Friday, July 27, 2012

Internet Hiccups

I promise I didn't forget about all of you on Thursday. My internet provider has had some technical issues and things have been spotty for a few days.

Quick update on the Epic Quest: I'm discovering there are more recent epic writers than I first thought. Very excited. It's taking a bit longer than expected to gather information (the internet issue again) but I hope to have some more findings to share by next week.

On the plus side, with the internet not so available I've enjoyed some indulgent writing time - guilt free! It's always fun to be near the end of any story. The challenge is not letting the next one waiting in line jump ahead before the first one's done.

Here's hoping you all have a great weekend and that you enjoy your part of the writing journey right now. Take a moment to revel in the progress you've made without examining the stretch of road still ahead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What is Talent?

Last week I attended the graduation ceremonies for my youngest brother. During the portion focused on the College of Fine Arts one of the students made a presentation and brought up this grain of truth: Talent isn't what comes easily to a person. We all have things we lean toward, that draw us, but it's not a requirement to be immediately good at something to have talent in that area.

How many times do we see the fruits of someone else's labor and misjudge their talent as something innate? We don't see the hours of hard work, practice, and frustration that went into the final product. We don't know how easily this talent came to them. We don't know if insecurity continues to writhe inside that person. defines talent as this: "a special natural ability or aptitude; a capacity for achievement and success."

At a glance, it would seem only those born gifted have a right to the word. The percentage of people with the label childhood genius stuck to them is so small it's not even worth fretting about.

We all have a natural aptitude for certain things and we can develop aptitudes for others as well as develop that capacity for achievement.

Growing up I wanted to learn to play music. My family moved around so much that it made it hard to stick with violin lessons (my first choice) so I settled for piano lessons as an alternative. I discovered I grasped the theory of music with a natural aptitude but the skill of playing the piano wasn't as friendly. Determined, I pushed through several years of training and practice to complete the entire course. My fingers tended to stumble and keeping a straight count in my head became my nemesis. My feet naturally tick off the beats to music, but when they have to stay rooted to the ground or are using the pedals...well, it was a handicap. My teacher shook her head one day and said I was the most backward student, in that easy pieces were difficult for me and difficult pieces came easier. (Still not sure whether I should take that as a compliment or criticism.) I finished, despite the difficulties and frustration, something that I can now look back on and smile about. I didn't quit and I worked to gain a talent.

The worst thing anyone can do to stifle a budding talent or interest is to look at the finished products of others and judge yourself. You haven't left the starting gate yet. Or maybe you're on your first or third lap around the course. Other people can be great examples of what has been done, but don't let it discourage you from blazing your own trail or even trying.

Everyone, whether "gifted" or not needs a good work ethic. Set that goal and don't falter. It won't be easy at times, thoughtless people will say things to put you down, but if you don't give up, you can reach that goal. Work. It's a four letter word and your best friend for getting anything done. Sitting back and "waiting for the muse" to strike? She's off with her other a-musing friends ready to help someone who is actually digging in and doing something. Staring at a blank canvas, lined piece of paper, or computer screen and then not attempting anything will produce - nothing, except frustration and depression.

Education is another important step to developing talent. We aren't born knowing everything and no one knows everything. We all have room to grow. We all need to learn. Some people are good at figuring things out on their own but the problem with that is they fall prey to pride. They "can't learn from anyone else" or "don't need to get help" or "waste their time." Knock that off right now. Sure, you don't necessarily need to go to a university and get a degree in creative writing in order to write, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn all you can about the process. Read books on writing (or reputable blogs), go to workshops, read books in your genre and in other genres, critique others' work and submit your work for critique. Learn from others to discover yourself. Finding our weaknesses isn't pretty. We need to know what they are so we can beat them into strengths and you can't do that all by yourself.

