Putting the Cart Before the Horse

How often have you gotten a really great idea that you do not want to keep to yourself? It’s human nature to want to share our stupendous explosions of mental brilliance. Sometimes though we forget that what we have is an idea. It isn’t a book, it might not even be a story.

I have often heard other writers, (and I’ve done so myself, in the past), talk about ideas for their next book. We either have an incredible location, a really unique twist on history or even a character that is beyond any before. Any number of things lend themselves to a great story, but rather than talking about them we need to be capturing them.

In my case I have taken to creating a notebook in Evernote to capture these ideas for future use. That takes away some of the urge to want to talk about them and all of the fear of forgetting them. I used to, actually still do, keep a leather journal and pen on my nightstand for those ideas that always seem to come when I’m barely cognizant of the day of the week. The few instances where I have been able to decipher my handwriting have yielded some great ideas but little in the way of complete books.

I guess the point I am laboring to make is sometimes it is best to talk your ideas out with you and yourself. Commit them to paper and play with them but remember a story is much more than a killer idea, neat twist, or social statement. A book is blood, sweat, ink, patience and discarded pages. You know better than anyone when the time to plug your work is at hand. You should also know not to even think of approaching an agent or editor without a complete manuscript. I’ve seen this repeated over and over in agency submission guidelines and it rings true. The time will come when you can talk and pitch away, just make sure you have a product to back it up.

First Draft Blues

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This weekend, as I near the complementation of the rough draft of my latest novel, I must have had editing on my mind. I was planning on doing a post about where to begin polishing a rough draft. That is when serendipity stepped in and I came across this informative post on Anne R Allen’s blog.

http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/02/from-pathetic-to-professional-8-ways-to.html

I especially liked the very first tip. There is a reason your keyboard has a delete key, you need to get comfortable using it. I know this goes against every fiber of your writer’s mind. You have spent hours, no days, no months on the pages before you. You toiled away until you hit your word limit. These aren’t just random words they are eminations from your soul. I have been there. I have had to see whole chapters succumb to the ravages of the delete key. In truth most times I save the really big stuff for when I need a little something to jump start a chapter or story. Nothing ever really needs to go to waste.

The other tip has to do with character names. I have seen some very boring names in books. You do not want a cartoon character but you need a name that sticks with the reader. Conversely you do not want a name that is so complicated your reader has trouble with it. I’ve see this in a lot of science fiction writing and I am guilty of a tongue twister our two. In my book, Undead Heart, the main vampire’s name is Tzagne Vlastav. I had to provide a pronunciation hint in the first chapter, it is zahnee, still I have heard from readers that the name sometimes takes them out of the story. In addition you should know that names do not have to be set until printing. It may take a little more work to double check so you don’t leave any of those old names floating around. Just use the word find function and you will be okay.

So I urge you to follow the link to Anne’s blog for her tips on how you can take your rough draft from suckitude to greatness.

Tips From a Master

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These are a little more than tips, more of a mindset that if adopted can only improve your writing. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered one of the foremost writers of the horror story. In addition he has also written extensively about the craft of writing.

We all look for the secret, the special pill that when ingested will release the master scrivener we know we is inside us and the words will flow from our finger tips. I have found it is the quest for this knowledge that informs me the most. I learn not from what I’ve read but what I am going to read. So in that spirit I want to share this article.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/01/11/h-p-lovecraft-advice-on-writing/

Predicting the Success of Your Novel

Combing through my RSS feed I came across this interesting article on Gizmodo. Will Your Novel be a Best Seller? Ask This Super Accurate Algorithm.

I have read the paper referenced in the article and suggest you do as well. To me the nature of this study is less a manual for success and more an inquiry into what do more successful books have in common. The best analogy would be to say more attractive paintings have a higher percentage of shades of blue. I Actually I am oversimplifying things but my point is that this study represents an interesting catalog of the components that make up a success book.

Writers are well aware of the do’s and don’t’s but some of those fall out of odds with the study. Especially interesting is the higher percentage of connectors indicating the use of more complex sentences. This also flies in the face of readability levels. Could people prefer their reading at a higher or presumed higher level of complexity. Naturally, as described in the paper, tossing in Hemingway’s work, The Old Man and the Sea, knocks this perception to the ground. Still the data suggests that works with a higher incidence of complex sentences find greater success.

