Saturday, January 24, 2015

Finish your novel

Have you got a NaNoWriMo project mostly done and need a kick in the pants to complete it? Me, too. Brian A. Klems from the Writer’s Digest blog reposted an article that addresses that. Called “5 Things to Stop Doing (If You Really want to Finish Your Novel),” it hits on some of the things distressing me that may be affecting you.

The first is to quit with the excuses. Too busy, kids too demanding, the house needs cleaning, the muse is away, need to research more, Facebook is too accessible, don’t have ideas, too tired, my writing sucks, all the good stories have already been written, too stressed, not much money in it, I’ll write later, too distracted, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Sure, life gets busy, at times more so than at others. But as Klems says, writing goals “don’t die on their own. We suffocate them.”

Stop trying. Just write. Sometimes we try too hard. The best thing to do is back off and don’t think about it so much.

Shut out the internal editor. Man, that thing can be demanding. I seem more able to keep him quiet during NaNoWriMo. For the other eleven months of the year, I’m stymied by the inner critic. Especially for a first draft, just slap it down and know that the self-editor, like a player on the sidelines saying, “Put me in, coach,” will be back in the game. 

Klems’ next tip is don’t overdose on caffeine. Maybe not a problem in Utah, so we’ll leave it at that. 

Lastly, stop thinking writing should be easier. It is what it is - sometimes a breeze, sometimes a gale. If you expect it to be work, then you’ll be delighted when it is not. 

So, go out and finish that novel.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Slogging Through the Bog of Historical Research

If, like mine, your stories often require historical research, then you have no doubt run into some common problems:

  • How do you tear yourself away from the fascinating research and actually start writing?
  • What do you keep and what do you leave out?
  • How authentic do you need to be?
 How do you tear yourself away from the fascinating research and actually start writing?

This is a serious problem for me. I love doing research. One reason I choose to write about a particular period is that it fascinates me. I want to learn more about that time and what it would have been like to live then, and find stories that support my own quest to learn.

Writers find all kinds of ways to avoid writing, and none are more convenient that research. If I am researching, I am engaging in an important part of the writing process. So, I convince myself, as long as I am researching, I am spending my writing time wisely. After all, everything I learn will make my story more authentic, right? Well, not exactly. I mean, yeah, I guess, but the story will not be authentic if it is never written.

There's another  problem with research besides taking up all of the time and being addictive: Too much information can be paralyzing. I'm dealing with that now (again). I have so many interesting people and events that I want to include, that I feel absolutely have to be in my story, that I'm having troube writing. Sure, I've written about 40,000 words, but it's a mess. And it's hard to continue because I'm trying to figure out how to make it work with all this great material.

Obviously, something has to be done. I've been through this before with other novels and a couple short stories, but it doesn't make it any easier. I have to decide what is really important.

What do you keep, and what do you leave out?

The easy answer here is, keep only what really applies to the story and leave everything else out.

Only, of course, it's not really that easy. As you research, you make note of all these cool things that can enhance your story, so leaving any of that out will make the story weaker, or at least different than what you had planned. The last part of the previous sentence is actually true, but the first half likely isn't.

Stories are about characters, and your main story is about your main character. So you have to figure out what that character's real story is. Not the plot, but his growth or failure as a person. What is he trying to do? Who gets in his way? How does opposition and conflict affect him?

Once you've answered those questions, use the answers to determine which historical events and people actually contribute to that story. If your story is based around real people, and not fictional people in a past world, you can choose only stuff that was true to what that character faced. But even then, you have to choose. You can't include everything you know, just because it's true, or you'll have an unwieldly, messy story. You have to choose what really applies to the story, the real story about the character.

It's a little tougher if you're writing about fictional characters in a real time and place, because the history itself doesn't create limits to help guide you. But the same basic principle is true. Everything you include in the story needs to help tell the character's story. Adding color is OK, but that color has to mean something to your characters. And too much color might show your dazzling knowledge of the time and place, but it also distracts the readers from what is really important, and that's your character. (By the way, this applies equally well to fictional world building. Show off your world building skills, but make sure the story remains about your characters, not the world you created for them.)

