Thursday, June 26, 2008
Have you ever picked up a book and stopped reading because the character was too weak, wimpy, or just simply lame? How can we avoid this in our own writing? Please note: a flawed character is different from a wimpy character.
In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes he points out that the most interesting characters are the ones who are risk-takers (21).
So what defines a wimp? The character who won’t fight, who retreats from conflict, who is indecisive, who sits around passively, who whines . . .
Of course in real life we are surrounded by exactly that. But as Bickham says, “Fiction isn’t reality . . . it’s better.”
Recently I had someone tell me that the boyfriend of my main character made her seem wimpy. Overall her character was good, but that boyfriend-aspect had to go. He was the controlling type and she was letting him control her. So I cut him. My character had to be strong enough to not let anyone have so much control over her.
Wimpy characters slow the story. They are not action-oriented, and action is what you need to move the story. This doesn’t mean that every character has to be a character like The Rock, but he needs to be goal-motivated and active. Yes, he might be scared or intimidated, but he needs to act regardless.
The character must have a goal, large or small, and be determined to reach it. Bickham says that it’s vital that your story must have the following (23):
1. Something has changed
2. Your character is threatened
3. He vows to struggle
4. He selects a goal and starts taking action toward it.
Examine all of your characters and find where they are passive, where the story slows, where nothing happens. Your character needs to actively walk toward his goal.
As a reader, don’t you care more about a character who doesn’t sit around and wait for something to happen, a character who will not give up no matter what, or a character who will determine his own destiny by taking action?
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Shelved projects aren't a bad thing. I imagine most authors have one or two (or many)lingering in their own hiding places. As an author grows in their craft, some of those lifeless manuscripts can be resurrected into something great. But if they never do, it's okay to have a few unfinished manuscripts.
Contrary to the above statement, I am always encouraging new writers to persevere with what they've got. Just FINISH it! My advice to writers is for them to just get it done.
Where is the balance between just getting it done and knowing when to shelve?
For me, it's when I'm bored. I'm bored with the characters, the plot, the whole thing. When the book holds no interest for me as the author, I feel safe to assume it will become a new prescription for curing insomnia if I let it out into the public. That is when I print it out, and put it away where no one will find it.
And yet, I still think it's important to finish one book. You cannot make a career of shelving. You have to finish one simply to prove to yourself that you CAN. It's an amazing moment when a writer reaches "the end" of their first book. It's a sacred rite of passage from writer to author. So I don't recommend shelving until you've actually proven you can carry a book to completion.
I maintain that nothing we write is ever wasted. Every verse of terrible poetry and line of absurd dialogue carries us closer to the writers we will someday be. All of my hidden uncompleted work served as my education process. I can look in those drawers and say, "This is where I found my voice, my rhythm, myself."
This post today is because I have a friend with countless uncompleted manuscripts hiding in his secret places. He's never finished a book. He's been at it for eighteen years--long enough to raise a child to adulthood. And I want to scream at him, "Just get it done!!!!!!" (and yes, with that many exclamation points). In fact, I did tell him he needed to stop dabbling and jump in. His response was to remind me that I told him it's okay to shelve products when you know they aren't going anywhere. Oh the agony of being quoted out of context.
It's okay to know when a book isn't going anywhere and it's time to walk away. But if you're finding yourself always walking away, you'll miss the magical moment of completion, that moment when you step from the world of merely writing to the world of actually authoring.
Be picky about what you're writing later. There's lots of time for rewrites. But for now, just get it done!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Good writers are big readers. They just are.
To paraphrase a friend of mine, fiction is a language, and to become fluent in it, you must study it a lot and regularly.
Read your genre of interest. Read classics. Read your market. Read outside your genre. Reread old favorites. Read bumper stickers and cereal boxes. Read everything.
Even if a book doesn't seem, at the outset, to be something that would benefit your work, consider cracking it open anyway. Be open for books (and other media) to feed your creative self in ways you wouldn't have come up with on your own.
Many times, non-fiction books I've read on topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with my current work in progress have later become great resources.
For example, A year or two ago I went on a Deborah Tannen kick. Tannen is a socio-linguist who studies conversational styles, and her books are fascinating. After reading several of them, I understood my own language style better, my family's style, and even my husband's.
