Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Throwing off the Mantle...

Today's post will be a little out of the normal. Mainly because this national novel writing month, I returned to my roots as a writer and did something I haven't indulged in for a long time: I pantsered this book.

I am usually a fan of my plotting and my careful details. However, this time I said screw it, threw away my plot (which I had spent an entire month working on) and decided that I would dive in with nothing but my poet-possessed laptop and my brain.

Really, it was a great idea.

This novel does not use a unique concept. It uses a plot mechanism used before, but done in a way unique to me. This is also outside of my usual method of operation. While I won't quite say it has a cliche plot, I focused more on telling a good story than trying to tell a unique story. There is a little irony in that I think I managed to come away with one of my better stories just by focusing on having fun.

This got me thinking a little. When I stepped back and viewed my book on the level of telling a good story, there are often similar plot mechanisms I like in a story. 'Snicker's' bars versus fillet mignon, but.... I think this month I went for a book that would be a fun read.

And somehow, I think I have succeeded.

By throwing off the usual controlled style of writing, I think I touched back on why I love to write. I think this let me relax and do what I love the most. This reflects in the quality of my writing, as well. This book will need edits, but I am not so certain that it will need a rewrite. I know scenes that I want to tune, but so far there are none I want to scrape.

It is a pleasant, uplifting feeling. While I am usually able to write a good quantity of words when I apply myself, I do not usually feel so eager to get up in the morning and get to work on a book.

Thank you, November. Thanks for letting me get back in touch with my roots and remember what it is like to write a book off the seat of my pants!

This is the book that I will send to a publisher and agents. It will need work, it will need polish, but this is the one that I will take all of the way.

Monday, November 15, 2010

November killed the Blog Writer

I'm sorry that I have been quiet. There are many reasons for this, and some of them I can delve into on a writing related blog. Shocking, isn't it?

It is November! It is just about halfway through November! Both of these things are excellent. I'm excited. I love National Novel Writing Month, and I have really enjoyed participating as a Municipal Liaison this year. I have met a lot of fun and interesting people. I get out of my condo at least once a week and I get to write as I do it. This is very pleasing.

Instead of my usual post, I am going to copy-paste my guest blog posts from another blog. Some of you have already read them, but I figured there was no better way to catch my mood of the past week than to revitalize the posts I have already done. They are almost all on writing subjects, and they may be useful to you.

Post #1 -- November 8, 2010
Post #2 - November 9, 2010
Post #3 - November 10, 2010
Post #4 - November 11, 2010
Post #5 - November 12, 2010
Post #6 - November 13, 2010
Post #7 - November 14, 2010

I cover quite a few writing related subjects in these posts. 7 posts in 7 days tired me, so I'm going to just leave you with these to keep you occupied.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The First Three Chapters

Twitter has once again spawned a discussion subject in my brain. Thanks, twitter. Really. I should be working on other things right about now!

Joking aside, this is something that writers of all calibers should pay attention to.

Your first three chapters are very important. They will be what gets the interest of an agent or a publisher. It will be what hooks your reader into the story. Everyone knows that a story needs a strong foundation to stand upon. This is often done within the first three chapters. In fact, if you haven't built into your real story within the first three chapters, well, there is probably something very wrong. Even if your plot doesn't directly tie in with the climax or conclusion, it should somehow lead your character towards it.

Even if it is a swift kick in the butt to leave their door and go do something with themselves.

I feel that this is a generally accepted concept. However, I am going to take the mold and I am going to go smash it into a wall over there.

Do not polish your first three chapters and neglect the rest of your novel. The first three chapters are important. There is absolutely no denying it. You cannot have a great piece of fiction without a strong start.

You cannot have a great piece of fiction without a strong finish.

I like to call the syndrome, "Great opening and then came the can o' crap!" Crap is generally viewed as a negative thing. Because really, poop is gross. Toilet humor can be funny, but unless your book is about toilets or somehow features poop, you do not want this to be a descriptive term of your story.

I have read many manuscripts during the course of editing and critiquing that have really gripping starts and then they turn to crap. The polished, flowery language that worked so well in the first few chapters turns into a tired, lame horse that can't quite manage to climb the hill. The disappointment factor is typically so great that I have to step away from the computer so that my line edits are constructive rather than mean.

Those of you who have endured my critiques are probably aware of how bluntly honest I try to be. I firmly believe that you can learn the art of writing by doing a *lot* of critiquing. I certainly learned how to improve my craft this way.

This is advice, do as you wish with it. But, if you spend the same amount of time polishing your first three chapters as you do the entire novel, chances are that you will have a novel really worth something at the end of the day.

Also... just because you have polished your first three chapters, do not send them out immediately until your entire novel is done. This is just.... ugh. Don't do it. You never know when an agent or publisher will get back to you. You need to be able to send it out the next day if you get a reply asking for the complete manuscript.

True story: A friend of mine got a reply from Tor asking for the complete manuscript. She IMs me in a complete panic. She has not edited her novel.

Some 8 hours later I returned a line edit so she could panic through her corrections. It was perhaps the worst evening of my life.

I did it because she is my friend, but you should never put yourself into this situation. You want to be a responsive writer who is prepared. If they want the manuscript? It better be ready, printed, sitting on your desk in a nicely wrapped package and ready to send out the following morning. You don't necessary need to overnight the manuscript unless there are circumstances where they ask for it by a certain date. If it is by email, you should just have it ready for emailing.

There is nothing wrong with doing a one last reading before you send, but you should not be needing to do any significant edits. When you send your proposal or query, your novel should be ready from start to finish.

Your new editor or agent may suggest changes, but you should be sending them something that you feel is up to the publication standards of your genre.

I attended Con*Cept 2010!

Really, it is too late at night for me to just be starting this blog post. No, really. After a fun-packed weekend of talking about writing, playing AD&D with friends and then talking about writing some more, I somehow thought it was clever and prudent to blog about my experiences at Con*Cept 2010. I wonder if those crazy folks would let me attend again as a panelist.

I hope. I had fun. A lot of fun.

But I digress.

As a panelist, I was expected to have some idea of what I was talking about. The last panel, well, they must have been convinced the Lady Firebird and I were impromptu artists. It was two of us versus some twenty of 'them'. You know, those writing people. Writing people who stared as if we would somehow be able to save them from the subject that took us all of five minutes to cover.

Leaving another 55 minutes to burn.

Apparently we burned it pretty well. The Closing Ceremonies peeps had to drive us out of there after we ran over time by five minutes and they were waiting on us to participate.

Oh look, that digress word again. If you're curious, the panel was on the subject of "Do you have the Writing Gene?". Lady Firebird and I both quickly agreed that you didn't need no stupid gene to write. If you want to write, you'll write. Back on that a little later.

I attended several panels over the weekend, and participated in three total. There are not enough blog posts in the world that can cover just how useful a convention with panels can be for a new writer. Or even an established writer. Heck, I'm pretty sure the professions there all learned something this weekend.

But, I will tell you about my experiences as a panelist at a convention dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy. My first impression?

Best. Idea. Ever.

I do not regret the instant I decided I would be brave and try something new. I have never had public speaking lessons. I'm pretty sure I slept through most of my book reports in high school.

The first thing I noticed when I sat on the panel was that the audience really couldn't care less of my credentials. They wanted to know what was in my brain, as well as in the brains of my fellow panelists. They wanted to know about the art of writing. They cared enough about the craft of writing to endure my squeaky-bird voice for the better part of an hour. (Brave, brave fools!)

The first panel, however, is something that will probably stay with me for many years as a treasured memory. Until the convention, I had only known of Deborah Beale as a name -- someone unlikely to meet but well known enough that I went, "Oh, I do recognize this name!". Turns out the chair I picked at the panel happened to be the one next to hers.

She also 'happens' to be married to Tad Williams, one of my favoritest authors. Sorry Tad, but Tailchaser's Song is still my favorite -- I'm about to give Dragons of Ordinary Farm a whirl as soon as I get a chance to get back to the library! (I'm coming for you, Deborah...)

Oh look, I digressed -again-. I did mention that I wasn't supposed to be writing this blog post so late at night, didn't I?

At least I didn't do it on no sleep like I did the first panel. We were discussing "Writing for Characters". This is a great, great subject. Though at one point I think the discussion may have gone to the sort of silly character -I- am. I mean, really? Who goes to a panel on no sleep?

My memory of the specifics are a little hazy. I do remember, however, that the audience was very eager. They had questions. They hung onto our words. Took us seriously.

Learned about how to write characters from the perspectives of four authors in various places in their careers. I was the little ugly duckling of the lot, in a way. I have been humbled, as a writer and a person, seeing just how much of a difference that just talking about something you love can do. I even learned a little of myself and how I write by telling others of it.

For the record, Violette Malan forgets she is cold once she starts talking.

When asked what one of her more interesting characters was, I seem to recall that Deborah Beale likes flying monkeys. This is ironic, as I was telling the crowd about the fact that one of my characters was born from a dream where a lady had flying monkeys.