You want to leave enough color to create a vivid impression of the time and place. After all, as I wrote in a previous post, your setting is a character too, and affects your character like any other fellow character would. But that doesn't mean you keep everything in. You want to create an authentic world for your people to move around in, but you don't want the world to overshadow the characters.

How authentic do you need to be?

We've all read historical books about a period we know something about and come away dissatisfied. No, 7th Century medieval knights did not wear 16th Century plate armor. No, Vikings did not storm huge stone castles when they started to invade Europe. Yes, they have earthquakes in California, but no, a strike/slip fault like most of the ones in California does not affect the ground the way a thrust fault does.

If you really care about the history in your story and are not simply creating an imaginary period background for readers who probably won't know the difference anyway (as is common in romances and medieval fantasies), you want to make sure that you are authentic enough that you don't undermine your story by including incorrect facts and unlikely scenarios for the period.

The good news is, really, the less you try to show off your knowledge, the less likely you are to offend the sensibilities of people who know more than you do or, as is very often the case, simply think they do when they are wrong.

You want the flavor of the time, including maybe some key events (as long as they affect your character's story) and a good sense of what people were thinking about in those days. You want enough to make it feel real. But you really don't need that much. Historians always want more, but readers want to feel like they spent time in the period while enjoying the character's story. I like my chili extremely spicy, but that doesn't mean I cook it that way for my family. They love chili, but their expectations are different than those of a chile-head.

Every bit of seasoning you include in your story needs to be authentic and contribute to the enhancement of the period's importance to your story. But a little seasoning goes a long way.

So does that mean all that research time was wasted? Not at all. The better you understand the period, the better you are able to mix the right blend of spices.

So what's a poor writer to do?

When it comes down to it, if you don't want to leave something out in your first draft, then include it. When you take it out later, some of the flavor will remain behind. Just know that your first draft will be especially messy. But they always are.

There will inevitably be places in your final draft where you look back and think that you wish you could have left that really cool scene in there, and somewhere in your mind you might actually believe the book is weaker without it. Chances are, though, that you'll realize that the story is better, flows better, without the intrusion of the coolest stuff you know.

Historical writers have an awful lot of darlings to kill.

The good news is, you know that scene you took out with the really interesting facts about that 3rd Century political assassination? That just might be your next book.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beta Readers

So, I’ve moved on to the beta readers stage with my novel. I’ve never gotten to this stage before. I’ve never had anyone read a completed novel of mine that wasn’t a friend or family member—aka someone who wasn’t subjective.
This time around, I asked on the Facebook page of the writers’ group I’m in if anyone was willing to read my finished manuscript, and I got three people who expressed a willingness. I had never met any of these three people before. One of them finished the whole thing in one night! She’s got to be one of those people who reads a book a day or something. She was so positive in her feedback. A second girl I sent it to hasn’t finished it yet, but also told me she was enjoying it so far.
I’m trying really hard not to get too excited here. I know my manuscript still needs a ton of work, but it’s so great to get positive feedback from people I don’t know. I know it’s not that they like me, but they actually like the story and characters I created on the page. This is my first taste of what it actually might be like to be an author, and it’s so exciting.
I know, it’s just two people. I’m trying to stay calm, I am. I need to make sure I’m still super open to inevitable criticism and emotionally ready to make all the edits that still need to be made.

And if anyone is willing to read and critique my full manuscript, let me know!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Flaws

We’ve all got them. Your characters should have some, too.

Many craft experts agree. Writing characters with flaws makes them believable and real, more complex. Who is more interesting, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

If you buy into the notion, an invaluable tool to add to your library is Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Negative Traits Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. Ackerman and Puglisi spend about a third of the book rationalizing character flaws and the remainder examining more than a hundred specific flaws. You have the biggies like manipulative, evil, controlling, dishonest, and jealous. There are other more subtle flaws such as impulsive, pessimistic, verbose, and apathetic.

Flaws provide excellent fodder for building character arcs. These faults and weaknesses can not only block the main character from reaching her goal, but hinder her. Recognizing the flaw then overcoming it entails the MC’s inner journey.

