Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to Write a Novel 8: Revision and Editing

Quote: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.”
~John Updike

Song playing: Numa Numa by O-ZONE

Feeling marginally better today. Slightly more like a human being, and less like a dust bunny.

Still not feeling well enough to my brush hair though, so it looks like squirrels have been nesting in it. And ants have overtaken my desk, and keep trying to climb into my tea. Yuck! Although, it occurs to me that there could be worse ways to die than drowning in a sugary liquid. Like drowning in chocolate (yes, I am still taking Dayquil, why do you ask?).

I certainly appreciate the well wishing that I recover, but guys, it’s a slightly mixed message when you tell me how much you love me on Dayquil. Maybe that’s the key to success in writing. Drugs. Just kidding, I am totally kidding. I think you guys are noticing the difference between me, and me without my filter. Or maybe it’s the lolcats and fuzzy animals. I shall ponder this matter further. Perhaps Dayquil could be an exercise on how to find your voice, huh?

Today I will be talking (or typing if you want to get really nit-picky) about Revision and Editing. Another topic that strikes fear into the shriveled hearts of writers everywhere. But revision and editing can really be a make or break it for your writing career. You can’t bank on getting an agent that’s willing to coax you through the editing process, or pawning the editing off on an editor.

I have included pictures of cute baby animals to make the process easier.

1.Why Bother? Why not just hire an Editor?

Most of the time when a book gets published it don’t get a really in-depth editing job. The book gets a once over to make sure there aren’t any glaring typos that will embarrass the publishing house, and then off it goes into print. Frightening, huh? Then your book is published, out there in the world.

All those extra words in your rough draft, those spliced commas, the unnecessary dialogue tags, the gratuitous use of the semi-colon, the subplot that takes away from your story, the mention of the main character having blue eyes on one page, and green a few hundred pages, will be in your book, for the world to see. Think about how you’ll read it years from now and cringe, just as you cringe at the stuff you wrote in high school.

Hopefully now we’re all properly motivated to edit, right?

The point is you could have a killer idea, and an awesome query letter, but if your manuscript doesn’t shine like a teenager’s oily forehead then you’ll probably be rejected. Sure, there are some agents out there that might work with you to get the manuscript up to par, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they will simply say, “No thanks.”

It’s reasons like these you shouldn’t feel too paranoid about someone “stealing your idea”. There are a ton of ideas out there, but not everyone has the execution to pull it off, and write it well (and even if someone did steal your idea, they would still write it differently than you. A friend of mine and I actually plan to each write a book based on the same idea—even the same characters and general plot points to prove that no one can truly steal your idea). But if you really want to be obsessive over someone stealing your idea, that’s okay.

2. Distance. It’s not you, it’s me.

This sounds bad, but part of the Blogger Pledge I took was to be honest (what, you guys didn’t take the Blogger Pledge? To first do no harm? To be honest? To be prepared at all times?), so here it goes: I do my best editing when I am bored. It’s true! Don’t throw stones! I know I am supposed to gleefully skip to my desk at the thought of revision, and sometimes I do.

Sometimes I do.

But most of the time I would rather be doing something else. Like grouting the bathroom title.

I find my utter disinterest in the words helps me get some distant on the work. The times I am rabidly obsessive over the words on the page also helps. The only time I don’t edit well is when I really, really love the words on the page. It’s hard to find fault when you’re enjoying yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my story, and my characters, I still feel passion for them, but it’s not the same passion I felt while I was writing the book.

So the remedy is distance. Most people recommend at least a week, I prefer three months. That seems to be long enough that when I reread the manuscript I have forgotten large pieces of the writing. This is a good thing. It gives you the distance you need to read with a crucial key.

This is the process I use to revise and edit, but you might do things differently. Whatever works for you, so long as the book gets edited, right?

3. Thinking of You

(The writer, deep in the Revision trenches)

Most of this section came from Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing, and so far, this method has served me the best.

First, I print the book out, and think about it. No, I don’t read through it, not yet. Have I been thinking about my main character these three months? Does s/he still seem as alive to me now as s/he did when I wrote the book?

If yes, then good. If not, then I might want to pay attention to the characterization in the novel. A good character will stay with you long after the book is over.

How about the villain? If you have a villain who is human, and not just a force of nature or the protagonist himself, have you been thinking about the villain? Does he haunt your dreams? Observe how popular some of the greatest villains still are: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector. If your “villain” is a force of nature, do you still feel worried that you too might be caught in a hurricane? Beset by a superflu? If your “villain” is the main character himself, can you adequately explain without looking at notes or scenes why the character posing such a challenge to himself?

Now, think about the conflict. What is the main conflict? Can I sum it up in a short sentence? If not, you may be in trouble. At the heart of any book is a struggle, whether it’s between two people, man and beast, or man and himself. Which does your fall into?

Next, before even doing one read through of your book you sit down, open a new document, and figure out the following:

What is the most memorable scene in your novel?

What is the least memorable scene in your novel?

If you haven’t cheated and read through the book, you might have to ponder for a moment. Chances are, the scenes that have stuck with you for three months are the memorable ones. Which springs to mind immediately?

You are allowed to skim lightly through the manuscript (but no reading!) for the least memorable scene. Now look at the two side by side.

Normally, you can immediately see the difference. For me, the memorable scenes are the ones with the action, witty dialogue, heartfelt apologies, confessions, redemptions, and sacrifices.

The least memorable scenes are almost always the boring “So this is how the world works, Bob” scenes, or one that just seemed to exist to set the next one up. Once I started comparing these scenes right next to each other, it became clear why one of them was boring and the other was not.

Now, figure out exactly what made that memorable scene so memorable. Try to think of it beyond “Because someone is getting shot” or “Someone is dying a tragic death”. That’s the event of the scene, not the heart of the scene itself. Usually, the scenes are memorable because something life changing is happening, or there’s a lot of emotion involved, or the conflict is high.

If you can’t seem to figure out why that scene is the most memorable, come up with your next memorable scene. Maybe even a third. I wouldn’t go past three though, or you’re defeating your purposes. Compare them to each other. Usually there’s some common thread, individual to you.

