Friday, October 29, 2010

Being Responsible

Here's a scene we've probably all experienced: you are in the market going down the aisle when someone comes along and cuts in front of you.  She says, "I'm sorry" as she whizzes by, but doesn't really decelerate and is gone in two seconds.

When this happens to me I think, "Where's the fire?" And then I get pissed off because it seems to happen a lot or maybe I just notice it more. It seems to me that lots of folks do this and I have to wonder why.  Is the pace of life so fast that they can't wait a few seconds for someone to go by?  Do they think their needs is more important than mine? Or do they think they can cut corners with no consequences?

I suspect that last reason is closest to the mark.  People try to cut corners and shun responsibility whenever they can.  I don't know why. They are adults; they know how to handle responsibility, don't they?  Does cutting a corner here or there help them cope with life a little better?  Or do they think following rules doesn't apply to them for some reason?

As I said, I can't say. What does occur to me is this: they would make poor writers because as a writer I am responsible for everything in my story from the opening word to the final period.  Me and no one else. If something is wrong with the story it is my fault. It is fails to satisfy  I'm to blame.  I can't hide and I can't take short cuts and I don't like it when others do.

Perhaps I do things the hard way.  Perhaps I'm too logical, too rational, or thinking too much. Perhaps.  But it seems to me that we have rules for a reason.  We ignore them at our peril whether in society or when writing a story or at any other time.

Think about that the next time you want to run a stop sign or cut someone off. Happy writing.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Are You Listening?

I've heard for a long time that people don't listen to each other.  I don't know that I believed it until recently. I've been noticing people on conference calls repeatedly asking for the speaker to restate their question because the person being spoken to wasn't paying attention.

I always shake my head in disbelief at this. 

Another version of this is asking for an opinion and then not listening to the response.  A friend of mine does this.  She works on a brochure or a web site and then asks for my opinion.  Before I can even answer, she answers for me, negatively.  When I do answer and say "It's good" or "Nice job" she still thinks I don't like it.  She wants me to gush and rave, but that's not me. Sorry.  I have repeat myself several times in the hopes she's heard me.

Writers get this way too, I've noticed.  I don't often have the occasion to comment on another's writing but when I do, I never sure if they hear what I am saying.  I do get a lot of reason why the story can't be changed.

I understand that reaction. I'm the same way. At first, I resist any modification to my story because it will change too much and cause to many rewrites. But then, after thinking about the comments I've received and realizing what was really meant, I begin to see how I can incorporate the change and keep the story the way I want it.  Often when that happens I begin to see the story from another perspective and by making the change I improve the story and make it better.

But to do that I have to be open to receive the comment and understand what was meant by it.  Often this means ignoring the literal meaning of the words and paying attention to the spirit of the remark.  I need to step back and see the bigger picture.

I also have to remember that the rules for telling a story have not changed since Aristole.  Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and that readers care about characters to get them through it all. Tension for the characters and frustrating the character is essential because it keeps the reader interested. When I see my story deviating from this path and I need to change it.

After all, I want to write the better stories I can and then share them.  If I'm not going to do that then there no point to promoting my work or trying to get published.  This goes back to an earlier posting of mine: writing is sharing.  Writing that is not shared is like talking to yourself and God knows I've had my fill of that!

So if you receive comments on your work, try to dig under the surface to find the intent of what the reviewer meant. It might be worth your while to do so.

Friday, October 22, 2010

One Hand Washes the Other

I've had feedback on several blog posts and it appears I've left some people with the wrong impression.  I'm going to see if I can clear it up.  I've been writing about the importance of characters and plot in my stories. Characters make my stories come alive but only when they react and interact with each other.  Plot is usually where I start in a story so that I know where the story is going.

