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Monday, November 28, 2011

Progress post: Book 2, draft 3

I'm not going to have much in the way of writing updates for at least a couple of weeks, because I have copy editing to do now and will have to spend most of my writing time on edits, instead.

I'm still plugging away at the second book in the trilogy, and I just finished chapter 5.  I felt like I'd dropped into this rhythm of bringing characters in, two per section (one for each perspective character to meet), so I broke that pattern and had them encounter people for a second time who are important to the plot.  I read parts to Josh, my husband, and he laughed in all the right places.  This pleases me.

Currently, this draft is 16609 words.  The goal is about 100,000 words, but, as I am a pantster, that target is bound to shift.  I think it'll be shorter than that.  But then, I said the same thing about book 1, too.

That would be telling

In this post, I'm going to briefly discuss writing rule number one:  show, don't tell.

It sounds like such a simple rule.  Allow characters' actions, what other characters say about that character, and that character's thought processes speak for that character.  Don't outline what kind of person we're reading about.  And yet, I see it in so many books, where it feels like the author is droning on for pages.  Worse, many characters don't live up to what we've been told.  I don't buy it that the kid who just kicked his teacher in his old football injury is a lovable scamp, and anyone who tells me so is going to be regarded as an unreliable narrator for the remainder of the book.

Unreliable narrators can work, by the way, but that's a subject for a whole other post.

If your character has particular traits, you need to show that character acting consistently with those traits.  Even if the whole idea of the story is that the person acts strangely.  Especially if the point of the book is how your character is acting inconsistently.  I need to be shown, through a choice that character makes, that what you want me to believe is true.

The magic of writing is, you don't need to make it obvious.  In fact, you should hide it as much as possible, in words, in deeds, in gestures, in what this character notices.  If your character is happy and says so, that doesn't hold nearly as much power as his skipping down the stairs and humming as he loads the laundry into the washer and smiles at the chocolate stain on someone's favorite shirt.  The first one's a Facebook update; the second can build enough narrative tension to last a novel.

When you tell what's going on, the words fall flat, and there are so many missed opportunities to be inside character's heads.  You hold the reading experience hostage.

However, filling your book or story or whatever you're writing with details that engage the five senses and give insight into the characters in a few words make for a more enriching reading experience.  Readers want to feel engaged, they want to feel like part of the story, and they want to understand the characters.

I don't have a quick solution for how to show, rather than tell, except to practice.  Ask others which scenes or characters fall flat, then flesh out the scene or character in as many words as you can.  Write hundreds, thousands of words to describe what you want.  Then, boil it down to its essence, picking out descriptions you used that engaged more senses than just sight, or visual cues most people wouldn't have noticed.  Pick the most vivid or unique characteristics.  Write your sentences in a way that evokes the pace you're going for in the scene - short, rapid-fire sentences for quick action, long, drawn-out paragraphs for a reflective stroll where a decision is reached.

Do you have a tried and true method to show, rather than tell in your writing?  Do you have any examples you're particularly proud of in your own writing where you've shown a lot in a brief period of time?  I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later


Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later
Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



I won this book in Goodreads' First Reads.

I honestly can't remember the style of the original Sweet Valley High books, or if they were well-written. I remember reading them when most of my classmates were just starting chapter books, which isn't a zing on them so much as a comment on how having older sisters can influence one's reading habits.

That said, this matches up well with what I recall of Sweet Valley High, and that's not a compliment. None of the characters struck me as growing up into an adult; with one exception, they seemed like they were high school students playing dress-up. The one exception, of course, was Elizabeth Wakefield, who was always the most mature of any of the high school kids.

The book begins with Jessica having stolen Todd, who Elizabeth has been dating for the last decade. Elizabeth was so pissed off by this betrayal that she took off for New York, where she has a burgeoning career as a journalist. It's been eight months, and she is, understandably, still mad. Then there's a contrived reunion at the grandmother's birthday party (because that's not going to be awkward or anything), things blow up, Elizabeth goes back to New York pissed off all over again, and Jessica chases after her to cry at her about how unfair it is there are consequences for lying and sneaking around.

The characters are beyond shallow. Jessica is commended, in the book, for rubbing cancer survival in a woman's face when she asks if she's heard from her sister. Perhaps Caroline's motives were less than kind, but there's no indication she's hounding her or saying anything inappropriate, and Jessica's tantrum struck me as childish and petty. But everyone pats her on the back and tells her, "Good job," with no indication that there was anything wrong with what she'd said.

The moral of the book, that you should forgive your shallow, vapid, selfish sister because she felt kinda bad about betraying you, made my teeth hurt. There's also a nice slap in the face to anyone who's ever been cheated on, because Jessica says, without any kind of challenge to her assertion, that she only flirted with every guy on the planet because she hadn't found the right one yet. And the description of her second husband as cute and rich foremost over his supposedly awful temper and possessiveness (which Todd, himself, displays readily within the text) left me tasting bile.

I can't recommend this book to others who grew up reading the series, because I assume you've outgrown the books as much as I have. Maybe some high school readers might enjoy it, though I should warn you there's some sex and strong language, if you're a parent looking into picking this up for your teenager. It seems the book tried to substitute actual maturity for elements that were too adult for the original series.

