Archive for November, 2011

 . . . And won’t let go.

At last count, I had about 25 books in my To-Read pile. But for some reason earlier this month I just couldn’t get into either of the ones I’d picked up. I’m likely to drop one and come back to the other later. What did I do? Did I pick up another book from that teetering stack? No, I didn’t.

I went back to a tried and true story I’ve read at least twice before. THE SHARING KNIFE series–BEGUILEMENT, LEGACY, PASSAGE, and HORIZON–by Lois McMaster Bujold. I know exactly how this story is going to go and how it’s going to end, and I am as caught up in it as if I were reading it for the first time. I can’t even think about picking up another book. I’m finding extra time to read.

That is the kind of story I aspire to write. So, I have to spend a little time trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes this story so enthralling.

In large part, it’s the characters. Lois McMaster Bujold does the redemption of damaged characters better than any other writer I can think of. Characters who start out half-dead inside, then find a reason to fight to live, and then nearly lose it again. That is a riveting story.

But it’s more than that, of course. It’s how alive those characters feel. With virtues and flaws and dark places they don’t want to probe too deeply.

It’s the way the setting is drawn on my imagination. It doesn’t hurt that THE SHARING KNIFE is in a non-standard fantasy setting. Not some parallel medieval setting for this one. This is much more like–very much like–the Mississipi River Valley during its early settlement.

It helps that in addition to the individual trials of the characters, there are also two cultures in conflict. And nasty monsters–some human, some definitely not–that have to be vanquished along the way.

And, of course, it’s all tied together with her writing style that just eases me into that world with no bumps or hitches along the way.

But really, I think it’s the characters.

There’ve been a few other stories that grabbed me this way. Stories that often made me keep thinking about those characters long after I’d finished the book(s).

Back to reading. And thinking.

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I am just about to type “The End” at the bottom of the manuscript of MAGIC’S FOOL. It’s a rough first draft. All first drafts are, but this is rougher than usual for me. And, while I was worried about this story when I started, I’m now happy with it, which is even better.

I know most of what needs to be fixed or expanded in the next go ’round. And I can take as much time as I need next year, while querying SEVEN STARS, to make those changes until I think MAGIC’S FOOL is ready to take its turn in the query hopper.

Counting manuscripts that have been shelved (a couple of them probably permanently), this is my seventh completed manuscript. It still feels almost as good as the first.

So,after today, it’ll be back to BLOOD IS THICKER, which ran off into the weeds unexpectedly earlier this month. I need to create some kind of emergency to kick my characters back out into the fray. I have a couple of ideas about that which could have the added benefit of tying in some additional plot elements.

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It seems an appropriate time to think about everything I’m grateful for. Since this is mostly a writing blog, I’ll confine myself to things I’m thankful for in my writing.

  1. I’m grateful and excited to have recieved an honorable mention for my short story “Infected With Magic” from Writers of the Future.
  2. I’m hugely thankful for my great critiquing partners. There are too many to list, but you know who you are. With some I’ve done a single exchange. Others are a continuing relationship. Both are invaluable.
  3. I’m thankful to have found two great writers’ forums, Hatrack River Writers Workshop and David Farland’s Writers Groups. Without them, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am now.
  4. I’m thankful to have enough ideas and projects that when one of them runs off into a ditch (BLOOD IS THICKER) I can work on another (MAGIC’S FOOL) while I figure out how to get  the first one back on the right track. It’s much better–and less painful–than pounding my head on the keyboard.
  5. I’m grateful to all the wonderful professionals out there–writers and agents, mostly–who spend some of their own time to help those of us who’re trying to reach that level, too by sharing their knowledge, expertise, and experiences.
  6. I’m thankful that what would otherwise be a very painful situation gives me the time to write and perfect my craft and tell the stories inside me.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’ll do to be going on with.



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This is something I’m wrestling with a bit right now. I’m not talking so much about first or third person right now. That, for me, is mostly controlled by the voice of the story I hear in my head when I’m writing. If I hear “I”, I tend to write in first person. So far, I’ve only written two short stories in first person. I haven’t yet tried to do a whole novel that way. (Though if “Heart of Oak” ever grows into a novel, I may have to try.) Most of the time, I write in close third person.