From this, some people have assumed that for me plot is more important.  That's not true.  Plot, the way I use it, is like an outline.  It tells me what happens, when it happens, where it happens, how it happens, and to whom.  The characters tell me why it happens.  The character-plot connection are like two hands, one washing the other.  Even when I plot, character decisions get made and when I develop characters, plot usually changes.  Once I've worked out the rough plot details, I go back and focus on the characters to make sure their goals and motivation fit the story.  I can't do that without knowing where I'm going.  But the plot does not rule; if something does not fit, it is changed.

Could I start with the characters and seeing where the story leads?  Sure I could but what I've found is that wastes time.  It's like writing an essay (or a blog post) where you don't know what your point is.  Generally, you figure that out by the end of the piece and then go back and revise.  While that approaches is workable in something short, like an essay, or a blog post, or even a short story, I find it is not a feasible approach in a novel that is hundreds of pages long.  It is much better for me to know where the story is going so I can take the reader there.

That also does not mean, I've plotted out all the details.  Far from it.  I've only got the basic points down so that the characters can tell me things I didn't know in the process of writing.  In this way I can still surprise myself in the early drafts.

This, of course, is not the only way to go about writing a story, but it seems to work for me and the way I think.  I doubt it will work for anyone else, but you are all free to try it if you wish.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blog Tour: Son of Ereubus

I know the blog is a day later than normal this week.  But that's because, I agreed to be a stop on a blog tour for J. S. Chancellor's first book, Son of Ereubus.

The book is the first book in the Legends of Guardians trilogy and is due out November 1.

If you've following the tour, you may have already read some or all of this text.  My apologies if that is the case. Otherwise, enjoy.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to be an author?

A: The moment that I realized that all of the stories I’d been making up in my head could be written down is the moment when I realized that I wanted to be an author. My earliest memory of writing is going to a reception hosted for every student at our school who was nominated for the Young Georgia Writer’s Award. I didn’t realize I’d won in my age division (first grade, I believe) until I got home and my mother asked me if I was proud of myself.

Q:  What does your family think of your writing?

A: My family, for the most part, has been very supportive. Though I will say that the genre I write in isn’t universally appealing. Naturally, this means that not everyone will read it. My dad, for example, threatened to do a word search and replace names like ‘Laionai’ with ‘bad guys.’ To each his own. He reads historical novels that would put me, an insomniac, to sleep.

Q: What do you love most about fantasy books?

A:  Classic escapism. They’re better than any drug or drink.  I love the ability to build a story around anything my mind can conceive. The limitations that are present in nearly every other genre (save sci-fi of course) aen’t there.

Q:  What can you tell me about your style of writing?

A: I’m an elemental writer, pure and simple. I learned long ago to say what I mean, exactly how I mean it. The worlds, the stories I’m guiding you through are intricate enough on their own that it doesn’t feel natural to write about them with complex prose. I want you, as a reader, to remember the story — not how it was told.

Q: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? Aside from the odd hours I keep, I’d have to say that the physical positions I put myself in while I’m typing could be rather entertaining from an outsider’s perspective. Usually, after a longer bout of writing, I’ll emerge from my office with limbs half asleep andunable to feel anything from my knees down.  Music is a must. I can count on one hand the number of writing sessions I’ve done without my iPod or iTunes running on my computer. I’m listening to Amethystium as I type now.

Q: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? Speaking of odd hours. I write best after the rest of the world has gone to sleep … so from about midnight to five in the morning.

Q: What inspired you to write the Guardians of Legend trilogy?

A: My ideas usually come from dreams and Guardians was no exception. I was eleven when I first saw the swod that is depicted on the cover of Son of Ereubus. That dream eventually became a specific scene in chapter two of the book. Then, when I was fourteen,I saw chapter one and even wrote down a rough, rough, ROUGH draft of both chapters one and two. I also drew a picture of a Dragee and yes, I still have all of it.

Q: How long did it take you to write the Guardians of Legend trilogy?

A: I wrote the first draft in a little under a yea. I wrote it as one really big book and didn’t break it up until after I’d finished

Q: How many books have you written?  Which is your favorite?