Overall, this was a disappointment. Even the epilogue that outlined what became of the entire cast made me roll my eyes.



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Friday, November 25, 2011

Feedback - beta readers

I sent the current draft of book 1 out to several beta readers, with the instructions to take their time reading and get back to me if/when they had input.

My father (who received a PG-13 version of the manuscript, because I would die of embarrassment if he gave me feedback on my sex scenes) mentioned a factual error, and had two lines he'd written down.  The first was because he tripped over it while reading (there are three prepositions in the sentence), but then it grew on him and he wanted me to keep it.  The second was because I'd described something in a way he'd experienced, but never thought of using those words to capture it.

The second person emailed me to say that she started reading it on Tuesday (when her work break started), and she tried to stretch it out to dole out feedback, she really did, but she couldn't put it down.  She finished it yesterday, and emailed me to say she liked it a lot.  She wanted to know if there were more books, and I assured her that, yes, there will be two more before the story is done.

The second reader I picked because she reads a lot of urban fantasy and, while our tastes don't always mesh, she's good at picking out what she didn't like about a book or expressing where a book lost her interest.

I still have two other beta readers and a crit partner to get feedback from, but so far, I'm pleased with the results.

Review: Bitten


Bitten
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This book has been on my to-read shelf as long as I've had bookshelves to call my own. I bought it soon after it came out, then other books just kept pushing it down on my to-read list. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading, but, now that I have, I'm going to have to add more of Kelley Armstrong's books to my to-read pile.

Bitten follows the story of Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in the world, as she's pulled back to the pack to help deal with the non-pack member who's killing people in the pack's territory.

The premise is solid, and Armstrong doesn't ask the reader to wrap their minds around much more than the existence of werewolves in a world we can otherwise understand. This was published at the cusp of the urban fantasy trend, and so readers who have a hard time suspending their disbelief may have an easier time with this book than more recent publications.

Unfortunately, it's also clearly early Armstrong. It reads like an early novel, because the plot is uneven. Sometimes it hurtles along at breakneck speed, and others it tootles along while the characters have a leisurely breakfast. In the middle of the book, the plot nearly lost me, because there are three emergencies in a row, and one of them happens off-screen, so to speak.

I was also hoping for a better setup for the love triangle, but Elena's choice is obvious from the very start. She has to lie to her human boyfriend, and she's constantly steeling herself for how to tell him things without giving anything away. There's a comfort there, clearly, but I didn't feel a sense of attachment between her and Philip, or even a reason for her to be attracted to him in the first place. Clay, the other point in the triangle, is clearly problematic, but that doesn't make Philip any better of a match.

Armstrong also could've stood to pace the revelations about Elena's past a bit more. There's a lot of info dumping early in the book, when it could've been doled out more carefully throughout the story. There are also about four characters too many, in my opinion, and they bogged the narrative down with their deaths.

Otherwise, though, this book shows why Kelley Armstrong is a household name in the paranormal romance genre, and I plan on picking up more of her books in the future. It's a solid story with interesting characters and a fully-fleshed mythology, and I trust Armstrong to carry me through many more readable narratives.



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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Filtering advice

If you're like me (which I imagine you are, because you're reading a blog about writing and reading), you read a lot of writing advice.  There's a lot to be had.  A search for "writing advice" yields 434,000 hits, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of books written about writing, workshops, classes, BFA and MFA programs, or well-meaning strangers who will spout off advice if you mention you're writing a book.

The trouble is, it's often contradictory.  Most of the advice covers different subjects or different levels of writing prowess or different genres.  But with the vast store of opinions out there, a lot of it overlaps, and, within that overlap, it's inevitable that people will disagree.

The majority of advice about writing is opinion.  There are certainly hard and fast rules, like subject-verb agreement, spelling, sentence structure, and the formula of building to a climax within a story.  There are even opinions on these matters, though.  I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "poetic license."  One of my writing teachers once said that one earns one's poetic license by proving one knows how to drive the language correctly, first.  In order to break the rules, she expounded, you must demonstrate that you understand them.  I've read some books that broke all of the basic rules I learned back in high school, but I loved them.

If you're a writer, you can't accept every last opinion you read or hear, because you can very quickly become confused.  For example, you may read on one writing blog that you should write every single day, even when you don't feel like it, to keep up your writing momentum.  You may read on another blog that it doesn't matter how often you write, and that you should even take days off from writing to recharge the mental batteries.  And worse, maybe you're a single mother taking night classes who laughs at the idea of having fifteen quiet minutes anywhere in her day, short of cutting down to sleeping only four hours a night.

It's just an example, and not the best one I could've come up with.  My point is, you have to find out what works for you.  Every writer has methods and tenets that work for him or her, just as every writer has his or her own style, ideas, and approach.  You won't ever catch me saying on this blog that pantstering is the best way to write, because it has a lot of drawbacks, and drives my outliner friends batty.  They wouldn't write as effectively if they threw words on the page to see what sticks, the way I do.  Similarly, if I try to outline, I quickly get bogged down in that process, and then it feels like all the fun was sucked out and now I have homework to type up.

