Friday, March 30, 2007

Passing the 10K Mark

After such a long dry spell, it's really surprising to me that things have come all at once like this. I managed to do a bunch of prewriting for my fifth chapter ("The Farm"), and then I was still able to write 1,300 words on the chapter after that.

I realized two things tonight, which helped me accomplish all this. First, I've long had a habit of listening to music while I write. I listen to music while I do most everything--except read for pleasure. I've been doing a lot more reading for pleasure than I have writing recently, and I've started to realize that the music was distracting to me now. It didn't used to be--but now I try to impose the beat of the music on the passages that I reread after I write them, and that just doesn't work. So tonight was the first time I've written in silence in several years, and I think that was actually really beneficial. Hmm. You might find that obvious, but music has always helped me concentrate while I work. I'm not sure why that changed.

The second thing that I realized was that if my butt is uncomfortable, my creative motivation goes way down. I have several comfortable chairs, but nothing remains comfortable to me for hours on end these days. Taking my laptop and rotating chairs every time I got too uncomfortable was a big motivator. You know, one less thing to distract me from actually thinking about writing.

Anyway, I did indeed pass the 10,000 word mark tonight. So here's where things stand:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
10,311 / 95,000 (10.9%)

Progress At Last!

Finally I've managed to write a good amount in one sitting. About 1200 words in only an hour and a half--not bad! The best part was that I hadn't planned this particular scene very well, and yet it really came together much better than I had dared to hope. I've been agonizing over this and other upcoming scenes for about two weeks now, so it's a huge relief to see how it actually worked out. It's amazing how much more vivid my actual end scenery always is than the vague scenery that I always picture in my mind while preplanning.

The other thing that really helped me in this scene is something that Chandra said to me about characterizing early. I've always been a bit afraid to head into emotional territory too soon with my lead characters, but I don't know exactly why. It doesn't really make sense; when done well, that can actually make characters much more accepted by the reader. Normally I tend to hold back a bit at the start of my books, but this time I've really let the internals of the characters present themselves much more quickly--and I really like the result.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
9,035 / 95,000 (9.5%)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

My Idols of March Entry

Well, I didn't win Miss Snark's Idols of March contest, but she did get a chuckle out of the fact that Dan Lazar was a "heartbreaker" in my entry. Here's what I submitted (#122 on her page--all the way at the bottom):

Who is Dan Lazar? That was the question that plagued Tom Griffin on the eve of battle. The thrum of the blades overhead and the rushing of wind past the open side door of the helicopter couldn't drown out the cacophony in Tom’s own mind. Once again he held the letter up into the moonbeam that fell across his seat.

Anna’s note was as frustratingly brief as it was ill-timed. It had arrived via courier, complete with the snazzy “signature required” instructions that had made the other men from Reacher Company take notice. What a way to receive divorce papers.


One thing that has been continually bugging me about ALDEN RIDGE is that I have a prologue that really isn't a prologue at all. It's just a super-short chapter 1, because the action of what I considered the "true" chapter 1 picks right up where the prologue leaves off. My prologue was just a short scene, that's all--it wasn't back-story, or characters that I didn't plan on using for the rest of the book, or anything like that. It was just a short opening scene, and it needed to be there in order to make chapter 1 make sense (but again, not because of back story).

Well, in the end I decided to do some research and see what I could find out about prologues. The Wikipediea entry was fairly interesting for etymological purposes, but the best thing that google brought me was actually an article by Marg McAlister. Reading through her article convinced me that my prologue really isn't a prologue at all, and so I finally just renamed it to chapter 1. It's an unusually short chapter at 611 words, but my other chapters thus far are each a more standard 2.5-3K words.

What do you guys think, was this the right decision? It's a very short first chapter, but it just doesn't feel right to me to combine it with chapter 1. And since there's both expectations and a stigma about prologues, I thought it would be best to not to call it what it isn't (well, that's a good idea in general, isn't it). Thoughts?

Jury Duty

I've been unusually quiet this week because I've been extra busy since I was selected for jury service. The jury service itself took all of yesterday and the day before--and I wasn't even selected to serve on a jury. Yuck. I feel it's important to do my civic duty, and I would have found serving on an actual jury to be an interesting experience that would potentially offer ideas for future writing (such is always the selfish motivation for authors to do anything unusual, right?). But sitting and listening to lawyers grill potential jury members for two days is not my idea of fun. I had no idea that the jury selection process could take so long. The worst thing was, this was a medical malpractice suit (wrongful death), and I had enough connection to the doctors in question that I was pretty sure the plaintiff would have wanted to excuse me for cause. Though 20+ other jurors got excused for cause, and 7 or others were excused by the lawyers for whatever unstated reasons, they never did get to me and so I just had to silently watch for the entire time. I'm all for doing my civic duty, but that didn't much feel like it. Oh well.

