Tuesday, April 27, 2010

3 Newbie Mistakes I Nixxed

When you begin writing novels, you're pretty clueless about a lot of things. I knew about head hopping, passive voice and showing, but I needed to know more in order to write well. My first novel is stashed in a purple folder somewhere, destined to stay there unless I feel an itch to give it a major rewrite.

Here are the top three mistakes I made:

1. Flimsy Story Question. When I wrote my first novel, I didn't know there was this thing called a story question. A story question is the main concern the protagonist adopts at the beginning of a novel. Sometimes it's birthed in a call to action, a shocker, a stated goal, a fresh start or a conflict.

Can a meek hobbit like Frodo actually destroy the ring? Will this jaded woman find true love? Can this rookie cop find the Beatles serial killer who arranges his death scenes to match Fab Four songs?

You can tell a story without one, but you have to work extra hard to hook readers.

I recently read Green by Jay Lake and there's no story question to speak of, nor arc. The main character is sold into slavery as a toddler and trained to be a courtesan but you have no clue where the story is going. It's not a bad book at all. It's lushly written, the MC is feisty and strong, the voice, distinct, description, light-handed, but it's not very hooky. I'd put it down and not pick it up again for weeks.

That's okay for some writers, but that's not what I want in my books. I want to have works that readers hate to put down and feel a bit sad over when they reach the end.

In order for your story to have that kind of hooking power, you should have a story question. Even literary fiction can have a story question. An MC, for instance, who wants to uncover her family's buried secret, may do a lot of reflecting on every detail she finds. The questions would then be will she discover the whole truth and how will she deal with it if and when she does. The longer you keep the questions unanswered, the more gripping your story will be. You can create tension and suspense with the simplest thing. If the main character cares deeply, the reader will care as well.

The mistake I made with my first book was I answered the story question before the climax and the story's tension dissolved. Use any kind of plot pathway you want, three acts, a circle, a rollercoaster, doesn't matter, your biggest structural concern should be that question and keeping it taut until the climax or later, if possible. Then, you'll be able to create a gripping read.

2. Be-verb Overload. I honestly never gave Be-verbs much thought at all until one of my reviewers pointed them out. Every...single...one. Be-verbs work just as good as any in getting your point across, however, they're blah and reflect laziness. Stretch yourself for juicer verbs. They'll breathe more life into your prose. Those other little buggers that fly under the radar die on the page and may also indicate you've used too much passive voice.

I try to only use no more than 15%. You should only really use them if it's the true voice of the narrator or if not using one would be too awkward.

3. Purple Prose. When I first started writing novels, I often would go the round-about way of saying everything. I notice this mistake a lot with many new writers, that's why I'm bringing this up. I thought that was my voice: lush, lyrical, descriptive, eloquent. It sounded good to me, pretty, intriguing, writerly. I didn't go all historical Harlequin exactly, but still, my work was chock full of superfluous fluff that wasn't needed.

Purple prose and flowery rills are okay in small doses, but if your story is packed with such chunks, it'll be more difficult for readers to get through and become engaged. You need to know that. It becomes more about the words than character or plot or story.

If you're going for arty-fartsy, knock yourself out. But if you're trying your hardest to write right, to sell your book to the masses, stop going all over the place and get to the point. Your readers will appreciate it and your writing will be tighter and overall better.

So, those are my top three book killers. What tips have you learned that have improved your writing once you implemented them?

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Putting Tell in Its Place

As Writers, the "show don't tell" mantra gets chucked at us more than any other rule. Nothing, not even "no head hopping", can stir up such hellfire and fury. So, what is it about show that's so important?

... engagement...
For readers to care about your story, they need to be able to engage in some way. It doesn't mean you can't have an interesting work, or a fun or terrifying one, but there's just no way readers can become engrossed in your book without lots of show.
Think of showing as the beads of your story, and telling, the string. You need both in order to have a functional, beautiful work, like a homemade necklace, but the showing is what is meant to dazzle, while the telling merely holds everything together. Too much telling will always leave you with a dull, tangled mess.

Tell should always be an underlining, barely noticed thing. There are times to definitely use it. Tell can bring clarity to the show, trim words if you're in a dangerous count zone, control pace and sum up what's not worth showing, like a detective getting nowhere in his investigative questioning; including all those scenes is just not important.

Show reveals character, makes your work more colorful and visual, puts readers into the story and helps them to identify with characters. So, use it for the most part.

... show...

Like, think of ways you can show your character has an Ivy league education, loves sports, hates her mom, is persistent, is an emotional rock, has idiosyncrasies, works well under pressure, is tensing up in that traffic jam, is quirky, maintains life-long habits from living as an exchange student in Japan for one year, is suddenly afraid.

Relying on tell to reveal those kinds of things is lazy and nothing will make your work more dull and lackluster.

If critters are complaining that your characters don't seem realistic or engaging, too much telling is likely the culprit. Come on. Even a pumpkin-headed horseman can be realistic.

If you want readers to become engrossed, for your characters to come alive, for your story to be gripping, your work needs plenty of clunky, funky beads. What's so special about a necklace that's predominantly string? Not much. There's nothing wrong with some tell every now and then, but it should simply support and hold everything together. Never let tell overshadow or steal the show. Put tell in its place.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Going for Distance

At least twelve people with sharp, eagle eyes and red pens in hand have read my book, Kings & Queens, from beginning to end. And as wonderful as they were in helping me make my work a MILLION times better, I was the one to find the severe glitch in my timeline. And I only did this because I'd put some distance between me and my baby.

I've had this novel written for a couple years, but it's gone through two critique circles and several edits, which have taken time. I've worked on this thing, again and again and again.

Then a few weeks ago, after I was happy with my word count, I let it sit. When I came back to it, that's when I noticed. Following a traumatic incident, I had my MC going to school for two days, then she has an accident on the second day, then I had her off for two days, and back again for two. Um, six days? Noooo! Not in America. The weird thing is I drafted a timeline when I wrote the book, I did, as well as a stat sheet for a baseball game, though I'd only shown a couple at-bats. I pay attention to details. So, I'm not even sure how this albatross landed in my work.

I dunno. Maybe I thought it sounded cuter in the prose to say her (intended) day off had slipped into two, or maybe I felt bad for my MC and absentmindedly changed the wording in a revision round. But, the two days off has been in there a LONG time. I only saw it when I decided to add commentary about how weird the teacher was for introducing fetal pig dissection on a Thursday, when it was a four-day lab. And I was like, wait a minute! If she has her accident on Tuesday...Crap!

Huge goof! At least, it was an easy fix to knock off the extra day of rest, but I cannot stress how important it is to put distance between you and your work. When you do that and come back with fresh scrutiny to see how each scene can be made better, tighter, wittier and more interesting, then glaring errors like this one, have a better chance of hitting you right between the eyes.

Hey, yeah, it smarts for sure, but that little sting is much better than the severe head trauma and lifelong migraines you'd get from having the copyeditor at the publishing house find it, or worse, one of your fifteen-year-old fans.

Write your best, and always, always go for distance.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.