Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chapter 9 Progress

800 words tonight. Until now I've mostly been doing revising and prewriting; also character development on several of my more minor characters who are now making an appearance in the narrative for the first time. It's hard to write scenes for characters you don't know, so my first order of business had been getting to know them. The scene I'm currently writing is longer than most of the scenes from my last few chapters; it's interesting writing for me, because I'm getting to explore the Elaine character in greater depth than I have yet in the narrative.

In other news, I've been advised by a reliable source that the average length of first novels in my genre is usually 75,000-85,000 words. With this in mind, I've decided to lower my target word count from 95,000 words to 80,000 words. I might still write more than that, but that's my new target. I've known from the start that I would need a new sub-plot to ever make it to 95,000 words--now I don't have to manufacture something new just to hit a length requirement, so I'm happy about that. I think the novel will be plenty complex and yet still fast-paced at the length I'm currently shooting for.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
21,837 / 80,000 (27.3%)

Learning to write in tight perspective

A lot of aspiring writers choose to write in the third person, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that in itself. There are occasionally problems when the narrator is a bit too omniscient, however. Done well, this technique can work admirably, but it's a really hard trick to pull off. Anne Mini has been discussing Point of View Nazis on her blog (part II is here), and she explains it all much better than I could.

Essentially, third or first person limited is what is popular now, and there are some very interesting things you can do with that perspective. Most writers don't think too much about POV when they start out with their first novel or two, however, and that generally creates a narrative in the third person with a lot of perspectives haphazardly mashed together. If you're doing this intentionally for effect, then fine--but too many aspiring writers do this without realizing they are doing so.

When I was having trouble slipping into slightly-omniscient mode in THE GUARDIAN, my solution was to start writing in first person. I happened to be reading Robin McKinley's excellent SUNSHINE, which is completely in the first person. Writing in the first person for nearly the entire length of THE GUARDIAN really forced me to see and write things from his point of view, and it clarified scenes in which I was otherwise having trouble deciding how to describe things (solution: just describe what Sean sees and senses as he does so).

The drawback of this approach was that I went too far into Sean's head, often overwriting what he was thinking and feeling far too much, but once I learned how to recognize these issues the editing wasn't that bad. And, truthfully, in my particular story there were a lot of things that I did with the story that just wouldn't have worked in anything but first person (to give specifics would be a major spoiler, unfortunately, but let's just say first person lends itself to studying the question of personal identity in unique ways).

Now that I'm writing ALDEN RIDGE I have moved back to third person limited, but I find that vastly easier to write now than I ever did before. All that experience with writing in the first person really paid off. So, if you feel like you're struggling with perspective, and your goal is to write in a limited perspective (even if you have multiple protagonists, your perspective can still be limited to one character in each individual scene--I do this in ALDEN RIDGE), then you might want to consider doing some practice writing in first person. Even if you don't write it in first person, if you're going for tight perspective you should always be conscious of what your character is seeing and feeling and thinking and learning. Lot's of explanatory asides from an omniscient narrator can really bog down a story if not done with great skill.

That said, almost any technique can work wonderfully if done with great enough skill. Just be sure that your style is something that you craft yourself, rather than an unconscious byproduct. Happy writing!

Ne quid nimis

Blogging is addictive. And, as is the case with most addictions, that's not a good thing. Life is already too full of things to do . If you've been wondering where I was for the past week, perhaps you thought that I was:

A) Dealing with personal life issues.
B) Very busy with day-job work.
C) Working on my actual novel.
D) Trying to relax at least a little.
E) All of the above.

As is far too often the case with multiple choice questions, the answer is "all of the above." Though sadly not as much of answer C as I would have preferred. Lot's of planning for my manuscript, a fair bit of editing, and a little bit of writing. I'll have more on my progress sometime soon, but let's leave it at that for now.

To be clear: I have no plans for giving up my blog, but I'm also not going to let it dominate my evenings like I did for a while there. I'll continue to try and have a new post at least once a week, and many weeks may see (vastly) more posts than that, but I'm not going to adhere to any particular schedule. If you read a lot of blogs, my best advice is to subscribe to RSS feeds (that link is to mine). It's the easiest way to get notified whenever a blog author makes an update to his/her blog. That way you don't keep checking back every day, only to be disappointed whenever the daily offering isn't there. It's the concept of push technology at its best!

I know I've said things like this before, but this time I'm going to try stick to it. My addictions are collecting things and (apparently) blogging-related activities such as posting far too many comments elsewhere in the blogosphere, but I will overcome them! At least I don't have any of the really nasty habits--no smoking, no drugs, and alcohol only in extreme moderation. I suspect we all have some nontraditional addictions in our lives, and if those are preventing us from writing as much as we'd like, well, we ought to at least evaluate that.

"In all things moderation." --Publius Terentius Afer

True Words

I can't say it any better than Stephen Parrish says it here. It's incredibly important to remember to enjoy the journey.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Thoughts on multiple protagonists.

A couple of days ago Anne Mini made an post called The plague of passivity, and the ensuing discussion in her comments section turned partly to the issue of multiple protagonists. Having multiple protagonists is something that I have not generally loved in books that I've read, yet it's something that I decided to do in ALDEN RIDGE. (Incidentally, I've never been the biggest fan of first person narratives, yet that's what THE GUARDIAN is written in--aside from a few brief interludes following other characters in third person limited, and one key dramatic scene written in third omniscient.) With any device, it's all about how it's used, however.

What exactly do I mean by "multiple protagonists?" In ALDEN RIDGE, it's not that I just have multiple POV characters, but I actually have three protagonists who each drive parts of the plot in their own ways. If you've read the excerpt, you've already seen how I handle this with two of them--Darrell and Elaine. Darrell is the most-central protagonist, and the story follows him more than anyone else, but there are also a lot of scenes where Darrell is present and yet the narrative follows Elaine's POV. You already see some of that in the excerpt. Lela, Darrell's four year-old daughter who you meet in the first chapter, is the third protagonist. I don't follow her much until farther in, but her perspective is also of central concern to the story. These three characters are distinguished from more minor characters whose POV I might follow for a brief time, but who aren't the central characters of the story (even if a few of them are the primary antagonists).

Essentially I’m weaving Darrell, Elaine, and Lela's (already very interrelated) stories together, writing in third limited for whoever I’m following at the moment, and always following whichever of them is the most interesting and has the most conflict in a given scene--or whoever's perspective is most revealing in those cases when the protagonists are in conflict with one another. For instance, the reason that I use Elaine's POV in the scene when she and Darrell meet in chapter 2 should hopefully be quite evident--she's the one in the more interesting, more unusual situation. She's also the one with the most internal conflict at that point. None of that would come across if I was still following Darrell in third person limited at that point, and your conception of Elaine would be entirely different.