No, what I’m talking about now is how many points of view to use in a story. I have a sort of general rule about point of view. (And like most rules in writing, it’s really more of a guideline than a law.)

For middle grade, I try to stay in a single, close point of view. Whatever doesn’t happen where my main character can see or hear it, he’ll have to find out about some other way. The first time I did this in MAGE STORM, it was a little challenging. How do you make your hero understand the antagonist’s goals?

MAGIC’S FOOL, so far at least, is working out fine with a single point of view. Which is interesting because it’s original incarnation as a mainstream fantasy called THE SHAMAN’S CURSE (I know, I hate that title, too.) had at least a half-dozen point of view characters.

Young adult stories I tend to tell in dual points of view. Archetypally, the boy and the girl, because young adult is always about romance on some level. SEVEN STARS flowed very naturally that way.

And in adult stories, I try to limit the number of points of view, but I will use as many as I need to tell the story. This is where I free myself to actually tell part of the story through the antangonist’s point of view.

Now, there’s nothing hard and fast about this, as I said. Anymore than there’s a strict rule that you must stay with a single point of view in a short story. Generally, short stories work out better that way. But I’ve broken that rule once (“Heart of Oak”) because there were things that I wanted the reader to know that my main character simply couldn’t understand. And I can think of perhaps a handful of good short stories that also broke the rule–and several not so good ones. Which is probably why it’s one of those rules you should think hard about before you break it.

I can think of middle grade stories that have multiple point of view characters. (John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series comes to mind. Not only multiple points of view, but third person omniscient, in which he can tell us what any character is thinking or feeling at any point in time. It actually gets a little disorienting at times.) But the ones that I’ve enjoyed most usually stuck to just one point of view–or very close to it.

I can also think of lots of young adult novels told from a single point of view and a couple that have multiple points of view. The multiple points of view actually didn’t work so well for me in this kind of story. Either really close to the struggles of a single character or the intimacy of seeing how the two characters are trying to overcome their fears to come together seems to work best for these stories. Here again, I’ve got two young adult stories on the back burner now that might well be told from a single point of view. We’ll just have to see when I get there.

And, except for the third-person framing story, Patrick Rothfuss’ KINGKILLER CHRONICLES is told from a single, first-person point of view. There are plenty of other examples. Patricia Briggs’ MERCY THOMPSON series is one. You really don’t need multiple point of view characters. Not even for the romance part of the story.

See, no hard and fast rules.

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Well, it was bound to happen. It’s just the opposite of what I expected.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m about two-thirds of a discovery writer. Even when I’ve tried to write a chapter-by-chapter outline, I ignored it completely once I started to write and went where the story and the characters wanted to lead me. So, I don’t put myself through that anymore.

At the same time, my second book (now shelved) broke me of the idea of writing entirely by the seat of my pants. I require a few milestones before I’ll actually start writing. Generally, that’s the central conflict, the inciting incident, and the climax at a minimum. Better yet to have an idea of the first and second try/fail cycles, too. Enough of a road map, generally, to keep me from going too far off into the weeds with still enough freedom to discover some fun and exciting things along the way.

It’s not a guarantee, though. Well, nothing is, in writing or any other creative endeavor.

I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner on BLOOD IS THICKER. I know what needs to happen next. I just haven’t figured out why my characters would do that. From where I’ve go them now–and I like what leads up to this point–I just don’t see their motivation. I have to let my subconscious play with that and bubble up a few ideas. There needs to be something that pushes them back out. I have the beginnings of a notion of what that should be. If it works out, it’ll tie nicely into a subplot I started a few chapters ago. And that’ll strenghten the whole thing.

I know that I will eventually find the way out of this corner because I’ve done it before. I had the unfortunate experience last week of being stopped on both projects. MAGIC’S FOOL wasn’t really in a corner, though. I was just working out one of the new combined characters.

So, in the interim, I started work on the query for SEVEN STARS even though I don’t plan to start querying that until around March. It’s never too soon to start that because queries take a lot of polishing.