But there were a couple of additional side benefits:
- I had a better grasp on how to write good, realistic dialogue that could have underlying meanings.
- I got smacked with a great idea for future characters and a storyline (that I'm now in the middle of)
I recently finished a book about body language, which I originally began just because I was curious (writers tend to be a curious lot). But as I read it, I couldn't help noticing gestures and behaviors described in it I could use to create perfect showing moments in my writing.
Maybe I could show this particular facial expression or gesture (ones I hadn't thought of before). New possibilities for showing instead of telling opened up for me.
Books on seemingly unrelated topics are always a great source for material, but I've also gotten all kinds of great ideas from random sources, including:
- A character that evolved from an Ann Landers column.
- Another character born after reading a scholarly paper from a university.
- The ability to accurately describe a fire in one book after my research for another one about police procedures (the police book happened to have a section on arson).
- An entire book concept that came to me while listening to a radio talk show.
- A key element in one book that struck me between the eyes after watching a TV drama.
I could go on, and I'm sure a lot of writers can look into things they've read, watched, or listened to and pinpoint where an idea came from.
Those ideas can't come to you unless you open the door for them.
Read. Watch. Listen. Always. The seemingly random things you're exposing yourself to are likely to be the things that fill up your creative well when you least expect it.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
People often ask about how I write, what tools I use, so I thought I'd blog about it here.
My AlphaSmart NEO is a lifesaver for me. Without it, I wouldn't have drafted my last three books nearly as fast as I did, and I continue to draft with it. The NEO is how I squeeze writing into the daily chaos that is family life.
Begun as a way to teach grade school students how to type without the enormous cost of lots of computers, the AlphaSmart quickly found a cult following among writers, and for good reason.
At its most basic, an AlphaSmart is a portable word processor. It's got a sturdy shell, a small screen that holds 4 lines or so of text (depending on your model and the font size), and a full-size keyboard.
My NEO uses so little power that my rechargeable battery gets charged maybe three times a year. There's no saving involved. Once you type something in, it's there until you delete it. There's no boot-up time, either. You push a button, and it turns on. You push it again, and it turns off (or just wait a few minutes; if you don't type for a while, it'll turn off to conserve power).
The earlier versions (the AlphaSmart 2000 and 3000, no longer available) had slightly clunkier keyboards and design. The NEO is sleeker and requires a much lighter touch to type with. As a result, I can write much faster on the NEO than I could on my old 3000.
The NEO also has a word count feature, which I really missed on the 3000. The NEO has 8 files you can write in, and each one can hold something like 32 single-spaced pages worth of material. I've never yet filled a file because I transfer my data to the computer quickly, but I like being able to have several things going at once.
Also new with the NEO is the ability to remove (but save) a file from being active and use that spot for another work, essentially giving you several times more than 8 files to work with. I've never needed to use this function, but it's another plus for writers who might fill up a lot of text before getting to back to their computers.
The AlphaSmart DANA version has a few bells and whistles, but also a few drawbacks, like how you have to save, and I know of a couple of DANAs that have had problems like fatal errors, things I've never heard of with a NEO.
Very minor drawbacks withthe NEO are how quotes and apostrophes come out straight from the NEO, while my word processor has them curly, so to make it all match, I have to search and replace all those marks. Same with em dashes. I make them with a double hyphen on the Neo, then search for them and pop in the em dash.
Such minor fixing after transferring the data over is no big deal to me because the NEO is such a lifesaver in so many other ways.
If you're looking for a high-powered laptop, this isn't it.
But if you're looking for something light-weight, easy to transport, easy to turn on, that won't lose power after hours and hours and HOURS of writing, that keeps your work without any effort on your part, something that costs a fraction of a decent laptop, this is your toy.
I mean tool.
Mine has been dropped and stepped on (which happens when you've four children and their friends running around), and it's taken the abuse.
We inherited a 2000 recently, and I passed it on to the kids so they'd stop trying to use my NEO. They love writing their own stories, and with 8 files, they each get to "own" two of them. It's perfect.
When it's time to transfer my work to the computer, I just launch the "get" utility program and push the "send" button. The infrared does the rest.