The use of multiple protagonists has never been something that enamors me of a book (except in a few rare cases), but that's often been because I just didn't like the way the author juggled the protagonists. Anne Mini mentions that "Multiple protagonists are fairly common in aspiring writers’ manuscripts — although, because it’s hard to pull off well, they are less common on bookstore shelves."

One thing that has bugged me about a lot of published books with multiple protagonists is how the protagonists are introduced. In Michael Crichton’s STATE OF FEAR he starts off with a flurry of small chapters (some only a page or three), each with a group of entirely unrelated characters that are in different parts of the world and doing different things. I normally really enjoy his work, and count Jurassic Park and Prey as two of my top-50 favorite books, but I never have gotten into STATE OF FEAR because of how the characters were handled. It was just too impossible for me to care about the characters because there were so many of them.

Then there are those books that start with several longer chapters with one protagonist, and then suddenly switch to spending several chapters with another protagonist in another location. This works better than what Crichton did in STATE, I believe, since it does get the reader more vested in the first protagonist before moving on. In the end, however, the changeover is still jarring if the second protagonist hasn't been introduced prior to becoming the new focus of the story. I felt that way about Ding Chavez in Tom Clancy's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, but now Ding is one of my favorite characters in Clancy's books (right behind Jack Ryan and John Clark). Tom Clancy has multiple protagonists in basically all of his books (in most he treats the villain as one of the major POV characters to the point that they become a protagonist), but in general it works for his style.

There have been other writers (several lesser-known fantasy writers in particular) for whom I don’t feel this technique has worked very gracefully. I suppose it works for Clancy partly because he writes thrillers with a heavy emphasis on technology and nonfiction-style information dispersal. If he were writing truly character-focused stories, the reader would get a lot more frustrated--and since I tend to write character-focused stories, this is the risk for me. I don't think it would work if I were to use Clancy's technique.

Even before starting ALDEN RIDGE, my technique for introducing new characters has always been a cautious one. Except in certain circumstances (once or possibly twice per book at most), I always introduce new characters in the company of existing characters. This makes for a smoother transition, as it lets the reader meet these new characters without being taken away from the existing characters that they already like and are comfortable with. I believe it makes it easier for the reader to then enjoy any future scenes that happen follow the new characters alone. Those future scenes then become deeper glimpses into a character the reader already has some familiarity with, rather than yet another POV character the reader doesn't know anything about.

There are certainly many ways in which to handle all of these issues, and the style that you choose will largely boil down to personal preference and taste. Just make sure that whatever technique you choose is consistent with the rest of your storytelling techniques in a given work. If it's a character-focused story, try to respect (and grow) the bond between your reader and your protagonist(s). If it's more of an idea-focused work, you might have less to worry about. Many novels--ALDEN RIDGE included--are actually hybrids that are simultaneously character-focused and idea-focused, and so there is even more flexibility with what aspects you choose to emphasize at any given point. Nothing like having an endless array of choices, right?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Chapter 8 is finished.

At 1,800 words it's a fairly short chapter compared to most of mine, but the length fits. I wrote about 500 words tonight, and revised perhaps the other 1,300 fairly heavily. I had been unsure about some of these scenes, but tonight they really came together for me in a flash of inspiration and productivity. Even better, the last scene of my chapter practically wrote itself, and took me in a slightly unexpected direction. That's created a really wonderful set up for chapter 9, and now I've got a bunch of new ideas for that chapter that I'm really excited about. I can't say much without spoiling things, though. Let's just say that my pool of antagonists is expanding, and I plan to make good use of them . . . .

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
20,779 / 95,000 (21.9%)

Hook? Oh, no--I'm sorry, I meant Hook.

What's in a name? Not much, it would seem, when it comes to business terminology. I see this all the time in my day job--you'd think that "project" and "role" and "prospect" and "fund" would all be fairly simple terms, yet these words (and their many peers) have an array of nuanced meanings depending on what business unit of what company you are talking to. Be glad you don't have to keep all that straight, at least.

Yesterday it finally dawned on me that this same situation exists in the publishing industry, at least in a few instances. Everyone means the same thing when they say "SASE" or "manuscript" or "agent," of course. But what about "hook" and "synopsis?" These two words in particular seem to have variable meaning depending on who you talk to, and that's something that is important to remember.

When it comes to synopses, most people mean the same general thing--the question here is of length. Some agency websites are kind enough to specify their required synopsis length, but others are not. Sources on the web also vary widely, with some people stating that a synopsis as long as ten (or more!) double-spaced pages is required, while others are noting that a single page double-or-single spaced is as much as you should provide (and that an agent won't want to read more than that, anyway). Bear in mind that I'm only talking about synopses for finished fiction works, here--"synopses" in the context of non-fiction or as part of a proposal for an unwritten novel are something else entirely, and not something I know much about. Feel free to correct me on this, or take someone else's advice if you prefer it, but the best I can tell is that a good length for a fiction synopsis is 1-3 pages double spaced (2 probably being ideal). As always, your mileage may vary.

When it comes to hooks, however, two entirely different beasts are called by that same name. Here again it is a question of length, but it is also a question of use. Yesterday, literary agent Nathan Bransford made a very interesting post on How to Craft a Great Hook. In this post he discusses a different kind of hook from what I've been talking about on this blog--I've been discussing hooks of the sort that were featured in the hook contests at Fangs, Fur, & Fey and Lit Agent X in recent months. In Nathan's parlance (and incidentally, in Beverly Swerling's), a "hook" isn't a multi-paragraph introductory overview of your book that goes in your query letter. In their terms, a hook is just one or two lines--probably fifty words or less. It's the one-liner response that you would give to someone in an elevator.

This is a very different meaning of "hook," and Nathan clarifies the difference in the comments on his blog:

I've always thought of a "hook" as being a sentence or two. So yeah, 50 words or less. And yes, I definitely want to distinguish between a query letter and a hook. A novel should have a strong hook, but that doesn't necessarily need to be stated explicitly in the query letter. All of the things you mention (setting, characters, etc.) should be in the query letter, but they don't have to be in a hook.

This is very interesting to me. It reminds me that you need to have a simple way to very concisely sum up your wonderful concept. If not, your agent will certainly have to come up with a one-liner before they start pitching it to editors. This sort of "one-liner hook" is easier in some ways than the longer "query hook" (because there is less emphasis on detail), and yet harder in other ways (because there is less room to include detail).