A: I’ve written seven books to date, with more than that in the works. They are all so different from one another, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Guardians of Legend (1-3) as one cohesive book.  It’s my firstborn, so its tough not to favor it a little.

Q: Are you working on a sequel or any other books?

A: Yes and yes. Guardians of Legend is the first trilogy (it can stand on its own) in a series of three. However, I have several single-volume fantasies that I’m polishing right now for possible publication in between my larger works.

Q:  What advice could you give to other authors wanting to start out?

A:  Have fun. No, really, I mean this. Enjoy your time as an unpublished author. Revel in writing only for yourself. All of it changes when you begin to involve other people in your work; publishers, editors, reviewers, readers … it’s a good thing, I don’t mean to put you off from accomplishing your goals. But, don’t take for granted where you’re at now. Those earlier experiences are what shape you later on. Think of this time as your foundation. You’ll only build on it from here, but it will never be unimportant or wasted time.

Q:  What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

A: Ironically, it was about myself. The most surprising thing I learned through the process of writing is that I have a thing for bad guys. It wasn’t until I was in the midst of working on Icarus, my only urban fantasy thus far, that I realized it. The “bad guy” is a vampire named Trinity and, despite his narcissism and lack of pity, he’s my favorite character in the book. This surprised me because he’s usually a total jerk. The guy you love to hate … yet I don’t hate him. I can’t.

Q: When did you write your first book and how old were you?

A:  I wrote my first fantasy novella when I was 14.  It was the original Icarus, actuall. I rewrote it last year for kicks, though the original has nothing but the characters in common with the new version.

Q:  Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

As I mentioned earlier, as trite as this sounds, dreams. I’ll see a scene first — a touch of ahand, a glimpse of a face, the feel of some world beneath my feet and by the time I wake up it has either claimed its place as a story-in-waiting, or not.

Q: What is your life like outside the literary world? Hobbies and other passions?  Is there life outside of this?

A: No, in all sincerity I love the outdoors and enjoy camping. My husband and I bought an Xterra for the sole purpose of taking it camping and using the tent that attaches to the back. I’m also quite fond of my two dogs and try to spend as much time with them as I can.

Q:  Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

A: Yeah, I do, but since this is my first published novel the readers I hear from are those who follow the blog. They rock. I have some really talented, insightful folks commenting on the posts that I leave at The Asylum. It’s geared towards crafting fiction, so most of myreaders there are also writers.

Q: What do you think makes a good story?

A:  I can only answer this for myself, since “good” is subjective. But, ironically what I quantify as a good read isn’t in the genre I typically write in at all — it’s horror. I love to read horror, but dark fantasy is as close as I’ll ever come to penning it. Reading it though, I want to follow a story that has me on the edge of my seat, horrified, with a littlebit of romantic tension thrown in for good measure (however slight). It has to appeal to all of my senses. I read a lot of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine as a child and never got over the need to eat books like that for dinner — all in one sitting. Love them!

Q: As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Well, in the second grade I announced that I was going to be a stand-up comedian. No, I’m not kidding. Then, after growing infatuated with Batman around age 12, I announced to my best friend at the time that I was going to become Catwoman. So, I suppose I sort of compromised and became an author, where I can be any number of impossible, ridiculous things.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Show and Tell: Less Talk, More Thought

I'm in the process of adding life to my characters by having them react to each other and the world around them.  In the process I discovered something:  narration and exposition, even when it can be attributed to a given character, doesn't seem to count. At least that's my assumption from the feedback I've gotten.

I do this all the time apparently because the bulk of the feedback I've received is along these lines. Rather than actually get into the character's mind, the narrator relate the character's thoughts.  I suppose this is a show vs tell error.  The fix is easy, revise those paragraphs and add more of the character's personality to it.

