Archive for July, 2012

Oops. Got busy writing and almost forgot to blog.

It’s taken a while with this story, but I’m finally in the flow. I’m cranking out a chapter or a bit more every two days. It may not last, but I’m sure going to enjoy it while it does. I cranked out the last scene of one chapter and the first scene of another today, about 1800 words.

I needed some help from some writing buddies about something I didn’t know enough about. It’s great to have people with a variety of knowledge and experience in your online groups. That online discussion fueled some ideas that I think will improve the story. It also seems to have really gotten the juices flowing.

This is my YA alternate history, so I’ve often been slowed down by the need to do specific research. I had some on this bit, too.

Now, back to writing.

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My recent reading–some good, some bad–has made me think more about this. It occurs to me that there are two separate parts of the craft of writing.

One part is unquestionably the writing itself, learning the techniques of making our stories come alive for readers. This encompasses most of the “rules” you’ll run into in books and critiques. Show vs. Tell (and both have their place), dialog tags and beats, avoiding adverbs, sticking to a single point of view at a time. There are whole books written just on these techniques. They’re the mechanics of how to get your story out, but they are not the story.

Of course, we all aspire to write eloquently. But it is possible to write competently and tell a rousing story. Some of these even become best sellers. And it is also possible to write well and not be able to tell a story. All the mastery of technique in the world is wasted without a good story.

Telling a story is also a craft. There are more things to learn, here–foreshadowing, plotting, pacing, characterization, character arcs, and weaving in subplots. And pitfalls to learn to avoid, like deus ex machina endings and withholding. Even a good story can be ruined by clumsy handling. I have, unfortunately, read a couple of those lately.

A really, really good writer has both sets of tools at their disposal–a mastery of the are of telling a story and the techniques to make the story come to life seamlessly. Sometimes that means an invisible narrator, who just keeps out of the way as the story unfolds. Sometimes it means a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. But neither one will work if the story isn’t right in the first place.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.

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A discussion on one of my onling writers’ groups this week prompted me to think about this.

Sometimes, if you stack up all the rejections–and you will get rejections in this buisiness, even the pros do–it’s easy to think that it signifies failure.

Maybe I’m a cockeyed optimist, but I prefer to think of it as steps along the learning process. There’s a lot to learn and not just about the craft of writing well and telling a great story. That’s a great start, but then you’ve got to brace yourself and send your work out into the world. That means learning to write query letters and synopses–a whole other kind of writng craft. It may mean learning how to e-publish some of your work. It means learning how to market your stories. No matter how far you go, there will always be more to learn. That’s actually a good thing. This will never get boring.

So, yes, if i just look at the rejections, I might get depressed. I prefer to look at it another way. From each project that has fallen short of my hopes, I’ve learned something. And each project takes me a little closer to my goal. If I just keep on doing what I’m doing and learning with each step along the way, I will get there eventually.

My motto has always been, “Never give up. Never surrender.”

Apart from improving my craft, things that I’ve learned so far on this journey:

  1. Don’t send out a story too soon. This is a big one for me and I’ve sabotaged myself more than once this way. The old saying is true for stories as well as people: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I just get so excited about my stories that I want to share them. I’ve instituted a new rule. After I finish the “final” revision, I allow a story to sit for about six months before I send it anywhere. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.
  2. This applies to query letters, too. When I think it’s perfect, it’s probably about three months away from good enough. That means I’m going to have to start working on them earlier.
  3. Some stories may just not fit the mold of traditional publication, by the nature of the story or its length. But we’re very fortunate to live in a time in which we have the option of e-publication for those stories.

There are plenty of things I still have to work on. Marketing is a big one. I’ve done a little more work on book trailers. Here’s the trailer for BLOOD WILL TELL. The audio is not quite perfect yet.

Never stop learning.

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In those moments when I need to take a short break from my YA alternate history, THE BARD’S GIFT, I’ve started reading through another one of my projects, MAGE STORM.

MAGE STORM is a middle grade fantasy. It’s also a boy adventure story, something that I see several agents/editors saying that they want. I queried it last year to some interest but no offers. Now, I’ve given it a couple of months to cool off and I’m taking a fresh look at it. I’ve already identified one place where I think I could do a bit better and I’m halfway through a new scene to do that.