I can't post my one-liner hook for THE GUARDIAN because it gives away the central twist, but here's my one-liner for ALDEN RIDGE:

A man struggles to find a home for himself and his young daughter in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by the undead.

That's the heart of the story, right there. Everything else is obstacles or complexity or characterization or themes or setting, and while that's incredibly necessary to the book itself and even to the "query hook" in a more limited way, I'm pretty sure my one-liner says about all it needs to. But who knows. To those of you who are writing/have written novels, what are your one-liner hooks?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dramatic Speeches

Remember that blockbuster hit INDEPENDENCE DAY? Aliens attack the Earth, and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the day with the help of some ludicrous science? Yeah, not a great movie (though Smith did have some excellent lines--doesn't he always?--and Goldblum is great anyway). The reason I bring this movie up, however, has nothing to do with either of those actors. What's on my mind tonight is the speech that the president, played by Bill Pullman, gives late into the movie. The speech is supposed to be patriotic and rousing . . . but unfortunately it really just doesn't come off. Pullman does his best, but the script writers just weren't speech writers. Suffice it so say that Pullman's president is no FDR.

I think about that cringe-worthy scene a lot--whenever I contemplate writing a rousing speech of my own, in fact. In my earlier (pre-THE GUARDIAN) novels I wrote a number of supposedly rousing speeches, but none of those came off well, either. It seems like many speeches housed in dramatic works don't come off well (the impeccable THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and the works of Tom Clancy being notable exceptions). Some authors are multi-talented and can write wonderful novels (or screenplays) as well as convincing speeches, but I think that these are two (actually, three) distinctly different talents and you shouldn't assume you can do both if you can do one. The same with journalism, poetry, songwriting . . . all of these are discrete disciplines.

But I'm specifically interested in dramatic speeches, because those so often come up in certain kinds of novels--fantasies and political thrillers come to mind. I've been a bit blocked in my own writing since returning from vacation, largely because I had come to a point where a military scout was supposed to make a dramatic speech to a bunch of frightened townspeople. I've been blocked because I knew I didn't want to write the scene. I knew I wouldn't do it very well. But what I realized last night was this: I don't have to write the scene. The speech itself really isn't important to my particular book. It's the effect of the speech on the characters and plot that I actually want to write about.

It's like that old monster movie adage: don't show the monster. If the viewers can't see the monster, it's much more intimidating--take M. Night Shyamalan's otherwise-excellent SIGNS as an example of when showing a full-body shot of the monster hinders suspense and mood. The same thing goes for dramatic speeches: if you aren't really good at writing dramatic speeches, and it's important to your work to have a really dramatic speech, don't feel like you have to actually show the speech--or at least not all of it. There are a lot of ways to get around writing an extended monologue, actually, while still achieving the intended effect. Less is sometimes more (but that's something that is completely up to you).

As another example: Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had numerous references to a mysterious "Noodle Incident." This incident is mentioned several times in almost mythical tones, but it is never explained. Watterson explained in one of his later anthologies that he did this on purpose, because he knew that what his readers imagined was so much more bizarre and outrageous than anything he could have come up with. There are countless such examples in all media forms--the special edition of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK actually shows the Wampa, whereas the original didn't, and as such a lot of the tension of that scene in the ice cave on Hoth is lost in the new version.

It's all comes down to balance and personal preference, and there is no ultimate right answer. But it's indisputable that leaving some things to the imagination is a tried-and-true technique that has served many writers well. This technique shouldn't be used to the exclusion of others, of course, but it is one that we aspiring writers might not employ as often as we should. It's sometimes tempting to just explain everything immediately, but you should be aware of the effect that this might have on the sense of mystery and tension in your work. Sometimes mystery, like ambiguity, works to our advantage. And sometimes a speech is much more dramatic when it exists nowhere but in the readers' imagination.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Blogger thinks I'm German

Guten Tag.

I have no idea why, but my blog archive links have suddenly changed to German. Februar, März, April, Mai. Maybe it's trying to teach me to be more multilingual--but the post headers are still in English, so I'm thinking maybe this is a bug. Hopefully it will go away soon, but at least it's not much trouble at the moment. Oh well.

Auf Wiedersehen.

Humorous conversations to overhear

As my wife and I are leaving Borders, a man in his forties comes up to the register that we had just left. The elderly cashier looks at the first book that the man hands her, and remarks, "Ooh, this is a good book. Hard, though."

The man responds: "Because of all the words?"

It turns out that it was some sort of puzzle book or brain teaser set or something, but this exchange was definitely good for a double take and a laugh.

Miss Snark--Retiring? Where to go now?

Sadly, yes. Even though I didn't always agree with everything she said, she was always a source of entertainment and great information. She seemed truly devoted to helping writers improve themselves and break into the business. She will be widely missed.

So, where to go now? I do have some suggestions:

Nathan Bransford is a young, but very savvy, literary agent who makes regular posts each weekday. I believe a lot of Snarklings are already "Branfans" as well, but it bears repeating. His posts are generally focused more on the business of agenting and publishing than on writing. He's as entertaining and genuinely informative as Miss Snark.

Anne Mini is a writer and a freelance editor who also makes daily posts on the business of writing. She tends to tackle major problems in writing from the writer's point of view, and regularly goes into more depth on such issues than any blog I've ever seen.

The Rejector is a literary agent assistant who makes less frequent posts than the above, but who also has things of value to say. She's also somewhat snarky at times, so you can get your occasional snark fix here.

Rachel Vater is another blogging literary agent, and while her posts do tend to be pretty infrequent, they are real gems when they do appear.

Kristen Nelson is a literary agent whose blog is well worth your time. She posts nearly daily, and her topics are informative and wide-ranging.

Jessica Faust is a literary agent as well, and while her blog does sometimes have advice that is very specific to a few specific genres (mystery, suspense, romance), the majority of her posts are of broader interest as well. Definitely worth a look.

Miss Snark will be missed, but aspiring writers have no reason to despair. Fortunately for us all, she wasn't the our only ally in the business. Not by a long shot. So farewell, Miss Snark, and best of luck in your work.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thoughts On Editing For Repetitive Structure

If you're an aspiring writer and aren't reading Anne Mini's blog yet, you should be. Today's post, On beyond Dick and Jane, is about self editing. Specifically, about self editing for repetitive structures in your writing. This is a prose flaw that I personally find extremely grating, so I spend a lot of time working on this one issue with my own writing. Here are a couple of tricks I use when looking for these in my revisions.

As an aside, let me note that I think the repetitive structure issue is one that's positively inevitable in first drafts. It's something I've been warring with for the past few years, and I've seen it in plenty of other aspiring writers' work as well. Since our brains are largely focused on just getting the story on the page during that first round of writing, first drafts tend to turn up a higher dose of repetitive sentences than they should.