I obviously had a soul-sister in the making. I mean, what is there not to like about someone who likes flying monkeys?

I D... nevermind. I won't say it.

Writing for Characters is a great subject for a panel. If you can attend one on it, I suggest it.

Fast forward 24 hours.

Tad Williams at panels! Tad, Tad, Tad, you are a funny, funny person. My husband has been lookin' at me funny because I keep breakin' out in random giggles. Go see Tad if you can. He is very entertaining. Also super nice.

Obviously I spent my morning at panels where Tad was in attendance. Had a great time.

Panel #2... "I have an idea but where to start?" -- Another great panel discussion topic. Once again at a table full of great people.

How odd... I ended up sitting next to Deborah Beale again. We may have been giggling a little bit. I'm sure the glass of wine from the bar just prior really had nothing to do with it.

This is a fantastic panel subject, as I said before, because there is just so much that can be discussed. Plotting, planning, execution. If you have a chance to see a panel like this, go! Very educational.

The last panel was on the Writer's Gene. We ended up continuing our discussion from panel #2 (Lady Firebird was on Panel #2 as well), but that is what the audience seemed to like. We covered all sorts of things from critiquing to how to write. The downside? Tad Williams and Mark Shainblum were the speakers before us. Talk about huge shoes to fill. Both of these male-creatures are extremely talented and funny. Put them together and you make an interesting panels.

The best panels, I think, are the ones where two writers get into an argument about the craft. Things get *lively* then.

Overall, don't expect to go into a writing panel at a convention and suddenly become a better writer. Go in with the hopes of learning something and being inspired.

I know I was inspired. There is something ethereal about being in the same room with so much talent. There is something special about looking eye to eye with those I admire and realize that my methods are so very similar to theirs... I just haven't had as much experience at it.

It is humbling to know that there were so many hopeful people wanting to learn to write and looking at my fellow panelists and me to help give them insights and answer their questions. In future blog posts, I hope I can take just a little bit of the wonder of those panels and put it into what I want to say here. If I can, it will make me a far better blogger on the art of writing than I am today.

If you are not familiar with Tad Williams and Deborah Beale visit their webpage and get to know them. Not only do I class them as fantastic people -- especially after getting the pleasure to talk with them face to face -- but they are wonderful talents in a world that could use a few more people just like them.

I need sleep. Good night!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Purpose of the Plot

Greetings, Pantser. Hello, Outliner. Warm welcome to those in-between.

No matter what type of organizer you are it is important that your story has a plot. There is one exception to this which I will go over at the very end of this post. Please deal with my humor until then.

First, no matter how good or how bad a story is, no matter what genre that story belongs to, it shares one simple thing with all stories. There is some form of plot. When you put a sentence down to the paper, you are writing about *something*. That something will become your plot. Or at least part of it.

When you write your first draft, you may not know what your plot is until you get there. That is one of the joys of being a pantser -- or someone who writes by the seat of their pants. I have served my time as a pantser. It can be a great deal of fun. It keeps the mystery alive. Until the last word, the last page, when you sigh and realize that you are 'finished'. Crossing the finish line as a pantser can be very rewarding.

But let us not forget about the dedicated outliner. These folks -- I've done this as well -- plan their plots, their conflicts and their characters in advance of writing. These folks know where their story is going. These folks sit through the hard moments where they know exactly what is to come and cope with having to wait to get there. In a way, the outliner may feel as if they are putting the finishing touches on a story by writing the dialogs, the descriptions and the scenes out true to their outline.

Then there are the few who are both pantser and outliner. I fall into this category. After having done dramatic experimentation with both outlining and pantser'ing. These folks have a direction but leave the details up to chance. Many pantsers will often have a concept of where they want to go, but it changes on the fly. The hybrid will know where they want to go, the getting there is just an adventure waiting to happen.

All of these methods are correct. The magic is in the editing, but that is a different subject altogether.

Now that we have covered the three basic types of writers, let us dig right into the heart of the issue.

What is a plot? Why do I need it? And why do *you* feel like you need to tell me why *I* need a plot? Who the hell are you anyway?

There are many more questions that could suffer answering, but I will start with these.

What is a plot?

A plot is the driving force behind a story. It is your story. It is your synopsis, it is the reason your reader wants to keep reading your book. It is the conflict. It is the drama. It is the breath-taking moment when your character's dream has come true. It is every defining moment of your book. It is the why of your book. It is also the how of your book. It is the purpose of your book.

The plot, in the nitty-gritty world, is the series of events that take your book from the start to the end. It is the tangled weave that your character spins as he or she goes out on their adventures. It is the series of events that take your character to the conflict and the events that allow them to resolve the conflict.

Wikipedia defines a plot as: A literary term, a plot is all the events in a story particularly rendered toward the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect or general theme. An intricate, complicated plot is known as an imbroglio, but even the simplest statements of plot can have multiple inferences, such as with songs in the ballad tradition. Basically a plot is the story line or the way a story is written.

Why do I need it?

Why do you need air? Why do you eat? Why do you sleep? Why do you ask me this question?

This has been something that I have been answering a lot lately. This is actually what spurred me into writing this post. With National Novel Writing Month quickly approaching, many writers are struggling with this concept. Some are even throwing their hands up in disgust and giving up because they focus on their characters and end up with no plot, no world and no purpose for them. When asked about this.... they'd get offended and say their characters are the plot.

No, your characters -- no matter how beautiful or wonderful -- are not your plot. You need a plot. Get over it and make one. Start with your conflict. Once you know what the main conflict and the climax (The most tense, story changing event in your novel) it is MUCH easier to figure out the rest of your plot. Just remember, you do NOT have to have all of your plots tied to the climax. Side-adventures are allowed. In fact, they are encouraged. They can add a lot to a story even if it may not be directly related to the climax. Your climax is very much your defining moment in the book.

And why do *you* feel like you need to tell me why *I* need a plot? Who the hell are you anyway?

I am just a writer like any other. I just love the craft so much I feel the need to ramble on about it. You don't have to follow my advice. It is, after all, just advice. Do what you want. But, your story will be much better off with a good plot.

And if you somehow manage to get me to critique your book, you won't get the lecture about plots and realize 80,000 words in that your story is actually lacking a defining plot and you need to rewrite the whole thing -yet again-. If you fail to get a good plot, you will end up doing a full rewrite.

I know I have fallen into this trap.

As a side-note, a good plot does not need to be a complex plot. Sometimes the best plots are the simple ones.

Now, as I promised early (Look, Ma, I kept my promise. Really, I did!) there is a situation where plot... well, who needs it? National Novel Writing Month!

All the rules are gone for this. If it is fiction, have fun. Write whatever. No plot? Pfffft. Who needs a plot anyway? The point and beauty of National Novel Writing Month is to enjoy writing. To accomplish something you haven't before. By all means, throw aside the wicked plot and just write. You might be surprised at the plot that sneaks in, but do not be afraid to experiment and play. It isn't for the professional, but for that scared little writer who really wants to write a book but needs the experience.

Don't worry. You can worry about your plot on the next book. November is for you, new writer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Characters

There was an interesting discussion on twitter that I would like to bring to your attention. In its most basic form, the discussion was on whether or not stories with a second-chance theme should always result in a happy ending for the character in question. This spawned some discussion on how some individuals hated how a character had to die anyway even if they found redemption.

In turn evolved into a discussion on the question of whether or not writers who coddled their main characters told as powerful of a story as they could.

No. No. No.

The character you love to write and protect is the character many readers may very well end up hating to read about. Strife and conflict are often the heart of the story. In the real world we often do not like to experience these things. They hurt us and make us suffer.

When I read I find myself drawn to the character who struggles and persevere. I am even more enthralled when a character struggles and fails to persevere. When I read, I wish to submerge into a story where the odds are defied even if success is not automatic. It makes the ending all the sweeter.

You damage your story when you protect your main character. Don't do it. Let your character fall. Let your character suffer.

If your character would die in the natural flow of the story, let them go. If you need to get a box of tissues and bawl your eyes out do so. But let them go and allow your story to thrive.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming attached to the character. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, you should fall into the trap of loving the story. A good character does not make a story. A loved character does not make a story. A good story makes a good character. The advice of character-driven stories is a good one to follow. However, character-driven does not mean spoiled rotten. It really does not mean pamper them.

It means make them the driving forces in your story. But your story is something much bigger than any one character.

When you select your main character, you need to pick the character that is in the thick of things. Don't pick the one you like the best if they are only casually observing the entire book. Do not pick the character that has nothing to do with the conflict. Do not pick the character that does not suffer or struggle for the sake of the story. If you make this error, it is your reader who suffers.

While you may write for your personal enjoyment you should never forget the presence of the reader. While you may give birth to the story, it is the reader that breathes life into it.

It is your main characters which are the vessel for your story's existence. If you think you are clever by having a main character who does nothing at all, chances are the story will suffer for it. It may not happen every time. A talented author -might- be able to break the rules in this regard.

But there are very few observing characters with the charm and inherent ability to be in the right place at the right time as one Watson crafted so diligently by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are few authors so blessed in their craft to pull off this tricky skill with success.