In the book I am revising, for example, the memorable scenes that weren’t high in conflict had a sense of wonder, of discovery to them that resonated with me.

Now, figure out how you can incorporate one of these elements into your least memorable scene. This doesn’t mean jack the conflict and tension up to an 8 or 9, because that would be like pumping your book up with steroids, not to mention exhausting to read. If it’s a conversation, make it an argument. Make the character feel more, more hopeless, or happier. In my example, I injected that same sense of fascination and wonder that was present in the memorable scenes. Maybe you could sharpen the inner conflict more.

Sometimes, the answer is to cut the scene, and move the bits of information in that scene somewhere else. Or you could combine two wimpy scenes to make them one uber scene of awesomeness.

Because that’s your next job. To find the next least memorable scene.

I know this probably sounds really complicated and scary, but I really enjoy this part of the revision process. Once I had a bar, a set of standards for each scene in my book, it became clear what I needed to cut, what I needed to fix, and what was working. I then applied that to all of the scenes in the book, until they were all interesting in some way.

Again, this doesn’t mean injecting your novel with steroids, and jacking the conflict up. Sometimes the “fix” for a boring scene was to make it quieter, less dramatic, the revelation more internal.

I also like to rate the scene, with a one for the least amount of conflict, to a 10, with the most emotion and conflict possible. I then go through my scene list, and rate each scene. I make sure the numbers rise and fall. You don’t want too many 4’s right next to each other, because it has a numbing effect, and you don’t want too many 8’s right next to each other because that is exhausting.

The exact level of tension and conflict your scenes should be at is different for each author, and even each book. You need to figure out what is working the best for your book. Don’t feel bad if your book doesn’t have exploding cars and zombies in it. This doesn’t mean your book is boring. A scene rated at 8 might be the scene where your character reveals she’s pregnant. It’s all relative to your novel.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned I have read through the book at this point. That’s because I don’t want to get “cold” on my manuscript, where I read the thing over and over until all that precious distance I had is gone. I find it easier to do this scene tweaking when the book isn’t fresh in my mind, but that might not work for you. Figure out what does, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

4. As the Reader

This is the point where I read as a reader. I print the entire book out, single spaced. I have my red Sharpie, and notes on the scenes next to me, get comfy, and read the book in one sitting if possible. I pay more attention to the overall story, and less the grammar and spelling. Sometimes, I think of a way to fix a scene I already had flagged as a “snooze fest” while doing the read though. I make my notes where it sagged, where I thought the character’s motivation needed to be clarified, overall impressions, and anything else I think might need work.

5. Start your engines!

Now I start the revision. I save my rough draft (you owe it to posterity), and open a new document I title Initials of Book Draft 2 (so, Heart Shaped Box would be HSB Draft 2), copy paste the entire thing, and save. Now I can tinker with the draft to my heart’s content, and if I make a big mistake, it’s not like I’ve lost the text.

This is where I do things a little strange. Even though I already have the second draft saved in a separate Word document, I find I work better in small pieces. So with the mangled manuscript and the scenes notes on my desk, I copy one or two scenes into another Word document, labeled Scene Editing 1 (the number goes up as the numbers of scenes increase). For me, it seems less intimidating when I am just working with one or two scenes at once. I highlight the entire Scene Editing document, change the font to something large and clean looking. Currently I am using Franklin Gothic Book. Then I space after every paragraph and line of dialogue. My friend did this when she edited a scene for me, and it made a huge difference. The paragraphs stood by themselves, so I could edit them easier.

Now I rewrite what I need to using my scene notes. If this was a boring scene, I spiff it up. I also do a little bit of line editing, even though I won’t start the major line edit until much later. The way I see it, I might delete an entire scene or chapter. Why bother with line editing until you know it’s going to stay?

But a little editing can’t hurt, just to make things tighter. So I do a word search for all the words I overuse. This is much easier to do to two or three scenes, and not the entire book at once.

For example, I love commas, and abuse them on a regular basis. I have recently fallen in love with the colon, and I am still trying that on for size. Common words I seem to feel the need to cram into my writing whenever possible:

*a little (people are always doing something, “a little”. She smiled a little, she hated him a little, etc)

*ah (as in, “Ah, I see what you are saying.” “Ah, I guess it’s over.”)

*well (“Ah, well, that’s done with.” See how I used both “ah” and “well” in the SAME piece of dialogue?)

*just (She just needed a little more time. Again with the two overused words in the same sentence. Look at the revised version: She needed more time. Much better.)

*that (I over use this word so many times it’s not funny. She wished that she never saw him. He knew that she would hurt him.)

So I do some minor tweaking, just to polish it up a bit, but I don’t spend hours on word order, and the nitty-gritty. Like I said, you never know what is going to stay and what is getting deleted, and you are more willing to delete a scene you DIDN’T spend three hours line editing than one you did. Just saying. ;)

I usually have three to four chapters per Scene Editing document, and number them accordingly. Also, after I have finished with the scene, I paste it back into the Draft 2 document, so as I work my way through the manuscript, Draft 2 is gradually replaced with edited scenes.

After I have gone through my entire manuscript and changed the stuff I KNOW needs to be fixed, I send Draft 2 to the cleaners, AKA the beta readers.

6. The Beta Readers

Some of you might have used beta readers before this stage, and if so, that’s fine. A lot of writers give the beta readers their first draft right after they are done writing it. I just prefer to fix what I KNOW needs to be fixed before I hand it off to someone else.

Chances are, if you know your middle sagged, your betas will pick up on it as well. So when they tell you, you’ll be thinking, “Yes, yes, I already knew that, what about the stuff I didn’t catch?” Even if you tell them that you already know your middle sagged, and to just ignore that, it’s going to be hard for them to do so.

I figure, why not take your first draft as far as you can, and then let the beta readers tell you what else needs to be fixed?

For those of you who don’t know, a beta reader is someone who reads your rough draft and offers a critique. Now, while your mother will be a good cheerleader beta reader, normally you have to get someone who is impartial enough to tell you what sucks and what doesn’t. I suggest a variety of non-writers and writers alike.