Patience is a virtue. Truly. While on the journey to develop any talent you'll also have the opportunity to develop patience. Don't let the beautifully arranged frosting on your goal tempt you into doing something stupid before you're ready. You want it, you can smell it, practically taste, see others devouring theirs - don't sprint ahead. You see, you haven't tied your shoes, or even put them on, and the ground is rocky and thorny between you and the goal. There are footpaths marked as shortcuts which really switchback or arrive at dead ends. Part of the road is crowded with other people trying to get to the end and too many people at the same places ruins the chances of all but a few. The path can crumble beneath your feet from all the hooplah. Halfway up the mountainside developers are diverting the path into several paths, often into directions no one dreamed possible the day before. Be like the tortoise not the hare in Aesop's fable. Slow and steady, eye on the prize, and patient.

Don't give up. Life happens, discouragement and defeat happen. The person who quits trying loses. So your dreams of publishing a novel next year are completely derailed when your child gets terminal cancer. That's okay. Priorities matter and you should keep yours aligned. I went from a very active period of writing into a decade of none due to life circumstances. I knew I loved writing and as soon as life allowed it, I not only jumped back in, I skydived into deeper pools and saw my budding talent grow so fast it frightened me. The time away gave me life experiences, a compost pile if you will, which has fertilized my imagination. Don't give up when your first story gets rejection after rejection. Put it away and work on your talent some more. Keep at it, especially when it's hard and the paths to other delights beckon as an easy way out.

What is talent?
Something a person develops by:
1) Setting a goal without comparing themselves to others.
2) Hard work, lots of it.
3) Becoming educated.
4) Developing patience along the way.
5) Never giving up.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Epic Quest Begins

I see it more and more, writers of epic speculative fiction having the devil of a time trying to find representation for their work. Few agents come out and say in their guidelines "Send me epic _______ fiction." The blogosphere is noisy with the YA-loving crowd and their parameters. It's hard to do research for epic speculative fiction because the people who work with it or write it aren't a dominate presence online (collectively.)

So I'm embarking on a quest to find out as much information as I can. I'll share my findings here on the blog and if you've done some research, please share also.

By epic, I'm referring to:
Huge, door-stopper books that are standalones; also series, sagas, and trilogies of epic proportions. These are books where there is a lot of story/plot, often with multiple POVs, and they take place in fantastic worlds or settings. See also this blogpost: Where are the massive epic science fiction series? Also you can pull up "epic" lists off of Goodreads or even Amazon (although take them with a grain of salt because the books listed are based off where readers categorize them.)

My first step was to comb online looking for authors of epic novels and to write them down on a spreadsheet. I came up over 200 names from my first gleaning alone and I'm sure I'll find a lot more. Finding so many authors cheered me up because it proves people will read long series and fat books. Some of the authors are dead, some are long-time veterans, but quite a few are new and thriving. There is a market for this kind of fiction.

I also noticed that epic authors tend to use initials; that there are a lot of Davids, Richards, and Kates; and that both male and female authors came up about even in body count on my list. Epic fantasy outnumbers epic science-fiction or epic paranormal. Epic YA speculative fiction gets a lot of the limelight these days but don't discount the adult crowd just yet.

Some websites that deal with epic speculative fiction:
Locus Magazine
Epic Fantasy Books Blog

What are your favorite epic books and your favorite epic-writing authors? Help me refine my list so I can move on to stage two: identifying publishers and agents (if applicable.) I hope to have a good-sized list of websites and blogs by epic authors next time for you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 2: Too Much Plot? – It Happens

Some writers have a knack for developing plotlines and subplots. If you’re an ace outliner on top of that, you might find, as I did, that pretty soon you have too much of a good thing. And too much plot or too many subplots can contribute to an inflated word count.

For a first-timer (meaning someone not published yet) your epic-sized novel may be the reason why agents and publishers are saying “no.”

There’s a difference between an epic and epic-sized. Some stories are epic. They are also tightly written too. Having an epic-sized novel doesn’t necessarily qualify it as an epic.

So how to bring down the word count and yet still have a solid storyline?

Outline in the simplest form. First identify what your main plot is and the crucial plot points that make it happen. Don’t include all the subplots or any plot points that aren’t crucial. If you have a hard time identifying crucial from the unnecessary, get some beta readers right away. You’re too close to the story and have invested too much time into developing plot points and lines to think straight about them. You need other eyes to help you.