There are few readers with the patience to deal with the failures of this type of story.

People do not read out of necessity. They read out of desire to do so. (We will leave school assignments out of this for now. Most people do not go to the bookstore and buy fiction novels for school assignments.)

So where does this leave you?

Here are a few tips for selecting your main character. Answer yes/no to these questions. If the majority of the answers are 'yes', your character is a good candidate to be a main character:

1: Is your character always in the thick of things?
2: Is your character critical to the resolution of the conflict?
3: Does your character cause conflict?
4: Is your character present in the majority of the story?
5: Does your character survive through 3/4ths of the novel?
6: Is the character a 'round' character?*
7: Has your character suffered?
8: Does your character have a likable personality?
9: Does your character have a background and history?
10: Do you care about the character?

* A round character is a well-developed character that defies the stereotypes. A flat character is your cookie-cutter character that serves a purpose and that is that. The stable boy that you see for ten pages is typically a flat character. Frodo from Lord of the Rings would classify as round. 'That Admiral' Lord Vader suffocates at random for getting mouthy would classify as flat.

Of course you do not need to answer 'yes' to every question, but it is a very good idea if almost all of them are yes. These are qualities that tend to make a strong character. Let us take a good look at a well-loved favorite: Harry Potter.

I am strongly confident that Harry would get a ringing 'yes' to all of the above questions. He suffered. He persevered. He was easy to like. (Sure, he whined... but he was still easy to like.) He was written in such a way that I felt it was obvious that Rowling enjoyed writing this character. He was *always* there, always in the thick of things. He caused as many problems as he resolved.

Almost every character that I truly love gets a ringing endorsement on all of these things. The stories that these characters are in are only made that much better for the presence of these characters.

In the previous post I discussed character detailing. In this one, I want you to consider the heart and the soul of the character and not just where they have been.

There is a proverb: What does not kill you makes you stronger.

Let your character be a 'living' example of this. And when they die, let them leave a lasting impression.

That is the least you can do for the people who will read your story. After all, as a writer, it is the reader that you wish to entertain.

I hope this makes you ask a few questions about your characters and their purpose in your stories.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Character Detailing

As I have matured as a writer, I have found myself forming the habit of making very detailed notes about my characters. While I will often leave the general plot points flow as they will in the rough draft, it has become a habit to try to flesh out my characters as much as possible.

There are several reasons for this. The primary one is that I am building a world that is shared among several novels. By doing this I build a familiarity with the world that allows me to write new stories in the same general locations. By sharing locations I give myself the opportunity to decide if I want a light story or an epic story and have all of the materials I need to just sit down and write at leisure.
One thing I have noticed is that this process is not an easy one. I am going to share with you some character detailing from one of my books. I will also explain why I feel this information is useful for me.

There is no right or wrong about detailing your characters. This is not a post to tell you how to do things. However, if you are interested in creating a thorough plot and a world of your own, this may be of use to you.

Hair: Blond
Eyes: Blue
Height: 5'2"
Weight: 135
Real Name: ***plot note

History: ***plot note – Heritage details


1602, Age 10: ***plot note
1602, Age 10: ***plot note
1604, Age 12: ***plot note
1608, Age 16: ***plot note
1608. Age 16: ***plot note
1608, Age 16: ***plot note.
1609, Age 17: ***plot note.
1610, Age 18: ***plot note
1610, Age 18: ***plot note
1615, age 23: Married
1619, Age 27: First Born
1621, Age 29: Second Born
1626, Age 34: ***plot note
1637, Age 45: Third Born
1637, Age 45: Death of Wife
1638, Age 46: Death

The first section of my character notes I dedicate to physical statistics. These are stats that I use frequently. Someone of 5’2” that is male I would describe as short. 5’5” would be of average height; over 5’9” would be tall. I view the average female between 5’3”-5’5”.

Next, I have their real name. In the writing program I use, the main panel has me put their first name, last name, date of birth, date of death and occupation. Unfortunately, I have to follow the ‘real world’ calendar on dates. I randomly selected the 1500-1600s as the date range I would be working with. This may or may not carry over into the novel. I picked the months based off of the seasons. Regular months do not exist in my world, but rather a series of holidays that separate the year, the seasons, and the number of moon cycles within the season… there are terms for these spans of time, but I will worry about those as a last finishing detail. For now, the 12 month cycle is enough to give me an idea of the seasons.

The ‘History’ section is notes on heritage or anything of importance I feel I need to include that does not fit into the character’s timeline.

The timeline is major events in the character’s life and the year they occur.
Consider me paranoid, but I am not going to expose the plot of my novel to the internet at random. That is why I have used the handy ***plot note function. I left the things at are non-plot critical. :)

When I am setting up the timelines, I find that having the ability to look at the year something occurs help keeps plot bunnies at bay. It also gives me a feel for location. If I know that in this year, a character was somewhere doing a specific something, I can make certain that the events surrounding the character are more consistent at a glance. This prevents a character from being at two places at one time. I have done this before. It was rather embarrassing.

Once I am completed the timeline, I will add the following traits:

Personality: Fun-Loving, Affectionate, Prankster, Care-free
Skills: Rope Tricks, Horseback riding, Archery

These traits were randomly selected and not a part of the actual character, but meant as a demonstration. Once I have selected the Personality and Skills traits, I embellish on their levels with the trait and how it alters the behaviour of the character.

This becomes the foundation for the character. As I write the story, I will add to the timeline by marking seasonal notes. Example:

1637, Age 45: Third Born
Male, $name
1637, Age 45: Death of Wife
Winter, Childbirth
1638, Age 46: Death
Spring, Illness

I will try to leave the timeline as open ended as possible until the first draft is done.

The worst part about doing detailed character notes like this is the time investment it takes to ensure the timelines are accurate. However, it is well worth the time investment due to the sense of world I get from doing it. It also allows me to build an overall timeline for the kingdom I am working with. If I choose to do a true epic, this will allow me to build the kingdom timeline for the continent / global timeline.

I hope this sharing gives you something to think about!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Point of the Rough Draft

There are many types of writers. There is the casual writer, the serious writer and the professional author. While there are many different subsets of writers, I find that these three basic categories often catch most people. Not all people, of course, but like a good stereotype, there is truth to be found in it.

This could also match the experience level of the writer. A serious writer, however, can still be a beginner.

What does this have to do with a rough draft? It is simple. I strongly believe that these three types of writers view the rough draft in drastically different lights.

I will make a disclaimer here. This post is on a rampage with the stereotypes. In fact, there may be some good old fashioned mockery thrown in with the stereotypes. I am not making fun of any of you. In fact, I am poking the most fun out of myself, as I can see how my personal journey as a writer has reflected on this concept of the writer stereotype in regards to rough drafts.

The casual writer -- or "My rough draft is my final draft!"

When I started my journey as a writer oh so long ago, I was convinced that I was perfect and infallible. (Please. Snort. Laugh. Just don't choke on your tea or coffee. We'd rather the audience be alive to enjoy the rest of the humor in this posting.)

My first book. I was convinced that all I needed to do was send it to some fortunate agent who would be delighted to receive what would -obviously- be a bestseller...

I have to take a short break here to stop laughing at myself.

If you are in this stereotype, please do not be offended. There are a few people in the world who can write a perfect first draft. These people are often professionals. They are also extremely rare.

They typically write extremely slowly and do extensive plotting before they write a word to the page. Sometimes I would classify their 'plot lines' as a draft just due to their level of completeness.

As a casual writer, I think the importance of the rough draft is often lost or missed in the general excitement of writing a book. You may have written many drafts or you could be working on your first. No matter what, I think that it is very important that you take a moment to consider a point:

The rough draft exists for you to find out just what your story is about. It is there for you to experiment and to enjoy writing. It is not a place where grammar rules all. It should not be the place where you edit. You should be putting words to the page with the goal of expressing what you need or want to express in a scene. It exists for your personal gratification.

Edits are for the second, third and fourth drafts. Depending on just how far you took the experimental process, you may end up with five or more drafts. This is alright.

Writing is a lot of work, but you are supposed to have fun with your rough draft.

The serious and professional writer usually share very similar views on their rough draft policies. Of course, writing is a subjective task and there is no one right way to do it. But, I have not yet met a published author who did not make use of the rough draft as an experimental toy. I even know one lovely fantasy writer who realized her one book project was actually two books and split it halfway through her rough draft.

I seem to recall her worrying about what her agent and publisher would think of the sudden change. (To throw it out there, it worked out fine.)

The rough draft can surprise even the experienced professional. Allow yourself the freedom to experiment and to play. Edits are for the second draft.

The quicker that you acknowledge that your first story or your first draft will not be publishable (and barely tolerable in some cases) you will be much better off. You may even find yourself completing the first drafts quicker and more consistently.

That said, I feel that it is important that you remember one important thing:

You must find a style of writing that suits your needs. This starts with the rough draft, and must continue right through editing and polishing.