I can also transfer from the computer to the NEO, but since, at least for me, the NEO is best for drafting rather than revising (that little screen is tough to revise on), I rarely send anything the other direction.
My NEO has let me draft on car trips, in hotel rooms, in the lobby of the dance studio, in the doctor's office, on the deck swing as the kids play outside, poolside while the kids are in swimming lessons, on a bench at the park, and tons of other places when I'm on the go.
It's literally how I cram a lot of my drafting into family life. Without it, I wouldn't get nearly as much done.
To learn more about AlphaSmart's products, visit their website here.
Monday, June 9, 2008
I am the proud mother of a new up and coming author. He’s probably my same age or within a few years of me . . . I’m not really certain. While you’re doing the math, let me explain.
I am his editor.
I remember the first draft that came into my inbox. The manuscript was filled with ellipses with too few or too many dots, lots of telling, very little showing, and a lot of dialogue that didn’t fit his characters at all. But his story had potential and—if he chose to be a willing student—I was willing to roll up my sleeves and teach what I knew.
I finished his last draft today and my mouth hurts from grinning so much. I couldn’t be prouder if it were my own manuscript.
Was it probably hard for him to get those first edits? I bet it was. Criticism of your work is painful—always. I bet he made a poster with my name on it and threw darts at it. Or maybe he stuffed a sock with batting and fashioned it to look like a voodoo doll and jammed it full of pins. Okay, he probably didn’t, but I’ll bet he didn’t like me all that much in the beginning.
Second draft was a whole lot closer, but I’m still betting he heaved a long and heavy sigh before plowing into edits.
Once he does the minor edits I gave him for this last draft, he will have a publishable book.
I have no doubts of his ability to get published. He did the work, took the lessons to heart, and I feel like I’m sending one of my children off to college. There is little more I can teach him. There’s likely still a lot he will learn, but he’ll learn it in his own practice, in his own studies, he’ll learn by doing.
The point of me telling you all of this?
He learned because he set his pride aside and did what it took to make his book the best it could be. Are editors always right when they wield their red pens? No. But their opinions are always worth considering, pondering on, and implementing when they are right.
I’m thinking of Annette’s post on writing revisions. Had Lucas stubbornly insisted that the first idea was the right idea--had he been unwilling to adapt and let the story take on an organic life of its own, would he have had the blockbuster hit Star Wars?
I’ll let you decide.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Lu Ann Staheli and I attended the BEA Book Expo in Los Angeles last week. It was an amazing experience. Overwhelming. Exhausting. Fun.
I think I came away wondering how on earth some of us get published, and how much it really takes to become a best-selling author. I chatted with a representative from Penguin/Putnam about the difficulties of a new writer making a big splash in the national market. She said, "It's possible." Then she went on to tell me that new authors need a strong internet presence--website, blog, capturing emails from readers, platforms . . . all things that we've discussed on this blog.
I also ran into two agents I knew, Jamie Weiss Chilton of Andrea Brown Literary (who came to our Storymaker Conference in March), and Kate Schafer (who came to our Eden Writer's Conference last fall).
Lu Ann and I also spoke with several authors about doing interviews for this blog and learning about their journey to publishing. Authors we hope to interview are:
Peter Walsh (Clean Sweep guy on Oprah)
James Dashner (author of The 13th Reality--fantasy for young readers)
Brandon Mull (NY Times Bestselling author, Fablehaven series)
Jason Wright (NY Times Bestselling author, The Wednesday Letters, etc)
Diana Spechler (first time author of Who by Fire, published by Harper Perennial)
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Revising draft after draft of your book can be exhausting and sometimes disheartening. Will it ever be done? Will it ever be good enough?
Why bother on yet another rewrite?
Because it'll make it better, that's why.
Rough drafts are, by definition, rough.
Revisions and rewrites take that rough stone and try to make it something it only dreamed of originally. Doing so necessitates a bit of pain as sections are cut and reshaped to make a polished stone. It also takes time. I've never regretted the extra weeks (or sometimes months . . . or in a few cases, years) it took to finally "get" what the story needed and make it right.
A great example of a massive revision process is George Lucas's first Star Wars film, the movie that entered the culture with a bang in 1977 and never let America go.