As the title suggests, this is a writer’s guide. Ackerman and Puglisi address character flaws in a manner useable to authors. In addition to defining the flaw and listing associated behaviors, they suggest possible causes for the imperfection - backstory for your character that you the author to need to understand but does not necessarily have to be shared with the reader. They offer suggestions on what the MC needs to do to overcome her flaw and traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict. Examples of characters from literature and film illustrate each flaw.

Recently The Negative Traits Thesaurus was used to flesh out one of my characters. The guy has several things going against him. He is abrasive, aloof, disrespectful, and volatile. He is slight of stature and fears being perceived as feminine. After considering the alternatives, macho is the flaw that fits him best with his role in the story. Some associated behaviors of macho include, aggression, bullying, competitiveness, getting into fights, and using anger or rage to express uncomfortable emotions. Other story ideas came out by examining this flaw. Macho people are prone to proud belching and spitting. I like to give my characters defining behaviors to help distinguish them from others and there it is for this guy.

Jeff Gerke says, “a character who is ripe for an inner journey is a character who has something inside her that needs to be changed. She’s living out of balance with herself, even if she doesn’t realize it. And the universe is going to conspire to rectify her situation.” 

Give the hero the perfect imperfection and you have the makings of a character arc. The Negative Traits Thesaurus can help nail the flaw.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Try, Try Again

So this week I sent out six new agent queries. I'll do more next week; it takes a lot of time to explore agents and pick those who you think will connect with your writing. I feel good about it, even though statistically speaking I likely won't end up with any of them as my agent. I am pretty sure I'm not the only one who gets frustrated by this merry-go-round of submissions and rejections. Why do we keep doing it?

I'll tell you why I keep doing it. I am not interested in self publishing. I have nothing against it, per se. It gains more and more credibility every year as a viable path. But I want to write. I don't want to negotiate contracts, pay for my books to be printed, market all by myself. I just want to write my books. So I keep doing it. (I will say that most of the self-pubbed books I've read have not been of the same caliber as traditionally pubbed books. This isn't to say it's not possible, but traditional publishers have teams of people who work on your book. It's bound to improve the quality of the thing. I should also add that I edit for self-publishing authors, and I think those who hire an editor end up with a much better book.)

I have several friends who were almost at the end of their proverbial ropes when they finally signed with an agent and sold one or more books to traditional publishers. Their stories lift my spirits when I want to give up.

Here are a few of things I've learned over my many long years of writing, submitting, being rejected, and trying again.

1. If the same work keeps getting rejected, maybe it's time to set it aside and work on something new. I know for a fact that each book I write is better than the last. And every time, I think this one is it, until it's not. Each one teaches me something I didn't understand before. So don't put all your eggs in that one basket.

2. I am confident that I am a good writer. Maybe even a great writer. I know this because I go to a lot of workshops, conferences, retreats, and critique groups with professionals, and they tell me this. Also because I've been practicing for a very long time. Also because I read by the ton, and I know what's out there. Also, because I have no ego left, so I can assess my own writing in a fairly unbiased way.

3. It's a good thing that some of the agents and editors I've submitted to have rejected me. As mentioned, I been in this rodeo quite a long time, and I've seen the big stall that can happen to a writer with an agent who isn't right for them. Inevitably, that partnership ends, and one has to start all over. As I have gotten to know some of the agents I once thought would be perfect for me, I cry happy tears that they didn't sign me.

4. Agents are just people. Very fallible people. Very nice people. Professional people. But there is nothing to be afraid of. I have given up the role of sweet little author who needs the help of an agent (if that ever was me), and I have started being completely myself when I query and submit. I tell people straight out what I want, what I'm willing to do, and what my vision for a particular book is. I am too old to tiptoe around, hoping my good behavior will get me in the door. You know that saying about well behaved women rarely making history? That.