With jury duty taking up basically my entire days, and leaving me pretty exhausted at the end of each day, I haven't had a whole lot of time for writing. Over the weekend I did a lot more planning, but it wasn't until late last night that I actually did any writing. It was only 500 words or so, but that's something. So, as of last night the total stands:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
7,887 / 95,000 (8.3%)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Miss Snark's Idols of March

Miss Snark is holding a writing contest (updated rules are here). Entries are only to be 100 words long, and must include the words Reacher, Helipcopter, snazzy, moonbeam, Dan Lazar, and griffin. The deadline is actually today--she wants entries to be submitted between 5 PM and 5:15 PM EST. Sorry for the late notice, but she just did post about the contest yesterday, and I didn't find it until today. Happy writing!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Character attributes can drive plot

I'm still working on planning for ALDEN RIDGE--no new words written since the last update. But I have been thinking about one thing that I think is very useful, and that is the importance of the main character's... well, character to the plot of the work. But I'm approaching this explanation backwards.

The problem I was facing in my writing was that I just didn't empathize well enough with my main character in ALDEN RIDGE. She was interesting in many respects, and there was a strong emotional angle to her story, but somehow I still didn't want to be her. I'm all for having unsavory aspects to my major characters (and often do), but at the end of the day I can't put my whole heart into writing a main character who I just don't admire on some level.

What makes me admire a character? For me, personally, it basically boils down to the character being smart, good, and powerful in some way. Maybe you could even leave "good" off that list and I'd still admire them as an interesting anti-hero. But without smart and powerful, they just don't work for me. Your mileage may vary--and even for me, it's not like a character has to be Einstein The God Of War or something. Being "powerful" just means that the character is able to exert some measure of control over their environment. Maybe not at first, but eventually. They may not always get to set the tempo of their story, either, but sometimes they should be strong enough to on occasion. Being "smart" doesn't mean that they have to be all that educated, or a prodigy or Nobel laureate. It just means that they have to sometimes see or understand things that no one else around them does. Intelligence is usually relative.

Again, your mileage may vary, and there must be a million ways for a character to exhibit both of those traits. And as far as the "good" trait goes, I mostly mean that the character must perceive themselves as good. Even if they are actually evil, they have to have some sort of rationalization that makes them act the way they do. Evil characters who don't are nothing more than selfish, and that's not usually fun to read unless really skillfully done.

But getting back to my original point: these character characteristics can (and to some degree should) drive the plot of your story. The reason why is simple: you're supposed to be showing, not telling. So if you want your main character to be seen as smart and powerful, as I do, then you have to have some situations where these traits are exhibited. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is say "John was very smart." That doesn't work too well, because (among other reasons) readers prefer to make such judgements on their own based on observation. If the narrator tells us someone is smart, we generally take that with a huge grain of salt.

At any rate, I was working on my plans for the work, realizing that I still didn't just absolutely love my main character (though we were still friends), and also realizing that I had to do something about that. When I came up with my list of reasons I didn't absolutely love her (she was too passive, and nothing about her part in the plot screamed intelligence), I realized I need to make some plot changes. The funny thing is, though I started trying to think of sweeping adjustments to the main plot, I wound up just making some tweaks and adding to my sub-plots.

All is well now, but it just got me thinking about the myriad different ways that one can come up with a plot of a book. Sometimes even a great plot is a little bit of a byproduct of detailed, unusual characters and setting/premise. Actually, I think that might be the case more than we think. It's a lot easier to back into a unique plot that than it is to just think of one right from the start.

Friday, March 16, 2007


I'm going to try something new coming up. I've really been enjoying reading about the ups and downs of Karen Mahoney and Rachel Vincent as they write, and I've decided to do something similar. I find that it's nice to have the brief update posts from authors that I'm interested in, and perhaps my doing the same will be a good counterpoint to the longer Thoughts on Writing and Agent Search posts that I make. Those have completely been the focus of the blog so far, and that sort of content will continue to be a prominent feature here, but there's a limit to how many of those I can write during a week while still making progress on my actual book writing. So we'll see how this goes, and whether this is actually of interest to anyone, or what.