According to one website that chronicles the various drafts of what would become the film, even the basic storyline and characters underwent significant changes. Early on, there were familiar names, but they weren't attached to the people we came to know in the films, and the plot is totally different.
Read the full article for all the details, but here are a few highlights that jumped out to me:
General Luke Skywalker and Annikin Starkiller are friends. Both are Jedi.
They "lead the princess on a dangerous escape route past Aquilae. They take two menial Imperial bureaucrats hostage along the way, and these passengers are a bickering terrified pair [who provide comic relief]. Their ship also contains 200 pounds of a rare spice."
When fighting, they use what Lucas then called a "laser sword"
Chewbacca is a Wookiee prince who rides a birdlike creature. Wookiees serve the Empire.
After adventures and near-death moments, the group is reunited by an old farmer who is married to a Wookiee.
They disguise ships as Imperial Rangers to rescue the princess, who is in Alderaan's prison complex.
After her rescue, the princess reveals her true goddess-like self and reward Luke and Annikin (neither of which is a relation to her).
Han Solo is merely a "friend to the Jedi."
(Note that the robots we know as R2D2 and C3PO are likely what the comic relief bureaucrats evolved into.)
The hero is Anakin Starkiller.
He and his father, Kane Starkiller (who wears cybernetic armor to stay alive), oppose the Emporer.
They do so with a 60-year-old general and Jedi master named Luke Skywalker.
Kane and Luke are the last of the Jedi, the rest having been killed by the Sith.
Enemies are still Prince Valorim (black knight of the Sith) and his tall, grim general, Darth Vader.
Other characters: a guy named Anakin and his little brother Deak, friends of Kane.
Emperor gives orders to kill General Skywalker
Death Star makes an appearance in the plot.
The king is killed. The queen demands that her children (14-year-old Leia and two sons, Biggs and Windy) be taken to safety.
Luke offers to train Anakin as a Jedi.
Battered robots named Artwo Detwo and See Threepio join Anakin's party.
Han Solo, a green-skinned amphibian smuggler, has gills and no nose.
To fix part of Han Solo's ship to get past a Emperial blockade, Anakin sacrifices the power unit of his cybernetic armor, saying he's dying anyway.
They spend time with Wookiees, including freeing them and training them to fly one-man fighters to attack the battle station.
(Note that there are seeds here of how Darth Vader ended up--there's the "black knight," a general, and a father in cybernetic armor.)
Name changes in a later 1974 version:
Leia becomes Zara.
Anakin Starkiller becomes Justin Valor.
Wookiees are "Jawas."
Prince Valorum is Captain Dodona.
Some elements are more familiar, but a lot is still far away from the final version:
Darth Vader has a breath mask. He wants to find rebel captain Deak Starkiller.
Deak is looking for his lost brother, Luke, and for the Kiber crystal, which intensifies the Force.
Deak programs R2D2 with a directive to find Owen Lars and bring a message to Luke.
Deak and Vader have a duel (much like the one with Ben in the actual film).
Luke is found on the farm of Owen Lars, where Lars's 16-year-old daughter Leia lives (she's Luke's cousin).
Also there are Luke's two younger brothers, Biggs and Windy.
Owen gives Luke the Kiber crystal, hidden in his belt.
Han Solo has a beard and is flamboyantly dressed. He's a cabin boy of a fat drunkard captain. (A crewman on the ship is named Jabba the Hutt.)
Chewbacca is 200 years old. He has fangs and large yellow eyes.
Ogana destroyed by the Death Star.Adventures in cloud city (which will eventually become the rescue of Princess Leia in the Death star).
Han Solo is Luke's battle-weary older brother.
Luke is a 16-year-old girl who falls in love with Solo, who was the central male character.
By late summer of 1975, the basic story as we know it was in place.
Can you imagine the Star Wars looking like any of those? (I'm still stuck on Han Solo as a noseless green frog . . .)
The six-film saga that we have today has a grand story arc that is essentially the rise and fall of Anakin Starwalker/Darth Vader.
What amazed me when I read the article is how that arc didn't exist early on. For that matter, Anakin even wasn't the same person as Darth Vader until quite late. He wasn't even Luke's father. Intead, at one point Luke was a geezer Jedi general, not a young boy. It wasn't until quite late in the game that that Han Solo became and Princess Leia took on their final roles.