Once you have the basic gist of your main plotline then look at your subplots. Write a separate outline for each of them. One or two subplots are the norm for any story. If you find you have five or ten, you need to get out the pruning shears. If your story is an actual epic, there will be more subplots but still make sure you haven’t bit off more than you or your audience can chew.

Once you’ve analyzed your essential plot points in both the main storyline and the subplots, you should have some scenes or even chapters you can cut already. If this round of analysis didn’t come up a lot to trim, then it’s time to look at each scene in the story.

Is this scene absolutely necessary? If you have a scene full of action and nothing else, you’ve got room to trim. For instance, your main characters have just walled up inside a fortress while an invading army of trolls surrounds them. Now the heroes must fight to keep the fortress. It’s a necessary part of the story but watch how you tell it. Pages and pages of straight action equates to boring filler. Are you characters growing during the conflict? What’s at stake for them? Are you showing it? What can happen during this battle to spin a plotline forward? There needs to be growth and change for any scene to be necessary.

Say you have a main character that is newly arrived on a strange world. There’s the temptation to explain everything about that world right away. After all, we need to ground our readers so they don’t feel lost. And a sense of wonder is a great way to keep them reading. Don’t describe your setting, incorporate it. What will that character first tend to notice about the new place? What is going on there? It’s not always like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy steps out of her house and gets several minutes to examine the Munchkin countryside. Places are active, not passive. Even quiet, pastoral settings can incorporate a tone. If there is no one there for the MC to react to or act upon, use the setting as a character. Trim the info-dumps. Spread out the details according to what the character will actually notice and what will actually happen. It’s great that you made up a deadly species of squirrel, including charts and an index on all their characteristics. If the squirrels aren’t a main part of that scene don’t share all your notes with the reader.

Sometimes we can condense or tell a series of happenings as if they happened off-stage, rather than write them out. It’s a great way to save space. Say you have a group of people traveling, you can trim all the travel scenes, doing a recap through dialogue after they’ve arrived, if something interesting happened. Unless, of course, the bulk of the story is about their journey, we don’t need to read about all the interesting parts of their trip in full-blown detail. “Pick your battles” is a well-known saying and it’s applicable here. Pick your scenes and don’t fret about the rest. Again, note if there is plot or character growth during a particular scene. If there is, keep it. If not, summarize or chuck it.

Another good rule of thumb is to start a scene with the action already going and end it early. We don’t need a prologue to a scene or a miniature epilogue at the end of it. Get to the point, share what is necessary, and make sure the scene propels the reader forward. Scene prologues and epilogues give readers an invitation to put the story down.

True epics will exceed 100K words and often even the 120K. There is a limited market for these books and a devoted body of readers who can’t get enough of them. If you have a true epic on your hand, don’t freak out over all the negativity on word count. As long as your manuscript is tight, every scene is necessary, and you’ve unloaded every bit of fat possible, you’re doing it right. Finding an agent or publisher is going to be an uphill battle but that’s due to circumstances out of your hands.

Contrary-wise, don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is an epic merely because it’s got a huge girth. It’s our job to analyze, chop, tighten, and choose wisely the content of our stories. Most people fall into the trap of epic-sized rather than true epic. Beta readers/critique partners are your best buddies in this instance. They’ll point out the places where their attention wanders, the parts that aren’t necessary, and question whether you’re serious about six subplots.