And then MAGIC’S FOOL came together in my head. I see my way clear to the ending now. Most likely I’ll go ahead and finish that while I let my subconscious play with the problem in BLOOD IS THICKER. 

What’s surprising is that MAGIC’S FOOL was the one I was struggling with because it’s a rewrite. I was deeply insecure about this one. Now I see pretty clearly exactly what I need to do. Not only to get to the end, but also what elements will need to be strengthened in the second draft. And I’m not worried about it anymore. This rewrite is going to work!

I really expected it to be BLOOD IS THICKER that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and made me finish it first. Goes to show you never can tell.

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Honorable Mention

I  received a very nice piece of validation for my writing this week. I was notified that my fourth quarer submission to the Writers of the Future contest had been awarded an Honorable Mention.

Okay, you say, it’s just an Honorable Mention. Yes, but it’s an Honorable Mention in the biggest and most respected contest for short speculative fiction. When I stop and think about how many–and how many really excellent writers I personally know (well, in cyber space anyway)–enter every quarter, it’s a huge honor to have gotten this far.

It’s only the third story I’ve entered in the contest, too. So, all in all, I’m feeling pretty good about it. I had to read the email through three times before I quite believed it, in fact.

I’ve been submitting stories, short and long, to agents and publications for three and a half years now. I’ve gotten a couple of nice, personal rejections. I’ve gotten to the second round of a pro-paying publication. I’ve had agents request full or partial manuscripts of my novels. And sometimes it feels like I’m beating my head against a brick wall just because it’ll feel so good when I finally stop.

I’m nothing if not persistent, though. And I love to write. And, of course, I’m so in love with every new story that this one just has to be the one. So I’ll keep at it.

This feels like a validation. I am indeed on the right track. I can so write. I will get there eventually.

It’s especially sweet because I really consider myself more of a novelist than a short story writer (there must be some more elegant way to say that). I work on short stories because they’re an excellent way to hone my craft. And I submit them, so far without success.

It’s funny, though. My short stories seem to have a tendency to become novels if I let them sit for a year or so. The stories just seem to grow.

I’ve been hard at work on novels most of this year. Finishing up SEVEN STARS (except for the polishing edit scheduled for early next year). A revision to BLOOD WILL TELL. Making some late revisions to MAGE STORM. First drafts of BLOOD IS THICKER and MAGIC’S FOOL.

I don’t have a short story for Quarter 1 of the Writers of the Future contest. But I do have a couple of ideas percolating. I’ll be back in Quarter 2. This time, it might even be near-future science fiction.

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So, at the same time that I’m working on the first draft of BLOOD IS THICKER, I am also sporadically working on a rewrite of one of my first novels, new title MAGIC’S FOOL. I didn’t originally set out to be working on two things at once, but the rewrite was going so slowly, I had to pick something else up to save my sanity.

I’ve done lots of revisions, sometimes very extensive revisions. But this is the first time I’ve attempted a true rewrite. And I’ve learned something. Rewrites are hard.

I waited almost two years, so I could approach the story with a fresh perspective. And I haven’t permitted myself to even look at the original. Not until I’ve at least finished a first draft. I want to look at things as much as possible as if I were writing this story for the first time. Even so, I think part of the what makes this one so hard to write sometimes is that I’ve already told the story once. It’s hard to have the same first-draft enthusiasm for a twice-told tale.

So why rewrite it at all? I still believe in this story. I think it has something to say (which isn’t necessarily true of all my stories). I still have more I want to do in this world and with these characters, but that won’t happen unless I get the beginning of the series–and it is a series–off the ground. And there were just too many problems with the original version.

One huge problem was that it got over-edited. In places, it completely flat. Flat is good in pie crusts and pool tables, not so much in prose. This is the book that convinced me to limit the number of revisions I put a story through before calling it done.