The major characters and plot points that, in my opinion, made Star Wars the ground-breaking and classic story it became were missing until close to the end of the writing process.
While your story might not undergo quite the level of revision that Lucas's script did, his journey can help to keep his process in mind on a couple of counts:
1) Keep poking and prodding at your story.
How can you improve it? Lucas played with plot lines and characters like pieces of a puzzle, rearranging them until they clicked together and just fit. My personal favorite change: watching the three different characters morph into what eventually became Darth Vader.
2) Nothing is in stone until it's in print.
If Lucas had had his heart set on one element and had been unwilling to budge on it (say, Han Solo as that giant amphibian), there's a good chance that the creative process would have been stunted, that the great story he ended up telling might never would have come out or been embraced by the public as it was.
Don't despair when it comes to revisions. See them as a chance to take the clay you've made and mold it into something truly great.
Monday, June 2, 2008
On Writing for the Non-Fiction market
Non-fiction is a pretty broad topic. There are the self help books, the info-mercials thinly veiled as books, the cook books, the do it yourself books, the books on how to get out of debt, and the other books on how to become millionaires. Then there are the books for the sake of knowledge (history, science, etc).
Regardless of all the tiny facets we could talk about, there are certain all-encompassing things to know in order to write effective non-fiction.
• Story— Before you interrupt to tell me that non-fiction isn’t about story, let me assure you that it is. Think of the parables of Jesus. All these parables were told as a means to help the regular guy understand the teaching behind the story. I do a lot of teaching and have found that people engage themselves into my lessons when I stop boring them to sleep. People perk up and listen as soon as I share personal examples. Never underestimate the power of personal experiences. Examples that tie into the chapter and breathe life into whatever it is you’re teaching are the things that will stick in the reader’s mind the longest.
• Informed— Do you actually know what it is you’re trying to teach? Are you qualified? Are you really qualified? A little research goes a long way and a lot of research makes you an expert. Experts get to write non-fiction. Don’t think you’re going to write a book on how to make a million dollars in a month if you haven’t actually done it. Don’t write a cook book meant to compete with Julia Child if you don’t know who Julia Child is, and if you aren’t sure that mayo isn’t a spice.
• Order!— Order isn’t just something judges yell as they pound gavels to get everyone’s attention. Order is the sense and flow of your book. Make sure that your chapters flow smoothly from one topic to another topic in a way that seems organic and right to the reader. Just like a novel, a non-fiction book has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. What will capture the reader’s interest and make a good beginning? What is a good way to end the book so the reader closes it and feels fulfilled?
• Outline— I am not a great outliner. Organization is for—-well, organized people. However, I found that with writing non-fiction, organization was key. I needed a skeleton before I could begin placing meat on the bones. The structure kept me from tangenting (as I am prone to do) and allowed me the freedom to explore each segment fully. The mystery questions work well for non-fiction outlines: Who, What, Where, Why, and How.
---Who are you writing this book for? Who is your reader, your target audience? Who are you marketing to?
---What type of book are you trying to write? Pick your topic and stick with it.
---Where will people need this book? Where will they be reading? Is it a commuter book for while on the train to work? Is it something they’ll read while running on a treadmill, or something they’ll read while their hands are sticky with dough?
---Why are you qualified to write this book? Why do you want to write it?
---How do you plan on pitching this book to an editor or an agent? And then, how do you plan on marketing this book once it comes to publication?
Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to write a book that is sharply honed to the needs of the people who will read it.
• Know what else is out there— If you’re an expert on yoga and want to write a book on yoga, you might feel intimidated at the fact that there are a gazillion (not a calculated fact, this is merely an estimation) books on yoga in the bookstore. The beauty of this is that if you give twenty different people the exact same topic to write on, they will write twenty totally different books. Don’t panic. If you have a twist on an old idea, feel free to make it yours.
Non fiction is, in some ways, easier to write because the facts are already there. I wrote a non-fiction book on how to sell on eBay. It was like doing a really long research paper. In some ways I felt like the wizard of Oz. I had the basics--the tin man, but how did I animate him? How did I get a heart into him so others could relate to him? That's when it becomes so much harder to write than fiction.
For this reason, I recommend you pick a topic that you're passionate about.