And congratulations if you are good at plotting. It’s a great skill. Embrace it, but don’t overdo it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blog Spotlights #23: It's in the Details

It's in the Details in the blog home of writer Michelle Hauck. This is a newer blog which has really taken off in recent months, particularly with her Getting the Call series. Michelle interviews writers who have received an offer of representation from agents and publishers. These interviews are insightful and good for people about to enter the query trenches. She is seeking interviews right now, too. She also blogs about writing and her interests. She's an approachable, smart person, and she deserves more followers. So pop on over, check out her blogposts, follow her, and leave a comment or two.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 1: The Nitpicks Revision

Some books are epic doorstoppers. We see them all the time in libraries and bookstores. Some stories need all that girth to tell them, and many stories do not. The unpublished writer soon finds his/her biggest roadblock to publication is the formidable word count confession. Speculative Fiction writers get a little more leeway than other genres because of world-building (100,000-120,000 words usually), but even then, there are limits to most agents' patience when they're viewing your query letter. A word count of 200,000 is going to raise eyebrows, if you're a first-timer. So for the next little while, I'm going to devote a few blogposts to discussing ways to trim your manuscript to an acceptable length without sacrificing the story. As I've had to run this gauntlet myself, maybe what I've learned might help you. And if you have any relevant tips and tricks, please share in the comments.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a nitpick revision of the full manuscript. A nitpick revision is where you comb through, line by line, and look for small things to take out. A word or phrase here and there doesn't seem like much, but it really does add up and I've known writers who have cut thousands of words by this type of revision alone.

Things to look for:
1) Sentence rephrasing. Can you say the same thing in fewer words? Simplicity works best. It gets your message across with fewer "speed bumps" for the reader. Anywhere a reader might backtrack and re-read a sentence for clarity is a good place to rephrase and cut words.

2) Passive phrasing: He was going, She was walking, They were sleeping, etc. You can make a sentence active instead of passive and trim some unnecessary words by getting rid of the "was" and changing the action verb to an -ed instead of an -ing: He went. She walked. They slept.

Note: Not all versions of "was" or "-ing" should be cut from a manuscript, but that's a whole other discussion.

3) Places where someone "looks". Instead of telling us your protagonist looked down into the valley, cut to the chase and show us the valley. Show trumps tell in these cases, and can help you trim a lot of unnecessary words. We don't always need to read the action of looking at something. There are exceptions, of course. Try to use this kind of action sparingly.

4) Redundancy. Have you already described a motivation in Chpt. 3? Don't give us another explanation about it in Chpt. 5. The same thing with description or an event. It's rare that a reader needs a recap if your first explanation, description, or event did it's job. Adding to or changing something is entirely different.

5) Are you using hyphens to connect words? Some phrases are supposed to be connected and it technically cuts down your word count. Examples: nine-year-old, half-eaten, back-up.

6) Double adjectives or adverbs. Are they repetitive or too similar to each other? Cut one.

7) Adjectives and Adverbs. Do you need them? Can you use a stronger noun or verb instead? Example: "the tall building" becomes "the skyscraper" or "the castle". Keep in mind that just because a word is an adjective or adverb doesn't mean you have to cut it. Adjectives and adverbs are valid parts of speech and used wisely, enhance your prose. Make sure they are necessary.

8) Estimate how many words you need to cut per page to reach your word count goal and try to stick with it.
Example: Based on an average of 250 words p/page, to drop from 125,000 words (500 pgs.) to 100,000 words (400 pgs.), you'd need to slash 50 words p/page.

9) Keeping your pet words in mind (those you use repetitiously) do a word search and see how many you can chop out. Simple words such as: "that", "as", "and", "but", "just", "only", or short phrases.

10) Unnecessary action: "He sat down." The action of sitting implies the direction. Chop out the word "down". Look also for places where you've fallen into a play-by-play of simple action: "She woke up, rubbed her eyes, yawned, and sat up. Putting her feet over the side, she slid out onto the floor, stood, and stretched." Leave something to the reader's imagination. There's nothing extraordinary in these actions, so strike them out.

For further ideas on nitpick revising, I recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, especially the section on eliminating unnecessary words.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Enticing Your Readers

Some time ago I asked a question in the Speculative Fiction Group forum on AgentQueryConnect: As a reader, what do you hope to find in the beginning of a novel?

The answers, you can imagine, varied all over the place. I noticed a parallel too, since it was writers who were doing the answering, that people hoped for the same kinds of things they liked to write. Some people favored immediate action, others (since we're speaking of speculative fiction) had an emphasis on world-building and setting, some liked an immediate theme, or interesting characters, the author's voice or style, or the specific genre tropes used.