But I think it is definitely worth noting that the poor rough draft is underestimated and underutilized. Let your rough draft serve as a powerful tool in your writing hobby or career. The more freedom you give yourself to play in your draft and experiment, the more you will grow as a writer.

Publishers and agents do not want static authors who cannot mold their style and mature. In order to mature, you need to play. In order to play, you need to be flexible.

Most of all, you need to be willing to try and to leave your comfort zones.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

NaNoWriMo looms on the horizon

It is that time of year! NaNoWriMo is looming on the horizon and many people are trying to decide whether or not they wish to participate.

Here is my guide for diving into NaNoWriMo face first and surviving it.

For those of you in the Montreal area, I will likely be covering these subjects in an upcoming workshop in October as well as at Con*Cept. While I am still in talks with the good folks over at Con*Cept, an appearance by the Montreal ML crew is likely.

1: What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. While National implies it belongs in one country, don't worry. It takes place in many countries around the world. It does not matter what gender, age or occupation you have.

The concept behind NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in 30 days. Starting November 1st and ending at midnight on November 30, your goal is to write 50,000 words. This is technically shorter than some published novels, but it is long enough to properly classify as a novel.

You can view the rules of NaNoWriMo here.

Here is a glimpse of what is required to be an official participant: (Yes, this is a direct copy paste from the link above.)

* Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
* Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works).
* Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
* Write multiple words (not the same word repeated 50,000 times).
* Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.

Pretty easy, huh?

Not quite.

2: Just how hard is it to win at NaNoWriMo

From my personal experiences, I have years I have won and years that I have not won. However, it is important to realize that the point of NaNoWriMo is not to win, but to experience the thrill of writing your own book. Sometimes victory is not in reaching 50,000 words, but the journey you took when you set out to do it. It does not matter if you succeed or fail. It matters that you tried at all.

3: I am not certain I have enough time to dedicate an entire month to NaNoWriMo! I have school, work, exams, etc...

Excuses get you no where. Do what you can as you can. Your goal is to write 1,667 words a day. If you know that you cannot reach that goal, set a smaller goal for yourself that you can win.

4: I really want to reach 50,000 words, but I don't know how to do it. Help!

Practice makes perfect. Writing a novel in 30 days is hard no matter how you look at it. Break your novel down into sentence sections. Sit down and force yourself to write a sentence. That goal is not difficult to meet. Anyone can write a sentence. Stop viewing your writing as 50,000 individual words that make a plot and a story. When you sit down, focus on the sentence you wish to write. If you're stuck and you do not know what to write, I find it is easier to focus on a small little piece rather than the overview.

5: This doesn't make sense. Novels are supposed to be good and well written. Why are you suggesting that I ignore my plot and focus on sentences? One sentences does not make a plot!

Oh dear. You're right! How could I have missed that? Why? Because NaNoWriMo is not meant to make a great story. In fact, I would state that NaNoWriMo is more about writing the crappiest story that you possibly can. If you do not care about quality, quantity will come. While professional writers do participate in NaNoWriMo, this month is not for them. It is for the person who has sat at their computer and wished that they could write a book. It is for those who have never accomplished something so large. It is for the unpublished writer who wants to taste sweet victory without a looming rejection on the horizon. There are no rejection notices in NaNoWriMo. The only person you have to please is yourself. If you do not have a plot but 50,000 words of rambling sentences, you have still succeeded.

You can try to write a book that makes sense later.

4: Seriously. Quantity over Quality.

It is worth a second look at. For the person who has never written a novel before, it is important that you get that first story under your belt. If your dream is to be published, use NaNoWriMo as a stepping stone. The first draft of a novel is there to find out what the novel is about. Use NaNoWriMo to make that first draft. You can repair the plots and do the other things this blog suggests in December.

5: Who should participate in NaNoWriMo? Who should not participate?

While I believe anyone can benefit from NaNoWriMo, or at least have a little fun, I think it is harder for the professional writer to get something productive out of it. Their livelihood is based on the quality of their writing. If you do not have a deadline and need to do a draft anyway, then it may be the ideal situation for a professional author. However, it really is meant for the amateur who doesn't know if they can reach 50,000. It won't stop me from participating, but I always keep in mind that I need to make certain I meet all of my requirements as a professional writer before I have fun with NaNoWriMo.

I have, however, made a point of ensuring that I won't have any contracts for November this year. /innocent

6: What do you suggest I do to survive NaNoWriMo?

I have hours of content on what you can do to survive NaNoWriMo. It won't all fit here. Not without writing a novel on the subject. To make a long story very, very short, here is a list of things that you can do to help yourself survive November.

* Get a writing partner who is working at NaNoWriMo with you
* Hook up with your Municipal Liaison. They are there to help you.
* Set aside a time specifically for your writing.
* Use sites like 750words.com or WriteorDie.com to help you focus
* Keep high supplies of caffeine and sugar within easy reach.
* Turn off IRC, Twitter, Facebook, Instant Messaging and your phone when you write. They do not help you.
* Believe in yourself.
* Ask for plot help on the forums if you get writing block. Do not sit and stare at a blank screen.
* Write something. Anything. If you're blocked, writing angry commentary about how you're stuck might help you get unstuck. It may not make sense in your book, but you are writing and that is the entire point of NaNoWriMo
* Have fun. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, but this is a chance to do well without needing quality. Take advantage of it. You don't get the chance often.
* Help others as they have helped you. Take a break from your writing long enough to help someone else. How much they help you later may really surprise you.
* Remember -- there are thousands of people just like you participating. This can quietly lift your spirits even when you question why you are putting yourself through the nightmare of 50,000 words in 30 days.

7: How can I help someone else succeed at NaNoWriMo?

Sometimes the best support is quietly letting someone know that you are rooting for them and making yourself available if they need someone to listen. However, you help someone best when you tell them they should be writing rather than chatting if they have overcome their plot problem or have cracked through their writing block. Listen if it is necessary. Nudge them back to writing when it is not.

Good luck, everyone! I will be right there with you this year, rooting you on and hoping that all of you experience and enjoy NaNoWriMo as it was meant to be enjoyed.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Suspending Disbelief

While all types of fiction require that the author make their works believable, science fiction and fantasy share the need to actively suspend disbelief. Because of the very nature of these genres, failure to meet this lofty goal can result in unpleasant consequences. The worst of these being that the person reading your work is disappointed or dislikes your book.

If you are interested in selling your book to a publisher make note of this. If you cannot suspend disbelief for the average reader, potential agents and publishing houses are going to send you a rejection. If you are fortunate it will be a form rejection.

When I write a novel I try to focus on several things:

1: Making my storyline feasible within the rules of my world and society.
2: Make my characters as ‘real’ of people as I can.
3: I try to steal my character’s shoes.

But what does this mean?

1: Making my storyline feasible within the rules of my world and society.
Whenever I write a novel I set rules on the societies, the functions of magic or the processes of science that will take place. My science fiction piece has a planet with two suns. It is questionable, at the very best, that such a planet can exist.
In order to suspend disbelief I found one simple solution: the planet cannot exist for a long period of time.

In a golden cradle situation, where the planet is trapped just at the brink of the two battling suns, my characters fight for their survival by seeking a way to get away from their planet. Before either one of the suns exert dominance over the globe and it is destroyed out of that golden cradle zone where life can exist.
Weather patterns change as the planet is pulled towards the more dominant sun, and the sun that is being overwhelmed is being pulled with it. The one sun is dying a slow death, and the other will be consumed in the last moments of its sister’s destruction.

Especially as the villain accelerates the process.

By admitting how infeasible the concept is, it is possible for the reader to temporarily suspend disbelief and accept that this situation could – in the light of advanced science – be feasible.

In science fiction, suspending disbelief is even more important. A reader approaching a fantasy book wants to explore new worlds where things that cannot happen do happen. Science fiction fans want to imagine that something might – somehow – happen and want to see just how the author believes it can be so. Obviously there are some genres of science fiction that share the easily suspended belief of a fantasy book, but there are more genres that require a steady foundation and reasonable suspensions of belief.

2: Make my characters as ‘real’ of people as I can.

When I read a book, I want a character I can relate to on some level or another. Because of this, I try to make my characters as real as possible. I believe this is a key part of writing a good book. This is just my opinion, however.

Finally, 3: I try to steal my character’s shoes.

What the…?

I’m sure the shoes of these poor characters are not that comfortable. In fact, I like reading about characters that have to struggle and fail before they succeed. However, there is one thing I remind myself when I think of my characters’ shoes. If I am going to steal their shoes to walk around with, I want to be as far away from them as possible when they find out. This way, I have their shoes and I am really far away from them when they try to kick my butt.

No matter how you look at it, it often becomes a notable point that characters in science fiction and fantasy novels are really, really made of awesome sauce and could kick my butt in a street fight. I mean, really. Would you want to be caught with the shoes of a character that can shoot lightning beams out of their…
I’m sure you get the idea.

