Tag Archives: developing writing craft

#amwriting: regaining the mojo

Events in my family during May, June, and most of this month have hampered my mojo, stalling my creative mind. Many projects and plans have fallen by the way and I don’t really mind. This year I will not have my books in the bookstore at the PNWA conference (which kicks off on Thursday), as I just had no time and no way of getting them to the right people by the due date. But that isn’t a big deal, really—I will go to the signing event and visit my friends’ tables and buy their books, so all will be well.

Now, with my son on the mend and back in his own home, I am somewhat at sea. For four weeks, I spent two hours every morning doing wound care on his injured hand, and the rest of the day cooking, cleaning, and entertaining a houseguest. That became my schedule, and writing took the back seat, limited to writing blog posts on the fly—writing if and when I had the time.

Now, I have no demands on my time, no rigid schedule to adhere to. In a way, it’s like suddenly finding myself retired again, only this time I’m not killing time by painting flowerpots. (The last time, it looked like a Mexican pottery stand exploded on our front steps.)

Things have settled back to normal here, and I am struggling to get back into the habit of creative writing. While I have been inspired to write technical posts on writing craft for this blog, and do revisions on my finished novel as my editors ask for them, the rough draft of my new work in progress has languished, receiving erratic, haphazard attention.

Once again, just as I did years ago when I first challenged myself to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, I am forcing myself to sit down and write from 6:00 am until noon. For me this kind of self-discipline is critical—other people may work better with a less rigid schedule, but I need to keep office hours to be productive.

I work “back and forth” when writing, rather than writing in a linear fashion, although each manuscript starts out in linear way. Each section is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale. Like assembling a quilt, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete. This is why I make a detailed outline, so I won’t get lost. Now  am revisiting what I have already done on the first draft of this book, finding that I have written the framework for a pretty good story. My notes are all detailed, and the backstory is on file in a separate file so I can access it or update when I have questions. This ensures I will know why certain things are happening.

The maps are drawn, and cover art has been selected—all these things were done in May. The first 50,000 words are written; the book is at the ½ point. The story arc has pretty much followed the original outline with only a few major divergences. The stylesheet is up to date because each change to the originally outlined story was noted as the changes were made. This means I know exactly where I left off in May, and what must happen to these characters to complete this book.

I am itching to get back to it as I want this first draft finished before November, if possible.  I need to have it done by then because November is NaNoWriMo, a month of divine madness—each year I write a patchwork of short stories, novellas, and doggerel, all of which become fodder for the rest of the year.

As an author, I am self-employed. This means I succeed or fail by my own efforts. I choose to succeed, and for me, that means finishing each book to the best of my ability. I am inherently lazy, a self-confessed slacker who would rather read a book or play video games than work—thus I must enforce the puritan work ethic my ancestors brought to America and which somehow passed me by.

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#amwriting: choosing a writing group

Every writer needs honest, constructive feedback to grow in their craft. Many will join critique or beta reading groups. These groups come in all sorts and sizes, some specializing in general fiction and some in genres like mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance.

Most communities have clusters of authors. In your community, you will find groups for beginning writers and some that cater to more advanced crowds. I guarantee there will be one to fit your needs.

We’ve all heard the horror stories regarding critique groups, and perhaps even experienced one. Making a poor choice can be devastating—it can undermine an author’s self-confidence and destroy their joy in the craft.

The seas are rough out there, but most writing groups are really good, supportive gatherings of authors who stay for years and welcome new authors into their group with open arms.

You may stumble upon groups who seem cliquish, unwelcoming, and daunting to new arrivals. Authors just beginning to explore this necessary part of the craft are not required to return to one of these groups if they were given the cold-shoulder the first time.

There is a difference in types of writing groups. Some are traditional critique groups, people who usually read a few pages aloud at their sessions and the others discuss it in detail in a round-table fashion, while the author listens. Often, these groups are large and because they are pressed for time, they don’t allow the author to ask questions or clarify points of confusion. Despite that flaw, this sort of focus on your work can be just right for some authors.

A group like that can tell you if you have made editing errors, and point out errors within the few pages they have sampled. For authors strapped for cash and unable to afford to hire an editor, this sort of group is an invaluable resource. What you learn about your writing habits in those pages will carry over into the larger manuscript.

However, because traditional critique groups focus only on 3 or 4 pages at a time they lack the context to be able to discern inconsistencies and flaws in the overall story arc. They don’t see enough of the work to tell if your protagonist is developed sufficiently by the first 1/4 of the tale, or if you have flattened your arc by placing your inciting incident too far from the beginning.