The non-writer betas should be readers, and they can give you the insight of what your audience will think about your book. The writer beta readers will hopefully help you with the more technical stuff, and give you very specific feedback (the villain was too clichéd, the first chapter starts out slow, the ending was too abrupt). And hopefully, these betas are also offering you ways to fix the problems as well.

I prefer utilize beta readers who read in and out of my genre, urban fantasy/fantasy. Remember though, even if the person is your best friend, if they can’t stand your genre, they might not be a good beta for you. Someone who can’t stand detective novels isn’t going to magically love it just because you wrote it. It’s not that you can’t let those people read your book, but expect a more skewed critique. If you could find someone who might not LOVE your genre, but doesn’t mind reading it, that’s fine, and sometimes desirable. Those people can pick out flaws that someone well versed in your genre might take for granted.

Overall, remember you can’t please everyone. Try to take their critique for what it is, and NEVER argue with them, never try to explain away their complaints. This is how you drive them away. It’s their opinion, that you asked for no less. If you don’t agree with them, that’s fine, but thank them for their time, and think about what might have prompted them to say that in the first place. Maybe you might want to be clearer on the point they brought up. Especially if you seem to have a consensus, that everyone thinks the middle sags too much, chances are: your middle sags.

7. More Revision

Now you make the changes you think are necessary. Figure out how to pick up your dumpy middle, and make the motivation clearer. Whatever suggestions the beta readers picked up, thank your lucky stars for them, and put their suggestions to work.

These changes become Draft 3. I copy the entire Draft 2, paste it into new document, and make the changes they suggested. This is your Draft 3. Again, in case you make major changes that somehow doesn’t work, you still have your second draft to fall back on.

Now, sent it out again. I like to use my betas in waves. Depending on how many betas I have, I’ll send the book out to three people at first, even if I have a total of seven or so guinea pigs—I mean, beta readers. This means that the second round of betas are reading your third draft, the new, non-saggy middle one. Don’t tell them what other beta readers picked up, just hand them the draft and ask for input.

If no one comments about your middle, then you’re saved. If they do, ask them for suggestions, and try not to kill yourself. Remember you can’t please everyone and ultimately, you are the author, and you know what is best for the book. But make sure to check your ego at the door. If these people are all commenting on a plot hole, you can beat your bottom an agent will see the exact same plot holes (and maybe three more).

You can lather, rinse, repeat this stage as many times as you need to, but eventually you will have to get off the merry go round. I would suggest not making yourself insane over revision. No one is ever going to give you a clean bill of health, other than your mom perhaps. There will always be SOMETHING that could be better, could be fixed. Sometimes I rotate between the two groups of betas. So if the first group caught the saggy middle, and the second group said the climax needed more pizzazz (I like that word. I need to find a way to use it more often), give Draft 4, the one incorporating the changes from both rounds of beta readers to your first group, and ask them to comment. Hopefully they have had enough time and distance to catch something new, and comment on the changes you have made. Or you could give it to a third group of beta readers. Again, don’t mention all the changes you’ve made, and don’t mention the comments group two made. You don’t want to taint them with your impressions.

8. Line Editing

When I finally think the chapters and scenes are here to stay, then I line edit. I print out the double spaced copy, and tackle the manuscript one page at a time. Don’t be scared, I know that’s a huge manuscript staring you in the face. Just take it a paragraph at a time. Get that red pen out, put the first page on the table, shove the rest of the manuscript to the side, and edit, edit, edit.

*cut every adverb you can. A stronger noun is better than a weak noun with an adverb attached.

*Check for hooks at the beginning of each chapter, and questions at the end.

*cut the clichés, and the near clichés.

*Make sure the characters can physically do what you say they do. Ie: “Susan walked through the door as it opened.” I know you’re trying to be economical, but that is physically impossible.

*Cut the flab. Less is more. I am not saying strip the book of all adjectives and description, but keep it concise, interesting, and part of the characterization. If you can tell us what the room looks like from the POV of the character, all the better.

*try to make the verbs and nouns as descriptive as you can without being distracting. Difficult, I know. Basically, you want to tell us what happened as precisely as you can, without drawing attention to the word itself. We don’t want to see the words, we want to see your story. The litmus test for me is precision. I want to tell exactly what happened, but as unobtrusively as possible.

*read the book out loud. You will immediately hear any clunky or awkward sentences.

Lastly (that’s a word, right? The Dayquil is telling me it is), none of these “rules” should be followed off a cliff. Figure out what works for you. Just when all the writers in the world (they have secret conferences) all agree on a rule of grammar, some brilliant writer comes along and breaks it with great fan fair.

9. I Wish that I Knew What I Know Now

For me, editing is both a great pain and a great joy. I like to think of myself as a sculptor, and my rough draft as the vague outline of my statue.

It’s heartbreaking to come back to a draft, especially if you’ve put it down and written another book in the meantime, and realize the book isn’t as good as you thought.

“Rats,” you say to yourself, “I can write much better than this right now. This instant. I should just trunk this book, and start another one. I learned so much between writing this book, and now.”

But if you follow this line of logic and trunked the book, wrote another one, and let that one sit for a little while, guess what?

You’re going to be at the same place. Even if you type really, really fast and can hammer a book out in an month, and let the book sit for a month or two, that’s still a minimum of three months before you can edit that book, and for most people, that’s a lightening fast turn around. Usually it’s closer to 6 months to a year between the conception of the idea, and the point when you can sit down to edit the book. You will always look at your manuscript and think you could do better.

And you know what?

That’s the entire point of editing. You are supposed to see all the flaws, all the inconsistencies. No one produces a perfect first draft. No one. But that’s okay, because you are bringing the writer you are today, to the draft you wrote months ago. All those things you learned? The tricks and tips you picked up? You can now apply them to your rough draft. No matter how long ago you wrote that novel you can use what you know now to change what you didn’t then.

Isn’t that empowering? I find myself invigorated with that thought! It’s my theory that you could potentially take that awful first novel you wrote and revise it into something publishable.