Writing is not an art where you can write about characters without leaving some sort of trace of yourself in them. It happens whether or not you are aware of it. This is due to the simple fact that when you write, you are drawing on your own skills, your own experiences and your own perceptions of how a society should be within your world. Some writers ‘get into the heads of their characters’ while others state they do not.

In either case you will often leave something of yourself behind. It is this link that will allow your reader to see glimmers of things that they can relate to with your characters. It is also this relation that will help you suspend disbelief.
I am not suggesting that you make every character a cookie cutter form of yourself. However, you need to somehow ensure that there is enough of a ‘human’ side to your characters – especially the protagonists – which they can believe in what these characters are doing.

The further outside of the realms of normality you stray the more important that this becomes.

Read your own writing and ask yourself one little question: If I had not been the one to write this, would I believe it?

Sometimes looking over your own works with a grain of salt and a lot of scepticism can help.

Good luck, writer. This is a long and difficult journey.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Success and On Failure

Today, I watched a video on facebook that made me stop and think.

It is the story of a man named Nick, who was born without arms or legs with a very simple message. If you fail, will you try again, and again, and again until you succeed?

Today, I wish to apply this message to the subject of writing both fantasy and science fiction. While this can be used in any genre of writing, there are some applications that just make more sense to use with both fantasy and sci-fi.

There is a common thread that the heroes and villains of both fantasy and science fiction pieces are healthy, strong and evil. At the very least, dramatically misunderstood. They often have to make efforts -- why would we read about these characters? -- but they almost always pick themselves up and succeed .

Usually without nearly half as much of the fuss that we feel as we go through life. (Emo or not.)

The more I think on it, I often see books or stories where characters deal with catastrophic injuries and somehow 'get all better'. Or they are given fake limbs. Luke Skywalker is a classic example. He loses his hand but proceeds to function just as if he had not lost it in the first place through use of replacement limbs. Anakin Skywalker is burned over most of his body and must use a respirator... but he is able to function just fine through the use of science and the force.

Characters are killed frequently in many stories. They are rarely disabled.

I believe that everyone enjoys a story with a happy ending, or at least the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, even if the ending is happy at the end. I do not think may people are comfortable about writing about disabilities, especially when it is not something that they themselves have experienced.

However, one of my favorite books of all time has a crippled boy as a main character. A catastrophically crippled from birth boy who rises above his disability to become something much more than 'just a cripple'.

It is this that I would like to offer as something to consider.

When you write, it is a daily process of getting back up and trying again. And again. And again. For every day that you do not work on your story, you have failed.

Every time you submit a novel for publication and receive a rejection from a house or an editor, do you allow this to bring you down? Does this failure mean that you lose hope that you will succeed?

As a fantasy or science fiction writer, you have the ability to twist the rules of reality to purpose the finer and more troubling aspects of life. You can turn a crippled man into a hero that can walk through science. You can play god with little regard to the real life and the real rules. We step out of the realms of normality each and every day.

But from the books I have been reading as of late, many authors do not pursue the thought of what it would be like for a cripple who does not benefit from the godly powers of science or the fantasy world they have created. Often, the handicaps characters face are emotional or magical in nature. Rarely physical.

Now, I am not saying it does not happen. It does. There are a lot of books I really enjoy that pursue this very subject. But these authors are known to push the envelope and write about things that will take you out of your comfort zone.

When you write you leave your safe, sheltered little box and step into a great big world. Many people write what they know.

My challenge for you is to write something that you do not know. Step into that big bad world and give it all you got.

When you fail, stand up and try again. And no one promised you a pretty novel on a silver platter. You will fail.

All that matters is never stopping trying to stand back up at the end of the day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Motivation and making excuses

It seems like one of the most common threads of discussion among writers is how to stay motivated. It can be hard. I fail at it myself. However, there are a few things that you can do to keep yourself going.

For me, I think one of the biggest things that helps keep me on pace is one very simple tip:

A novel is much larger than a sentence.

When I think of a novel and writing one, it is difficult to get past the scope of what I am doing. No matter how I look at it, the idea of undertaking a novel is enormous. You cannot sit down and write a completed novel in a day.

Really. I don't think it is statistically possible. Maybe if you were superman.

For those interested, you would have to write 2083 words an hour (34 words a minute) for 24 hours. Without stop. Maybe a very fast typer could manage it, but the whole lack of sleep and plot bunnies thing would probably prevent a successful completion. If you have managed 50k in 24 hours, however, I'd be interested to hear from you. What color would you like your shrine in? :)

I stray.

The point remains that the average person cannot write a novel in a day. However, the average person *can* write a sentence in a day. In fact, I would hazard that most people could write a sentence every few minutes, if they were really interested in doing so. Enough people manage to write many sentences in a few minutes on twitter.

Do not view your novel as a novel. If you have trouble maintaining your motivation when you consider your novel, view it as a connected series of sentences. Sit down, every single morning, and tell yourself the following:

Today I will write one sentence.

Sit down and write one sentence. Sometimes, just sometimes, that one sentence can bloom into several sentences. Time twists and warps, as your fingers settle into the steady rhythm of typing. Because you sat down with the goal of writing one sentence, you may find an hour has passed you by, and your moment of dedication evolved into something much better than a moment.

Do not tell yourself "I cleaned, I edited, I walked the dog. I took care of the children. Maybe I will find time tomorrow to write.

Do not push off to tomorrow what you can do today. If you have enough time to log onto twitter, check your saved searches, see who messaged you and respond, you have enough time to sit down and write your sentence.

The only person you fail is yourself. The instant you have time to go to a website like twitter, visit my blog, or go to facebook, you have enough time to write a single sentence.

After all, the greatest stories of all times began with a single sentence.

The only person that you fail when you choose twitter or facebook or a blog is yourself.

I wrote 2846 words so far today. That is many sentences.

It all started with one.

Stop viewing your novel as a novel, and start viewing it as a sentence that happens to have a lot of other siblings. Are you stuck? Don't think of the plot. Think of the next sentence. If you are still stuck, write something -- anything -- onto the page.

Even if it is something as simple as:

"I can do this."

Excuses hurt you and do not define your character as a writer. The difference between an author and a writer is quite simple:

The Author didn't make excuses.

They corrected what they were doing wrong, sat down at their computers or typewriters, and wrote their sentences.

You can do it, if you stop making excuses and start making sentences instead.

Quality will come with time.

National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November. Starting today, you can see what results practicing your sentences today can do for your writing of tomorrow.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Handwriting versus Keyboarding

Hey -- sorry for such the long delay in making any posts. Things have been busy.

Today, I am going to throw to the table the classic argument of which is better: Handwriting versus Keyboarding. By Keyboarding, I mean typing your story directly to the computer.

This is not as easy of a subject as it sounds. There are lots of arguments for both. In fact, there is no one right way to do it. This is completely subjective.

This level of subjectiveness is what makes this a *fun* topic of discussion. What do *you* do?

I do both. It depends what mood I am in when I start a project. This is the key point: What mood I am in when I *start* a project. I think a very costly mistake is trying to do both at once. I write completely differently on notebook paper when I do to the computer. I don't know what it is about notebook paper, but I write to the plot, plot bunnies abound, and I usually tell an entertaining, if not horribly written story.

That said, once I go to the computer, I often end up with a better product at the end of the day. I lose the tendency to edit while I am writing, so every word I add is being directly productive.

This is just me, of course.

Here is a very small list of pros and cons for handwriting -- specific to me:

Inability to edit
Inability to see word count
Pure story-telling

Inability to see word count
Aching Wrists and Hands
Need paper + Pen. Lots of pens, and lots of paper.

I really like pens. No, seriously. I love pens. You want a friend for life? Give me a pen. Costco sells pens in bulk. My husband tries very hard to avoid that section of the store.

There is one benefit to handwriting that is hard to list as a con or pro. It is the primary reason I still use what many view as an archaic form of writing. When I transfer the handwritten work to the computer, I am able to 'see' the story better. I can fix many of the plot holes, add in the descriptions I need, and track the correct character appearances. (As an aside, my characters change their looks 10 or so times each when I handwrite. Absolutely zero attempts at consistency. I will pick their 'true' appearances when I copy the writing to the computer.)

On the other hand, when I try to type directly onto the computer, I tend to develop some bad, lazy habits. This is great for projects like NanoWrimo, where the entire purpose is to write for fun and solely for fun and word count. I find I take a few steps backwards from over analyzing when I write draft onto the computer.

I think the primary source of this is my contract work as a professional writer/editor. When I see text in a word processor, my mind begins to go into editing mode.

After much thought, I realized the only way to solve it for my situation was to cease the word processor.

That said, I have not used many 'writing programs'. I consider trying them, but either they are extremely expensive or I am too lazy to follow their suggested method of doing things. I have always done things in the way that suit me best. For a more coherent example of the differences in the type styles, I will cover my thoughts on my own writing, first on handwriting and then on keyboarding.

Writing Quality - First Draft - Handwriting

Poor quality. I spend little time on spelling, while i make efforts to use somewhat proper grammar, this is secondary to getting the story told. I focus on elements that drive the story. If a description is important, I have a tendency to over-describe it. There is a lot of focus on dialog and basic character actions and interactions.