As to the actual subject of this post, the update on ALDEN RIDGE: things are going slow, word count wise. I wrote about 500 words tonight, which is 500 more words than I've written the entire rest of the week. That might sound like I've done no work on the book, but actually I've made tons of notes and done lots of preplanning. I actually outlined a full eighteen chapters that could take me to one possible ending of the book--not that I plan on sticking to that too closely (plus, if I just wrote those chapters, this book would only be something like 60-70K words, which is way too short). But that outline gives me something of a yardstick to shoot for, and already I've been flushing it out even more, revising it, and coming up with sub-plots that go along with it.

I had hit a point where I realized that I simply wasn't that interested in this book, not in the way I am in THE GUARDIAN. That was mostly because the story itself wasn't powerful enough to me, and I didn't connect enough with the characters yet. The setting was great, as I had spent the most time on that and general worldbuilding in my prewriting, but what I realized was the I only had the beginnings of an actual story. I've spent my writing time in the last couple of weeks correcting that, so that now I have a really story that I'm really excited about, and characters that are complex and that I connect with, to go along with the setting. That sort of work will probably remain ongoing until the book is complete, but at least I have a strong framework to add to, now.

So, while I'm still unhappy with my low wordcount so far on this project, I'm hoping that will pick up soon. My preplanning has really revitalized my outlook on this project, and I'm really excited about that.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
7,353 / 95,000(7.7%)

Monday, March 12, 2007


Well, I blame Chandra for this, who of course blames Vicki Pettersson. I'm not sure who Vicki blames, but I'm sure it's someone. Ah well, I've burned an hour or so making myself as a meez:

Would you like to waste some time, too? You're in luck.

Rewriting versus Redrafting

There isn't any real existing difference between these two words, so I'm going to make one up in order to describe my idea of the two different kinds of edits we make to our work.

In my made-up lexicon, redrafting is what you do of your own accord, after some time has passed from your first draft. This is what we do after the first draft of the ms is finished in order to polish it up so that it is worthy to be sent out either to agents or to beta readers. These edits are relatively more minor, often somewhat cosmetic or simply technical in nature, and while they are also very important, they are not going to catapult the ms into any new realms of quality--this is just part of what must happen to every ms before it can become a book.

On the other hand, rewriting is something else entirely. Rewriting might happen during the redrafting process, to be sure, but I think that most non-established authors aren't going to be able to do the rewriting effectively without a lot of time between the first draft and the rewrite, and probably not without some sort of external motivation or help (critique group comments, a growing stack of rejections, feedback from a mentor or editor or agent). In essence, rewriting is undoing or otherwise changing some part of your existing draft: cutting down overwriting you couldn't even see, cutting or changing characters that just didn't work, adding or dropping or totally redoing scenes or sometimes even entire sub plots in order to fix the flow or pacing or whatever in the novel.

I think that as a writer becomes more experienced, the distinction between these two processes disappears to some degree. That's what I'm finding, and I have a feeling that this is universal: all those things that other people had to point out for me in my earlier books, I now see automatically in my own writing. Not that I expect to ever see everything, but each time I do the revisions to a new ms, and each time I get feedback, I'm assimilating new information that (hopefully) no one will ever have to tell me again.

Redrafting is always easy to justify and enjoy, because it is simply improving what you've already done. But rewriting is more about discovering what you could have done better, and doing that instead of whatever you actually did. That can be a blow to one's pride, but it is also important because it is actually improving ourselves as writers, rather than just one ms.

The hardest part of that process is learning to filter out that backstory which slows down/distracts from/otherwise hampers your story. That, or losing those elements which are simply uninteresting to readers, though they are interesting to you as the writer. That's the part that really hurts, I think, because when we are first writing it is hard to know what will be of interest to others (not to mention what will seem far fetched or cliche). That’s "killing your darlings."

A lot of writers seem to abhor doing rewrites, or at least find it an intensely painful process, but I've never found that for myself. I differentiate between the story as it exists in my head from the way it comes out on paper. The rewrites just take me closer to being able to make other people feel about the story-on-paper the way I feel about the story-in-my-head. To me, that’s much more important than the sanctity of the actual story-on-paper itself.

Even veteran novelists have to do rewrites when they pick a story that really challenges them. That’s always the goal, right? To push yourself even farther with every story you write. If you read the foreword in the Author’s Definitive Edition of Orson Scott Card’s SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, I think that has a lot of very interesting comments on this subject. The work was most certainly not his first, and yet it took him something like 4 complete, ground-up rewrites of the book before it worked the way he wanted. It was just a new style for him, and a different kind of story from anything that was out there in his genre (sci-fi). It took him a long time to get it right, as well as feedback from a couple of other noted authors, but that book went on to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, which has only ever happened to about six authors (and to Card twice, incidentally).