Some projects, depending on the problem, might take longer to revise than others, and some will be more work, but if you really wanted to I don’t see why you couldn’t. You’d probably have to do a lot of rewriting and revision, but like I said, it’s possible.

Some drafts you have might be an easier edit, sure, but you can edit all of them. You can apply the knowledge you have now to the books you wrote years ago. Isn’t that great?

Again, let me stress everything I talked about is just one way of doing things, and you should find what works best for you. I also edited this post to death, but I am about to make myself crazy. So again, I shall blame the typos and run on sentences on the Dayquil.

As for me, I guess I should stop blogging about editing and actually do some.

What do you guys think? What is the best editing method for you?

(Thank you Wikicommons for the pictures)

Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Write a Novel 7: Research (and Jurassic Park)

Quote: none, still riding the ‘Q

Song playing: Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls

First, some observations:

*Still sick. Nyquil consumption high. Switched to the daytime formula. A comedian once said that it won’t make you sleep, but you’ll spend the rest of the day staring at your reflection in the toaster. I find truth in that statement.

*My iTunes doesn’t appear to be shuffling songs very well, as I have heard the same five songs in the past hour twice, and it’s a playlist containing 207 songs. In the middle of this phenomenon I reshuffled the songs. Didn’t make a difference.
Conclusion? Steve Jobs is controlling my computer via iTunes. Apparently his favorites songs are All the Way Down by Ryan Cabrera, Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls (don’t judge me!), Colors of the Wind by Vanessa Williams (you know you get teary-eyed every time you hear this song, too), All I Ever Wanted by Basshunter, and the one odd ball song, Dr. Online by Zeromancer. Why does it not surprise me Steve Jobs likes pop music?

*My Nyquil-addled brain made a connection between how writing is like Jurassic Park yesterday, observations of which I will share at the end of the post.

*I just used the gift certificate to my future in-laws gave me for Christmas, and spent it all on books. 50 dollars worth. All of them used, but in Like New condition. That’s twelve books. Spent almost as much on shipping though, Amazon’s downfall. They should make it easier to search from individual book sellers. Anyway, I am salivating with the thought of all of those books arriving within the next few weeks. All of them are books about writing with the except of two novels by Patricia Sewell. Expect cries of joy and book reviews to follow.

*I continue to blame all spelling errors and typos on the Nyquil.

Now, onward to research, today’s topic on How to Write a Novel.

Let me once again reiterate that every single writer has a different way to write. What works for one person might be the worse technique another writer ever did. Your mileage will vary. This is just to get you thinking, and maybe you’ll find something from the post you can take away.

1. Research

Research. I know. Most people hate it, they think it’s a dirty word. But you’re going to have to do some, at some point in time. Usually. Unless you’re writing some really weird, avant-garde thing, but then I still image there are aspects you aren’t as familiar with as you could be.

Some writers like to research while working on the plot and brainstorming, and others like to wait until after the first draft is written, to see what they need to do. Typically, there’s going to be a mixture of the two.

As you can probably tell, I love doing research, but I was also a huge nerd in high school (shocking, I know). You know, the brainy sort of nerd that seemed to be friends with everyone, but was a too weird to be considered cool. That was me.

It’s hard being a writer, for many reasons, one of them being you have to be an expert on a little bit of everything. It’s jarring to read a book that has characters doing unrealistic things regarding their jobs, their location, physics of the world, etc. It’s in your best interest to find as much information on your subject as you feel like you need to in order to tell a good story.

2. Profession

What is your character’s job? You might need to research their job if it has a large bearing on the plot events. That’s why there’s a lot of books out there for courtroom procedures, crime scene investigation, and law enforcement, but not so many on being a botanist.

I find myself doing at least a smidgen of research on the character’s profession, just so the character seems more realistic. Most of the information you need, like typical ages, salaries, educational requirements is on the Internet. There are also books out there about specific jobs, like the aforementioned books on crime scene investigation.

3. Setting

I am not going to rehash what I talked about in the post on Setting, so suffice to say, you want to have a good feel for your setting, wherever it is. This is a great excuse to take a vacation to oh, say, Hawaii. You could even start setting your books in locations you’d like to visit, justifying the travel expense with “research”. Just saying.

4. Exploration

I like to think of research as exploration. Research doesn’t just have to be boring reading up on facts and figures. You could take a day trip to a park, if you want to really capture the feel of a rustic setting. You could try to visit the city where your character lives, if it’s feasible. You could talk to people from the culture you are writing about (if they exist. Sadly, elves do not). You could talk to your elderly relatives about what life was like back in their era, and jot down your own experiences with transitioning into the digital age.

You could write down some specific details about your favorite restaurant, or the taste of your favorite meal, or buy a candle that reminds you of how your character’s beach house smells. If you’ve never been in a fight you could ask someone else how it feels to be hit in the face (I wouldn’t suggest starting a fight. I doubt the cops will accept the “it’s for my book” as an excuse).

Research is building your experience with the unknown, the untried. The more you reach out and try to understand new, the better informed you are.

5. Other media

(no, checking your email doesn't count as research. sorry)

I am also a big fan of watching movies as a form a research. I enjoy the movie, of course, but I also keep a pencil and notebook with me. I dissect the movie and try to figure out what did and didn’t work. If you’re writing a detective novel, try to watch a few crime movies. If you’re writing about aliens, you could watch Alien, or Predator (but not Aliens vs. Predator. I paid 50 cents to see that movie, and want my money back), and pay special attention to how people deal with encountering the unknown.

You could also view art, look though magazines, and read poems. Whatever it takes to make you feel like you can talk confidently about the place, and characters, and themes of your novel. There is no right or wrong way, and it might change with each novel, depending on the demands of each book.

6. Jurassic Park and Writing

So, yesterday I watched Jurassic Park (love that movie, and the special effects have withstood the test of computer graphics era well) while on Nyquil. Good times. Ian Malcolm was chewing the geneticists out, saying that they were so excited with the fact they could clone dinosaurs, they didn’t stop to think if they should. The geneticists stood on the shoulders of those who did genetic research before them, took a few short cuts, and BAMN! Cloned dinosaur time. Malcolm further made the point that the geneticists didn’t earn the knowledge they received, so they didn’t have the skill to control what they created.