All right, on to the tips. First, I never try to edit too much at one time when I'm doing looking for this sort of complex/subtle issue. It takes a lot of focus to read for repetitions, especially when you're attempting to keep up the variance through not only one paragraph, but also adjacent paragraphs (as you should be). I generally edit 3,000 or less words at one time, and then do some actual writing. That's part of why I edit as I write, and then edit again (multiple times) after I finish. By the time I consider a work "done" and ready for submission, I've probably passed over the opening chapters a score of times--no kidding. The last chapters perhaps only get half a dozen passes, but by that point in the story my writing tends to be smoother anyway because I know the characters and setting so well at that point.

Secondly, read out loud. Notice when you stumble or when your attention starts to flag even a little bit. No matter what, in those cases you have a problem--and often it is an issue of repetitiveness. Most of us don't naturally speak in complex repetitive patterns, and that trips us up. On the flip side, if it's nothing but short simple sentences you'll be able to read it fine, but you'll fall into a monotone. Watch for both.

Thirdly, and this is one of my better tips: stop using so many complex compound sentences. In my experience, several shorter sentences placed near to one another are much more readable than several long sentences are. To accomplish this, you can simply split a lot of your existing sentences--for instance, avoid transitions where you are saying "while thing X was happening, so was thing Y," or "thing X happened, and then thing Y did." Often you can just state X and Y each as their own shorter sentences, and the reader will naturally understand that X happened before Y (that's the order they read them in, isn't it?). And in a similar issue, if there's a flurry of action happening all at once, that's also likely to be clear without your having to explicitly point it out. I'm not saying you should use short sentence structure exclusively--far from it--but this is one excellent way to vary those compound sentences that otherwise could smother your action-heavy scenes.

Read some action scenes in your favorite book, and see if you don't notice the author doing this. You probably won't have noticed on prior reads, because your mind automatically connects the short sentences to one another. Some aspiring writers believe that short sentences close together are grating, and indeed they can be if carried to excess--but I think that many of us tend to overreact to this structure, and thus wind up with too many long sentences (a far graver sin--and hey, one that I'm exhibiting in this very blog post for some reason).

Here's why I think juxtaposed short sentences are a lesser issue than you might believe: in my studies of Latin poetry, I became familiar with a reading device called elision. All Latin poetry follows a specific meter, which can only have a certain number of syllables per line. Yet some lines from the great works of Catullus and other Roman poets seem to have an extra syllable--this seems wrong at first to students, but it's actually a difference in how the Romans read their poetry aloud versus how they wrote it--they dropped one of the syllables as they read it aloud, combining two words into one so that it fit the meter. See the link above for the details if you're curious. I think that a similar mechanism is going on when a reader encounters two or three short sentences in a row--we read them as one connected idea, not noticing the short sentences until we pass a certain threshold of them. Again, don't take this as me recommending just using this style, because I'm not--but too many aspiring writers (my not-so-distant-past self included) seem to be resistant to using juxtaposed short sentences at all. And hey, it's this resistance to the use of certain sentence forms that causes us to have structural repetition in the first place.

Fourth tip: intersperse dialogue in your action-heavy scenes. It's generally easier to have naturally-flowing dialogue because we're so used to hearing that. Long-running narration without dialogue can get quite tiring unless it is skillfully done, anyway. Even better, in scenes of action you can actually imply action through dialogue, and that's often much more concise and evocative. I recently noted some examples of how Phillip Pullman does this in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

In all these tips, I've really been more focused on action scenes, since those are a common place where structural repetition might be a problem. At the same time, however, extended exposition of any sort--be it physical description or a character's internal thoughts or monologue--lends itself to this problem. Revise carefully for this ugly structural problem; you'll be glad you did.

What techniques have you developed for dealing with the issue of repetitive structure in your own writing?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Passing the 20K mark.

I decided to take a break from looking at my hook tonight, and I managed to write another 800 words on my actual manuscript for ALDEN RIDGE. This actually put me past the 20K word mark, so that's a very exciting milestone. At this point, everything written thus far has a pretty high level of polish already, so I feel confident that not a lot will need to be cut down later. I'm getting much better at writing tighter prose in my first pass, too.

The most unique thing about the content that I was writing tonight is that it is the first time in this book that I'm introducing new POV characters that weren't first introduced in the presence of the main characters. That gives these scenes the feeling of an interlude, and also makes these secondary characters somewhat less likeable than if they had been gradually introduced in the presence of the main characters. That was strategically done, of course, as was the timing of when this first interlude appears.

There will be a few other such interludes from the POV of a total of three minor characters (being that this is a thriller, that seems almost necessary to the genre), but most of the book is split between the POV of Darrell, Elaine, and Darrell's daughter Lela. Darrell gets the most POV time of anyone, as he is really the main protagonist, but Elaine and Lela aren't far behind him in their centrality to the story. Interestingly, I had originally intended Elaine to be the main protagonist of the story, but Darrell turned out to be the more interesting and sympatheic character.

This sort of POV switching is very different from how I wrote THE GUARDIAN (which was all first person except for four or five third-person interludes late in the story), but that's the nature of this book. The three main characters are very interconnected, and this sort of POV switching is the only way to tell the whole story. The few interludes with more minor characters provide context, as well as some dramatic tension from the reader learning a few things that the protagonists don't yet know. And yes, I am taking great care to keep the tension high even when these minor characters are in the driver's seat.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
20,227 / 95,000 (21.3%)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What exactly is *in* a hook?

I just keep getting great comments on my hook revisions--this has been really wonderful. What I'm starting to realize is this: my old longer hook wasn't ineffective simply because it was longer--it was ineffective because it covered a lot of disparate ideas without really going into depth with any of them. The end result was that you sort of knew what I was talking about, and you probably had a good idea that there was a lot going on in the book, but it just sounded to confusing and muddled to be that enticing.

I think that my new shorter hook is better because it is more focused, and because it does go into slightly more detail with some of the issues. The idea was to be concise, so as not to lose a busy agent's attention and so as not to muddle the core hook itself with a lot of extraneous information. I think the new hook accomplishes that goal.

That said, what I'm hearing from the most recent comments is that I'm still not going into enough depth in the new shorter version. If you look at it one way, that makes sense--to get shorten my hook, I basically just cut out all the peripheral concepts and improved the wording. That was a good first step, but now I need to flush out my hook even more with the details whose lack seems to be frustrating the commenters. Rather than just stating a few unusual things, I need to give or at least hint at the reasons behind things.

