Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Passive Nightmare

One thing I’ve quickly learned about myself is that my greatest flaw is passive writing. Old ms drafts ooze with it and I still work to search and destroy parts of my stories that have entire passages of passive phrasing. Anyone who does their homework on writing craft soon sees the animosity out there toward passive writing, and it’s justified. Passive writing is lackluster, sluggish, and boring. Childish even.

Most of the time you run into advice along the lines of:
Get rid of all uses of the word “was” or any conjugation of “to be.”
Get rid of –ing words.
“Had” is bad.

And so forth.

People intend to be helpful and some actually know what they’re talking about. Others don’t. So I muddled along as best I could and through a lot of sweat and effort started to see progress.

And then at random, I picked up another book on writing craft at the library two weeks ago. The emphasis of the book: revising. So I took it home and read it. Lots of good stuff in it but the best part came toward the end. Strong nouns and verbs vs. weak nouns and verbs and an actual method to eradicating passive writing! Not a weak directive to get rid of certain words, instead, a strong emphasis on word pictures and voice that ends up getting the job done right. I felt ecstatic over my find.

And I thought I’d share the reference for anyone else struggling with passive writing. Get your hands on The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray. Weekends 16 & 17 are the golden chapters. Of course, the whole book is full of great advice on plotting, structure, character motivation, and archetypes.

The best part—I added it to my online wish list and five days later my brother bought it for me as a birthday present. Now I can go back and mark up the book all I want with highlighters.

Some other writing craft books I’ve enjoyed in recent years:
Writing the Breakout Novel and the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – If you’re sitting down to write a first draft, wait until you get to the revision stage before picking these up.

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – great for first drafts.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King – excellent for those nitpick drafts and final polishes.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White – another good one for final edits and chopping down word count.

The Random House Guide to Good Writing by Mitchell Ivers – great reference for all stages of the writing process.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – another handy reference for speculative fiction writers; especially good for learning rules and tropes so you can break them the right way.

I have read several others, but these are the outstanding ones that worked well for me. And remember, you don’t have to do everything any craft book says to do. Find what works for you and your style. Usually I find one or two sections in any given book on craft that stands out to me.

What are some of your favorite books on the craft of writing? Do you struggle with passive writing or phrasing (or am I standing out here in the cold alone?)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blog Break!

Summer, heat, (birthday), winding down another writing project—all reasons for a week long break from blogging. I’ll be back August 21st. In the meantime, there are my archives to explore, the Spotlighted Blogs links to check out, and comments on any old post are welcome. Or, if you feel so inclined, tell me how you’re doing, what color suits your mood right this minute, or what topics you’d like to see more of on this blog. I’ll still be active on AQC, Twitter, and e-mail.

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts with me.

And just because I'm in one of those moods:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 3: Determining the Balance

Here’s a crazy-zany idea that I don’t know if anyone else has tried. Do you know the balance in your manuscript between action and non-action (description, internal thoughts, etc.)?  Maybe the story’s too huge because of an imbalance. Hm…

 So here’s what you do:

 1) Create a scene list for your novel. Any time the setting changes, there is a POV switch, or something significant happens to carry the characters into a new scene, note a scene break. Name each of your scenes (this is a lot of fun and no one else will see these.)

2) Work with one scene at a time. This is very important so you don’t feel overwhelmed or get confused. Especially if you have multiple POVs or just a whale of an epic on your hands.

3) Separate your scene into two new documents. One with all the action and one with all the inactivity. The action document will have the dialogue too. Anything strictly not action or dialogue goes into the inactivity document.

4) Now note which document is larger. You don’t have to have a perfect balance for every scene. Some scenes are meant to have more action and others little. After you’ve noticed where the scales weigh on this scene, think about that scene and what its purpose is. Is this a scene with a big reveal? A lot of subtle foreshadowing going down? A place in time marked for internal development for your protagonist? A place where the plot speeds up and takes the protagonist from Point A to Point B? What is the purpose.

5) After you’ve realized what that scene is supposed to do, look at your action document. Consider:
a) Do you need that much action for this scene to do its job? Do you need more?
b) Does your action stand on its own two feet, meaning, you don’t need a lot of explanation to help the reader along?
c) Is the action in this scene the best way to carry the story forward? Or is it action for the sake of action?

6) Next, look at your inactivity document.
a) Based on the purpose of this scene, and what is going on, do you have places where description bogs down the narrative? Can you break it up and seamlessly put it in with the action as it comes?
b) If this scene is a turning point internally, do your interior thoughts and observations made by the character do its job? Do you need more or can you reword their thoughts for maximum impact with fewer words?
c) Are you using description, backstory, explanation, or interior monologues for the sake of filling space rather than carrying the story forward? What can wait for later or may need to be bumped up earlier in the story? Trim the excess fat.
d) Are there ways to show how the characters feel through action?

7) After both documents have gone through analysis, cutting, and restructuring. Put the scene back together. You will probably find even more ways to trim as you do. And, you may end up cutting the scene completely out because now you know it doesn’t move the story or the characters forward, or it is shallow, or where an unnecessary tangent plot begins.
8) Move on to the next scene. Repeat.