Writing Quality - First Draft - Keyboarding

Higher quality. I bog down with grammar fixes, spelling and word choice and general flow. I have a secondary focus on description, and I am less likely to include any frivolous conversations between characters. There are less plot-bunnies, but often less plot in the first draft.

Writing Quality - Second Draft - Handwriting

At this point I am copying the draft to the computer via Keyboarding. Draft quality is significantly higher. I refine what is there, kill off the bunnies and groom the ones I wish to keep.

Writing Quality - Second Draft - Keyboarding

Lower quality compared to handwriting. I am just polishing first quality draft. I end up with 'less work' because it is already on the computer, but sacrifice quality in the sense that I did not play as much outside of the box when I originally drafted.

Word Choice - Handwriting

More natural word choices. I am less likely to hit a thesaurus and more likely to just use the first appropriate word that comes to mind.

Word Choice - Keyboarding

Much more likely to use higher level vocabulary since a thesaurus is a click away.

Grammar - Handwriting

First draft grammar is laughable at best. If there is a rule for something, I have likely broken it. However, the benefit to this is learning through experimentation. Since I know sentence structure will likely not remain the same, I feel free to try new things since I know they will be corrected upon transfer to the computer.

Grammar - Keyboarding

Those green squiggles sometimes make me go back, often, and think of better ways to write a sentence. I tend to refine my grammar on the first draft. This is slower to write, but somewhat educational. That said, I don't totally trust those green squiggles. Humans are better at grammar.


*snort* There is no point in this entry. Keyboarding wins.

Editing - Handwriting

I have half pages chunks scribbled out. If I have made a 'this must be gone error', it is immortalized in big scribble marks. This is good for reference later.

Editing - Keyboarding

I do not track my edits on a novel to keep file size down and prevent more sources of potential crashes. I sometimes miss seeing the horrible sections I removed. If I removed a section while handwriting, it was just *that* bad.

Time - Handwriting

Counter to initial thought, I write faster when handwriting in many cases. I won't win a straight word count battle versus my keyboarding skills, but I do not stop and go. I just keep a constant stream of fairly quick writing going on. Because I am not saddled to my computers, I can write in more places conveniently.

Time - Keyboarding

If I am on a roll, I can whip out thousands of words an hour. IF I do not edit, IF I know exactly what I want to do, and IF I can ignore facebook and twitter. That is not often the case.

In a way, it takes longer to deal with handwriting because of the fact I have to copy it to the computer after. However, when I am copying, I am not using facebook, twitter and other distracting websites.

All in all, handwriting wins for when I want to write something seriously. Sigh. Now if only I could convince my husband that yes, I really need the hundreds upon hundreds of pens I want and that he refuses to buy for me...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Researching your novel

One thing that some Fantasy and Science Fiction writers (and authors) fail to realize is that research should be an important part of your world building process. It is very easy to fall to the temptation of just writing whatever you want when you are working on a F/SF novel.

This should not be the case.

I have been working on a young adult novel project lately. This has some fantastical elements - ghosts, legends, myths and the kin. But, in the end, it really is about a modern girl who gets to experience some pretty fantastic things. Fantasy? In a way.

Factual? As factual as any myth or legend can be.

Researched? You bet.

But, as I have been doing the research for this project, I realized something. No matter how much I would just jump in and write a fantasy novel, I would be doing research. However, not as much research as I should have been doing.

What things should I have researched for my fantasy novel projects? Well, I will provide you a list and my reasoning. Writing this young adult, I feel, has greatly improved my ability to see a plot line and condense it into something manageable. I will go into this a little later, as there is a research element involved here as well.

1: Basic sciences.

Magic, as we all know, is magical! It is not science. However, one thing should remain the same, even if you use magic in your world. This law of science should still apply. You suspend this, and you break your concept. Suspending disbelief -- or the act of convincing your reader that this could actually happen -- is vital if you want your fantasy novel to succeed. You can do this by looking at every action taken with magic and applying a basic physics law to it.

"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."

If you throw a fireball, there will be the same force of the fireball expanding from the explosive point. In exchange, there should be a similar -- equivalent -- cost to the user. If you have a character that can just throw around massively damaging fireballs with no consequence and no reaction, belief in the sciences of the real world will not be suspended.

If you use fire a lot, research fire. This can include materials that burn best, and materials that do not burn at all. If throwing a fireball means that your character gets hit with the backlash, how can the character best protect themselves?

Exhaustion, both physical and mental, are the standard equal and opposite reaction of magic. Someone casts a fireball, and they become tired. If they become too tired, they risk death.

In the case of a cannon, the cannon recoils. But, hey, it is magic. You can bend the rules a little. But, you should always have this little rule in the back of your mind.

I would also keep the one about "What goes up must come down" firmly in mind. Especially if you have a character prone to tripping up the stairs.

2: Location, Location, Location.

Many people have it set in their minds that a F/SF novel must take place in many different locations. In some cases, this is true. In others, it is not. However, one thing does tend to be clear: The higher the number of locations pursued in a novel, the more convoluted the plot tends to become. Do not add locations just for the sake of adding locations. More locations does not give your novel an epic feel. Your writing, your style, and your story give your novel an epic feel.

When you research locations for a SF/F novel, there will be a lot of creation. The world should be yours. However, in order to suspend disbelief (here we go again...) you need to make your locations at least somewhat realistic. For this reason, I have taken to researching the equivalent on earth. Then, I see what is nearby.

Why do large cities tend to be where they are? Water supplies. Most large cities are near some form of major water supply. My home is actually on an Island. Many people I have spoken with did not realize that Montreal is in fact an island, but sure enough... there is water on all sides. Lots and lots of water. (For those who are not familiar with Montreal, it is in the middle of the St Lawrence river in Quebec... directly north of New York State.)

New York City? It has the Ocean. Baltimore? Chesapeake Bay. Miami? Ocean. Los Angeles, San Fran... Oceans, rivers and Lakes all fairly close. Ottawa? Has a river. Toronto has a lake. Chicago, Milwaukee both have a lake. Detroit likes those lakes, too. London has the ocean...

I'm sure you are getting the idea. Pay attention to the details of your location. This is particularly true of Fantasy novels. Your people will not live in a region where they can not get their basic needs: Food, Water and Shelter. They can make their own shelter, but they are in a lot of trouble if they cannot get food or water. Sure, that barren wasteland may seem like an awesome place to put a city, but large numbers of people will not be able to reside there. Not without a heck of a lot of explanation.

3: Resources

Civilized lands need resources for trade or for crafting. The resources available are determined by your location. When you research location types, do not forget to research valuable resources. You may not mention them in your novel, but these factors need to be kicking around in the back of your mind. This is an important part of what makes your world function.

4: Politics and Religion

Both of these are something that many are advised not to talk about in polite company. They can break friendships (and couples) about as fast as a penny falling to the floor from the counter. That said, these are often driving forces behind many plots. Making up your own politics and religion is great! But, you better do your research and see just how politics and religion can change a nation -- for better or for worse. With so many politicians around the world -- professional and the type who sit on their couches and comment on it -- you need to have a good idea of what actually is going on. Hitting the history books may be wise.

There are so many more things that you can research to make a SF/F novel happen. That said, it is important that you do not lose focus on the most important thing:

Your story needs a plot. It is not a story without a plot.

A plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is really just a big problem that needs solved. The resolution of the problem is the climax, and the stuff after that is just wrapping up the details.

You may love to write about a character, but your character needs to serve an important role to your plot.

Often, the most simple of plots are the most enjoyable to read. The more plots, the harder it is to follow.

A few examples of simplistic plots include Twilight and Harry Potter.

I will use Harry Potter in this case, as most people have had long exposure to it.. that, plus I have not read Twilight. I might read it in the future, but we will see.

Harry potter, through all of the books, has one main plot. This is the conflict between Harry + Voldemort. There are many subsequent plot lines, but all of them actually contribute, in one way or another, to the final showdown between Harry + Voldemort.

This is very important, people. Pay attention.

Every subsequent plot, in some way or another, contribute to the final showdown between Harry + Voldemort.

Your novel needs to be the same way. Every scene, every action and every dialog somehow needs to link to your main plot line.

This will really make your life a lot easier. It will also eliminate many plot holes. Easy to fix a problem when it doesn't exist in your book. (They will exist... but they will be much more minor than if you're flying off the cuff without your primary plot.)

I will leave you to chew on that a while on your own.

Good luck!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pitches and Queries - Part Deux

This is not the first time I will delve into pitches and queries. It will not be the last time. Last time, I posted a few tips and query fails as found on twitter.

Today, I will show you the singes and burn marks from passing a pitch to a willing victim... err... volunteer.

Meet the nice folks over at @Seagman on twitter. You never know if you are talking to Aaron or Scott, but they are both great folks with equally great senses of humor. Aaron was nice enough to be cornered and take some time out of his busy schedule to rip apart a query.