Hear that? That was the sound of a light bulb clicking on for me. How to write a hook: "Give semi-detailed info on the single most interesting aspect of your book." Okay, got it. It will take me a while to come up with the next version, since this is a bit of a different approach, but I'll post it as soon as I have something. That might be tonight, or it might be a few days from now (I forgot to check the three-day Muse forecast). At any rate, thanks to everyone has weighed in. All the various ideas and opinions continue to be indispensable.

Another New Hook Version

Based on yet more excellent feedback from the comments, here is a revised version (and yes, Colleen, I did give in and switch the first two sentences after all).

Nine years have passed since the undead grey men ended civilization, and now all that remains are small bands of survivors huddling in isolated towns. Darrell Williams is living with his daughter in an abandoned factory near the ruins of Alden Ridge. His companions have turned the factory into something of a fortress—but when the town starts to experience an unexpected transformation, Darrell is forced to leave his daughter and stray from the factory’s shelter. He finds the landscape literally twisted as it is consumed by a dark force that also makes the grey men increasingly aggressive. For Darrell to have any hope of saving his daughter and the others, he must unearth the truth about what is happening to Alden Ridge . . . but his discoveries will lead him to the most difficult decision of his life.

Hopefully this is a lot more vivid, but do your worst.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How many times can I rewrite the same hook?

Time will only tell, but I'm learning from each one. Hopefully this is useful in some way for everyone else as well; in any event, I really appreciate all the feedback that everyone has offered.

Here's the deal this time: I've been mulling over everyone's comments on my prior version, and reading the excellent Post-Hook-Contest Reflections (One and Two) at Fangs, Fur, & Fey, and something has occurred to me. My prior hook, even when tightened, was just too long. I decided to go look once again at the backs of some of books I've previously bought, and this also helped remind me that less is more. While I do still think it is important to hint a depth in a hook, I also think it's good not to be too complex. So here goes:

In 2018, Darrell Williams is living in an abandoned factory near the ruins of Alden Ridge. Nine years have passed since the undead grey men ended civilization, and now all that remains are small bands of survivors huddling in isolated towns. Darrell’s companions have turned the factory into something of a fortress—but as Alden Ridge starts to undergo another transformation, even this is of little solace. The landscape of the town is being twisted by a dark force that also makes the grey men increasingly aggressive. For Darrell to have any hope of saving himself and the others, he must unearth the truth about what is happening to Alden Ridge . . . but his discoveries will lead him to the most difficult decision of his life.

This one is only 128 words, rather than the prior 212. I know that it completely ignores some interesting plot elements that the other versions included, but that's kind of the idea. As the judge at the FFF contest said, I need to focus on the forest more so than the trees. How do you think I did?

Rip away, everyone.

UPDATE: I've made a slight change to the last sentence, combining it with the one before. I think this gives a better beat for the ending of the selection. Thoughts?

Meme of Eight

Hmm, this is a first for me as a blogger. I've seen memes on other blogs, of course, and always thought that they were a little bit too chain-lettery for my taste. But recently I have begun see the utility behind them--they help to weave new threads throughout the blogosphere, and generally they do provide bloggers a chance to reveal information that they probably otherwise wouldn't. And now Sean Ferrell has tagged me with the "Meme of Eight," so here goes.

The rules for this meme are simple:

1. Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their 8 things and post these rules.
3. At the end choose 8 people to get tagged and list their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and to read your blog.

Here are my 8 things:

1. My wife and I have three cats: Annalise, Elwyn, and Perry. We had a fourth, Morgan, but he died of leukemia this past December. He was still just a kitten, barely 14 months old.
2. I usually have trouble sitting down to write before 8 or 9 PM, but I'm very productive after that point. I don't know why.
3. In high school I took double the normal load of English/Writing classes, as I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but when I went to college I decided to get my degree in Computer Science instead. I needed to have a steady day job until the writing started to pay off.
4. I took five years of Latin, two of them college-level, but I still can't speak a bit of it and my vocabulary is pretty poor. But I'm pretty good with Latin grammar and analyzing poetry if I have my Latin-English dictionary with me.
5. I'm fairly picky about the TV I watch. For a large number of years, I didn't watch any at all. Now it's mostly older episodes of E.R..
6. My favorite dinosaur has been the velociraptor ever since I was a kid. I have several models of them even now.
7. I love the old Super Mario Bros. comics that were published by Valiant back in the 80's. The general consensus seems to be that they were very strange, but I grew up with them and so they don't seem that way to me.
8. I'm terrified of roller coasters, no matter how kids-oriented they are.

Here is my list of tags: Karen Mahoney, Colleen G., Chandra Rooney, Jason Pinter, Jamie Boud, Jeaniene Frost, Rachel Vincent, and Missy. A couple of these bloggers probably don't even know who I am, but I'm tagging them anyway because these are all blogs that you should definitely check out (although it looks like Missy's "The Incurable Disease Of Writing" is down at the moment, having been hacked. You can access her rss here).

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Stepping out for a bit

I've got a trip coming up, and so I'm not going to be posting much (if at all) during the coming week or so. I'll be back on my normal schedule on the 14th. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The importance of reading out loud.

Ah yes, reading your own work out loud. If there's someone else around (even a spouse), it makes you feel a little silly, doesn't it? But pretty much every published author who writes a book on writing mentions doing this. What's the deal?

Well, picture this: you get your book published, you do a reading of your book, and yet you can't say it properly. Turns out that some of your lines are real tongue twisters, and some others leave you gasping for breath before you ever hit a comma or the end. Not to mention the lines that you find yourself consistently misreading because the phrasing is just slightly off from what's comfortable.

Or, in this day and age, perhaps it's the poor voice actors who are trying to do your audio book that are having all the trouble. You don't want these people to have to edit your writing in order to make it speakable, so you need to do that editing on your own first. But I'm really getting way ahead of myself--the above situations would never happen until you're already published.

And, fact is, if you don't read your work out loud to yourself at least once, you're probably hurting your chances of getting published. The reason is simple: our brains often work on heuristics, little mental shortcuts that let us skip the tedious stuff. Unfortunately, one of those heuristics is to not read very carefully when we're just mentally scanning something we're already intimately familiar with. Too often we see what we expect to see, and not what's actually there. But problems arise when a reader who has no preconceived expectations comes to your work--they see what's actually there.

If what's actually there isn't what you meant, then that's trouble. You need a trick to make yourself bypass all those heuristics and expectations. Most writers agree: that trick is reading out loud. It'll make you see all sorts of things that you never would have noticed otherwise. This is what I've been doing for the last three days with my revisions, and it's been a world of help. I feel so drastically much more confident about my material now, and a large part of that is because it has now successfully passed the (first) reading-out-loud test. I specifically note that this was the first test because before any reader but my wife sees the full ms, I'll have read this entire thing out loud at least two times.

