged for the Liebster Award:

Thank you Dean, from The Write Time, for thinking of me.

The goal of the award is to spotlight up and coming bloggers who currently have less than 200 followers. The rules are as follows:

"1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
5. And most of all--have bloggity-blog fun!"

I love to pass on blogging love, I follow so many great people. Combing through my blog lists I find a slight problem:
a) The blogger's already been awarded or tagged.
b) Most blogs have too many followers to qualify--which is awesome, they're getting blog reader love already.
c) I have no way of knowing how many follwers they have.

So based on educated guessing and how often they blog, I have five blogs to mention and I hope they forgive me if they do have more followers than the requirement.

1. Questions and Archtypes. A great writer, great critiquer, and she has some straight-to-the-point things to say on her blog. I expect to see her published soon.

2. Darke Conteur. This is an amazing woman. She knows a lot about the industry and while I can't see how many actual followers she has, the comment numbers are surprisingly low. I have to draw attention to her blog. Darke has blog-day themes and is one of the warmest, most helpful writers it's been my privilege to know.

3. Write Away. Again, I have no way to tell how many followers she has but I think she deserves some extra attention. Her blog holds interviews, talks about writing from a useful point of view, and this writer has an amazing imagination when it comes to actual writing.

4. In the Jungle. I love this blog! It may be purely subjective on my part and the tendency to not want to let go of my teen years completely but the YA perspective is fresh and fun. She blogs about being a teen and about writing, often from angles I have never considered before. This is another talented writer I expect to see published soon.

5. Belief Suspenders. I love what she's doing with her blog, especially the vlogs on writing and breaking down the myths behind much-loved trophes and cliches. She also provides links to online contests for writers. She has a powerful imagination as a writer.

Congratulations! Thank you for making the time I spend reading blogs fun and enriching and I hope my followers jump on board and follow you as well.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Recaps and New Hope

I'm having technical difficulties with my internet server and my time is short. So here are some of my blogpost recaps, especially for those new to the blog or who may have an interest in any of these topics. Thanks again for reading, thank you to those who respond, and thanks for your patience. There will be some new features coming to the blog in the next few months that I'm really excited about and I hope you will enjoy too.

Because: One of the Most Important Words a Writer Can Use...
Outlining: The Simple Version
Your Story, Your Spin (voice, style and treatment)
A Public Service Message Regarding Unpolished Manuscripts
Manuscript Disease Top Ten Symptoms
The Critiquing Dilemma
Receiving Manuscript Feedback
Adjectives, Adverbs, and Sneaky Profanity
Does Your Story Have Mass-Market Appeal?
Obesity and Anorexia in Novels (Is your novel too fat or too thin?)
Writing What You Know--The Truth Isn't So Hard

And if you haven't had a chance to read through the survey I'm conducting, you'll find it here. Please take a minute to answer at least one or two of the questions if you don't have time for the full thing.

As to the new hope part of my blog title, I'm happy to report that taking a few months off to critique and read only has paid off for me. I'd grown increasingly discouraged over the past year regarding what and how I write. It's a common malady for writers and I knew that. With all the hype around YA novels of this or that specific niche genre and all the fuss to make query letters sound YA even when a story might not be YA, I felt ready to throw in the towel several times. I didn't start writing for the sake of publishing. I write because I love to make up stories and share them with others. Pursuing publication has been exhilerating, tiring, and trying. With my internet down this weekend I seized on the opportunity to try my hand at revising a novel again and the old rush of being in the zone returned. Reading so many other peoples' manuscripts and books reminded me that there is room out there for all kinds of stories. Despite the hype, I don't have to try to cram and mold my story into the genre agents are clamoring for. Current trends die out and new ones can be born every day. Realizing this broke some of the editing shackles holding me back. The story is stronger than ever and I'm looking forward to finishing the critiquing marathon in a couple of weeks so I can use all my writing time again for writing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fun Ideas and Tips #5: Find Your Truths

Going along with Tuesday's blogpost about writing what you know, here's some things to consider when brainstorming the truths you can use in your stories.

1. Write down, in detail, memories from the past that:
a. Made you deliriously happy
b. Made you furious
c. Embarrassed you
d. Caused a huge roadblock
e. Forced you to make a difficult decision
f. Gave you the most satisfaction
g. Made you feel like giving up or drove you to the depths of depression
h. Truly scared you
i. Really made you laugh

2. Write down dialogue interchanges that went with those experiences as best you can. (Hint: you'll find the ones that are worth using are easy to recall.)