As my experience with queries is limited, I wrote a query specifically for the purpose of education. My education. Now, your education. As I am shameless, I will post the entire thing for you to learn from. There are some purposefully seeded #queryfail moments. (Which Aaron caught and lectured about. I guess it is a good thing that I have thick skin.)

Now, onto the query in question:

The query itself is 166 words long. This is also a #queryfail in a whole, but it was a first attempt at a serious query.

The first noted #queryfail is the fact that Aaron does NOT represent the science fiction and fantasy genres. He represents more along the lines of mysteries, thrillers and suspense. However, this is a common issue. I was astounded to discover just how many people would query out of genre. While this was a controlled experiment, done with Aaron's blessings, I strongly suggest that you do NOT do this. Learn from the ripping of this critique. These are the immediate thoughts of an agent reading the query. Do you REALLY want an agent thinking these things about your writing? I didn't think so.

When I wrote the query, I had not intended on including any manuscript with it. Why? This was an experimental query. That said, as I was about to hit send, I decided on sending a blurb along with it. Aaron seemed to enjoy ripping through it, so I'll share with you the importance of sending only POLISHED works to an agent. By polished, I mean, spit-shined polished. That manuscript better have more luster than a pearl. I am not including the entire section that I included with the query email. I don't think I could survive the embarrassment. Yes, it is a rough draft. No, I'm not happy with said rough draft. No, it was never meant to be sent to an agent. Ever. Ah, well. The things I do for the craft.

Dear Secret Agent Man Aaron,

In a single night, three hundred years of history burned to the ground.

Propelled by hatred and racism, Danar sought the annihilation of Kelsh and her people. Unprepared and undefended, the city of Heliash toppled, her inhabitants slaughtered, captive or on the run.

Mari had returned home expecting a warm reunion with her mother, father and siblings. Instead, she found plumes of dark smoke coiling towards the uncaring sky and the stench of death. Her decision to fight her way into the city to find her family's fate hurls her into a living nightmare.

Lost, alone and despairing, Mari discovers the Tower of the Rising Sun. Never found by those seeking it and never granting its power to those who desired it, the Tower was both legend and myth.

What Mari did not expect was the high price the Tower would demand.

Burdened with a pledge unbreakable even by death, Mari must stop the demons of Danar, even if it means the destruction of her soul.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Rebecca J. Blain

Faint screams drifted on the gusting winds of the Sariano plains. The acrid stench of burning flesh assaulted Kari, the force of it so great she yanked her horse to a halt. The dark mare tossed her head and snorted, ears laid back. Falling over the saddle’s horn, she clutched at her mouth with a hand, fighting the waves of nausea that sought to overwhelm her.

Kari blessed the stars and the sky that Luna was so well trained. Legs braced in place, the horse patiently stood as she struggled to sit upright. Kari’s lungs burned as she choked and coughed. While the smoke was not thick, the putrid odor was so vile that her stomach churned despite her best efforts.

Her throat swallowed and convulsed as she sat up. Days of sweat and dirt had a unique and disgusting scent of its own, but it bought her the precious moments to steel her nerve and her guts.

After all, days on the road without a bath gave her plenty of time to adjust to that smell.

With the dark tendrils of night falling over the plains, she did not dare kick her horse into a gallop to climb the hill and discover the source of the sounds and scent. Turning Luna into the wind, she settled on a sedate walk.

_Goddess above, what is happening here?_

Kari knew the stench of decay or of burning bodies but that did not make it any easier to endure. She had survived two wars that bore more death and hardship than she wished to remember. The smell was reminiscent of the aftermath, the sacrificial pyres of the dead so that the survivors might not die of disease even as they recovered.


Now, onto the critique.

Dear Secret Agent Man Aaron,

This should be just Aaron, or Mr. Montaine to impress my mom.

In a single night, three hundred years of history burned to the ground.

Nice opening line. No, really. I like it.

Propelled by hatred and racism, Danar sought the annihilation of Kelsh and her people. Unprepared and undefended, the city of Heliash toppled, her inhabitants slaughtered, captive or on the run.

This is kind of interesting, except . . . why? Besides the whole hatred/racism thing, why does Danar want to annihilate Kelsh? That's not something you hear every day. Also, is Danar male, female, a unicorn? Is Kelsh a city or a queen? And I'm not sure what Heliash has to do with Kelsh, Danar or the unicorn.

Mari had returned home expecting a warm reunion with her mother, father and siblings. Instead, she found plumes of dark smoke coiling towards the uncaring sky and the stench of death. Her decision to fight her way into the city to find her family's fate hurls her into a living nightmare.

Danar, Kelsh, Heliash and now Mari . . . I'm already getting dizzy. I suspect Danar took care of Heliash, and is now going after Kelsh, and Mari is, I assume, going to be the savior. I'm pretty sure most skies don't care, so to specify that this particular sky is "uncaring" is a bit of over-writing. Also, hurling into a living nightmare is not very specific or descriptive. Is she tortured? Raped? Forced to watch Dancing With The Stars? Those are living nightmares.

Lost, alone and despairing, Mari discovers the Tower of the Rising Sun. Never found by those seeking it and never granting its power to those who desired it, the Tower was both legend and myth.

This is a bit confusing since she's lost, yet finds a tower no one else has found. She should buy a lottery ticket. And if she finds it, it is technically no longer a myth. The language is nice, but it doesn't tell me anything. What is its power? Why does everyone want to find it? And since the House of the Rising Sun was a brothel, I can only assume the Tower of the Rising Sun is going to get busted by the cops any day now.

What Mari did not expect was the high price the Tower would demand.

Yeah, this is vague too. I get that Mari might have lost her family -- that's a big deal. Everything else is a nicely painted mish mash of nothing. I don't know what it means, and you really haven't given me a reason to care. I should care, I want to care, but I don't. Why should I give a hoot about Mari and her missing family if there are thousands of other people burning, dying, watching Dancing With The Stars? I want to give a hoot. I have too many and I'd hate to throw them out. But Mari? She doesn't deserve any of my hoots.

Burdened with a pledge unbreakable even by death, Mari must stop the demons of Danar, even if it means the destruction of her soul.

The most concrete part of your plot yet: Mari must stop the demons of Danar. But why? Okay, I understand they're demons, and stopping them is a good thing, but she must stop them? Who said? And what would happen if she didn't? Would that high price the Tower demanded get a 25.7% APR added to it? And if it destroys her soul, wouldn't that put a damper on family reunions? I mean, a soulless Mari would just sit there and eat all the Pringles.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Word count? (I know you don't have one yet, but it's nice to pretend.)
Rebecca J. Blain

Okay, gotta go. Dancing With The Stars is on.

But wait! There's more!

Faint screams drifted on the gusting winds of the Sariano plains. The acrid stench of burning flesh assaulted Kari, the force of it so great she yanked her horse to a halt. The dark mare tossed her head and snorted, ears laid back. Falling over the saddle’s horn, she clutched at her mouth with a hand, fighting the waves of nausea that sought to overwhelm her.

Is this part of the other thing? Because it's not helping. A "gusting wind" is kind of like a "smelly fart" -- redundant and highly reminiscent of my Uncle Olaf, who was gusty in many different ways.
I don't know how a stench can assault someone, since it can't hold a club. Unless you were referring to Uncle Olaf.

The last two lines are kind of confusing since the dark mare snorted, then apparently clutched at her mouth with a hand, which means this is one special horsie. I believe you meant Kari was about to barf, but that's not what it says.

Kari blessed the stars and the sky that Luna was so well trained. Legs braced in place, the horse patiently stood as she struggled to sit upright. Kari’s lungs burned as she choked and coughed. While the smoke was not thick, the putrid odor was so vile that her stomach churned despite her best efforts.

The second line is also confusing because it's not clear who is struggling, Kari or Luna. It gets cleared up in the next line, but the confusion is still there.

Her throat swallowed and convulsed as she sat up. Days of sweat and dirt had a unique and disgusting scent of its own, but it bought her the precious moments to steel her nerve and her guts.

Okay, we get it -- three paragraphs about stinky. And it's not quite clear how her own stink gave her nerve.

After all, days on the road without a bath gave her plenty of time to adjust to that smell.

Is this really how you want to start your novel and introduce your character? Kari The Smelly?

With the dark tendrils of night falling over the plains, she did not dare kick her horse into a gallop to climb the hill and discover the source of the sounds and scent. Turning Luna into the wind, she settled on a sedate walk.

If it's all so putrid, wouldn't she go downwind and around the hill so she wouldn't have to revisit her lunch?

_Goddess above, what is happening here?_

I don't know what those little underline thingies are doing there. Just italicize it.

Kari knew the stench of decay or of burning bodies but that did not make it any easier to endure. She had survived two wars that bore more death and hardship than she wished to remember. The smell was reminiscent of the aftermath, the sacrificial pyres of the dead so that the survivors might not die of disease even as they recovered.

Back to the stink? I know the creative writing teachers emphasize using the senses, but some of the others would be nice.