That is not to say that you shouldn't take any advice.  Other writers who have been there and written that are an excellent resource, and can lend you excellent perspectives on what you may be doing wrong.  My best example is when I stumbled across a post by Seanan McGuire about point of view.  Now, you may well skim that post and shrug, but, when I read it, I cursed up a blue streak, agonized over committing that very sin in my book, then went back to the drawing board to figure out if I needed to cover another perspective.  Ultimately, the answer was yes, and I was pleased at how much better the story flowed with the changes I'd made.

The trick is learning which advice to take.  Some of it won't work for you.  Some of it will be like inspiration in its purest form seeping into your brain.  Most of it will be something you can keep in mind as you're editing the next draft, and to be prepared to discard.

So, how do you know what to listen to?  If you're new, you find out through a lot of practice.  Write a short story or a poem with an attempt to follow one bit of advice you liked.  Try editing a few paragraphs with another writer's advice in the forefront of your brain.

If you're not as new, but still unsure, match it up to problems you've had in the past.  Will it help with this issue you've experienced before?  Will it make it easier in the long run, or much harder?  Do you think you've tried something similar before?

You may find yourself revisiting old pieces of advice you've discarded in the past, and that's normal.  As you get better at writing, you get to learning what works for you at your current level.  Taking on advice that's too advanced for what you're doing is like trying to break in a pair of shoes you'll wear for the rest of your life before your feet have finished growing.  It doesn't work at that moment, but it will.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice that you don't think would work for everyone?  How did you decide which advice to follow when you heard contradictory opinions?  How do you filter out writing advice that doesn't work for you?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Someone to relate to

I've reviewed a lot of my lowest ratings on GoodReads, and found a few patterns in books I've intensely disliked.  The most common factor, so far, is unlikable characters.

It's not that everyone in the book has to be someone I'd want to be my best friend.  And they really shouldn't be flawless and perfect, because that makes for an annoying protagonist.  I do, however, need to be able to relate to someone within the text.

The worst character development sin is building cliches or stereotypes.  Characters can certainly conform to stereotypes, but they also need to step outside the cliches.  Personally, I don't know any walking stereotypes.  I want any book world to be populated by the same variety of types I see outside fiction.  If not, there better be a strong in-world reason why people are so two-dimensional.

The second sin of character development is trying to make me like characters by telling me I should.  I'm sure you've all read those books, where all the other characters swoon in the protagonist's general direction, talking up that character's good points.  Then, the text fails to live up to that dialogue.  Or, there's a paragraph or two of exposition about why I should like the protagonist because of all the wonderful things he or she did, but then I don't see within the story a character capable of performing all those wonderful feats.

The third sin is the "too stupid to live" trope, sometimes abbreviated TSTL.  This is the character who hasn't the common sense to remember to look both ways before crossing the street, and you wonder how they made it this far without getting run over by a bus.  I like the lovable dumb ones, in certain pieces of fiction, but when they consistently make terrible decisions, or worse, if the plot hinges on this character's stupidity, I'm apt to throw the book across the room to get it away from me.

Inconsistent characterization, selfishness, and overly relying on alcohol as an excuse for people to sit around spouting off dialogue also bother me.  The presence of an alpha male also is another pet peeve, but that's purely personal preference and has nothing to do with the quality of a work.  Generally, if there's an alpha male, some strong female character is going to be reduced to a simpering stereotype of femininity, and that irks me.  I'm in the minority on that point, though; there's an entire romance genre that proves it.

I've read a lot of books with unlikable protagonists that I've enjoyed, if only because there was someone in the text I related to.  If I can manage that much, I'll usually pretend that character is the real protagonist.  As you can imagine, literary fiction where the climax of the story is that everyone sucks equally isn't my cup of tea.

How about you?  Can you like a book with unlikable characters?  What's the last book you've enjoyed that was populated with characters you couldn't relate to?

Progress post: Book 2, draft 3

I have 11425 words written in "Reincarnation," and I'm about halfway through chapter 4.  I seem to have fallen into a pattern of writing half of it in one character's perspective, then switching to the other character.

I've just written a scene that wasn't possible with the single-perspective way I'd written it previously, and I'm pretty pleased with it.  I like this character.  I like being in his head.  And it feels a lot more natural for him to get these tidbits of information I keep feeding him, instead of Samantha hoarding it all.  The story feels a lot more balanced.

Unfortunately, the changes I've made mean changes to quite a few events, so I've been shuffling things around to even out the balance of action and information and to make it not boring.  I'm sure I'll be doing some editing after this draft is done to move around the chunks of exposition, or to delete them entirely.  But right now, I'm just moving forward, and giving myself permission to suck.

It's important to me that I get as much of this done now as possible.  When I have editing work, I'm not going to have as much time to work.  I could always cut down on my sleep and internet time.  I suppose I could afford to spend a little less time staring at other people's words online, but I do need some decompression time after work, or my writing group is going to start asking me why my characters are so frustrated all the time.

And sleep?  I get little enough sleep as it is.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Storm Front

Storm Front
Storm Front by Jim Butcher


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Blurb (from GoodReads, who lists the source as the publisher):  My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under Wizards. Believe it or not, I'm the only one there. 