But, one of the things I’m considering is whether or not to rewrite the whole thing in first-person. It’s currently close limited third person. Everything in the story is filtered through the main characters perceptions already.

Still, changing it to first person would be a rewrite. Done right, in my opinion, it can’t just be changing the pronouns and the conjugations of the verbs. It’s a lot more involved than that–or it should be. First person point of view invites the reader to live inside that character’s skin. It’s a lot more intimate than even close limited third person.

I’ve written first person before, but only in a couple of novelettes. (Shameles plug: “Heart of Oak”, which is currently free on Smashwords and all the places Smashwords distributed it to, is one of those.) In both cases, it was because I “heard” the story in my own head that way. I’ve never written first person just because it’s the popular thing right now.

Just a quick survey of recent novels in both young adult and middle grade makes it impossible to deny that first person is strongly in favor right now. Is that reason to rewrite this in first person? I haven’t decided yet. After all, I really do want to see this published.

So far, I still “hear” this story in third person, although I could easily see it done in first person. Nearly all of the character’s emotions are already there, and quite a few of his thoughts. While there are a number of action/fight scenes in which, eventually, he comes out as the hero, he’s nearly always frightened enough during the action that he wouldn’t come off as bragging. That can be one of the downfalls of first person.

Another consideration, though, is that this story can be the first in a series. I already know, in a general way, what the next two books in this series would be about. I think I need to consider whether first person would also serve those stories as well as third person.

So, for this pass, I’m just going to concentrate on the sorts of things I’m working on now. When I get through this read-through/revision, I’ll make a decision on whether to make the change or not.

Now, I’m going to get back to work on that improved scene.

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I find that my current work in process, THE BARD’S GIFT is going more slowly than is usual for me in a first draft. Sometimes, I find this frustrating. Then I remember the difference between my other stories and THE BARD’S GIFT: it’s not a straight fantasy in which I can make many of the details up to suit myself. It’s an alternate history.

That means that periodically, I have to stop what I’m doing to research something. Oh, I did plenty of research before I ever started the story. In fact, the trick with the initial research is not to put all of it into the story, like writing a term paper.

But it’s amazing how many little details you don’t realize you need until you get there. Some of them, I can just mark and go on to fill in the details later. Others are more critical to the flow of a scene or chapter and have to be addressed before I can go on.

At this point, I’m having to go back to the Vinland Sagas themselves to find some of the answers. The thing is, something that I plan to turn into a chapter–like the voyage from Greenland to Iceland–is given perhaps a paragraph in the sagas. And at that it’s usually backwards–the voyage from Iceland to Greenland. It does give me some pointers, at least. Landmarks, in the literal sense.

Having to stop every few pages to look something up does interrupt the creative flow, though.

And I haven’t even gotten my characters to North America, yet. Wait until I have to start doing spot research on thunderbirds.

Back to work.

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Fair warning: today’s post is going to be something of a rant.

I believe firmly that every story should be told with as much skill and passion as the story teller possesses, no matter who the intended audience is. The author disrepects and does a disservice to the readers if this isn’t true. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

The reason this comes up is the last two middle grade/young adult books that I’ve read. No, I won’t give the titles here. That’s against my policy on this blog. As my grandmother taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” My only exception to that rule is that I think that sometimes there’s something to be learned by talking and thinking about what doesn’t work–or at least what doesn’t work for me.

So, the two bad habits of today’s topic are deus ex machina endings and withholding.

Deus ex machina: Literally “god from the machine”, this is a reference to ancient Greek plays in which the fallible mortals would royally mess things up for two hours and at the end an actor portraying a god was lowered to the stage by a machine. The “god” then performed a bit of handwavium and set everything right–except, of course, for the characters who had died. 

In more modern stories, this might be accomplished by some new ability, device, or character that was never foreshadowed in the story up to this point. It’s contrived and it’s cheating. It often violates the internal logic of the story and tests the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Worse, it’s unsatisfactory.  In general, stories are much more satisfying when the ending is earned by the main character through a series of struggles and try/fail cycles. We root for characters that surmount their past failures to win through at the end. We feel cheated when some agency other than the main character steps in and solves the problem. Think about it, would Lord of the Rings have worked if Gandalf magically transported Frodo to the Cracks of Doom? (If you think so, check this out on youtube.) When the solution isn’t the result of the protagonist’s struggle, then what was the whole point of the struggle–or the story for that matter.