Example -- original text

Brashani spent a few hours looking around Clearbrook.  The people seemed friendly and pleasant.  Otherwise, the town seemed like any average-sized town in the kingdom.
He noted that there was only one jewelry store and no magic shops.  Likewise, there was no one in town of appreciable wealth, other than the gem merchant and the town mayor.
That’s good thought the wizard.  That means the necromancers won’t be coming here.  Unless, the gem merchant is hiding the jewel they want.

Example -- revised text
Brashani spent a few hours looking around Clearbrook.  The people seemed friendly and pleasant.  Otherwise, the town seemed like any average-sized town in the kingdom. 
He noted that there were no magic shops in town.  
Figures.  These people of mana phobes.  He shook his head.  On the other hand, I won’t have to pay the high prices I usually find in a magic store. 
Looking around further, the wizard observed there was only one jewelry store and no one in town of appreciable wealth, other than the gem merchant and the town mayor. 
That’s good, thought the wizard.  That means the necromancers won’t be coming here.  Unless, the gem merchant is hiding the jewel they want. 

Notice how I've added Brashani's thoughts and revised the text to bring out what he is thinking and feeling about what he sees.  I can do more and probably will.  I only provide this text as an example of what you might try if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fictional Spice

I'm sure you've all read a story that spans multiple books.  The kind of story I'm talking about is the kind where book 2 picks up where book 1 ends.  Harry Potter is like this; so is Lord of the Rings, to name to popular examples.

Very often this type of story is hard to write because it is usually longer and takes more time.  Additionally, you generally need more than one installment in the story completed before you can even get the first one published (unless you self-publish, of course).  This is the issue I face now, with only one novel completed and several more to go.

It would have been smarter for me to write a story about a character and then if the book was successful to write another book with the same character.  But I didn't do that mostly because I wasn't planning to write a series of books in the first place.

My original idea was one book and one story.  But what I found as a revised it and pulled it apart was that the original two chapters (40 pages) could be made into 70000+ word novel.  All I needed was a slight adjustment to the plot and avoid my tendency not to explore any given moment in a scene. 

Example:  A stranger enters town.  The main character is suspicious of him because he is a stranger and has intelligence that a precious gem will be stolen.  Putting two and two together, the stranger is suspected.

There are many ways to go from here, but I took the conventional path, as this was my first novel.  The stranger is the thief and when the gem is stolen, the protagonist pursues the thief and captures him.  Not much of a story, but then it was only meant to be part of a larger book.

But when I changed my assumptions and didn't let a proscribed plot dominant the story, the thief gets away.  Now the main character must catch him, which he does.  When he catches up to the thief, the gem has been sold to the person who hired him in the first place.  Now the hero must retrace the thief's steps to reclaim the gem.  But it's not that simple.  The new owner isn't about to let it go without a fight...

You get the idea. I complicated the plot considerably and in the process end up telling a much interesting tale.  If in fact, I'm told that you can use frustration to plot out any story.  At every turn, you can frustrate your characters so that they have some new challenge to overcome.  I'm not sure but that, although it is true that each complication I added did frustrate my main character.

So if your story is dull and needs a little flavor try adding a few complications and see what happens.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Plotting Along

The thing that drives me forward in a story is the plot.  I love a good one and I'm always thinking up new ones.  Sometimes they comes from characters sometimes they don't.

For example, my favorite wizard, Brashani, decides to clean up the ruined city of Marngol, which was destroyed in an invasion when he was a young man.  Since the city was home to many wizards, I figured that there must be many different things lurked in the home's of the wizards, good and bad (mostly bad for plot reasons).  So stories about the clean up effort focus on what he finds and how he deals with it.  So some of the stories are more mystery (he finds a baby in a tower; he follows clues to a treasure) or straight conflict (the ghosts of the slain wizards are angry with him, he tries to accommodate them but it is not enough and they clash).

Notice in all cases, the stories derive from Brashani's motivation to clean up the town.  These are character driven.  Other stories are not.  For example, the characters find themselves in circumstances beyond their control.  They try to correct or influence the situation but cannot.  Or they can, but it is really hard and they risk dying.