5. Even when nothing happens, something is happening. I spent the last year hoping to nail down a particular agent. She asked for fulls of two manuscripts, read them, sent back copious editorial notes. I spent two months revising one manuscript per her notes, resubmitted at her request, and waited. For six months. Nothing. All my writing friends said to move on, which I am doing. But that was a good experience, because it gave me more confidence, revision notes to work with, and some good revisions came out of it.

6. Never, ever sit around and wait for that reply. Be working on new things and revising old things and researching and everything else. It gives me so much energy to be working on the next, new, shiny manuscript that I can forget there is ever one making the rounds out there. It keeps me from obsessing or worrying. It keeps me moving forward and writing better books.

I wish us all the best luck this year in achieving our writing and publishing dreams.




Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Mobile Author: Taking Scrivener on the Road

Many of you use Scrivener as your primary writing tool. Turns out, Scrivener works pretty well for the mobile author.

You can, of course, install it on a laptop and take that with you. But what if you want to travel light, or what if you think of a change you want to make and all you have with you is your phone or tablet? You can still edit your Scrivener files.

All you need is a portable device, an app that reads RTF files (most office suite apps do), and an account on a cloud storage site, such as Dropbox.

When you set up your project in Scrivener, set it up to save to a folder in Dropbox. This is a good idea anyway, even if you don't plan to use a tablet to write. If you save to Dropbox or a similar service, you do not have to worry about a sudden disk crash erasing your files. They are on the web. It also makes it easier to sync your files between your desktop and laptop computers, or work and home, or wherever you have Scrivener installed. But it's also nice if you have a smaller portable device.

To edit on your tablet, all you have to do is download the file from Dropbox and open it in the editor on your tablet. Be aware that the files won't have the nice names you set up. Scrivener stores its files as numbered rtf files, such as 18.rtf. Just edit your file, save it back to Dropbox, and next time you start Scrivener, your changes will be there. This works for your documents and your project notes.

Of course, it would be nice to have your full Scrivener set up on the tablet, but you can't do that yet, exactly. Unless you have a Surface or other device that can run Windows programs, and you have the Windows version of Scrivener. You can, however, use Google Remote Desktop (finally released for iOS just this week) to control your computer from you tablet. It's a little awkward and takes some getting used to, especially if you don't use a mouse, but it works. That's beyond the scope of this post, though.

The main thing is, you can easily edit your Scrivener files remotely. So if you are out and about and have the sudden urge to tweak a file, all you need is an Internet connection and the setup I described. It's kind of cool.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Get your WIFYR on

First, I must confess a shameless partiality toward Carol Lynch William’s WIFYR conference. Pronounced, wiff-er or wife-er, it is coming in June. It’s time to get your WIFYR on.

The assistants met today to plan. It felt good to be back with a community of writers. That is what the conference is about, coming out of our solitary endeavors and sharing with like-minded others. No matter your level of skill or where you are along the spectrum, there are others cheering for you and helping you improve your writing. The draw is the the collegiality, the chance to mingle with other writers.

The WIFYR site is almost up. Technicals issues, you know how they go. The authors include: Natalie Whipple, Dean Hughes,  Dave Farland, Kathi Appelt, Dan Wells, Julie Berry (whom I’m assisting for), Lisa Mangum, Jennifer Adams, Ann Cannon (whom I’ve assisted for previously and can attest is a kind heart and an entertaining writer. And of course, Carol.

You should consider joining WIFYR this year. It will do you and your writing good. All the local conferences - LTUE, LDStorymakers, League of Utah Writers - have a community of writers in common. It is inspiring to being in their midst. WIFYR offers five intensive days of it. The level of commitment varies with each writer depending on cost, time, and other commitments. There are less expensive options for just the afternoon sessions or one of the daily mini-workshops. But I say take a big bite of the whole thing. The morning workshops is where real writing takes place. Knowledgeable, published authors pour over your manuscript and offer suggestions. Ten or twelve of your new best friends, in a gentle and caring manner, look at each other’s stories try to make them all better it. Bang for buck, there is no better deal than this conference.

The most important reason to should consider WIFYR this year is you’ll love yourself for it. You’ll  grow as a writer. Your manuscript needs this make-over.