Withholding: When a story is told in close limited third person or, even worse, in first person, and the point-of-view character knows something that he or she does not share with the reader, that’s withholding. The character can–and often should–withhold information from other characters. But if the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts and emotions–as they should be in either close limited third person or first person–then it’s a cheat not to let the reader know what the character reasonably should be thinking about.  Just like deus ex machina, withholding is sometimes used to suddenly reveal the solution that’s been there all along. But, it tends to make the reader feel cheated, and justly so. 

Withholding is one of the main reasons that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told from Dr. Watson’s point of view. Holmes often knows the solution to the mystery early on. He’s just trying to prove it. Watson doesn’t know and so it’s not withholding for him not to tell the reader. Also, think about Harry Potter. The reader didn’t know until almost the end of the seventh book which side Snape was really on. But neither did Harry, so we didn’t feel cheated.

Now, I’m not saying that withholding, at least, can’t be used successfully by a master. But that’s the point. It takes a deft hand, almost like a stage magician, to keep the readers’ eyes diverted so they don’t notice the trick. If the author can’t pull that off, they shouldn’t attempt withholding.

Sometines, I wonder if authors who try to use these tricks think it’s okay because they got the reader to read all the way–or nearly all the way–to the end. That misses the point. They’re not–or they shouldn’t be–trying just to sell this book. They should be trying to make the reader want to read the next one and the next. And, for me at least, they fail completely. If I lose faith in your ability as a story teller, I’m not likely to pick up the next book.

That’s the lesson I’m taking away from two less-than-stellar reading experiences.

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First, an acknowledgment. I got the idea to try this from Patricia Awapara, although, of course, what I did was just a little different. For one thing, budget considerations being what they are, I wanted it to be free or as close to free as I could make it. Turns out, that is possible.

I started with “Heart of Oak” because of the three stories I’ve e-published, that was the one that was easiest to think of in images.

Step 1: Think up half a dozen or so images that help to tell the first part of your story. This is going to be a lot like a query or book blurb, so you only need to go far enough to introduce the characters, setting, and conflict, not all the way to the end. For “Heart of Oak”, this was fairly easy. A forest. A tree stump. A hut or shack. A vegetable garden. The first two were easy. There are a couple of places you can look for images you can use for free. I like the free section at Dreamstime. Be a little flexible here, especially if you’re looking for free images.

Step 2: Lay out the images in whatever tool you’re going to use to make the trailer. My first and last images were the book cover. I used Windows Movie Maker because I already had it and it’s pretty easy and fairly flexible. At this point, I also played around with the transitions between images.

Step 3: Write a script. This is very similar to an elevator pitch, back cover blurb, or even a query. I find it’s easier to write the script to the images than try to find images to fit the script.

Step 4: As it happens, I already have the ability to record this script, because I’ve been planning to do recordings of at least some of my e-published stories. I have a pretty good recording microphone. Audacity recording software is free. So, I recorded the script myself.

Step 5: Add the recorded script to the movie and match the images to it. In Movie Maker, this just involves stretching some images and squeezing others so that they match up with the spoken script.

Step 6: The trailer was pretty good (for a first effort and no budget) at this point. But it needed one more thing. Titles. Just in case someone had their speakers turned off or too much ambient noise or just happened to be deaf. So I added titles to the images that more or less followed the script. Next time, I’ll plan those titles to match a little better.

And this is the result.

So, now I’ve started work on a trailer for BLOOD WILL TELL. The images for that one have proven to be a bit more challenging. A werewolf. Hmm, that’s a tough one, especially for free, but a wolf and a full moon ought to get the point across. A forest–already got that one. A tower. That actually wasn’t too hard to find. And a dragon. Well, I’m just going to have to do the dragon myself. For some reason, there aren’t any photographs available.

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First, another little announcement. I’ve been playing around with creating a book trailer. This is my effort so far.

Now, I’ve been thinking about point of view and tense lately, largely because of my reading. First person present tense is really big right now, especially in young adult books. Mostly, I think this is because of THE HUNGER GAMES, where it actually works very well. In fact, THE HUNGER GAMES is the only book I can think of in which first person present tense didn’t bother me.  

