This was a great post from The Creative Pen on how to avoid overwriting. I know myself, I am guilty of this from time to time, and from time to time I like reading works whose writing is thick with description. Then again I am really turned off by works where I am just wading through piles and piles of prose, cough Cryptonomicon cough. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. The good news is you aren’t going to get there overnight, but persistence with a good bit of editing will see you through. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/02/18/avoid-overwriting/
With all apologies to the Hendrix estate, there is a funny meme on the internets with two figures standing on opposite ends of a large painted number. One argues that it is a six while the other argues that it is a nine. The moral is both are right according to their perspective. A followup meme points out that one is definitely wrong because whoever painted the number set out to paint either a six or a nine. Both made me chuckle and both told me there is a lesson in them for writers.
Ambiguity is the bane of communication. It can often crop up in our writing because we know what we mean in our heads but sometimes the words leave it open to interpretation. Nothing you write should ever be open to interpretation, this isn’t painting. Then there are the little things that you don’t even recognize someone might have a question over. For example, does your scene take place at night or day? It might not mean a whole lot at the point in the story but a scene or two later could be ruined if your reader thought it was daylight and your reader is in the nighttime hours. Ambiguity in the details you reveal makes it harder for the reader to connect with and buy into the story. Most of these will come out in beta readings or from your editor. Still, always being aware of instances where what you say can be taken a couple of different ways will make your writing that much stronger.
Yesterday I completed the final edits on my collection of Weird Fiction. You should be able to purchase this in the next couple of weeks from a variety of outlets, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and for the reader of your choice. For my loyal readers of this blog I’m posting the afterword in which I provide my best description of where the title came from and what I consider to be Weird Fiction.
Afterword – What is The Hole in Your Mind?
What is the hole in your mind? First, I must give credit to the writers responsible for Babylon 5 for the line, “There is a hole in your mind.” In the very first episode of Babylon 5, a would-be assassin tells this to Commander Sinclair. In this case the hole references a missing piece of time. Later on in the series we learn that the hole refers to the part of the human mind that cannot come to terms with some of the mysteries and realities of the universe.
For this book I chose the title, The Hole in Your mind, to represent the void created when what you experience does not match up with expected reality. Most of these stories could easily fall in the Horror genre, but I prefer to think of them as Weird Fiction. In stories of this type the end brings the protagonist to the very edge of reality and either gives him or her a peek at what lays beyond or shoves them right over the edge. Either way the protagonist returns form that edge changed in innumerable ways, or not at all.
Weird Fiction has strong roots in the Horror genre. Some of my favorite short stories spend time taking the reader into a world that could only exist in the mind of a writer. One of my favorites from horror master Edgar Allen Poe is the story, “The Black Cat.” It is the inspiration for my own story, “The Cat’s Meow,” included in this collection. In the very first lines of the work the narrator warns the reader that what follows may not fit easily into the reader’s conception of what is real.
“For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence.”
The early master of this genre and my biggest influence is H. P. Lovecraft. His writing, more than anything, captures the horror of the unknown. In many of his stories the central character comes face to face with the unreal, with something that his mind simply cannot comprehend. In this instance the hole in the mind is defensive yet when breached leaves the character in the throes of madness. The reader still has the burden of trying to imagine horrors that have no basis in reality. This is where the hole in their minds comes into play. In some cases, Lovecraft recognizes this. In this example from The Call of Chuthulhu, the narrator accepts that at this point language simply breaks down. The words necessary to describe and relate the horror in the story to the reader just do not exist.
“Poor Johansen’s handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.”
Lovecraft would revisit this breakdown in language in other tales. For a writer this is an interesting point to make. What happens when the very things you are attempting to convey defy the language you use to convey them? In Lovecraft’s work he often invented terms, places, a whole theology of beings just to encompass, or circumvent, the language barrier in what he was attempting to create.
The goal of any writer is to transport a reader into the world of their story. In some instances that world exists not in the rational and grounded but the fantastically bizarre. In that instance the writer is expecting to find a hole in the mind of the reader that will allow him or her to fill it with a world both alien and yet inviting. Writers call this suspension of disbelief but in its own way it is just blocking out the part of our mind that screams this is not possible. Granted if readers only read about things that were possible we would have fewer books on the shelves. The fiction sections of your bookstores and libraries are full of things that not only are improbable but not possible as well.
Readers expect a horror story to have scary bits. They expect a hero standing up to some kind of monster. However many things that may terrify readers and leave them sleeping with the lights on, are grounded in very real things to this world. Spiders, snakes, even werewolves and vampires are all creatures that readers have no trouble conjuring in their minds as they read. Some they have seen, and others are so ingrained in our literature that they are all but real. A truly terrifying tale will take this expectation and twist it back on the reader. Never mind the snake in the garden, it is the shovel wielded by the maniac that you must fear. While your mind processes what the snake is doing the hole in your mind will never see the maniac coming at you.