With rent past due and a decent meal becoming an issue of some importance, Harry needs work, and soon. A call from a distraught wife, and another from Lt Murphy of the Chicago PD Special Investigation Unit makes Harry believe things are looking up, but they are about to get worse, much worse. Someone is harnessing immense supernatural forces to commit a series of grisly murders. Someone has violated the first law of magic: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Tracking that someone takes Harry into the dangerous underbelly of Chicago, from mobsters to vampires, while he himself is under suspicion of the crimes. One thing is certain, if he can't stop whoever is on this killing spree, Harry will be the next victim. 


This was a reread, based on the fact that I got my hands on the audio edition. I hadn't found the dead tree version of the book compelling enough to bump the second book up on my to-read list, but one of my favorite actors reading it to me? Yes, please.


I was already familiar with the story, and so I was a bit more nitpicky this time around. I noticed some inconsistencies, that one of the two children in the book with a speaking part spoke nothing like a child, and that the story lacks any kind of nuance or layers, to the point it's almost simplistic.


But my biggest criticism in my original review is that Harry is unlikable, and that was significantly softened with James Marsters as a narrator. He reads Harry as subtly self-deprecating, as less self-assured than he lets on. While there are still chauvenistic lines within the text, I didn't hate Harry for them this time around. They were a quirk within an otherwise relate-able protagonist.


The paperback version of this is okay, but I highly, highly recommend the audio edition.






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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Permission to write badly

I've seen it mentioned a few times lately that various writers are being granted permission to suck.  It came up at the latest writers' group meeting, it came up on a podcast of Writing Excuses I listened to, and it's apparently the subject of this week's NaNoWriMo pep talk.  (Yes, I should've been including links in my posts from the beginning.  Didn't even occur to me until tonight's post.  Sorry.)

During NaNoWriMo, people are granted permission to bang out the worst prose of their lives.  They need to get to 50,000 words in a month one way or another, and no one said those words have to be good.  Therefore, if one is to get beyond their second-guessing every word as it pours forth on the page, feeling like one is allowed to be terrible at it is a good way of powering past that.  It's the major trick behind free-writing, which I've espoused before.  When you're typing away with no attention paid to whether the words are any good or if they make any sense strung together, you are getting words down, and you get to liking that feeling so much that you want to keep doing it.

But there's another reason, other than simply getting the words out so the work is written.  The reason is the gap, as explained by Ira Glass in the link.  As you're writing, simply because you haven't been doing it long enough, you will notice your mistakes.  You have to keep writing and practicing and getting better, or your writing will never match your expectations.  Even when you've gained experience and leveled up as a writer, as I've heard many a writer I admire say, you're still not so perfect that you won't require editing.  As soon as it goes onto the page, it has sullied the perfect image you held in your mind of the flowing, smooth, beautiful story you wanted to tell.

You cannot fix your manuscript if you don't see the mistakes.  And, even if you don't see them, they're there.  I don't know of a single writer (feel free to correct me) who can churn out publishable, unedited, perfect first drafts.  Most writers I know of, especially my favorites, require extensive editing of their first-draft novels, and openly talk about that editing process.

My biggest problems with critique have come when I was too enamored of the words on the page, too convinced that these words were the only correct way to tell the story.  The greater the distance between myself and my words, the less I cringe when people tell me where they see the source of the problem.

And so, I give myself permission to suck.  If I can't figure out just the right way to describe something, just the right scene transition, just the right piece of witty repartee, I write what comes to mind, knowing I can always go back and edit in my inspiring bit of prose.  If I'm on a roll, but I can't remember if I've dropped in some foreshadowing yet, I write it, anyway, and check in my read-through if it's too heavy-handed.  If I realize that an earlier bit I wrote contradicts something I'm typing, I make a note to myself and keep going forward.

I would venture to say that good writers aren't the ones who can get it right the first time.  Good writers, in my opinion, are the ones who can polish their manuscripts into well-told tales from bad writing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good News

I've just received an email asking if I'm interested in assisting with copy edits on 7 manuscripts to assist with the process of turning them into ebooks.  To that, my answer was, "Absolutely."  I've done editing for this publisher before, for a different pay model.  This one, though, would pay up front for the completion of the editing work.  It wouldn't be enough to make a huge difference in my taxes, but it's editing for pay, and I'm very excited.

I got the job through a series of odd circumstances.  I befriended the publisher (and the author the publisher represented) for no reason other than that they were cool people who were receptive to having me talk at them. Three years ago, I'd just lost a job, and, in my despair, asked if there was some kind of editing job they knew of.  I was mostly joking, but the publisher gave me a "tryout," where I found errors in something that was up for a new edition.  I'm told that, not only did I spot the greatest number of anyone doing the tryout, I also didn't pick out anything that wasn't an error.

You may have noticed that I'm refraining from naming anyone in particular.  That's because I know so little about the publishing industry that I could easily say something offhand that sounds like I'm bad-mouthing them, and the last thing I'd want to do is be perceived as saying anything negative.  I'm extremely happy about this opportunity, and I'm looking forward to the experience.