In such a story, the plot is is center stage.  The characters and the personal ambitions are irrelevant.  They have motivation -- to stop or change the circumstances around them -- but other goals, like getting a promotion, or writing a great novel are, for the purposes of the story, out the window.  They might be mentioned in passing to flavor the characters but no development of these goals is possible because the circumstances they find themselves in keep intruding.

Example: Bobby wants to write a novel but there are too many distractions and interruptions in his life to make that feasible.  There is work or school.  A constant barrage of email, IMs, and online chats to deal with.  If Bobby is a college student, say, then there is also his coursework to focus on, studying.  In fact if he's studying to be a lawyer, he must immerse himself in his courses and study groups or risk washing out the first year.  He still wants to write but his wants other things too.  And, of course, he needs time for a social life too.

These days character-driven plot seems to be preferred because when the plot is driven by characters and their actions we can identify with them and root for them and that makes the story far more enjoyable for the reader.

So if you find yourself in a plot that is not character driven stop and look at your characters.  Make sure they have reasons to do what they are doing.  If not, change characters.  If they do, follow them and let them guide the story to see where is goes.  You might be surprised what you find.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Publishing Strategies

Some weeks back I wrote about self-publishing, saying that it wasn't for me mainly because I want to work with publishing professionals when my novel goes out into the world.  My theory on this is I will learn from them all the little nuisances of publishing and promoting books.

However, nothing is ever as clear-cut or monolithic as it might first appear.  In this case, I was basing my discussion on the assumption that to publish you need to use the same source to publish every version of your book.  And that's not true.

For example:  last month I submitted to a small press that only wanted the electronic rights.  Had they accepted the book, I would have had an ebook of my novel but not a paper version.  Since people still read paper copies, and some people prefer them, I realized I needed to find a way to offer a version in paper.

Suddenly self-publishing seems like the perfect answer.

I also made the mistake of not considering my overall marketing plan.  Don't make that mistake.  Think about an overall marketing plan and, as you consider how to publish, think outside of the box.  Consider whether you want to self-publish and, if so, will it be electronic only or paper or both?  If you want more of mix look for a small press that wants only the electronic rights (this is increasingly more common) and do the paper edition yourself.  Or if you don't want to even consider self-publishing, look for a more traditional small press that will handle both the paper and electronic publication.

And don't forget about an audio book.  (don't laugh; several friends suggested that I do an audio version first to promote the book.  If the effort wasn't so high I might have considered it)  Chances are you'll need to do that yourself or with until your work is wildly successful.  If you do it yourself, your main enemy is background noise.  So you may have to record the book at odd times.  The good news is you can find good theme music for the opening and there are services that will podcast it for you, in case you don't want to do that yourself.

So spend some time, do some research, and plan out how your book will go to market.  It is worth the effort.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Word Count Trap

Last year while revision my fantasy novel for the umpteenth time, I began to pay attention to the word count.  I did this because many publishers have minimum word counts for novels. For fantasy novels it is starts at 70,000 or 75,000 words but some places have minimum word counts of 100,000 words.

At the time, my word count was 50,000 words.  I found a place that required only 60,000 words so I made that my target since I had no illusions doubling the size of the book.

I managed to add 10,000 words by filling in missing scenes and revising the end so that I needed to write several more scenes.  This is a torturous process because I didn't want to add fluff but I needed add more words to make the publisher's minimum requirements.

Big mistake.

I say this because I recently I found out that my characters needed work.  When I started fleshing them out more I suddenly discovered an untapped source of material.  Their reactions and comments and fears and goals and hopes and dreams to events and information already in the book has added lots of words and pages. More importantly, it has been the story far more interesting. I am finally reading my own and saying, "Damn that's good!" and "Oh, I guess I know more about character x than I thought."

So if you are looking for things to say in your stories look no further than your characters.  I'll bet you'll find all the words you need from them.