Invoking the hole in your mind is more than just crafting a bizarre twist at the end. The general atmosphere of the story needs to reinforce and prepare the reader for what is about to come. Failing to do that will result in an ending that is more fake than resolving, more jarring than satisfying. The reader is on the same journey as the writer and the goal is for the both of you to reach the end point at the same time with the least amount of difficulty. The stranger the ending the harder that may be. For the writer, this writer in particular, that is what makes Weird Fiction as much fun to write as it is to read. It is the inherent challenge and risk of taking readers out so far beyond the norm that you may in fact lose them. Should that happen it is time to take stock, take heed, and start over again.
All of the tales in this volume share that element of the strange and the bizarre that is a hallmark of Weird Fiction. They are in no particular order or grouping so feel free to bounce around. They come from many different years of writing, from deep in the file cabinet to closer to the top. If I can achieve anything I hope it is that on finishing this volume you will be inclined to read more Weird Fiction and revel in all the madness that the hole in your mind can stand or supply.
While strolling across the blogosphere I came on Heather Squires’s website that had an interesting graphic. Said is dead. The graphic is a handy tool for alternatives to using , “said.” While I agree in principle that no reader wants to stare down a whole page of, “he said, she said, he said.” Equally taxing would be a page of, “he stated, she replied, he mumbled, she questioned.” There is no need to raid the thesaurus every time you want to write some dialog. Like anything else in life a little bit will do you.
The goal of writing good dialog is keeping the reader on track as to who is saying what. Throw in some thoughts and this can become quite a challenge for even the best writers. I find it most effective to blend in actions. To break up the dialog and cue the reader in to who is speaking without relying on a said or any other word. For example…
“Do you know where the scissors are,” Dad asked.
“No,” Kim replied.
“Of course. Nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be,” Dad mumbled angrily.
Let’s try that same exchange but with a little bit of action.
“Do you know where the scissors are,” Dad asked.
Kim looked up from her book, “No.” Then went right back to reading.
“Of course. Nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be.” Dad mumbled as he stormed out of the room.
Now this is just a simple example and in a longer bit of dialog the writer would mix up actions and expressions along with said, asked and so on. The goal is to keep the reader aware of who is speaking but at that same time giving them something interesting to read. So remember, “said,” may or may not be dead, but to keep your writing off of life support explore the alternatives and mix things up.
One thing I struggled with and that I see pop up in new, and not so new, authors’ works is repeating themselves. It almost reads as though the author second guesses what they wrote and wants to make sure the reader gets the intended idea. For example look at this passage.
Meatloaf again? Why did it have to be meatloaf? Of all the culinary catastrophes Dammon’s wife unleashed on his gastrointestinal tract her meatloaf had to be the worst. Damon really hated meatloaf.
We get the point this character really hates meatloaf in general and his wife’s meatloaf in particular. For the reader, at least me, it slows things down. I get the sense that I really would prefer the author just getting to the point. Couldn’t one of those sentences conveyed that message?
Of all the culinary catastrophes Dammon’s wife unleashed on his gastrointestinal tract, her version of his most hated dish, meatloaf, had to be the worst.
One sentence, message complete, and the writing is much leaner. Granted I am just using this example to show off a worse case but many times our writing can use a good trimming and this kind of repetition is a perfect target. In most cases it is just a matter of good editing. One of the surest ways I have found to spot these things is to read my writing aloud. Good copy editing is also the surest way to catch all these as well. In the heat of writing we will often over write and it is far easier to take away than add. Just remember to watch out for sentences that repeat the same idea just in a different way. Your readers will thank you, and you may save a little on your page or word count.
Work continues on editing the short stories that will make up my collection, The Hole in Your Mind. I am finding that, unlike a novel, editing short stories is a bit more involving. Each word has to carry the story along and each sentence needs to reach it’s desired effect. So far I have seven stories out of the intended seventeen edited. I am also looking for readers to make sure the editing is having the effect I want. I will also be bringing more of them to my Sunday critique group. Yes, fellow writers more weird fiction from me. Still I feel I am on track to have the book out this year. Although originally i had planned for a summer release. You just cannot rush good editing.