The level of editing I'm going to be doing, though, is incredibly detailed.  When I did this under the alternative pay model, I had to make myself a glossary of terms to make sure names and places and other made-up words were all spelled consistently.  I alphabetized it so I could consult it to make sure the word hadn't already shown up under a different spelling.

I also read over each story several times.  Were it a full novel, I would've had to jot down notes about plot points, too, but I lucked out in that it was short story collections.

This is not the level of edits I would give my writing group in a critique.  This is polished, ready-for-publication works, needing a fine tooth comb approach.  I wouldn't give my fellow SWAGers this level of edits unless they were about to submit to an agent or a publisher.

I might not be able to get much of my own writing done in the meantime, but, knowing how vague I have to be, do you want to hear about my editing progress as I work on it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: American Rose


American Rose
American Rose by Karen Abbott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I don't read much nonfiction, but the subject matter of this one interested me. I don't know much about the 1920's and '30's, and all I know of Gypsy Rose Lee is the movie (I've seen the 1962 version with Natalie Wood, and the 1993 made-for-TV version). The book reads well, to a layperson, but it fails to deliver on some promises in the introduction.

I've browsed some biographical information since reading the book, just to see where Abbott comes up with the notion that Gypsy Rose Lee's biography is confusing. She writes in the introduction that the story she uncovers is very different from that in the Broadway musical and movie, but then goes on to reveal very little that doesn't happen in the musical. A lot of the events are sanitized, which is what I'd expect, or they're cast in a nicer light. But I've seen Hollywood versions of true events that veer far more off-course. She does have a point that there are contradictory accounts of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, but starting it off that she's going to debunk the events of the musical is misleading. I kept waiting for something directly contradictory.

The informative parts come in after the events of the movie, and in the culture surrounding Gypsy Rose Lee. The book does a good job of framing the biography within the context of the time, and eliminating any notions the reader might have of Hayes-Code-era Hollywood (and other cultural centers) being pure and clean. I had never heard of the Minske brothers before, and had no idea the role they'd played in a depression-era New York City.

As an audio book, though, this is hard to follow. The book skips around in time, telling flashbacks within time periods that makes it difficult to place, then reverting us back to "present day" without warning. The later time periods are told in present tense, which was jarring and took some getting used to. Additionally, we're given three sections on the aforementioned Minskes before they have any relevance to the rest of the events. Those sections are given without any regard to the Hovic timeline, or the "Gypsy in present tense" sections. It seemed like a hodgepodge of information, sometimes, and I wondered why the author would choose to tell the story in a way that deliberately confuses readers.

Overall, though, this was an interesting narrative that told me a lot about the subject matter in the title, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the seedier side of the early days of Broadway, or what people spent their money on during the Great Depression. It would probably make a better text version than audio book, though; had I been able to flip back to place myself in time, I would've followed it a lot better.



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Progress post: Book 2, draft 3

It turns out that this is the third draft of "Reincarnate," as I found out when I went to save a copy of what I'd typed up from my handwritten pages.  The first draft must've been really awful, for the second one to be that scattered and unfocused.  Ah, the trials of a pantster.

This draft is starting from a much clearer spot, and there are echoes of book one.  But the characters have changed from that ordeal, and they react differently, now, which changes the whole shape of what unfolds.  There will be echoes and similarities between books one and two, but they're completely different creatures.

The addition of a second perspective is adding a lot to this draft.  Instead of my one character running into just the right people at the right time, or hearing a secondhand rehash of important information, I can show those events through the eyes of the character who's most invested in those events, and it'll make sense that the character can be in the right place at the right time.

The most fun part of writing up this draft is cackling over the things my characters don't know yet.  Oh, are they in for a ride!

I've typed up all the handwriting I have so far, and added a few more words.  Right now, single-spaced (I always type up drafts single-spaced), it's most of the way through chapter 2, and 8 pages in.  My word count is 4860.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear
The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from GoodReads:  For nearly four years, fantasy and science fiction enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting this second volume to Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. The first volume, The Name of the Wind, won the prestigious Quill Award and was recently voted as the third-best SFF novel of the decade on Tor.com. In this linchpin book of the trilogy, Kvothe continues his perilous search for answers about the Chandrian even as he grapples with more pressing dangers.


This is a doorstopper of a book. The thing felt like a brick resting on my chest while I read. I'd put off reading it so long because I couldn't imagine there being enough time in the world to read it.

That said, I read it, and I liked it. It was clearly a middle book, bridging to where questions are answered and plot lines are tied up. I might have benefited from taking a break in the middle to keep up my reading momentum, but I made it.

I think the frame story interests me more than Kvothe's retelling of his life. While I felt triumph for him and the fact that he stops living hand-to-mouth in this book, and I know his past actions have shaped the innocuous innkeeper he's become, I'm much more interested to learn more about Chronicler, the man writing down Kvothe's story as he tells it, and about Bast, Kvothe's apprentice, of a sort. I thought I had Bast figured out from the first book, but he does some unexpected things in this book.

I liked how I was able to pick up this book and follow it without having reread the first. I'm sure there are pieces of the plot I'm missing because I didn't go back to refresh myself and to speculate, but I like books that can be enjoyed on the surface level. I like when I can trust the author to lead me on an entertaining tale that will be resolved in a satisfying way.