Recognizing the purpose of a scene and what focus it needs to have is a great way to shed some story bulk. Knowing how to move the story forward in that scene either through action or inaction also helps the writer watch for plot holes, character inconsistencies, and keeps minor characters and subplots in line.

You may discover that you've put too many superfluous action scenes in the story or have redundant passages of backstory, internal monologue, or description. Restore the balance.

How about you? What do you do to determine whether your story is imbalanced or bloated because of an imbalance?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Epic Quest Update #1

Agh, I'm treading water! I thought I'd find a handful of blogs/websites to share links to but it turns out there is more information out there to gather than I anticipated. And guess what, I actually found an agent who says she's actively looking for epic speculative fiction! Yes, my jaw dropped a little to see any agent be specific like that.

I'm building a spreadsheet, listing authors, their online connections, publishers, agents (if applicable), and what time bracket they fit in (veteran, newbie, etc.). I've found a couple of good reference sites in regards to bibliographies. This will be the conclusion of Phase 1, when it's done.

Hang in there, I'll share all when I've got everything neat and tidy.

What I can say right now, is hang in there epic writers! The elbow room isn't as spacious as other genres, yet there is room for more authors. We may see another boost when the Hobbit films start rolling out, reminding the world of the genre and its wide appeal.

What I'd like to know from you, is how should I space out the time brackets? Would having published their first book in the last 10 years qualify as newbie status, or should I reduce it to the last 5 years? I figure anyone at least 20 years on the shelves qualifies as a veteran. How far back would you like me to go when I share the spreadsheet information?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Method to the Madness

I don’t normally issue status reports on my work because I figure, being an unknown, who cares? And I don’t intend to beleaguer you much today either. At the point where I’m finishing up another round of revision and in the middle of holding threads, scene tatters, and parts needing surgery, I’ve had ample time to think about method.

There’s the initial birthing stage. Ah hah! I have a great idea! So I write it down in summary or in a quick first draft that hits all the points and scenes simmering in my brain. This stage is wild, uninhibited, and anything goes. No one else is going to ever see it.

Sometimes I’m a pantser, sometimes I’m an outliner. It really depends on the story and how it came to me. Either way, I usually know the beginning to the end before I write.

So then what?

The three manuscripts I’ve juggled for the past few years in the vortex of revision and development are making me wake up. I’ve dabbled in one suggested method or another, trying them out, seeing what works for me. It’s a necessary path to self-discovery for a writer. I think my path took a little longer. I haven’t been in a rush. I’m more concerned with doing it right than in getting it before an audience. And only now, when the end is in sight for one of those stories, I can reflect back on what I tried, what worked, what failed, and what made me get lost.

What does this mean? I can streamline the process now for the other two, and for future manuscripts. That equates to not only faster product output but higher quality output.

The first thing I’ve learned: the second draft should be the longest and slowest. It’s not the time to worry about voice, choice of words, or word count. The second draft is all about plot holes, characterization, back story, and major world-building development. If that isn’t the focus, it’s easy to become side-tracked and discouraged. The second draft is also not meant for other eyes.

While the rough draft/first draft was all about getting ideas down, it’s time to switch from hare to tortoise mode when facing the second draft. What I love about this draft is getting “in the zone” for each scene you work on, digging deep and discovering what makes the story tick, lots of research, finding out that the first draft isn’t carved in stone and is about to drastically change.

If you take the time to slow down and thoroughly develop the story in the second draft, there is less likelihood of being ten or more drafts to follow. Oh how I wish I’d know this before! Well, learning from the past, that’s what this blog is about anyway.

The third draft is where voice, syntax, and such come into play. Line edits. Also not a fast hare-sprint-to-the-finish-line type of draft. This is where you worry about word count.

So then we’re done, right? Um, no.

Now the manuscript is ready for other eyes to see. Beta readers/critique partners, line ‘em up. Give a few a go at the manuscript. Choose other writers over relatives and friends. If possible, get someone with expertise in your research fields to double check that you got your facts straight. Then take the feedback and learn from those fresh pairs of eyes. They will catch things you didn’t. Both in second draft material and third draft material.

The fourth draft is incorporating what they’ve helped you learn or consider. Sometimes this means large rewrites or several small tweaks. The point of the fourth draft is clarity and continuity.

Done now?

Nope. Another round of beta readers. Different ones from before. Bonus points if you can find writers who are also your target audience. Gather their feedback and tweak. You should be at tweaking rather than overhaul status at this point. One more round of line edits.

Now, it’s time to send the manuscript out into the world and see if the professionals want it.

Five drafts, approximately. A far cry better than the ten drafts I’ve put the current MS through. Developing a sensible method—I know better now. Prioritizing and having a set goal for each draft stage makes a huge difference, especially that second draft.

The journey of a writer is fraught with frustration and mistakes. I love it when I wise-up and then things fall into place.

Have you jumped the gun and sprinted when you should have strolled instead?