Glut is an interesting word, it even feels funny on the tongue. Some would think a glut of something as vital as information would be a good thing. As a librarian I used to think that. Now I’m not so sure. We have so democratized information that facts have become open for debate. Pick any major issue and you will find articles, reports, studies all refuting and supporting at the same time. The only difference are the bodies behind and responsible for them. In science empirical evidence, (empirical anything actually), is that which is observable. One would gather that if you see, hear and feel it no further argument is necessary. That’s all cotton candy and rainbows for things you can see feel and touch but what about the rest? No amount of information is necessary for the believer and no amount of information can convince the skeptic. So instead we drown in a sea of information. Where once information was the weapon against ignorance it is now the tool of the ignorant.
Enough proselytizing. Where does this fit in with writing? When you are writing a scene, you have at your disposal a whole host of information to convey to the reader. Is the floor carpeted, hard wood with a scratch where a piano used to sit? Are the walls covered in a peeling flowery wallpaper or a bland utilitarian beige? Is there a lean man sitting in a chair smoking a pipe, or holding a teddy bear? All of this information can either help or hinder the reader. We want to help the reader. That detail about the wood flooring and the piano while interesting may not be relevant unless said piano is crucial to the story. The color and fabric of the drapes, while nice word padding, is about as useful as a shovel in a swimming pool unless it causes your character to reminisce about something important to the plot. Writers have to balance the amount of information they reveal to further the story and set the scene against inundating the reader with useless facts. Information can make or break an argument, well it used to anyway. Do not let that fact cloud your writing with unnecessary or contradicting information.
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.
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.
While strolling through my RSS feed I came a cross this article on Killzone.
I had the joy and pleasure of being part of an excellent critique group while I was living in Connecticut. They name of the group was Pentimentos and we met every other Wednesday night. The format was simply hand in something for critique one meeting and get it back the next. I was just at the point where I was ready to show my work to others but at the same time I certainly gave them plenty of food to chew on. I took my licks and gave them as well. This back and forth helped me develop as a writer in so many ways I probably would not be where I am were it not for this group.
Writing is a lot like riding a bike. You can read about it, have it described to you, but until you put your feet on the pedals and kiss the pavement once or twice you will never learn how to ride a bike. This is where a good critique group is vital to your development as a writer. By giving and receiving critiques you will develop an eye for what works and what makes the reader ask, “what did you mean by this?” Think of the critique group as your laboratory to test and see what works with different readers.
Now you may ask, what about the subjective part? What about the kiss of the muse that either comes or it doesn’t? You quickly learn that not all stories are created equal and not all writers consistently hit a high mark. It is just a part of life. The critique group is the perfect environment to learn this lesson. When the group is working its best you will hear what works and what you might do to fix what doesn’t. The more you participate the sooner you begin recognizing what works and doesn’t work as you are writing it.
The other side of the critique group is not so rosy. If you spend any amount of time in the same group you will get to see different members coming and going, changing the group dynamic along with them. I have had the displeasure of sitting next to or across from some very petty people and some very close minded people. The good news is a healthy group can weather their presence and you still learn what not to do. But be mindful if at any time you find yourself asking why you put up with these people maybe it is time to find another group. Never be afraid to recognize when something isn’t working. Remember you are doing this because you love it and there are plenty of critique groups out there.
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The problem with deadlines is that once you set them you have to be ready to deal with missing them. I began writing Undead Heart almost three years ago. The plot came together quickly in my head and the characters needed little development. I finished writing the book in ten months, I figure three maybe four months to edit it and I would have it out by the Summer of 2011. Something in the mean time happened. I started working on my next novel. A Steampunk take on the Frankenstein story. Along the way I also read some classic literature and Ann Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. As a result my writing went through a slight change, one I am certain is for the better. This however meant I needed to do some rewriting of various parts of Undead Heart. Actually my wife spotted the weaker parts before I did. Those have been changed and editing was back on track.
I set a deadline for myself to have the book finished by this year’s Phoenix Comicon. I am so glad I did not spend money on a table. About three weeks ago my wife and I had a discussion on how many YA books in this same genre feature a first person present tense point of view. The novel as it existed was already in first person but the tense had to change. The switch from past to present tense is a little more involved than doing a find and replace of all verbs with an -ed at the end. In some cases the scene needs a bit of reworking to make the new tense flow logically from one point to the next. It’s lengthy and a bit tedious but the end result is a work that moves much quicker and benefits from letting me tweak the mood and environment of several scenes.
I have been here before. My second novel, a science fiction work, actually went through two shifts, from third person to first and back and a tense change before it was done. At times I worry that I just am not ale to let it go. One fear I had when writing my first novel, twenty years ago if you can believe that, was that that book was it and I had nothing else. Well eight and counting novels later I know I have more coming. At the same time I have learned from my previous two publishing experiences that you do not want to rush this part and release a manuscript that is not 100%. It is not a race. So while I watch this latest deadline for Undead Heart slip past rest assured it is still coming and it is going to be worth the wait.
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