Unless you have submitted your entire novel over a period of time, formal critique groups usually can’t see subtle problems with

  • pacing
  • the overall story arc
  • worldbuilding
  • character development

They can’t see these things because these larger elements can only be judged by sampling more than three or four pages of a novel. One way around that is to seek input privately from one of the members if you have found someone who reads the genre in which you write, and feel comfortable enough to share that much with them.

If you are looking for input on large issues, my advice is to find a beta reading group.

But how do you select a group? Before you join a critique or beta reading group, you have the right to know what that group focuses on. Attend one of their meetings as an observer.

What do I want from this group? How do they treat each other’s work? When you get home, ask yourself these questions:

  • Did they address places where the submitted chapter bogged down?
  • What did the group think about the characters?
  • Did they address places where they became confused?
  • Did the group point out spots they had to read twice?
  • How did the group address places where the story become unbelievable or too convenient?
  • Did the readers care enough to wonder what would happen to the characters next?
  • How did the group phrase their comments? Was it supportive as well as instructional?
  • Did they encourage conversation about the chosen work?
  • Is discussion discouraged? If the author was not allowed to discuss their work or ask questions, it is a red flag that should be noted.

Ask yourself, “What vibes did I get from this group of people? Will I benefit from sharing my work with this group? Did the comments they made to each other sound helpful?” Hopefully, the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”

If not, run now. Run far, far away.

If you are considering joining the group, ask the leader/chairperson these questions:

  • If the group is a beta reading group focused on first drafts, what do they consider a first draft? Do you have to hire an editor and have it thoroughly edited before you submit it to this group? Because that is not a first draft, and that group would be a waste of your time.
  • Will you receive insights into your manuscript on points you hadn’t considered, or will the focus of the discussion center on minor editing issues that you are already aware of?
  • Ask the leader to define for you the specific areas that readers will be looking at: Character development, pacing the arc of the scene, pacing the arc of the conversation, worldbuilding.

When you think have found a group you feel comfortable sharing your work with, and you trust them enough to submit your first piece to them, take notes on the experience. When you are home, ask yourself:

  • Do I still feel positive about my work or do I feel like my work was treated as being less than important?
  • Did I gain anything from the experience that would advance the plot or did I just hear a rehash of armchair editing from a wannabe guru?
  • When I was discussing the direction I wanted to take the tale in, did I sense that they were interested in my story?

If the answers are anything other than a resounding “yes” you have the right to leave the group.

The answers to these questions have to be that you feel good about your work, that you saw through their eyes the weaknesses, and you now know what you need to do to make your story great. You must be filled with the conviction that you know what needs to be done, and you must still have passion for the story.

Authors attend their first meeting with a new writing group hoping to find likeminded people. We are filled with uncertainty and fear the first time we meet these people. At the end of the day, you have to feel as if you have gained something from the experience.

Hopefully, you will be as fortunate as I have been, and find a group of authors who will support and nurture you in the craft of writing. The way to repay them for their help is to support them and their efforts wholeheartedly.

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#amwriting: creating intimacy: Point of View

Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Wikipedia explains that a narrative consists of three components:

  • Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal “lens”) through which a story is communicated.

  • Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated.

  • Narrative time: the grammatical placement of the story’s time-frame in the past, the present, or the future.

We want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head. One way to do that is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the narrative character.

This device incorporates interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts that are expressed to the audience but not necessarily to other characters. Consider this passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing. Mistake of nature. If it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time.

—Poor little thing, Mr Dedalus said. It’s well out of it.

The carriage climbed more slowly the hill of Rutland square. Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.”

In this narrative mode, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions. This is a tricky device to do well, and the only time I have employed it was in a writing class.

When they want to tell a story though the protagonist’s eyes, many authors employ the first-person point of view to convey intimacy. With the first-person point of view, a story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within his or her own story.  The waves carried me, and I fell upon the shore, a drowning man, clutching at the stones with a desperation I had never before known.

I have used first-person, and find it easy to write. I prefer to read a third-person narrative so that is what I write in most often.

If you prefer, as I do, to write in an omniscient voice, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling. A way to convey intimacy when writing in third person omniscient is to use the third-person subjective.

Again, Wikipedia says, “The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of one or more characters. If there is just one character, it can be termed third-person limited, in which the reader is “limited” to the thoughts of some particular character (often the protagonist) as in the first-person mode, except still giving personal descriptions using “he”, “she”, “it”, and “they”, but not “I”. This is almost always the main character (e.g., Gabriel in Joyce’s The Dead, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, or Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea). Certain third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as “third person, subjective” modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.”

This mode is also referred to as close 3rd person. I like this mode and frequently use it. At its narrowest and most subjective, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it. This is comparable to the first person, in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonist’s personality, but differs as it always uses third-person grammar. Because it is always told in the third person, this is an omniscient mode. I like reading works written in this mode as it is easy for me as reader to form a deep attachment to the protagonist.