Another finding that I felt was less of a revelation is that successful works tend to skew more towards informational, think journalism, writing rather than expressive writing. The success of crime and police procedurals and even the number of self help books on the NY Times bestseller lists bears witness to this trend. On a deeper level I wonder are people becoming more interested in being informed? Clearly any look on Facebook will show you that people do like informing others. The avenues that information takes is changing. I like to think that no one who has read a courtroom drama develops the notion that they now possess the knowledge of a lawyer, at the same time there must be some kind of pleasure in perceiving the transfer of that information.

So, where does this leave us? I for one have no intention of altering my writing style based on what I learned in this paper. Though it does reinforce some elements that I have cultivated and intend on making use of. Ultimately words are really just marks on the page that communicate to the reader and anything that can facilitate that communication should find a higher rate of success. Also since ours is a living language we should expect changes to come to our use of it. While we do not want to follow them like some hungry dog understanding that not any rule is set in stone can only make our writing stronger.

5 Writing Rules I’ve Learned…

This is another one from the old RSS feed.  This post comes from Dena Dyer at the Wordserve Writer Cooler. These are all lessons I have learned though unlike the author of the post I learned them from other sources. Still I like the idea of learning from other media. I know much of my style and way I handle drama in my writing comes right out of the movies and television I watched while growing up and still watch to this day. Now on to the post. 5 Writing Rules I’ve learned from Pixar.

Bending Time

I was reading and enjoying Melissa Marr’s spooky novel Graveminder when I came across several flashbacks. I had an idea that these events were in the past but to help that along the author chose to set them off by using italics. I have I already posted in here about my dislike of the overuse of italics in recent works. Well, I really did not enjoy reading 4 pages of italics. Flashbacks I like. They provide back-story and context for our characters in a way straight narrative sometimes cannot. I just do not want to have to read four pages of italics. I am enjoying the book so far and think the writer is more than capable of indicating to the reader that the next part is something that happened in the past. So I am hoping the italics thing was just an experiment.

It did get me thinking about how many ways there are to set off flashbacks. I don’t like to think of any technique in writing as wrong or right but for flashbacks I have come across one way that pretty much works all the time. Basically it involves the use of three, “had,” verbs. The technical term is the past perfect form of the verb. You use two to start the flashback, sending the reader back in time. The third one is used at the end of the flashback to pull the reader back into the present time. Like so.

Marc paused. He knew what he wanted to do, what he could do, but not what he should do. Flynn told him about the buckling in the hull a week ago. He had made his first mistake as commander then. He had looked into her eyes and saw fear. “What do you want me to do?”
I’m sorry but you are supposed to know what to do, you wear the gold bars on your sleeve.”
“I just can’t take a whole deck off line. That’s home to our most expensive suites, all the big wigs stay on that deck.”
“Inconvenience them or expose them to space. It’s still your call.” The way Flynn had said it left little room for debate.

Simple and direct with just a few extra words. To me, this is just a more natural way to read. That is not to say the italics would not work.

Marc paused. He knew what he wanted to do, what he could do, but not what he should do. Flynn told him about the buckling in the hull a week ago.
“What do you want me to do?”
I’m sorry but you are supposed to know what to do, you wear the gold bars on your sleeve.”
“I just can’t take a whole deck off line. That’s home to our most expensive suites, all the big wigs stay on that deck.”
“Inconvenience them or expose them to space. It’s still your call.” The way Flynn had said it left little room for debate.

Like I said it isn’t necessarily wrong. I don’t like it. I hate the thought that writers have come to use typesetting instead of writing to tell their stories now. If you have any thoughts let me know in the comment section. Is this a coming trend that I should just get used to? Do we as writers have a responsibility to maintain a certain integrity and level of craft at the risk of being old fashioned? And do pick up Graveminder it is an awesome story with great characters.

Do You Have the Write Stuff?

one_bookazThe Arizona State Library has just announced a contest for their ONEBOOKAZ 2014. This year ONEBOOKAZ goes all digital and they are looking for Arizona authors to provide the the works. ONEBOOKAZ is a program that encourages communities across Arizona to read the same book and then participate in discussions to bring the community together through literature. For more information visit the ONEBOOKAZ website here: ONEBOOKAZ.