If you aren't self conscious about it, the reading out loud is actually kind of fun. I feel like an actor rehearsing my lines. Sometimes I wind up saying the same line five or six (or even more) times, making little tweaks to it until it's exactly right. It's also nice to hit a section where few or no changes need to be made, where I can just enjoy the sound of my prose. If this sort of reading makes you nervous, hopefully you can overcome that reaction and eventually take some pleasure in it--at least in private. Trust me, you won't regret it.

In other news, I've now finished my current round of revisions for my partial of ALDEN RIDGE. Tomorrow I'll be able to get back to the actual business of writing new content--yahoo!

Updates to Website and ALDEN RIDGE Exerpt

This evening I've made a few minor graphical updates to the website (and blog), mostly to add more color and a little better visual interest. Note the light blue gradient at the left and right sides of each page, and the new icon new to the title at the very top. One bit of trivia: that icon is currently the only image I've ever made using Adobe Illustrator. I made it several years ago and thought it was good, but I never have worked in Illustrator since. I'm not quite sure why.

Additionally, I've posted a revised version of my excerpt from ALDEN RIDGE. If you've already read it there isn't much point in re-reading it, but of course I always want to have my best work up on the website. Depending on how critical a reader you are, you might not even notice much that's changed, though I assure you that there are quite a few small changes. The revised version fixes a few beat errors, a couple of comma splices, and a number of saidisms. The text is also now significantly less distant from the pov characters, I think. Hopefully Elaine in particular seems more sympathetic in this version, despite her flaws. I've kept the old version online just for the sake of comparison. I don't mind letting people see the mistakes I've made, as long as they also see how I later moved past them.

On Data Loss and Backup Solutions

Ever had your entire book and all your notes disappear before you finished writing it? I really hope the answer is no--and let's keep it that way. My day job is as a programmer, but that also includes a lot of systems admin work. I'm used to being required to have lots of redundancy and backups in my computer systems, but this isn't an issue that your average home user is going to think much about. Total losses are rare enough that you don't hear about them too often, but they do happen, and perhaps more than you might think. Here's some information on how you can best protect yourself.

Most users know deep down that they should be doing backups, and the most common solution is CDRs or DVDRs. Problem is, this kind of backup is a bit of a pain to do, which makes users less likely to actually do it. Odds are that you've never lost any significant data, and so your perceived risk of losing any in the future is rather low. But computer problems of all bents happen all the time, and even if you religiously back up every week or every month, that may not be nearly enough.

How would you feel about losing a week or month of your work? I lost three days' worth of writing once, and that was terrible. Ideally you want a backup solution that works in something approaching real-time, so that whenever you do some work it gets backed up. This is what your corporate IT departments have been doing for years, and it's not as out of reach as home users seem to think.

Let's first consider the main risks, and then talk about solutions for each one.

Theft is probably the absolute worst thing that can happen to your computer, because there is much less chance of recovery. And while theft of PCs isn't very common, a surprising number of laptops get stolen. Corporate IT departments have all kinds of policies in place on what data has to be encrypted on employee laptops, and what data can't be put on those laptops at all, because they are aware of this risk.

Obviously you can try to take steps to make sure that your computer isn't stolen, such as putting cable locks on your laptop when you're in a public place (trust me, this is not as ridiculous as it might sound at first), but you also have to consider the fact that your computer might get stolen no matter what you do. And the only way to solve this problem is to have a copy of your data that is not on your local computer.

Fire is another extremely bad way to lose your data. Even if you've been backing up to CD, or copying data between your laptop to your PC, if your house burns down with everything in it, that's it for your book.

Even if you have a fireproof safe, most of those are only rated for 30-40 minutes or so, and don’t always do the best with plastic media inside. The ones that I linked to above are really expensive and do a better job, but they still won't last forever in the middle of a raging inferno. Having a good fireproof safe might well work, but it isn't guaranteed. Lowes has a wide range of prices for fireproof safes, as do many other retailers, and the smallest of these are affordable but relatively ineffective.

The only foolproof option in the case of fire is to have another computer somewhere off site that you can back up to.

Mechanical Failure of hard disks is a much more common cause of data loss than anything mentioned thus far. If your hard drive physically breaks for whatever reason, there are places that have forensics hardware/software to get that data off your dead drive. Prices range widely, as does quality of service, but you might be able to get your book back for "only" a few hundred dollars. The best solution here is to always keep your data on more than one hard disk.

Power Surges are even more common than mechanical failure. Hopefully everyone has their computers on surge protectors, but the quality of that surge protector is an important consideration. Some of the inexpensive ones just don't do a very good job. If a power surge does hit your computer, these days the most likely casualty is going to be your computer's power supply, which costs $30-$50 in a PC to replace and isn't going to lose any of your data. But that isn't to say that your hard drive is immune by any stretch. Make sure that your computer has an adequate surge protector.

Even better, you could get a battery backup unit (also known as a Uninterruptible Power Source or UPS). The smallest of these run for about $40, and will provide you with great surge protection as well as about 10-15 minutes in which to safely shut your computer down if your power does go out.

Improper Shutdown and Jostled Disks used to be a big problem for hard drives, but they aren't so much of an issue with modern drives. You still shouldn't hit or move your computer while it is on, and you should try to avoid turning off the power to your computer while the hard drive is actively writing, but the catastrophic failure that was common in such cases in the 80's and 90's isn't as much of an issue these days. Back then the armature inside the hard drive was more free moving, and so the above situations would cause the armature to skip across the data platters, scrambling little bits of data every time they hit.

That's much less of an issue today, but still not something to play with. Are you moving soon? It would be a good idea to make a backup of all the key files on your PC before you do. A battery backup unit/UPS unit is also a life saver when it comes to improper shutdowns, since it can help prevent those when your power blips or goes out entirely.

*If you'd like to know more about common causes of hard disk failure, there is a pretty good article on that here, and it covers some other topics like firmware corruption that I'm not going to touch on here.

Viruses are the very last way to lose your data that I am going to discuss. Certainly the average user should have antivirus software, anti-spyware software, and all the latest patches on their OS. This doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. AVG Free is free antivirus software that a lot of people swear by, and Spybot Search & Destroy and AdAware SE Personal are both free spyware prevention/removal tools that I love. Use all three if you're worried that you have a virus or spyware on your computer, because they all catch slightly different things. And remember that even then, they might not catch all issues on your computer. Browser Hijacks are notoriously hard to catch, for instance, but fortunately they generally don't pose a risk of data loss.