Can you smell burned feathers? Those are mine. Once again, let me comment on the importance of never, ever sending a draft to an agent. Many of the problems that Aaron points out here I correct in edits and revisions. The draft is just that: draft. It isn't meant to see the light of day.

There was a line I bolded and italicized. Why? It is my favorite.

You will get burned as you write your queries. Take a moment and learn from mine. You can also learn from @Janet_Reid and her awesome @queryshark. I strongly recommend following Janet, her shark, Aaron and Scott. You won't regret it.

You will see a mention of using _ rather than italics. I had been fussing with an easy way to find out where I was using italics in a file and they were throwbacks. I typically use italics! That said, look at your agent's submission guidelines. Some agents absolutely do NOT want to see italics. Others want to read it as they would read the novel. Watch your submission guidelines very closely. Remember, if you do not prove you are capable of reading their guidelines, the agent will not believe you are capable of writing.

As a fare-thee-well, I leave you with a gem from twitter:

@Seagman Will the owner of a query missing a name, address, etc, but sent from the email "ILoveMyShnookies" please claim it in dumpster. Thanks.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pub Tips and Query Fails!

I love Twitter. It is a wonderful source of information, tips and people.

Today's blog post serves two purposes. First, it allows me to procrastinate starting the massive spring cleaning efforts I must begin as soon as I am done writing this. Second, it allows me to share with you one of the resources I truly love.

I will make comments as needed. However, most of these are rather self-explanatory.

Enjoy! The format is as follows: The name of the person who made the post, then their post.


#pubtip Can you at least try to hide that your query has been forwarded to 10 other agents? Those blue forward lines are distracting me.


Dear random author: For the last time, I WILL NOT EAT YOUR COOKIES. #pubtip


Reading a query that was interesting up until the part where it said the wordcount was over 390k. Don't do this. #pubtip

(Why: Most epic fantasies, even the 'long ones', tend to cap at 250 words. There are exceptions, but not often. If you're writing epic fantasy... do yourself a favor and save the 500,000 word monstrosities for book #2.)


Authors, the following words have VERY different meanings, so stop mixing them up: important/impotent; prostrate/prostate #pubtip


Finishing your 100,000 word book in 10 days is not a selling point. Might be true, but don't put that in your query. #pubtip


#pubtip Novelists: if you're not done writing it, it's not time to query an agent. No matter how "good" it is. Query when it's complete.


an MFA, while it may improve your writing skills, does not make you more publishable or guarantee you success as an author #pubtip


Eight sentences. Only seven paragraphs. #queryfail

... twitter has failed and won't let me access the older posts to get out some of my favorite query fails. That said, please head over here for #queryfail and here for #pubtip. Both of these feeds often have a lot of excellent resources for writers. It is really an eye-opener to see just what gets an agent riled up.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


This post is going to go out into far left field. I have no posted in a while, so I figured it was about time I made some progress on blogging. This will cover, once again, personal references so there will not be a lot of outside sourcing. This is what *I* do. Please do not judge what the rest of the writing world does based off of what I do. My methods may not work for you.

First, I will cover self-editing. This is a very personal matter, but a very important one. When you write a book, you need to know how to edit your own writing. A professional publication house is there to make you and them money. It is not there to clean up your poor writing. Do not just submit crap to an agent, editor or publisher. Before you even dream of submitting, it is vital that you do a lot of self-editing.

Self-editing should occur before you send to anyone for critiques. This is important because you need to grow as an author. In order to grow, you need to practice. In order to practice, you need to do.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of editing what people say you should edit. For this reason, you should try to self-edit on your own before you send it to even your first readers. First, you should be able to catch spelling errors by reading through your writing. You would not even begin to believe how many times I have typed 'and' when I meant to type 'had'. Spelling errors like this are often not picked up by spell and grammar checking programs. This is human error that a computer cannot typically correct, so you need to be on your guard.

When I self-edit, this is the process I take:

Step One: Read the piece.

I will read the section of writing anywhere between one to five times. It varies, really. If I wrote slower and had less stupid mistakes, I may not need to re-read it more than once or twice. If I was being sloppy as I was writing, I will need to re-read it several times. Mileage may vary.

Step Two: Correct Obvious errors.

Step Two occurs as I re-read it the first time. As I read, I will correct simple errors as I spot them. This may not work for everyone. It does not distract from my reading as I do this, so I can get away with it. Some people get distracted and cannot handle this. You need to find your own rhythm. Once again, mileage may vary. No matter when you correct the obvious errors, these need to be addressed. I like to get them out of the way first so I can focus on the more challenging things later.

Step Three: Correct the Not So Obvious errors.

I have to revisit step one to do this. Once I have corrected the obvious, easy errors, I read through the piece again. OUT LOUD. I will even record myself reading so I can listen to it. (Voice recorder in windows is a great tool if you have a mic.) There are several reasons for doing this. First, if you read your novel or story out loud, you can hear if your pacing is all right. If you run out of breath before you finish speaking a sentence, your pacing is wrong. Every sentence should be easily spoken. Length of a sentence is vital, as long sentences are often grammatically incorrect and difficult to read. Taking your time with this phase can make a huge difference.

Step Four: Allow your writing to sit for a day.

Taking a day off to work on something else or plot a different story helps me focus come editing time. This may not work for everyone. I will try to plan my drafting so that I finish on a Friday and start edits on a Monday. This gives me the weekend to relax and clear my thoughts, as well as put a little space between me and the writing.

Step Five: See Step One.

Rinse and repeat until you have a polished draft. Then send it off. If you can avoid first readers until you are DONE the first draft and polished, you can spare yourself a lot of anguish. So, you might have to do massive edits or a second draft... so what? You finished your draft. A bad critique can cause a new author to lose hope. Once you become a professional author, your editor or book publisher typically will NOT hold your hand every step of the drafting process. You will have a deadline you will be expected to meet. Accept this reality and work towards streamlining the self-editing process so that it works best for YOU. What works for me may not work for you.

Self-Editing will help you enhance your writing style while also improving the quality of your drafts. You do not have to write a perfect draft the first try if you can focus and put in the work to make it into a perfect manuscript.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Conflict - The Heart of the Plot

As a writer, I find myself working on various plot lines. Often, I have more ideas than I know what to do with. To make matters worse, I sometimes try to use too many ideas in one novel or series.

In order to combat my own ambitions, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on the random ideas, I decided to pursue more of the conflicts and less of the exact scene concepts and other mechanisms I enjoy working with.

This led to some interesting research. What, exactly, makes a good conflict?

No matter how many ideas that you have, all of them will be made worthless without a good conflict to make your story alive. You may have these excellent ideas on a character design. But, what good is a character without the conflict to make them grow?

In order to know if you have the necessary conflict, you must first know just what a conflict is.

There are several types of conflicts. Let us go into them:

Man versus Man
Man versus Himself
Man versus Environment

These are the basic types of conflicts. I am no expert on conflicts. This is the entire point of delving into this subject. As usual, this is my take on the subject. Do with it as you please. I will list some resources you can reference at the bottom of this post.

Man versus Man

This can be a lot of things. This can be society issues, wars, rivalries... anything where a man is pitted against another man. Political drama, for example, would fall as a man versus man conflict. This can also be physical struggles of a man versus another man.

Man versus Himself

This is the personal drama, the internal conflict. This is the hero who has to struggle with the morals of killing off an innocent in order to save the lives of man. Internal conflict is a very common type of conflict. In my opinion, it is almost necessary for a good story. Every novel that I have truly loved has had some form of man versus himself conflict.

Man versus environment

This can fit almost anything that doesn't fit himself or man. Be it fighting fate, fighting off natural disasters, or any circumstance that is outside of the control of man *or* himself would fit into this category. I tend to view fighting gods and fighting fate all a part of the man versus environment category.

Now that you have an idea of what the types of conflicts are, just what can you do with them?

I have made the error of writing stories without significant conflict. The stories were fun to write, but they really did not have any purpose. Conflict is what hooks a reader. A story with no conflict is a ship without water. It may be beautiful to look at, but it really would work a lot better if the ship had an ocean to sail on. Characters are the same as that ship.

I am going to use Harry Potter (JK Rowling) as an example of a story with conflict. No matter what critics may say about the writing style of these works, Harry Potter is full of conflict. This is a part of what draws so many people into reading these books.

Without spoiling the books for those who have not read the series, the conflict begins as man versus man. A boy with an unpleasant family. In this case, it is the boy versus his family. Then, it becomes a tale of a man versus himself versus man. He has to struggle with his own personal problems while dealing with his family *and* with the big bad guy of doom. This is dumbing it down as much as it can be, of course.

No matter which way Harry turns, Rowling throws problems at him. She throws him directly into problems. Whether he goes looking for conflict or not, it comes to him. Frequently. This keeps the story moving forward.

And, as she resolves one conflict, she naturally brings in another. Each conflict is a stepping stone towards the resolution of the major conflict. Best of all, the hero does not always win the battles.

Conflict should drive your stories. Ideas should not.

Some resources:

Short Story Elements

Literary Elements

Wikipedia on Conflict