My conclusion? There are many many ways to hook a reader, depending on what that reader likes. And, writers can easily set up blinders next to their own eyes by assuming everyone else wants the same thing they do.

I took a walk down the aisles at a Barnes & Noble last week, gravitating to the YA, children's, and speculative fiction sections more so to do some current research than anything else. There are a lot of books out there and all vying to capture the attention of as many readers as they can. I felt a bit lost in the deluge. (As I mentioned on Twitter last week, if you write speculative fiction and have any kind of say in the cover design, go for a bright color rather than the dark ones because those covers are rarer and attract the eye faster.)

So what's a writer to do to stand out from the pack? There is no one-size-fits-all or guaranteed step-by-step guide to entertaining someone else with your prose.

Say you need to establish your setting at the beginning of the novel, to ground the reader and introduce them to a place unlike anything on Earth. Does your setting sound like well-known alternate worlds other writers have used? It's okay if it does, but chances are if you've got a world that sounds a lot like Pern or Middle Earth, readers don't need you to spell everything out in the beginning. You're using a fantasy trope, which lessens the amount of work you need to do. Give some details built-in to the action and choose another element to be the focus of your beginning.

But...if your world is very different from popular tropes, you may have a valid reason for setting a lot of groundwork. The trick is to use your setting as a subtle character or antagonist, and the more show you can do intermixed with the plot or characterization of your protagonist, the better. Avoid the travelogue, especially if there are no characters interacting in your opening setting.

Say you want to focus on your protagonist at the beginning. Are they an every-man type character, the average person who is going to have amazing things thrust upon them? You'll need more than establishing character for a beginning then. A day-in-the-life of the average Joe or Jane is going to equate to boring. Readers have normal lives and they don't pick up a speculative fiction book to read about normal life. What you might need here is your inciting event at the get-go. Something to throw a monkey wrench into average Joe or Jane's life at the start. Explaining their average-ness is completely unnecessary.

But...if you have a main character who isn't average, their quirky, off-beat, or eccentric-ness will give a reader that not-normal vibe. Because, a character like that is pro-active, makes things happen, and everything they do, say, or think will be entertaining.

Say you want to grab your audience with action, okay, what kind of action? Is Commander Joe heading into space combat - just routine for him - and all the high-tech and flash is sure to make a reader sit up and pay attention through the play-by-play?, no. We're not invested in the character yet to care whether he lives or dies. We're not invested in the conflict to know what's at stake both publicly and personally. Action for the sake of action often fails to grab a reader's interest. It's all special effects with no substance.

But...if your action scene is either the inciting event, or propels your protagonist towards the inciting event you'll need to make sure the reader is armed with a few other things. They need to bond quickly with the protagonist so the conflict needs to be something readers might have experienced or fears to experience. Maybe the protagonist is sprinting down a hallway, late for an important meeting that will get him out of the basement and finally out in the field to prove his theories and establish his career. While he's racing down the hall, dodging other people and obstacles, he's thinking of his family and how badly they need this promotion. He needs to prove to his wife that all the time he spends at the office hasn't been wasted so she doesn't drag him to marital counseling.

Say you want to create the right mood or set the web of your theme at the start of the novel. This one's trickier, since by itself, stating a theme can turn away readers if you're too obvious. Or an extremely depressed mood might turn them away also, even if that mood lightens in the next chapter. Your opening is an invitation to your story. A theme or mood woven into one of the other elements works best: action, characterization, plot, or world-building.

Many genres come with reader expectations. They stick with that genre because of the tropes and they love it when writers have a fresh take on them. Readers in this case want the familiar. Kind of like eating ice cream. They want chocolate and because it's so good, they want it again and again. But not exactly the same as the first time. Maybe the second time they want sprinkles on it. Maybe the third time they'd like some nuts or chunks of chocolate mixed in. Maybe the fourth time they'd like some vanilla mixed with the chocolate.

As a reader, what do you hope to find in the beginning of a novel? Which story element is your essential ingredient to reader happiness?