Still reading? I hope so. Because now that we've covered the main risks, it's time to talk more about the various solutions available to you.

Hard Disk Redundancy in a single PC is an excellent way to protect yourself against all the various forms of hard disk failure, and it is generally convenient because it keeps your data on multiple hard drives in a single computer. It's unlikely in the extreme that two hard drives in the same computer will fail simultaneously for mechanical reasons. This obviously doesn't help at all when it comes to theft or fire, however, and probably won't be much use in the case of viruses or power surges either.

Simply copying data between two hard drives in one computer is a valid approach. You can do this by hand on any computer that has multiple hard drives (and if you only have one, it's generally very easy to install a second one).

If you have some extra money to burn, you can always set up a RAID mirroring array on your home PC. If you build your own computers, a lot of motherboards on both the Intel and AMD side have this built right in already these days--with the rise of SATA, these sort of controllers are much more prevalent than they ever were with IDE. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to RAID even if the cost isn't an issue, so it's something to consider.

Odds are fair that you could stand to lose a few hours' work if it actually came to that, so just copying your data between hard drives when you finish for the night might well be enough protection for most people (it is for me).

Data Recovery Software is a valid option if your hard drive is physically fine, but has had some sort of software-initiated data loss. For a virus to truly, permanently wipe your hard drive would take hours--and most viruses don't try to do this in the first place, because that would make them more fatal but less virulent (same as human diseases, they won't spread much if they immediately kill every host they infect).

If a virus was to go for your data, it would probably just try to corrupt or delete individual files. Corrupted files might be hard or impossible to recover from (this is why you should have antivirus software), but deleted files can often be recovered relatively easily if you act fast. If your hard drive is still working but you lost your data because you got a virus or accidentally deleted some files, software like File Rescue can get your files back much less expensively than sending it to a forensics service--but you must use this software as soon as you realize you have a problem, because your OS will overwrite deleted data eventually. This gradual overwriting process could take months or years if you never use much of your hard disk, but by the same token it could take minutes or seconds. Best not to tempt fate by waiting.

This software is also ideal when the FAT index on your hard drive gets corrupted. Essentially, all your files are in a central index on your hard disk, and when your computer "deletes" a file it just removes it from the index. Software like the above ignores the index and just looks for files on the main part of the disk itself. Improper shutdown of your PC can sometimes cause your FAT index to be corrupted, just as if a really nasty virus had attacked you, and so that's another situation where this sort of software comes into play.

CDRs / DVDRs are the most common way that home users choose to back up their data, but I don't think a whole lot of this approach. I've already mentioned how this sort of a backup is time consuming and something of a pain (thus making users less likely to actually do their backups), and I've also noted how these are just as vulnerable to fire unless you have them in a fireproof safe (and arguably, even that might not be enough).

But the other issue with CDs is that they don’t last as long as people thought they would. When CDs first came out, they were touted as likely to last 1,000 years, and CDRs up to 100 years. But these days people are already starting to have CDs (especially CDRWs, and to a lesser extent CDRs) that are failing because the plastic layers are coming slightly apart, allowing the thin sheet of metal between them to oxidize--thus losing your data. Gold CDRs are reputed to last longer than the regular CDRs (gold doesn't oxidize), but your mileage may vary. There just isn't enough of a history with CDs and DVDs to know what their life span will really be. Check back in a hundred years.

Other Removable Media besides CDs and DVDs can also be used. The most popular at present are USB flash drives, because they're just so darn easy to use (and these days they're pretty inexpensive, too). These are solid-state memory and don't require a battery to retain the data, which makes them ideal for semi-long-term storage. I'm not sure exactly what the range of expected life for these drives is, and I certainly wouldn't trust one as my only backup of anything (let alone my only copy), but as a quick, portable backup option this is a good one.

In the past, floppy disks and zip disks were the primary backup options for the home user. I used these myself, and in fact I still have some 15+ year-old floppy disks that still work fine and have all the data I put on them. But these disks have such a weakness to magnetism that their data seems less safe compared to any of the more modern alternatives. In a business environment I've also used the ever-popular tape backup setup, which can store massive amounts of data very cheaply, but I found the reliability to be too low for the purposes of my company and so we switched to the final solution I note below.

Remote Backup is the last solution that I'll touch on, and in my opinion it is by far the best. This solution has your data on another computer (or multiple computers) elsewhere in the world. That protects against any sort of hard drive failure, viruses, fire, computer theft--hell, it even protects against localized meteor strikes. Pick your non-global natural or unnatural disaster and this solution works, because no matter what happens to your home computer or laptop, your data is safely far away.

If you've got a large amount of data that you want to save in this way, you'll be hard pressed to beat the offering of Connected TLM (now a division of backup industry titan Iron Mountain). It'll cost you something every year, but you get a whole lot of redundancy. There are a lot of other solutions, as well, such as IBackup, but I know less about them. UPDATE: There is also now a program called Mozy, which I give more detailed information about here. This is now my far-and-away favorite Remote Backup solution.

One clever thing that you can do is email it to yourself with GMail or another free mail provider, so that you have a backup on their servers. I particularly note GMail not only because it is free, but because they give you so darn much space. Do note that if you have a POP account that automatically deletes off the server after processing messages, that kind of defeats the point--generally speaking your ISP's email services aren't going to work for this purpose.

Finally, if you have remote access to a computer in another location, you can just copy the files yourself. Have a friend or relative in another city? The two of you could arrange to swap files on some interval--either by setting up SSH on each computer (that's generally safer than FTP, which isn't usually encrypted), or just by emailing files to one another. It largely depends on how much you want to back up, file size allowances on your respective email providers (many have a 2MB or 10MB send/receive limit on individual emails), etc. If your employer doesn't mind, and you have a VPN connection to work, then you can also consider backing up a few key home files to your work computer. But please don't do this without your employer's knowledge and permission.

UPDATE: Free Online Document Management Systems are another way to go, but each one has its limitations. Google Documents allows you to upload as many files as you want, but they have to be HTML, plain text, MS Word, or MS Excel files. That's nice, but I also need to back up copies of my TreePad database. If you don't have any such files, then this might be an ideal solution for you. Just bear in mind that Google's terms of use for this service includes the line "Google has no responsibility or liability for the deletion or failure to store any Content." This is true of GMail as well, but it just bears pointing out that this doesn't have guaranteed retrieval like the paid services do. So it's a good idea not to put all your eggs in one such basket.

Yahoo! Briefcase is another such service, and it allows you to upload files of any sort, but there is a limit of 30 MB to what you can upload in total. You can pay to get more space, but you probably wouldn't need to until you had 20-30 full books stored on there. Their terms of service were not clear, but I'm fairly certain that they don't provide any retrieval guarantee as a true escrow service would, either.