Which was the point my brain told me this is surprisingly similar to writing. It made immediate sense to me, but for those of us not following my Nyquil logic, here’s the gist.

To be a writer you have to pay your dues. Not because everyone in the publishing industry is mean, and don’t like to play fair, but because it’s how things operate smoothly. You have to learn how to write properly, how to craft a story and sentences and characters and when you’re done all that, you have to learn how to write a book from start to first, and then when you’re done that, you have to teach yourself how to edit. After that, you have to learn all about publishing, and submission guidelines, and agents, and how to balance your time effectively.

It’s a lot to learn and it can take months, years, or decades to master depending on how you apply yourself. You write a book, it’s terrible, you learn why it sucked, and then you write another book that sucked marginally less. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The steps and time frame is different for every writer, but almost everyone goes through some version of this learning process.

However, there are some writers who write a book or two, and then suddenly, a book they wrote gets published and receive commercial and literary acclaim. Sometimes these writers are geniuses, and other times, just super-doper lucky. At any case, these writers will still go through the same learning process that us poor, unpublished, un-bestselling novelist smucks do, just in the limelight. Just with the entire world watching what they produce next. Sometimes the follow up novels to these “amazing debuts” are great books, and sometimes, they fail miserably.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that J.K. Rowling has yet to publish something non-Harry Potter related. Stephanie Meyer has yet to produce something non-Twilight related. Dan Brown continues to produce Da Vinci Code-esque novels. Whatever your personal feelings on these authors, it’s hard to take your first few steps at all, much less in the limelight.

So the next time you’re staring at your ceiling, wishing God/Allah/the universe/the flying spaghetti monster will make your first novel the bestest seller there ever was EVAR, think about all the pressure that comes with that sort of fame.

And think about Jurassic Park.

Maybe the publishing business does have the right idea, that by the time you have something in print, nine time out of ten, the book is good enough to be published.

So what do you think? Do you spend a lot of time researching, or very little? Do you want your first book to shoot straight to the top, limelight be darned? Or would you rather published a few successes, gradually building in popularity?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Ramblings of a Sick Mind (and LOLCats)

Quote: none, I am on Nyquil at the moment

Song playing: Map of the Problematique by Muse

So, fair warning for you guys today: I am sick with the flu. Fever, body aches, nausea, the whole nine yards. Had to call out of work today, because I am not allowed to be around the clients when I am sick for some reason. Plus the fever makes me really loopy. So if I go on tangents more than normal today and my spelling is even worse, I blame the fever. I will be blogging about How to Write a Novel tomorrow, because I am in no state to tell someone where the kitchen is.

Why am I not in bed, you may ask with concern in your voice and honeyed tea in your hands (thank you)?

Because I’d rather be blogging and writing. Because I can only lie around in bed for so long before I get bored, and I don’t feel like watching a movie, or popping in one of my seasons of Criminal Minds. Because I feel like I should be writing since I am not at work (those are pretty much the two activities I divide my time with…oh yeah, and wasting time on the Internet. And my fiancé. Can’t forget about him). I’ll probably have to erase 90% of the stuff that I write today, but sometimes my over-heated brain produces something amazing when I am sick, so there’s always that hope. Not that I am advocating you all write while you’re sick. Stay in bed, and watch Criminal Minds. I am clearly insane.

I would like to know why when I get more sleep, I get huge bags under my eyes. I thought you got bags under your eyes from lack of sleep, not from sleeping in. Seriously, I have huge, puffy bags under my eyes. I could pack my entire room in them. Plus, I have an extremely fair complexion (I am 90% Irish, so I sunburn in ten minutes, no exaggeration. Sadly, the red head gene passed me over, I just got stuck with their skin tone and freckles.), so now I look like a zombie.

Anyway, in other news, Michael Emeritz revamped his blog, and it looks super cool, so you should go check it out. He has this bookshelf thingy there that I am insanely jealous of. He also wisely pointed out in regards to dialogue, it should be able to stand for itself. I intended to mention that, but of course, I forgot. So yes, good dialogue will stand without you having to use tags to tell us who said it.

I thought we could all do some sort of dialogue workshop, to help each other improve, but I am not exactly sure how to do that on a blog, so if anyone has any suggestions, I am all ears.

In other, other news, I had a shiny new idea yesterday while I was watching Hellboy II and pretending I wasn’t sick (I was just “taking it easy”). I would also like to know why when I already have too many projects going at once, I get really cool ideas, but when I am ACTIVELY looking for something to work on, it’s like tumbleweeds blowing around in my brain. Nothing catches my interest. I am in the middle of a serious edit, and developing another book, plus I have at least five other ideas nagging for attention, and my muse decides now is the time to drop a great idea into my lap. My muse is fickle, I guess. Or he likes playing head games with me.

I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, “Waaaah, Elizabeth, poor pitiful you with all of your ideas. Such a tragedy to befall you.” I know it’s a good thing to have ideas, but whenever I get a new idea I have to resist the urge to abandon what I am working on. We all know the best way to resist temptation is to give in to it. And I know by the time I do get to the idea, some of the new-idea luster will be gone.

So I am splitting the difference, and doing like I described in…one of my earlier posts, and developing the idea as much as I can before abandoning it to more concrete things. Basically, I try to get as much of what I find exciting about the idea on paper, and even think about the plot a little bit. This way, the idea is fleshed out enough that is has life, and more times than not, I will be minding my own business when two of the half formed ideas combine to make one new, SUPER idea.

One of the really exciting things about this idea is the characters.

Now, I write about all sorts of characters. I really do, not on purpose but it’s just what happens. I have characters of all ethic backgrounds, of different fantasy races, and professions. Some writers have a few personality types they like to write about, but mine seem to run the gamut. I have just as many embarrassingly shy characters as I do spunky and bossy characters. It’s just how I roll.

But these characters, specifically the guy, but the girl is too, are anti-heroes rather than heroes. This in and of itself isn’t new for me, I already have several anti-hero characters (actually the book I am developing at the moment has TWO), but this guy…he is just a few steps up from a straight villain. The idea of writing a character like that is frightening and fascinating, much like the character himself.