The book I’m currently reading is written this way. Actually, I think it always was in first person, but I suspect the present tense was a later revision. I say this because I’ve caught a couple of places where the verbs are still past tense, like they got missed in the revision. Sadly, it’s not the only place where the text could have used a thorough copy editor.

I have actually written a couple of short stories in first person: “Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”. The first because the story really did demand to be that intimate and the second because I just started “hearing” the voice of the story that way.

I think the key to successful use of first person is a closeness to a single character. It has to be intimate, because you’re asking the reader to be the character. It’s much more than just changing pronouns and verb conjugations.

Not every story can or should be told in first person. For one thing, it can get downright confusing if you have two or more point of view characters, all written in first person. I’ve read a couple of stories like that. If the chapter headings hadn’t told me who “I” was at any given moment, I’d have been completely lost.

Another reason to avoid first person is because it is–or should be–impossible to withhold information known to the character from the reader. Conversely, it’s also impossible to let the reader know anything that the first person character doesn’t know. Sometimes, you want to do this so the reader can (silently) shout “Don’t open that door!” or something similar. And it can be darn tricky to make a heroic first-person character not come off as arrogant or a braggart. Also, in those cases where a protagonist is indecisive or not proactive (which I hate anyway), first person isn’t going to make the reader feel any more motivated to continue the story than the main character is. Sometimes, too, you just do need a little more narrative distance from the main character.

Present tense is a trickier question for me. I confess, I just don’t really like it. The only time it hasn’t bothered me, even a little, was in THE HUNGER GAMES. Part of that, of course, is that it was handled truly skilfully there. Skill and mastery of the craft will always make a difference. (Something I think debut authors do well to bear in mind.)

But that’s not all of it. Present tense worked so well in THE HUNGER GAMES, I think, because Katniss was rarely thinking very far ahead or, after the first couple of chapters, very much about the past. She was living in and just trying to survive the moment. And so present tense worked.

This particular young adult novel that I’m reading now almost fits into that same mold, at least in large sections. Just not quite enough to really pull it off. Or maybe it’s the difference between a veteran and a debut author.

Decisions of point of view and tense shouldn’t be taken lightly or leaped into just because it’s the latest thing. Those choices should only be made because they serve the story best, in my opinion.

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First an announcement: For the month of July, BLOOD WILL TELL and “The Music Box” are both half-price at Smashwords as part of their Summer/Winter Sale. (Clicking on one of those pretty pictures of the covers over to the side there will take you straight to them.) “Heart of Oak” is technically part of the sale, too, but it’s still free. Half of zero is still zero. At Smashwords, you can get a version for any e-reader or any computer. Just about everybody has some way to read a .PDF. So what are you waiting for, BLOOD WILL TELL is only $1.50 and “The Music Box” is only $0.99.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to talk about ideas, because I had what I think is going to turn out to be a pretty good one last night, right before I went to sleep. That means I had to bounce out of bed, jot it down, and go back to sleep, but I don’t mind. Just going to sleep or waking up, walking the dogs, and in the shower seem to be the best times for brainstorms.

This idea is for my current wip, THE BARD’S GIFT. That’s fine. I’m about three-quarters of a discovery writer, so there’s no outline I have to revise to fit this in. In fact, the idea came at just about the perfect time. I’m just about to finish up act one, which has to stay fairly close to accurate history, and move my characters to someplace new and exciting.

This is the alternate part of alternate history. Since none of this ever really happened, I get to let world building take the place of at least some of the research. Obviously, not all. My characters are going to carry with them the same beliefs and social norms they had before. They’re going to build the same kind of houses and try, at least, to maintain the same way of life. But, they’re going to be faced with a new world (literally, the New World) with new experiences in store.

I’d always known there were going to be dragons in this new world. (There often seem to be dragons in my stories.) I’ve had a few new ideas about how the characters will choose to deal with that. My great new idea, though, is to sort of mash up the two mythologies–Old World and New.

I haven’t got it all worked out yet, but I will say this: look for thunderbirds as well as dragons. And don’t be surprised if the thunderbirds ARE the dragons.

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