3. List people from your past or present who really stand out to you. You might admire them, envy them, hate them, love them, or have a weird fascination for them. Analyze why. What makes these individuals so distinctive and memorable?

4. Write down a list of themes or causes that you feel passionate about. Pros or cons, it doesn't matter.

5. Write down a list of quirks or character traits you most often notice in yourself or the people around you. (Animals are fun to do to.)

6. Consider the places you've lived or visited. Describe them in detail. What do you remember best about them? (For example: I’ve lived in cold places so I know a lot about snow and ice. Now I can use these details to make my cold settings realistic and true.)

7. Write down the jobs, or other occupations you've had. This can be anything from a professional career to a babysitting gig, or service projects. Write down what you did (or do), what skills you need for each job, and the kinds of people you've met or interacted with.

8. Write down a list of all the things you like to read about or study. Formal education can count too, but you really want to take notice of the subjects you're passionate about. You might also want to compose a list of subjects you're itching to learn more about.

9. Write down all the things that get you riled up. What are your pet peeves? What will change you from a great mood to a bad mood in a snap? (or vice versa)

10. Write down any injuries, illnesses, or handicaps you've dealt with or the people you know have dealt with. This can be anything from wearing glasses to being stuck in bed with a broken leg or dying from some horrible disease.

The key to all of these things is passion. The strongest truths come from the strongest memories, ones that get you excited, that take you back to that moment with excruciating detail. By recalling these memory triggers you'll infuse what you know into your writing and share those truths with your readers.

Have any other great ideas for this list? Please share in the comments.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing What You Know—The Truth Isn't So Hard

The adage "write what you know" has brought up a lot of discussions over the years and has been open to interpretation by any and all. Here's mine:

In simple terms, write about life as you honestly see it or have lived it. Take your experiences, your flashes of comprehension about the human condition, things you've witnessed or heard of from others and use them to better your writing. It's the things we know and come to know about life, about relationships, about what it is to be human that enriches what we write.

For an example, I took a couple of school experiences I had that were negative and embarrassing and meshed them together, added a spin that fit the character and story I needed them for, created new people in place of the original ones, and wrote two of the most powerful chapters in my WIP. Truth seeps from the dialogue, the injustices are felt more keenly, and I don't have quivers of self-doubt regarding them. I wrote what I knew and my beta readers have responded well to those chapters.

You never know what common or uncommon daily occurrences can give you moments of truth for your story. I took two incidents with mice, one from the past, one from the not-so-past and again fused them to use as the leverage that gets my two main characters in motion during one part of the story. I didn't have to make up any old plot ploy to incite the action, I wrote what I knew and it did the job.

The same thing goes for social interaction, internal thoughts, or any type of understanding regarding culture, mythology, or even background. Unless we're cloistered up in a small room with our meals slid in under the door, we have tons of material to work with when writing. The great part is we all have unique points of view. Two people may have a similar experience but respond or learn something differently from each other. The social tiers we work, live, and play in also give us fodder for inserting truth into our writing.

A slight caution: don't write your character truths exactly as real life people undisguised, especially in fiction. Writing about specific people is dangerous and you could run into huge problems if you try to pull a stunt like that. Pull bits and pieces of someone else's character if you need to but change up how they look, what they do, or even who they are. The important part is the truth you experienced in the interchange with that person, what you learned, or what happened that you can play with in a fictional story. Demonizing someone or a group of people on purpose and undisguised is unethical.

There’s also the obvious truths to find in what we do for a living or have educational experience in. This part often stymies writers. Sometimes we think “Well, I never was an acrobat so how can I write from that POV?” Remember, we’re all still living and learning and it’s never too late to learn something new. Sure, you might not go out and take gymnastics or roam with a circus for credibility but you can do research, talk to people who do have acrobatic experience, and do a good job writing from that POV anyway. The truths of your story will come out in other areas. Maybe your acrobat character has a bad past with one of their parents and that reflects something you’ve experienced first-hand. Or maybe the acrobat is color blind, just like your best friend growing up.

The overall theme (hidden or otherwise) of your story may deeply reflect what you know. Perhaps your main character’s inner journey deals with rejection and finding personal acceptance—something you may very well have struggled with or have known someone else to struggle with. Maybe that yearning which propels the protagonist on their quest reflects your own needs to right wrongs, find justice or peace, or loosely follows a road trip you took when you left home.

Discovering and using what you know isn’t hard. Truths are easy to find.

Tell me about how you've been able to insert truth into your writing, or a time when you've read a story and felt the writer really knew what they were doing when they wrote a certain character, scene, or conflict.