For those of you who don’t know what an anti-hero is, or you have a fuzzy idea but aren’t too clear, allow me to explain briefly.

Anti-heroes come in several different shades and flavors, but all of them differ from regular heroes in a few key fashions. The main difference is the level of morality. What a normal hero would consider morally objectionable, an anti-hero has no problem with. Superman is a hero, Batman (yay Batman!) is an anti-hero. Cyclops is a hero, Wolverine is an anti-hero. Anti-heroes do good things, but their motives are usually less pure than a regular hero. A hero might save the world because It’s the Right Thing to Do, an anti-hero will save the world because he doesn’t want to die, or because someone is paying him to, or because he’s trying to get back at the guy who wants the world to end. See the difference? Same results, just different reasons. And the anti-hero’s methods for saving the world will be less scrupulous than the hero’s.

Anti-heroes are much more flawed than a regular hero. A regular hero has a few flaws to show he is human, but is still undeniably a good, upstanding citizen. Depending on the specific type of anti-hero, the anti-hero might have just as many flaws as he does merits, or even more.

I find anti-heroes fascinating because they are gritty and realistic. Anti-heroes evoke a big range of emotion in the reader, whether it’s the “I can’t believe he just did that, what a jerk.” or “Wow, she is such a bad ass. I wish I was a bad ass.”

You have your anti-heroes who are gritty, your Han Solo type, who is essentially nice guy, but he enjoys breaking the rules just a little too much. You have your bad boys/girls (James Bond, Samantha Jones from Sex and the City), charming criminals (a la Ocean’s 11), and your dark heroes (Batman, Rambo, Ripley from the Alien movies, Prince Nuada from Hellboy II (although in this movie he serves as the antagonist, he really is a dark hero because of his motivations and backstory)). All of these characters have different shades of morality, going from generally decent people (Han Solo), to almost a villain themselves (Prince Nuada).

For my shiny new idea, my male main character is a dark hero seriously flirting with actual villainy.

The point of this ramble is to underline my point in my…earlier post about not pulling your punches (those pauses are me not remembering which post, and not having the energy to look it up).

See, the idea of writing a guy that is level of flawed makes me nervous. (or girl, I am not sexist, anti-heroes are both genders, this particular character just so happens to be a guy). I will admit it makes me squirm in my seat. I like to believe that people are overall Nice. But he isn’t nice, most of the time. He’s dark, and tortured, and does what has to be done, and gets his hands dirty with work that more traditional heroes can’t do because of their moral code. He and Batman would get along super well in the morality department.

I am already worrying about writing about a character like that. I worry I won’t have the skill to write him sympathicly (Is that even a word? Take that spell check!) enough. While I was thinking about his character, I kept having the urge to explain. You know that urge, the “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” “It’s okay that he’s rude to people, because he’s sad.” You want to explain away bad behavior, to justify it to yourself, so it won’t seem so bad. But that’s cheating, and we all know it. There might be an explanation for bad behavior, and he does have a brutally traumatic back story (*evil grin* I sure didn’t pull any punches there), but bad behavior is still bad behavior.

The other part of me is reveling in the idea of writing about people who kick ass and take names, and don’t apologizes for the lamp they just smashed. Characters this emotionally disturbed and complex are undeniably interesting to me, so I also feel pure joy at the idea of taking the gloves off, morality wise.

It’s going to be a challenge, to walk that fine line between good and evil, and I find myself frightened I will fail miserably, but it’s sure going to be fun to try.

I think some tricking of my subconscious is in order. Sometimes when an idea intimidates me, and I worry too much about it, I have to tell myself I am not really working on it. Like, right now I am working on developing a book called “A Dangerous Mind” while I am not editing. I am doing the prewriting stuff, the character development, research, and so on. I know I am working on this idea. But sometimes when you tinker with an idea in your spare time, you come up with some really great stuff, because you weren’t pressuring yourself. You didn’t feel the need to be awesome, or good, or funny, or talented, because you were just fooling around. And while you were fooling around with an idea, something great came from it.

Yes, I believe this is what I shall do. Just don’t tell my subconscious, or internal editor.

By the way, Jessica Page Morrell wrote an AMAZING book about anti heroes, villains, and matching the two up. It’s call Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches. Seriously, one of the best books I ever bought. She’s very thorough with the different shades of anti-heroes and villains. Even if you never plan to write an anti-hero, I would recommend getting this book just for her section on villains.

One method she mentioned for making flaws is to think about all the things that people do to annoy you, great and small. Does it bother you when people wear too much cologne? How about liars? She suggested exhausting this list, and from there, you have a great start for some good character flaws. So what about you guys? What thing do people do that get on your last nerve? Have you ever worked on a project that you worried you weren’t up to the challenge? What did you do to get over that fear? And where the heck is my Nyquil?

Okay, I think I have rambled enough. Time to go see if my alphabet soup will spell out a bestseller. Wait, I think I see a word…no, two…“y-o-u s-u-c-k”.

Drat. A magic eight ball my alpha bet soup is not.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How to Write a Novel 6: Dialogue

Quote: “A dialogue is more than two monologues.”
Max M. Kampleman.

Song Playing: Word that We Couldn’t Say from the Cowboy Bebop Soundtrack (yes, that was on purpose too)

Here is an example of how separate, yet related things can come together to make your novel.

I watched this video by one of my favorite bands, called Apoptygma Berserk. The song is called “In this Together” and it’s about a hostage situation at a bank.

Here's the video:

(sorry about the crappy link guys, I STILL can't get my link button to work)

I thought, “Wow, Detective Brewster is dealing with a hostage situation. Funny that.” If you watch the video, you will see there’s a twist ending, and a bit of a double cross. Maybe that doesn’t jive with your idea of the end of the book. Maybe you want Dective Brewster to live, and obviously, he’s not one of the hostages. But it could spin more ideas for you. Like, what if one of the hostages was in on the robbery? What if it was one of the cops who were in on the robbery? What if this guy was Detective Brewster’s mentor, and there’s a speech at the end that the mentor makes like:

“You were never supposed to take that call, David (Detective Brewster’s first name). You were supposed to let someone more experienced handle it.”