This is what I think about when I’m doing rewrites. I always figure that today-me is much smarter and wiser than yesterday-me, so it doesn’t offend today-me to find out that yesterday-me made some mistakes. I’m just happy to strengthen my story and my craft in general. But whatever your take on them, rewrites are just a part of this business, like rejections and bad reviews.

(Note: this post is adapted from comments I originally posted over on Good Karma Reviews.)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Stage Fright And Writing

Trolling through old content from Absolute Write, I happened across the transcript of an interview from last January with Jenna Glatzer. She's actually the owner of Absolute Write, as well as an experienced writer. In the interview, she talks a lot about stage fright and how she found that affected her strongly in her prior career as a stage actor, and yet how it isn't something that has ever really been an issue for her with writing. She postulates that this is at least partly because writing is her secondary thing, while acting was her original dream.

I think that's very interesting, because I think a lot of aspiring authors hold writing as their Big Dream, and thus a whole lot of their identity is wrapped up in the stories they write. I think that might contribute to that fear of rejection that we all have--this isn't just some random job interview of which there are many more possibilities besides. This is our Dream, and there's only so many agents and editors out there. If writing is our only way to evaluate our professional self worth, then that's even worse--everyone gets rejections, and most people can't get their first book published (I read over on Pub Rants a while ago that the average might be three unpublished books before one is sold).

I don't mention this quasi-statistic to be discouraging, and neither did they. Just because that's the anecdotal average doesn't mean it will hold true for everyone, either. But no matter what, you're going to get rejections. I've never heard of a published writer who said they hadn't. So the important thing is to not let yourself get too tied up by any individual work--whether that means moving on to the next book while you query for your current one, or whether that means not being so afraid that your current book isn't good enough that you never finish writing it. This is a time-intensive business, and as anyone who has queried for a book can tell you, the actual long process of writing the book is only Part 1.

Write for yourself. Unlike singers or actors, we don't have to perform on stage, and we should use that to our advantage. Don't needlessly put yourself on stage while you're writing. I know several singers (my sister and my sister in law are both terrific), and one of their biggest problems is not letting performance anxiety affect their performances. When they perceive the stakes as being really high, there's a risk that their vocal cords will constrict, and that has a very negative impact on the quality of their singing. You never hear this in professional singers, because sometime before they went pro, they learned how to control their fear.

And I think writers face the same challenge. A certain amount of introspection is healthy and wonderful, and absolutely necessary. But before we're ever going to be a true pro, we have to learn how to differentiate between the healthy analysis and that which is just stage fright. We have to write like there's no one else in the room (and, um, there probably isn't). Writing isn't like stage performance. It's like working in the recording studio or for the camera: you have as many takes as you need (and there aren't any other staff/actors/singers waiting on you, either, so even better). If your first draft of a new scene or chapter isn't great, don't despair. You have as many revisions or rewrites as you need, and you're the only one watching or keeping count. Write for yourself.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Combined Hook

I got wonderful feedback on the two hooks that I posted this morning. Thanks to everyone who voiced their opinion; it was all a really great help! The general consensus seemed to be that there were good and bad aspects to both of my hooks, however, and so I'm now putting forth a third hook that attempts to combine the good aspects of the original two hooks. If you have any more comments (good, bad, or ugly--don't hold back), I'd love to hear them. No matter what, I think that this is definitely the strongest hook I've ever had--though there's always room for improvement.

Oh, and one other thing: this new hook doesn't even touch on the Big Spoiler, and there's nothing else here that I wouldn't be comfortable putting on the back of the book. So, read on without fear.

At age twenty-four, with a college degree under his belt and a good job as a guardian magi for a small company, Sean Sunderland feels like he has a pretty good handle on his life. What he never suspected was how much of his life was based on lies. The Otherworld in which he works is actually just one small part of an ancient world that few suspect exists, and a race of demons wants Sean for its own because of magical powers he doesn't even know he has. Even Sean's parents seem to be hiding something--his connection to the Otherworld may be stronger than he knows.

It isn't until the demons try to capture Sean that he becomes aware that his world isn't what he thought. Though he hides his abilities from his family and most of his coworkers, those who are aware of his true nature are unwilling to let him return to the life he loved. The free peoples of the Otherworld want Sean to unseat the lord of the demons, the demons demand that Sean join their ranks or die, and a ten thousand year old vampire needs Sean's help to save his descendants from a malevolent phantasm. Somehow, Sean will have to master his powers well enough to protect himself and those he cares about not only from the demons, but also from the darkness within himself.