Some writers will shift perspective from one viewpoint character to another, such as George R. R. Martin does. I admit I don’t care for that but occasionally find myself falling into it. I then have to stop and make hard scene breaks, because it’s easy to fall into head-hopping, which is a serious no-no.

Head-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative because the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

Experiment with POV. Write a scene from one of your works in progress using a different narrative mode. You might be surprised what insights you will gain in regard to your own work.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Wikipedia contributors, “Ulysses (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ulysses_(novel)&oldid=777540958 (accessed May 7, 2017).

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#amwriting: The External Eye

Quill_pen smallI’m in the depths of revisions on two manuscripts. Both are set in the same world. Both manuscripts had flaws that were caught by my friend Dave, who reads my work before I bother an editor with it. Addressing these flaws was not a problem, as I had someone to help me brainstorm it.

Dave has great ideas, but his mind doesn’t work the way mine does. While they are excellent, his fixes usually don’t fit what I envision my story to be. However, his suggestions fire my own inspiration and show me the way I need to go to quickly resolve these issues. Without his insight, I wouldn’t have thought of the right fix.

In the process of rewriting certain events to remove  fatal plot-holes, and then going through and altering later scenes to make them match, I found several places where I meant to change the wording of a scene, so it reflected what I wanted for my protagonist(s). I had noticed these places earlier but was sidetracked, and the intended alterations were never made. Thus, their motivations were murky and didn’t ring true.

Now I am also making these changes, and checking the manuscripts to make sure I have removed any inconsistencies.

My original view of my protagonist, Billy Ninefingers, was more callous, more of a pirate than he is today. His story was begun in 2010, but I ran out of steam on it, and nothing seemed to make sense. I decided to scrap it and move on to writing Huw the Bard, which was set in that world, with many of the same characters, but which was a more intriguing story to me at the time. (I’m still in love with Huw.) Billy appears toward the end, much as he is today. But, instead of going back to Billy, I wrote three more novels in the Tower of Bones series, and many short stories, both contemporary and fantasy.

In the back of my mind, I always intended to get back to Billy Ninefingers, but never really did until just this last year. Over the course of six years  I used him as a character in several other works set in his world, which set him and his circumstances more clearly in my mind. Through that process, my protagonist became less two-dimensional, less of a cartoon. Four years after writing the first draft of Billy’s story, a short story featuring him was published. It was written for a themed anthology, and adhering to that theme changed Billy and his motives for the better. The short story for the anthology fired me up, gave me ideas as to what had to happen to make the real story be what I knew it could be.

I went back and pulled the original manuscript out of storage and rediscovered a character I had always loved, but didn’t know well. With a new goal in mind, I began rewriting it.

Thus, some of what I had already written didn’t dovetail with the story as I now see it, and Dave pointed that out. Having a trusted reader who will tell me where I have gone off the rails is critical to my writing process.

In my experience, when I read my work after having written it, if there is something that doesn’t ring true, a reliable first reader will be able to identify it for me.

Every Tuesday morning I meet with a group of published authors, and we talk about everything, from what we are writing to how our children are coping with the slings and arrows of modern life. These authors give me support when I need it most. I regularly Google-chat about life, the universe, and writing with Dave, who lives in another state far from me. Dave and I have never met in person, but we’ve become close friends through the wonders of the internet.

Talking with fellow authors, both in my area and from around the world, is the most important thing I do for me—it’s a “spa treatment” for my writing craft.

Writing is a lonely craft. I recommend you go to Writers’ Conferences and Workshops. The networking is important, as are the workshops, but I have made lifelong friends through the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, and also the Southwest Washington Writers Conference.

If you need feedback but don’t know where to turn, sit in on local critique groups to see if they might be a good fit for you. You don’t have to share anything until you feel you can trust them to be fair and honest with you. If the group you are visiting doesn’t seem like a good fit, you’re under no obligation to return, and you can move on to a different group. You can find these groups usually through the local newspaper, Google, or even find their public pages through Facebook by searching for your town’s name and adding the word “writers.”

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013One of the surest ways to find these local groups is by joining NaNoWiMo, and searching out your local region. Look at the threads of conversation, or message your local Municipal Liaison to ask where these groups might be.

Having an external eye to help me see my work with a less jaundiced view is the most exhilarating part of writing. It never fails to rekindle the fire I have for a particular story. Right now, thanks to my friends, I wake up every morning, chafing to get started writing.