Closing Thoughts
There are a lot of options here, and which ones you choose to take will depend on you and your own individual situation. Generally speaking it's best to use more than one approach to truly safeguard yourself. Just for the sake of example, here's what I do:

-I have three hard drives in my PC (for capacity reasons), and I manually copy my writing files between each one at the end of each writing session (I don't use RAID of any sort).
-I keep my desktop PC on a CyberPower CP425SL.
-I do have GMail, and very occasionally I'll send myself an email with a copy of my book.
-My employer allows me to, and so I back up my writing files to my work computer over VPN every few weeks. It would probably be better if I did this more often.
-Whenever I do work directly on my laptop, I copy that work to my PC as soon as possible.
-I don't use a cable lock with my laptop, but I also don't ever take if off my lap if I'm using out in public (which is rare in itself--mostly airports when I travel for work).
-I use both Spybot and AdAware to keep myself protected from spyware. This is a good idea in general.
-Trend Micro is actually the antivirus that I use, but it isn't free.
-I don't do any form of CD backup.

-UPDATE: I also now use Mozy.

If you've read all this and feel like this is just ridiculous over-protection and a complete waste of your time, consider this: you won't feel the same way if you actually do lose your data. Through my work at my day job, I've just seen too many computer failures to treat this cavalierly.


There is an excellent post on "saidisms" over at agent Nathan Bransford's blog today. Basically, a saidism is when you say some other word in a dialogue tag other than simply "said" or "asked." Read Nathan's post if you're not familiar with this topic, because you really should be. There have been excellent posts on this topic at all the other staples of the online writing community, too.

As is probably the case for most of you, this is an issue that I've been aware of for years, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing. But in my early drafts of a work, those darn saidisms just sneak back in there. Even into some of my later drafts, variants of the nasty "X said, Y-ing Z-ly" can survive more often than I'd like. Ditto for variants of "X said Y-ly."

When statements that follow one of the above patterns flow well in the work, I've generally figured they weren't a problem. And to your average reader, I'm sure they wouldn't be. The thing that dawned on me today, however, is the mindset of the average editor or agent reading their slush pile. This is something that Anne Mini discusses quite often, actually, but the full import has only just recently hit me: basically, these people read a lot of poorly written work. A lot of that work is riddled with spelling errors, comma splices, saidisms, cliche statements and plot elements, and a myriad of other problems.

Why is that such a problem for even those of us who don't have most of those problems, or at least don't have them very frequently? Because those readers are super tired of seeing those same problems crop up over and over again in submissions, and their opinion of a work immediately ratchets way down when they see one of these issues--no matter how "tastefully" it is used. It's how I feel when I see gross misuse of homophones: it takes a lot to impress me enough after that to think the writer isn't an idiot. That's not really fair of me, since misspellings happen when we're thinking ahead, and spell check doesn't find those, but that's my gut reaction.

What Anne Mini has been saying for some time is that agency screeners tend to feel this way about all technical or stylistic infractions. That's just something to think about.

I've made wonderful progress on my revisions today. I've made it up to the start of chapter 5, now, and added a net of about 200 words. No completely new content today, but that's all right. I expect to make it the rest of the way through this round of revisions tomorrow, and then I should be able to get some new content written on Thursday. I've been studying the writing in ENDER'S GAME and THE GOLDEN COMPASS as it relates to saidisms, dialogue/description/exposition mix, and early character development, and I've really learned a lot from those two works. I expect you would find the same if you really take the time to closely study a few works that are stylistically similar to your own.

It's interesting: in the opening two chapters of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, I only counted three of the saidism-style "issues" mentioned above. In ENDER'S GAME I only found one. That, too, is something to consider when thinking about saidisms. Professional writers really use such tactics a lot less frequently than some aspiring writers seem to think they do. Close study of succcessful published works really is important; if we just rely on our memories of these works, we tend to come out with a really skewed image of how they are constructed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Closing the gap between the reader and your characters

I had planned on writing new content today--and indeed I did complete my preplanning while on a walk on the greenway near my house this morning before work--but instead I decided to do more revisions. That's resulted in a net of about 200 new words, and that's just from the first 1.3 chapters alone.

Why do more revisions now? Well, last night I finished re-reading Orson Scott Card's CHILDREN OF THE MIND, and then I started on Phillip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS. This is the first time I've read that book, but my wife loves it (as I know many others do). I'm not very far into Pullman's book yet, but one thing has already struck me in his writing: the way in which he quick closes the distance between the reader and his protagonist, Lyra, in the first chapter. He does this with light description of Lyra's thoughts and motivations rather the heavy-handed exposition that plague the start of many novels. Even when he directly tells us things about his characters, he does so in a way that is surprisingly unobtrusive. For instance: "It might have been enough to make her cry, if she was the sort of girl who cried." Beautiful. That's a line that would be at home in one of Hemingway's short stories.

Pullman's blend of dialogue and action is wonderful as well, and I was particularly interested in how he implies actions with dialogue without actually resorting to describing the actions themselves: "'Yes, it was the Tokay,' said Lord Asriel. 'Too bad. Is that the lantern? Set it up by the wardrobe, Thorold, if you would. I'll have the screen up at the other end.'" This one statement (in full context) implies what Asriel and Lyra are seeing, and what the servants are doing. Very compact.

There are certainly a number of other authors who write with this sort of precision, and some who write with even greater precision, but for whatever reason a few things clicked for me when I read the first chapter of THE GOLDEN COMPASS. I'd already been thinking that I was consistently too distant from my dual protagonists, Darrell and Elaine, but tonight I finally figured out how to correct that. It turns out it doesn't take all that much: just a few more insights into their thoughts and emotions where such insights are of value, and the result is narrative that I believe feels much less detached from their pov.

Much as I love Michael Crichton's books and ideas, he's one who always seems to maintain a pretty hefty distance from his characters. Tom Clancy is another one who does that to some degree--I love both the Jack Ryan and John Clark characters, and I've read every last book containing either of them, but I always get the feeling that I'm watching over their shoulder rather than seeing through their eyes. Perhaps this style is considered necessary to the thriller genre, but it's not something that I ever wanted to do, and I felt like I was doing that with ALDEN RIDGE. Fortunately, by learning a few things from Card and Pullman, I believe I've figured out how to efficiently close that gap between the reader and the characters without sacrificing pacing.

I'm going to try to get a lot more of these edits done tomorrow, and perhaps I'll be able to get some new content written then as well. It depends on how quickly the edits go, and how much the new scenes call to me to be written.