New Hooks

Okay, well, based on the feedback that I have received I have now cooked up another couple of hooks that I can potentially use. The hooks themselves have a lot of spoilers in them, and so have been blacked out--you have to highlight them with the cursor to see the text. That way, those of you who don't want anything spoiled won't accidentally read these without meaning to.

Option 1 (focus on powers):

Sean Sunderland grew up thinking that his greatest gift was simply to become a guardian magi who could protect corporations from magical intrusion and the specters that roam the Otherworld. But when the demons try to capture him after his college graduation, Sean discovers that he is one of the last Thaumaturges--powerful magi who can work magic without the runes and amulets that are normally required. Sean's magic is virtually unlimited, bounded only by what he can comprehend in sufficient detail. The problem is, though Sean can already create 300 meter fireballs and slow time, he has very little control over his magic. His magic seems to make him invincible, but the reflexive nature of it also makes him dangerous to everyone around him.

Though he hides his abilities from his family and most of his coworkers, there are ancient creatures who are not willing to let him ignore his abilities. The Eldest Dragon wants Sean to unseat the lord of the demons, the demons demand that Sean join their ranks or die, and a ten thousand year old vampire needs Sean's help to save his descendants from an evil phantasm. Sean knows he will ultimately have to face the demons--but what he doesn't realize is just how terrible their power is, for they are Thaumaturges also, and much more practiced. They kill him and turn him into one of them. Somehow, even as a demon, Sean will have to master his powers well enough to protect himself and those he cares about from not only the other demons, but also the darkness within himself.

Option 2 (focus on intrigue):

At age twenty-four, with a college degree under his belt and a good job as a guardian magi for a small company, Sean Sunderland feels like he has a pretty good handle on his life. What he never suspected was how much of his life was based on lies. The Otherworld in which he works is actually just one small part of an ancient world that few suspect exist, and a race of demons want Sean for their own because of magical powers he doesn't even know he has. Even Sean's parents seem to be hiding something--his connection to the Otherworld may be stronger than he knows.

It isn't until the demons try to capture Sean that he becomes aware that his world isn't what he thought. As Sean is pulled ever more into a struggle as old as humanity itself, it becomes increasingly clear that the life he had struggled for years to build is lost. Even his newfound powers aren't enough to resist the demons--it isn't long before they kill him and turn him into one of them. Despairing at his undeath and desperate to escape the demon civilization in which he is now held captive, Sean must hold fast to his human identity if he ever hopes to escape and save those who still matter most to him.

For those of you who wish to read these hooks, please let me know what you honestly think of them. It would also be useful to me to know which parts catch your eye, if anything does. And also the reverse: what seems prosaic or cliche? I might do a third hook sometime soon, if these don't seem strong enough. For those of you who wish to have nothing spoiled, I'd suggest staying out of the comments section for this particular post, too.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Hook Advice?

All right, here's an area where my knowledge and skill at sales/marketing are apparently falling short: the hook. I think I'm pretty good at writing synopses now, and good with some other aspects of the query letter, but I'm having trouble distilling a compelling hook for THE GUARDIAN, which is after all a relatively complex book. The faults in my hook are most recently evidenced by literary agent Rachel Vater's hook critique, to which I submitted my hook (I'm #25, but don't read it if you don't want to know a major spoiler). Her entire comment was: "Alternate worlds, demons trying to kill people with magical powers for some reason. Nothing here really caught my eye."

Ouch. I even sent her my new-and-improved version of my hook, rather than the one I had previously been sending to agents. I've gotten personal responses based on my writing quality, I think, more so than my query itself, and I think my query--most specifically the hook--has been what has been holding me back from getting more requests for the full. Certainly I've gotten good comments from the two professional readers who have read the entire thing (Matt Bialer and Beverly Swerling), but neither one of them decided to read the entire thing because of my hook or query letter alone.

So, I'm realizing that if I hope to get another agent to pick up THE GUARDIAN based on the query letter and sample chapters alone, my best chance at that is to have a much stronger hook than I presently do. I've already gotten some excellent advice from Karen Mahoney, but I thought I would make a formal post about this and see what ideas or techniques everyone else has, too. For some reason, as much as I've read comments from agents and other writers, I just don't quite "get it" yet when it comes to hooks. Somehow my book, which has been praised as being very original by those who have actually read the whole thing, comes off sounding more than a little cliche when I try to write my hook (in all fairness, I tried writing hooks for other works, like THE MATRIX and THE DARK IS RISING, and somehow I manage to make those sound cliche, too. Yikes, I must be doing something wrong).

So, any thoughts?