The original version (yes, I’m avoiding using the original title. It was really bad.) also had way too many characters. It wasn’t quite a cast of thousands, but, well, I actually considered including a geneology chart just to help the reader keep the main character’s famil straight. And that was just for the characters actually related to him by blood or marriage. Yikes! I’m a little less than half-way through on the fist book (I think) and I’ve already cut ten named characters. Now, not all of them were important in the story. Some were more background and were cut because the more-important character that they were background for was cut. I’ve been trying to combine the characters with an actual role to play in the story where I can.

So, for example, my main character no longer has a younger brother. The brother played a role in the first book but actually became a little awkward in the later stories when he just wasn’t that important anymore. His part has been combined into the main character’s cousins. (That decision also cut the brother’s wife and two children. They probably would have had to be cut anyway, for another reason I’ll get to in a minute.)

I’ve also combined two half-brothers into one, which again got rid of the other half-brother’s parents, wife and two children. There’s at least one more character on that chart in serious jeopardy right now.

The biggest difference, though, is the audience I’m writing for. The original was written as if it were a mainstream fantasy.  (I hate to say adult fantasy. It just has the wrong connotations.) This time, I’m writing it as a middle grade fantasy.

It probably always should have been middle grade. The character started out at 15 in the original. I’ve dropped back a bit and started this one at 13. A lot of the issues he has to deal with, especially early in the story are appropriate for that age group. So is the theme of the series which is acceptance. The progression through the series is in the main character learning to accept his differences, then to embrace them, then to be willing to let others know about them, and finally to understand that people who don’t accept him for who he really is aren’t really accepting him at all.

Of course, the change to middle grade has wiped out some other plot elements. Wives and children are just one of them. There were certain other subplots that just aren’t going to work anymore. I worked really hard on getting some of those subplots right the first time around. I actually think I did a pretty good job of them and now I have to scrap them. Well, no writing is ever wasted. It’s all practice at the very least. And maybe I’ll find a place for some similar subplots or plots in some future work. Not in this though.

The one thing that worries me a bit is that the story that made up one adult novel (a little over 100,000 words) will have to be broken into at least two middle grade novels. And, as I said in my last post, I need to make those two stand alone. I’m not going to worry about that until I write through to “The End” though. I know I can fix it later if I have to. I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that, though.

Back to work. My main character has a half-brother to meet for the first time.

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I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before, but it bears repeating. Sequels and series are hard. And since I’m working on BLOOD IS THICKER, which is the first sequel to BLOOD WILL TELL, it’s on my mind right now.

You’d think they’d be easier. You’ve already got the world built. You know the characters inside and out. And that’s exactly the problem.

You know all that stuff. And so do readers of the first book. But a reader who picks up the second or third book cold won’t. I’ve stated before that I have a very strong preference for the books in a series to be able to stand alone. Okay, it might be a better reading experience if you read them in order, but each should be able to stand on its own. I can’t stand series (which shall be nameless) that go on and on and on and . . .  Well, you get the point. If it takes more than three books to get to a resolution, you’d better resolve something in between or you’ll lose me. So, I won’t write that kind of series.

Perhaps more so because I’m not counting on readers to have read the previous book(s), there’s a very delicate balancing act of trying to put in enough world building, at the right time, without boring someone who’s read the first book and already knows all of this. The tried and true learn-as-you-go method of showing the world is a little trickier the second time around.

This is where critiques from readers who haven’t read the first book can be invaluable. Precisely the places where they ask questions or say “Wait. What?” are the places where you need a little more world building. Either right there or even better a little earlier so when they get to that place, they understand what’s going on.

Then there are the characters. In the first book, you can start with one or two and build your cast of characters gradually. In the second book, all these characters have already been established. Once again, you have the balancing act of describing who these characters are to one another without bringing the story to a complete stop.

How difficult this is depends in part on how many characters you have to introduce in the early chapters. In the first sequel I ever wrote (now shelved), I think I had in the neighborhood of a dozen established characters in the same location as my main character when the story started. Way too many to introduce all at once. I won’t make that mistake again (I hope). Of course, that story had too many characters to begin with. BLOOD IS THICKER starts off with just two, fortunately.