“Cripes, John, my sister is in there. My sister.”

“I know. And I am sorry for that. An unfortunate coincidence—“

“I don’t believe in coincidence.” David said, wiping his face with his hands.


You get the point. I could go on. This is actually a good lead in for today’s topic: Dialogue.

Today we’re talking about talking. Or rather, how to use dialogue well. I must admit, I personally think dialogue is an area I excel in. Not that I don’t still have loads more to learn about dialogue, but I seem to have an ear for it.

Which brings me to my first point. Some people believe that you either have an ear for dialogue or you don’t, and there’s no real changing that. Not that those who do dialogue poorly couldn’t improve, but it will never be a strong point for that writer.

I don’t know how I feel about that idea. I would like to think that people are naturally good at some aspects of writing, but what they aren’t good at they can learn. It feels elitist and snobbish to say some people are just “born” with magical writing pixie dust and other people aren’t. But there is compelling evidence, namely the quality of writing, and how short or long of a time it takes that person to write well, that speaks to the contrary, that some people are naturally born with talent, like some people are naturally born with amazing basketball abilities.

So there you have it: food for thought.

The bottom line is I believe even if you aren’t talented with an aspect of writing, it doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it, just that it’s going to be work. I was always particularly good with dialogue, but trust me, I am an abyssal failure at other, almost MORE important things *cough*grammar*coughcough*. Just because you suck at something doesn’t mean you should sit back and say, “Oh well, I’ll just pay an editor to fix all my spliced commas and run on sentences.” because that’s lazy, and how will you ever learn and improve if you don’t stretch yourself? So yes, moral for today ramble: writing is hard, and you should know your strengths and weakness, and try to improve both.

People theorize that writers who are good with dialogue also spend more time talking to people, so they know how natural speech sounds like. In my case, at least, this is true. I can talk a blue steak if I want to, and spend a lot of time with people, and listening to how people talk. So if you want to get better at dialogue, hit a mall or public place, and listen to how people are talking.

1. An Ear

When someone says you have an “ear” for dialogue, it means that you can effectively capture what your characters are saying down on paper, without it being boring, or talking about something know one cares about. It also talks about the way these sentences are typed, too. Basically, how effectively you simulate speech in a novel.

For example, the following bit of dialogue would be laughable from the character’s three year old:

“Mother, I would like some orange juice.”

This would be closer to the truth:

“Juice! Juice! JUICE!” The child screamed, and threw his Sippy cup at his mother.

See the difference? A three year old would not be that formal. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but you get the point.

This example, while technically correct, is not good dialogue:

Detective Brewster: Hello sister, how are you?
Shelly (his sister): Fine, how are you?

Detective Brewster: I am okay. Just graduated with honors from Hostage Negotiation School.
Shelly (his sister): That’s wonderful. I am so happy for you. When will you start work again?

Detective Brewster: Soon, I think. How are Mom and Dad?
Shelly (his sister): Oh, they are fine. Dad’s cholesterol is up, but who’s surprised?


Boring! It’s not that your characters can’t talk about menial stuff, or they have to be at each other’s throats to make the dialogue interesting, but it should be going somewhere. Just like you shouldn’t randomly describe a potted plant or have a character pop in that doesn’t serve some purpose, neither should you have long bouts of dialogue where nothing happens. The best dialogue makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on an important conversation.

Here’s a secret: dialogue isn’t actually an exact replica of speech.

Try it. Write down someone’s conversation word for word. See how many extra stutter words you have, all the “umm” and “uh” and “well”, how people repeat themselves a lot, how the conversation meanders through several subjects without ever making a point? You don’t want your dialogue to look like that. Just like you’re writing an abbreviated version of a few events in someone’s life, so you do the same thing with dialogue.

Sol Stein has a good method to use regarding dialogue: give the characters opposing goals. If two characters have different objectives for the conversation it will be more interesting. It doesn’t mean that they should be at each other’s throats, just want a different thing from the conversation from the other. Like when your mom keeps asking you about when you’re going to settle down and have kids, and how all YOU want to talk about is your great new job.

In the above example between Detective Brewster, and his mentor, they are both talking about the same thing: the mentor’s betrayal. But they have different goals for the conversation. The mentor wants Brewster to see why he is right, and Detective Brewster wants his mentor to see that his is wrong.

Try it. Pick two characters and give them different objectives for the conversation, and see what happens. This works even if the two characters like each other, and are on the same side.

2. Beats

Beats are the action indicators that tell your readers what the character is doing while the conversation is taking place. Some writers use them all the time, and others only throw a couple in there.

While it’s generally advisable to use a couple, too many will slow down the dialogue. Try to keep beats simple, and to the point. If they are too complicated, the reader will spend too much time trying to figure out the position your character is contortioning (take that spell check!) himself into.

3. Some Housekeeping

Some housekeeping bits about dialogue:

*Use the word “said” whenever possible. It’s an invisible word that the reader skims over just to follow the conversation. Most of the time, the action of the scene will carry how the speaker is talking.

*Try to avoid getting fancy with the dialogue tags when not using “said”. “Muttered”, “whispered”, and so on are more visible than “said”, but not as visible (and therefore distracting) as word like “stormed” and “grated”.

*Adverbs in dialogue are considered a sin. Use them carefully, if ever. “said quietly” should be changed to just “said” or if you have to tell us how it’s said, “whispered”. Remember, no extra words!

Ultimately, how you use dialogue and dialogue tags is a personal choice. Every writer does it slightly differently. Try to find what works best for you and the story, and move on from there.

So what do you guys think? Are you good with diagloue? Horrible at it?

(Pictures from

Monday, February 22, 2010

Whoops! Blogfest Scene

Here is my Whoops! Blogfest scene. Enjoy the embarrassment of others!


Stella wandered into the Divinities’ Infinities, feeling like a slug at a convention for butterflies. At least I have pretty wings, she thought, looking around. And I don’t have to wear a charm.