With this story, I suspect that satisfaction may not be in a happy ending, but it's been telegraphed quite well from the first page that I can't expect that sunny resolution. I'll be pleased if it turns around, in the end, but I trust Rothfuss to tell the story the way it needs to be told, and I suspect I'll like whatever ending he has planned. So far, the writing has been solid, the story entertaining, and the characters dynamic and interesting. If the last two books are any indication, I will enjoy the third immensely when I see what all this was building to.



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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Metagaming

I've already posted about how roleplaying games have fed into my writing skills, but I got to thinking about other skills I've picked up, and where they came from.  One of the concepts that has served me well with characterization is that of metagaming.

In a roleplaying game, you have in-character knowledge, or things your character knows because he or she learned it.  You also get a lot of out of character information, such as party dynamics, secrets other players elect to share, secrets the game master shares with you, or any other knowledge you haven't learned in the course of playing your character.  Bad players will mix these up, and use knowledge they gained while they weren't playing their characters to their benefit.  Good players will keep any information gleaned this way out of their characters' heads.  They may seek to reconcile what they know as a player and what the character knows by leading the character into situations that allow them to discover this information, but they'll accept the GM's decisions in how much is revealed in the game.

An example of this is, in a superhero game, characters may split up to cover more of a city patrol, and something happens to their communicators.  One patrol may encounter a threat that's too much for half of them to deal with, but that one of the other characters has the skill set to defeat.  Tension is ramped up by keeping them separate as long as possible, and a good GM will time the appearance of reinforcements to the best dramatic effect.  The characters, meanwhile, won't go rushing off to save their comrades until the GM tells them they know something is wrong.

How does this relate to good storytelling?  Think about the most suspenseful stories you've read.  Think about the times when you knew something the characters didn't, which increased the tension, maybe even made you scared for the characters.  Narrative tension is ramped up when the characters act on the information they have, but the reader recognizes that's inadequate.

I may have figured out how much more interesting stories are when I know things the characters don't without roleplaying.  I am, however, grateful to my roleplaying experience for teaching me this basic facet of characterization.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Decluttering

I'm glad I'm not one of those writers who can't write if my environment is less than pristine.  I'd never have gotten any writing done.

I share the above musing because I just spent hours that I could've spent typing up handwritten pages or fleshing out ideas or doing something creative, instead, on cleaning up my living space.  I moved into a one-bedroom apartment from sharing a house in mid-October, and so you can imagine the shuffling-around that took.

The books, of course, were the first boxes I unpacked, just to make sure there was adequate space for all of them.  Then, I took a good, long look at the chaos of unpacked boxes remaining, and alphabetized the books.

So you know where my priorities lie, and, if you've been reading this blog, I'm sure that's no surprise to you.

I've never had what I'd call a clean space for writing.  The first computer I typed my amateur efforts on, way back in high school, shared space with piles of papers and infinite detritus.  Next was college, and, even if I had shared a dorm with the world's most obsessive neat freak, I wouldn't have been able to keep my side of the room clean.  I moved back home, then into an apartment with my husband.  It took us years to figure out how to deal with the neverending piles of paper involved with being adults (bills, receipts, important bits of paper that are only needed after they've been buried under piles of similarly important pieces of paper), and so there was a lot of clutter in the meantime.  If we do manage to keep up with the piles of paper, then the cats manage to scatter something all over the desk, or on the floor.

Right now, the apartment is as clean as it's ever been, and I would be content if it stayed this clean.  If it doesn't, though, it won't affect my productivity.  If it does, it's because I wanted to procrastinate, anyway.

How about you?  Do you need a certain environment to be able to concentrate on writing?  If you do need it clean, how do you find the time to neaten up, go about your day, AND get some writing done?

Progress post: Book 2, draft 2

The second book in my trilogy is tentatively titled, "Reincarnation."  The first draft I came up with was an utter mess, and has a lot to do with why I had to go back and do a fourth draft of book one.  I needed a stronger foundation for the later novels, and I'd figured out some parts of my characters as I wrote.

Right now, I'm three handwritten pages into this draft.  I am, more or less, starting from scratch.  I'm adding a perspective character, tightening the narrative, and letting plot happen in the first 100 (double-spaced) pages instead of letting the characters wander.  I'm going to read through the first draft to see if there's anything salvageable, but, mostly, I'm scrapping it.

I've gotten some flak from my writing group for my perennial rewriting, and I've read and heard writing advice that says to stop picking at one book, to move on to the next one.  The thing is, this story changes so much from one rewrite to the next, that it feels like a whole other book.

I do agree, in principle, that there comes a time to set the book free to see the public.  But I also want this trilogy to survive, to be published, to be read and adored.  It can't do that if I just let it go.  Just in my rewrites, I've already learned and developed so much as a writer that the first and latest drafts could've been written by different people.