At the same time, of course, you don’t want to load the first chapter with so much back story that you drag this story down. That’s what makes it a balancing act. I don’t expect to get it right on the first draft, of course. But it does help to have some readers point out the places where I’ll need to beef up the background in the next go round.

Added to that, I have a theory about sequels, series, and especially about trilogies. (BLOOD WILL TELL, BLOOD IS THICKER, and the as-yet-unamed third sequel will form a series, but not a trilogy. There will be overlapping settings and characters, but not an overarching conflict that ties them together as a unit.)

My theory is this: The second book is almost always the worst. In the first book, you have the joy of discovering this world and these characters. In fantasy, especially, hopefully also a sense of wonder. In the third book, you have the big bang of the trilogy climax. The middle book is, well, the middle. I can think of very few trilogies that avoided the pitfall of the second book.

Yet, that’s what I’m writing now. The second book in a series (not a trilogy).  Wish me luck.

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Sorry. I got busy writing again and almost forgot to blog. I’m not officially doing NaNoWriMo, but I’ve written over 3200 words in the last two days anyway. Love it when the story flows.

So, October’s reading list:

LINGER and FOREVER by Maggie Stiefvater:

I have two kinds of comments about these–as a reader and as a writer. 

As a reader, I found the addition of two more point of view characters (all written in first person) distracting. Two first-person points of view in SHIVER took some getting used to. But once I’d adjusted, there was a certain intimacy to it. Adding two more first-person point of view characters in LINGER and FOREVER is not twice as confusing. It was exponentially more confusing. It also diffused that intimacy of the two points of view. I’m not sure the subplot of Cole and Isabel added enough to make up for that. You really do have to check the subheading for each chapter to find out who “I” is in this one.

 I bought the kindle edition of FOREVER, even though I don’t have a kindle and had to read it on my PC because that way at least I could read it in black and white. I was bothered by the blue ink in SHIVER and the green ink in LINGER. I shuddered to think of reading a whole novel in the dried-blood color of the cover of FOREVER.

Nevertheless, there’s something about these stories. You know how I can tell? Because after I finish reading them, my imagination runs on for a while, dreaming up what happens to these characters next. That doesn’t happen with every story I read.

As a writer, the four first-person characters drew my eye to something else. They all sounded pretty much alike. That wasn’t too noticeable with just two kids who’d both grown up in a little backwoods Minnesota town. Add in a slightly older boy who grew up in New York and is a genuine rock star and a slightly younger girl who came from San Diego and suddenly the fact that they all have virtually identical voices makes a lot less sense. That wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable if they’d been written in third person.

Still, the trilogy is a good story. And, unlike many trilogies I’ve read recently, the second book, LINGER, actually does have a plot and a conflict all its own that is resolved in that book. It’s not just a bridge between Book One and Book Two. Bravo for that.

MIRROR DANCE by Lois McMaster Bujold:

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know how I feel about just about anything written by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love almost everything I’ve ever read of hers.

This one certainly doesn’t disappoint. The story of Miles Vorkosigan and his clone brother, Mark, who was created for a plot to assasinate Miles’s (their) father. Two young men who are genetically identical, yet because of the differences in their upbringing, very different. MIRROR DANCE is much more Mark’s story than Miles’s, but there’s still plenty of Miles’s signature chaos. Really good story, as usual.


I know, I know. I should have gotten around to this one a lot earlier. Fiction is so much more fun to read. This one slowed down the reading for the month because I had to stop and think about it often. That’s probably a good thing, though. There area a lot of good tips in there, whatever genre you’re writing. Highly recommend.

I was busy with critiques, and then reading FOREVER on the PC in the evenings, so I didn’t get much research done for my alternate history.

Next up:

I’m already reading SNUFF by Terry Pratchett, because sometimes you just have to stop being serious and have a belly laugh. I also started book 5 of THE RANGER’S APPRENTICE series (THE SORCEROR OF THE NORTH). And, since Lois McMaster Bujold’s book are coming out in e-book editions, I got her first fantasy, THE SPIRIT RING.

I’ve noticed something. No matter how many books I read, my to-read pile isn’t getting any smaller. Hmm.

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