Are Your Bad Guys Bad Enough?

Image by http://www.ign.com

Image by http://www.ign.com

I am sitting in my office thinking on how busy I’ve been this summer and looking at a poster on my wall. The poster is from a video game released in 2005 for the Sony Playstation 2 called Shadow of the Colossus. The premise of the game is that you control a boy who must find and kill 16 giants the game calls Colossi to restore the life of a girl. So you spend the game wandering the vast land on horseback encountering these monstrous beings, climb up them, find their weakness and slay them. When you get all sixteen the game ends.

Now I can’t tell you what happens at the end of the game for two reasons. One, that would spoil it if you have any intention to play an eight year old game. Two I never made it to the end. About two or three Colossi into the game I came to realize what for me was a game killing fault. I am tasked with killing these beings with very little context or reason other than saving the young girl, yadda yadda yadda.  The only problem was the means of encountering them. You just come upon the first few Colossi. By the third one, lacking this story context I began to see the Colossus as a victim. At this point n the game the story has not revealed enough of the main story to give you a strong enough reason to go forward with the killings. The lack of context when you find the lumbering brute just wandering a meadow makes it even harder to scale it’s body and shove your sword into it’s unguarded flesh. Had I encountered other characters fleeing the Colossus or maybe see it ravaging a village, I would feel that I had to kill it. As it was I simply couldn’t justify the killing.

In a story the antagonist is the foil, obstacle, thing that must be scaled and defeated so that your protagonist can move onto the ending. While the reader does not have to hate the antagonist as much as your protagonist does you have to make it clear to the reader that the antagonist needs to be dealt with. The more extreme the dealing with for the more extreme the hurt, hate or adversity. After all you want the reader to root for your protagonist.

We’ve all read about the heroes you love to hate, but a bad guy you hate to love? It’s gonna take some special writing to make that happen and unless you nail it the whole thing is going to blow up in your face. Depending on the story you are crafting, there could be a whole host of activities, behaviors and traits you can bestow upon your antagonist to make the reader hate him, her, it. The only thing to be aware of is if your desire to write something that isn’t so black and white it becomes cliche. The last thing you want is to give your antagonist enough sympathetic qualities that the reader begins to see the antagonist as a victim. When the time comes for the protagonist to triumph you do not want the readers tasked with picking a side, even if they see multiple sides, they always must side with your protagonist.

In the case of my video game, the part of the story that made me want to continue with the slaying of these creatures took too long to appear. I could see the creatures were dangerous formidable opponents but that was not enough. I took this as a lesson and use it in all of my writing. My bad guys have to be bad, my obstructions have to be massive. There can be no question of motives.  This way when the time comes for the protagonist to triumph it is a victory shared by the reader as well.

When the Well Runs Dry

Spooky Well

From The Ring http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0298130/

When working on my first novel, my biggest fear was that once complete that was it for me. That one book would be the only one in me. My career as a writer would end before it even started. At one point I think that fear even played a part in my procrastination as I neared the end. I can chuckle about it now.

I currently am working on my ninth and tenth novels. Actually that tenth one is on hiatus for now but is about 30% complete and I will get back to it. I really don’t know what part of the blood brain chemistry accounts for the spontaneous ignition of creative ideas. For me dreams often play a part. Many of my stranger and or more memorable ones find their way to one fictional form or another. Then there are the characters. Often I will come across someone, could just be a stranger in the store or on the television, that sparks something. Then as Johnny Storm would say, “Flame On.” (Please don’t sue me Mr. Lee but I had to use it.)

Sometimes visiting an interesting place is all the stimulation your mind needs to launch you into a new project. My latest trip to Bisbee, Arizona provided me with an interesting setting with a rich back story. A thriving mining town full of wild west stories and intrigues. I jotted enough of it down that I will be ready to begin my eleventh novel as soon as the smoke clears from my tablet’s screen. Hint, it’s a Steampunk work with plenty of Demons in it.  While in Bisbee I could feel the ideas peculating away. The place also allowed me to make significant progress on my latest work, the Sequel to Undead Heart.

So as I said earlier I can chuckle now at the thought I was a one book Benny. Still the fear is very real and you will work through it. Just don’t let it keep you from finishing or even starting a work. As long as you live a well stimulated life that old well is never going to dry up.