There will come a time when a rewrite would change the story so drastically that I might as well write something else.  There will be a moment when I can go a few months, reading other writer's perspectives on the craft, without realizing I'm making a stupid mistake in my trilogy that I need to fix.  It will never be perfect, I know, but it's my story, and I get to say when it's done.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Titles

Of all skills related to word output, I would have to say that titles are my biggest sticking point.  You've probably already noticed, if you've read this blog at all.  My post titles are literal, with no embellishment.  I do the same thing on Livejournal, where I've had an account since 2003.  If I'm creative, I'll title my post with a pun somewhat related to something I'm writing about.

If you've been reading since the beginning, you've also noticed that I changed the title of the blog 8 times before I settled on "Tales of an intrepid pantster."  I'm still not sure I like the title, but it's grown on me.

My fiction is no better.  The trilogy I've been working on since forever has had three titles since I first started poking at it, and I'm not enamored of my current choice: "Awaken."  Sure, it's related to the plot in several ways, but it's not terribly eye-catching.  My writing group likes the idea of keeping all three short and simple.

And I may be agonizing over it for nothing, anyway.  I'm told that a lot of titles change during the editorial process, and I don't know that the book is good enough for publication in the first place.  I mean, I really hope it is, with all the work I've put into it, but I'm not hanging all my hopes on the trilogy becoming a break-out bestseller.

It would be nice if lots of people read my books and loved them and recommended them to all their friends and neighbors.  But I am nothing if not realistic.  Expecting that kind of success would be like getting critiqued at my writing group and hearing only gushing praise.  It's not going to happen.

Is there a writing issue you struggle with?  How do you come up with good titles?  Is there a formula for crafting a good title, or is that best left to a publishing house's marketing department?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: Sizzling Sixteen


Sizzling Sixteen
Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I deliberately put some space between numbers fifteen and sixteen, so that any similarity or sense I had of Evanovich phoning it in were because the book earned it, and not just because I was so familiar with the formula by now. It didn't help.

While the sixteenth book in the Stephanie Plum series has its moments, most of it is a rehash of things that worked in earlier books, mushed up and served lukewarm. I didn't feel the same sense of narrative tension as in earlier books, and Stephanie seemed more irritated at life than motivated to do what the nice writer said. It felt like she was being prodded along, rather than that she and her actions made up the story.

I do plan on picking up number 17, but only out of curiosity. This one ends on a plot complication that could've meant the end of the series, and I'm curious whether Evanovich has the chops to make the picking-up seem plausible and not forced.

Besides, I made it this far into the series. Might as well catch up all the way.



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Monday, November 7, 2011

Distractions

As I write this blog post, the TV is on, my phone buzzes with periodic text messages, and I'm too tired to remain focused on the words on my screen.  My husband is listening to his show with headphones on, because he's considerate and kind, but the flashing images still catch my eye, and then I wonder what in the world is going on. I thought, with this backdrop, it would be good to talk about distractions.

I know I'm easily distracted by TV.  Give me a glowing screen with moving images and sounds, and I'm glued to it.  I often tune out entire conversations real people are having because I'm more interested in what the pretend ones on the glowy box have to say.  I can mentally multitask doing almost anything, but TV sucks my attention in a way nothing else does.

I can listen to music without much of a problem, with a caveat.  If it's a song I like but I don't know the words yet, I'll stop to listen to them.  I will, therefore, set aside times to listen to music where that's not a problem, so it doesn't become a distraction while I'm writing.  Generally speaking, while I'm making creative output, listening to music helps keep me focused and on track.  When I'm editing, it's more helpful to have silence, so I can "hear" the flow of the words better in my head.

I find that distractions are important during another major part of the creative process for me, though.  Especially in the early drafting phases, I need moments of boredom.  I need times when I can't pick up a distraction easily, where my mind can wander because it has nothing better to do.  Exercising serves this function, as do long car trips, though I've carved out some other mindless spaces where I have this opportunity, as well.

Obviously, my process is not your process, and it's ironic to discuss distractions on a blog that is, itself, a distraction that takes time I could be writing out of my day.  But, having heard of writers who can draft with 50 things going on around them, and others who lock themselves in a soundproof room, I'm curious to hear what sort of environmental cues my few, my happy few readers need in order to function.  Do you need background noise, something to focus away from in order to concentrate on what you're doing?  Or, do you produce better with nothing shiny to catch your attention?  Do you have those moments of boredom to think over what you're writing, or do you prefer to jump in and let the story shape itself as the words (or outline) sketch themselves into a shape?

From what I've seen so far, what your process is doesn't seem to matter as the fact that you have one, that you know what it is, and that it's a realistic plan for you.  So I'm not interested in judging anyone.  I'm just curious.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: The Castaways


The Castaways
The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



I don't know why I keep letting a book's popularity persuade me. More often than not, I wind up slogging through, irritated at it for existing. This was one such book. I found it a story jam-packed full of shallow people who have so few problems that they have to create drama in their lives. There wasn't a single problem in this book that they didn't bring on themselves.

The story opens with the only thing that actually happens in the narrative occurring off-screen, so that the remaining characters can pick it apart and whine about their parts in it for the rest of the book. Greg and Tess MacAvoy drown in a boating accident on their twelfth anniversary. Their six closest friends lament and wail and gnash their teeth, until finally revealing to the reader that they each could claim credit for the MacAvoy's death.