Attributions:

Quill Pen, PD|by its author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

My Favorite Cup, Author’s Own Photo

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#amwriting: the craft of Indie Publishing: the manuscript

Book- onstruction-sign copyIn every manuscript, there will be inconsistencies, and no matter how hard you and your friends comb it, some will slip through.

You are about to publish your first book. The manuscript is as pristine as human eyes can make it. However, to ensure this, the wise indie will follow these steps, in this order:

First, as they are writing the manuscript, they will create a list of made-up words and usages that are unique to their manuscript. This is called a style-sheet, or in some circles, a Bible. The author will refer back to it and update it. They will supply the editor with it, who will also refer back to it and update it, which will ensure that fewer inconsistencies make it through to the final product. Once the manuscript is submission ready, the wise author will:

  1. Have it professionally line-edited (yes, this does cost, but it is SO worth it)
  2. Have it beta read by people who read in the genre you write in
  3. Have the final manuscript proofread by a professional (again, this has a cost attached to it)
  4. After it is proofed, the wise indie author will make use of the narrator app that comes with MS Word or use a free app such as Natural Reader. Read along with it, and you will spot the inconsistencies.

I made use of all these steps for my most recent manuscript, The Wayward Son, and still, the narrator app helped me locate several small inconsistencies, one of which (lighting versus lightning) could have thrown a reader out of the narrative. (There is no such thing as a lighting-mage in my books, although I do have lightning-mages.)

My global search list to correct inconsistencies found by Natural Reader narrator app in final MS for TWS:

  1. Andresson/Andreson (found 0)
  2. Lighting/lightning (found 2)
  3. Stefan/Stefyn (found 1)
  4. Abacci/Abbaci (found 0)
  5. Sparing/Sparring (found 0)
  6. Jerika–change name to Erika (found 3)
  7. Johnny/Jonny (found 1)

Despite my best efforts, some of these inconsistencies (those I marked in red) were found in the ARC and have been corrected. I accept that it’s possible that other inconsistencies will still exist in the published book, but not because I haven’t done due diligence and made every effort to eliminate them.

The Wayward Son, a companion book to Forbidden Road, has been uploaded to CreateSpace and is set to launch on September 15th.

Indies who want their work to be looked upon as professional will follow these suggestions. We can’t afford to be less than diligent with our process of preparing the manuscript for publication, as the industry’s reputation rides on our finished products.

Because the publishing industry as a whole holds indies in such low regard, we must ensure what we produce is a book the reader will like or dislike based on our work, our style of writing and the story we are telling. We owe it to our potential readers to give them a well-edited book, written with attention to the craft of writing AND publishing (yes, publishing is a craft) as well as with the passion of an author with something to say.

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#amwriting: em dash; en dash; hyphen

Book- onstruction-sign copyAn em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m’, hence the name. An em dash serves as a comma, does the same task as parentheses, and also does the work of the colon. Used in these situations, the em dash creates a slightly less formal effect and is a useful tool in the author’s arsenal.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

  • A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

They can be more emphatic than a comma, and will really set apart any clause bracketed by them. In dialogue, we don’t use semicolons to join short related independent clauses. Instead, we use em dashes. Used sparingly, and not in every paragraph, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding.

Unfortunately, I have a tendency to use them far too frequently, and in my hands, they lose their effectiveness. When combing a final ms for bloopers, I find them sprinkled through my work, maniacally creating run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

The en dash (–) is the width of an ‘n’, hence the name. It denotes a span or range of numbers, dates, or time. Depending on the context, the en dash signifies “to” or “through.” When keying, type a space between the en dash and the adjacent material and then hit the spacebar.

To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

  • 1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

Hyphens join certain compound words. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective is easily understood without a hyphen or its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building

Some compounds are created on the spot to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds began as improvised compounds but became so widely accepted they are now included in the dictionary as permanent compounds.

Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are:

  • know-it-all
  • heart-stopping
  • free-for-all
  • down-at-the-heel

Context determines whether or not to hyphenate.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?”

Wikipedia offers the following examples:

Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)

Wild-goose chase (as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a goose chase that is wild)

Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)

Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which could be interpreted as there being no liability protection).

Overuse of em dashes and hyphens is a characteristic of lazy writing habits. We are in a hurry to get the story down, and we use the em dash to connect clauses that would be better if left to stand alone, and we hyphenate compound words that don’t require a hyphen.

I see these habits in my work and am forcing myself to be more creative. The em dash has a proper place in my work, but it can work its way into every paragraph. It is like an exclamation point. If I want my em dash to really emphasize a point, I have to only use it when nothing else will have the desired effect.

Only by seeing our work through a critical eye can we grow as authors. By writing every day and striving for growth, the quality of our work improves. Our beta readers will notice this growth and thank us for it.

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