Tess MacAvoy is the only character I didn't find detestable in the entire book, but apparently she was named after the Tess of D'Urbeville fame. She was a virtuous woman surrounded by jerks, and eventually corrupted by them.

The six remaining Castaways remember Tess and Greg and the parts they shared in their lives, and a pattern quickly emerges. I disliked all of them, though not quite equally. Delilah was my least favorite, and so I disliked her husband, Jeffrey, for having been stupid enough to marry someone who was clearly so selfish and drama-causing. Phoebe in her drug-addled haze was merely pitiable for the fact that she clearly can't cope with anything or face it head-on, and her husband, Addison's, willingness to hop into bed with one of Phoebe's friends is almost understandable. Almost. The Chief and Andrea are last on my list, though Andrea's simultaneous wallowing in the grieving process and refusal to deal with it grated on my nerves to no end. Also, I was furious at the Chief for using his influence to have a sexual crime swept under the rug. I was also furious at the book for glossing over that the accuser is dismissed so readily, and, in a setting whose small-town charm is so frequently touted, apparently never hears a single unkind word about it. This book does not occur in my reality.

And that was really what bothered me most about the book. Had it presented itself as fantasy, I would've known to expect it to be unrealistic and nothing like the real world. Instead, I had to figure out by reading it that the characters existed in no world I recognized. They live idyllic lives, where they can escape to Miami on a whim when the snow gets too depressing, where anything bad happening equals a total breakdown of coping skills because they've never had to deal with a crisis before, where you can drink until you're cross-eyed then drive home without incident. The entire conflict of the book seems to be that, suddenly, there are consequences for bad decisions, and they're all shaken by that basic truth.

Next time, I'll read the reviews more carefully before I pick up an audio book that lots of people read and liked. Hopefully it'll spare me from such experiences.



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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Progress post: Book 1, draft 4

Last night, I finished the fourth draft of the first book of the trilogy I've been working on for decades.

The background, for those of you not sick of the story yet, is that I originally wrote this story when I was in middle school.  All I remember about that draft is that there were vampires, the characters spent a lot of time wandering around in the woods having inane conversations, and none of my characters' actions made any sense, even to me.  I saved it on a floppy disk (remember those?), and promptly lost it.  I spent a few months being upset, and then I rewrote it.

Somehow, that copy was lost.  Another was lost to a corrupted hard drive.  Another was lost, then another, and I kept writing and rewriting this story.  It evolved in great leaps and bounds from one draft to the next, and finally settled into something like its current form as a NaNoWriMo project, after I had a dream that the scariest character in my trilogy approached me on the T and informed me with perfect calm that, if I didn't write out his story, he would be forced to do something distasteful.  Months later, I forced myself to sort through the mess I'd churned out, which became the second draft.  Drafts three and four resulted from soliciting input from my writing group, though the least changes occurred between those incarnations.  The biggest change came in when I added a second perspective, because I couldn't justify third-person limited with just one perspective character.

Right now, I'm pretty pleased with what I have written for book 1 (tentatively titled "Awaken"), but that may change.  I'm going to give it one more read-through for repetition, glaring errors, continuity, repetition, and spreading out my reveals to build the foreshadowing better.

I'll be keeping everyone updated on the writing progress as it comes along.  Let me know in the comments if there's anything specific you want to hear about my progress or the story, and I'll happily answer your questions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination


Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Olivia Joules is a feature writer for the Sunday Times, and longs for legitimacy and the coverage of a really big story. She's sent, instead, to Miami to cover the release of a perfume. There, she witnesses the sinking of a cruise ship described as a floating luxury apartment complex. Her overactive imagination serves her well in leading her straight into trouble.

I did like Olivia, and I did enjoy the narrative of this story, but I also found it lacking in ways that detracted from my enjoyment. I loved Olivia's cutting observations, but I felt like I wasn't really in Olivia's head much, though the bulk of the narrative takes place from her perspective. She engages in a lot of speculation and wondering aloud, but I didn't understand why she chose half the things she did. Apparently I was to infer that a one-off comment about wanting to be a secret agent was the key to her entire personality, except when it wasn't. I've never subscribed to the idea that pointing a gun at a woman counts as foreplay, either, so the entire romance angle went right over my head.

It also bothered me that the entire narrative hinges on the realization of a cultural stereotype. Olivia assumes Feramo is a terrorist because he's a Muslim, and we're never presented with a counterpoint of a Muslim who isn't a terrorist (unless Kate is a Muslim - her character lacks the development to provide that detail). We're left with the distasteful impression that Fielding is saying it's safer to jump to that conclusion.

My third complaint, which is more of a quibble, was underlined by the audio book experience. Fielding did very little research into American English, and so her American characters wind up sounding like displaced Brits. The narrator's American accent was inconsistent, too, so most of the cast sounded either Australian or like they were trying really, really hard not to sound British. As I said, this is more of a quibble than a real complaint, but it did distract me from the narrative at times.

Overall, I think that Helen Fielding could've written a much better book on the subject than this one. As this is the one I'm rating, though, I'll say it wasn't terrible. Just nothing to write home about, either.



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