There was an air of elegance around the restaurant that managed to not be snooty. The decoration style was a mismatch of cultures. There were faerie interwoven knots, thick jinni rugs, heavy dwarvish wooden tables, and elvish pottery. Stella could pick out still more cultures, but it all managed to blend well in a sweeping constellation of culture.

The maître d’, a thin pencil of a man, looked at her and smiled. "Yes, Madam, how may I assist you?" he asked her in basic Angelic.

Stella blinked. “Uh, Vice? It’s pronounced ‘vee-tsuh’. But spelled v-i-c-e? I’m Stella Awakeningheaven, he’s supposed to met me here."

"Ah yes. Follow me."

Stella followed him through the large restaurant. She caught a whiff of delicious food and her stomach rumbled. Stella’s breakfast was hours ago; angel ate more frequently than humans so she was long overdue for a meal.

The restaurant was one huge room divided into other sections: the middle of the floor had free standing long wooden tables, ahead there was a winding staircase, presumably leading upstairs, and a long bar swept around the wall opposite of where they were heading.

The wall closest to them was a section styled after jinni culture. Alcoves were draped off with long sweeping curtains of rich reds, purples, and greens, adorned with beads and tiny bells that tinkled as they walked past; a large bronze brazier hung from the ceiling, and Stella caught a cloying whiff of frankincense and sandalwood.

“Here you are, Madam.” The maître d’ gestured towards one of the alcoves, as though he had guided her a long distance and was proud she was still safe. “Your table.” There was something that looked like an ottoman amid a sea of crushed velvet and silk cushions. It sat low to the ground, made of dark polished cherry wood. The cushions were scattered around the ottoman, and a large bunch of them piled up against the wall.

Stella looked around. The other tables had their drapes drawn, so she couldn’t see if the customers were sitting on the cushions or the little ottoman. Where am I supposed to sit? On the cushions? But they are so pretty. Do I sit on the ottoman thing? It’s sitting on a cushion itself, so maybe they are going to bring more cherry wood stools?

She turned to ask the maître d', but he was already closing one side of their drapes, and she lost her nerve. Okay Stella, it’s not hard. What do we know about Djinn culture? Absolutely nothing. Diddly. Okay, you can’t just stand here. People from the other side are starting to give you funny looks. The maître d' deserted her, returning to his post.

Since shoes and silk weren’t a good match, Stella decided the ottoman was the safest bet. She perched carefully on the edge, praying she had guessed correctly.

And waited.

I wish Mr. Vice would just get here already, so I can hear the bad news, and leave.

Stella fidgeted. From where she sat, she could see halfway across the room. The restaurant was full, even for a lunch crowd.

Stella caught her breath. A hunky man lounged against the bar as though he owned the place. He had a beautiful woman on each arm, like living bookends. His chiseled features were softened by his laughter. His quicksilver silver hair hung past his shoulders like a curtain, and he moved with sensuality.

Stella could feel his charisma from all the way over here, and her little alcove started to heat up. The hunk wore tightly fitting blue jeans, and a black stretchy shirt. Being in the medical profession always made Stella notice someone’s muscular structure, and he had a lean, toned one, like a panther.

Stella shook her head and tore herself away from the sight of him. She could still hear his laughter though, and it didn’t help her nerves. She sat back, trying to hide behind the half-closed curtain. Thank goodness for privacy. I was staring like an idiot. Where is Mr. Vice? He said twelve, right? Stella tried to remember. She hadn’t really been awake during most of this morning’s conversation. Yes, he said twelve.

A terrible thought occurred to her. What if he meant tonight? Because I am a night angel? Oh my goodness, I am the biggest idiot—no, no wait a minute. His name was on the reservation list. He should be here then. Unless he has some sort of standing reservation. Stella inhaled and exhaled. Okay. It’s okay. You’re okay. Wait a little while longer. This is L.A. Traffic is pure hell, invented by the devil himself. Maybe he’s running late. You can do this—Stella’s thoughts broke off.

The gorgeous man was walking over to her side of the room. So pretty. She drooled. Ta’roa really broke the potter’s wheel when she made him. I wonder what it would be like to touch his shoulders...The thought made her grin but feel little guilty. It really isn’t proper I am having these thoughts about a strange man. She tried to chide herself, but the rest of her wasn’t listening.

He walked closer still, right in Stella’s direction. He seemed to be wrapped up in the conversation with the two models on his arms. Stella squirmed, trying to sit further back behind her half of the curtain. I don’t want to see his eyes slide off me like I am not even there.

The sound of his voice came closer, heavy with a Russian accent. "—am so hungry I could eat a moose," he said and opened her half of the curtain.

Stella jumped and looked around. She almost felt like he caught her in the shower.

One of the women, a brunette with long legs and a short black dress, cocked her head. "Someone you didn’t tell us about?"

"Hullo?" he said.

"Hello?" Stella felt as confused as they looked. "Can I help you?" Her voice cracked, and she looked away. Her face turned beet red, and her stomach was requesting permission to crawl out of her mouth.

He smiled at her, and her stomach flopped back into place. His eyes were a soft gray color that grew darker around the edges. He had tiny black horns on the top of his head. "I was about to ask you same thing. You are sitting at our table."

"On our table, actually." The other woman, a blonde with pointy features, said. She smirked at Stella. "Didn’t they teach you proper manners, little angel?"

Stella’s face turned several shades darker. "I didn’t know. The cushions were so pretty I didn’t want to get my shoes on them." Stella thought she might throw up. If I have to, I will aim for the blonde.

The hunk frowned at the blonde and looked at Stella again. "I am sorry, the maître d' must have mis-seated you. But you’re welcome to join if you wish?"

Now he feels sorry for you, because you’re such a screw up you sat on the table. So he’s offering to let you to sit with them. Why did I ever, ever come to L.A.? I don’t belong here.

Stella nodded. "He must have, sorry." She mumbled and stood up quickly.

"Wonderful! Serendipity strikes." He grinned at her, and she melted. "Have lunch with us. We could all sit on the tables.“

He’s making fun of me, she thought.

Stella couldn’t say anything without maybe breaking into tears. She walked away without looking at them, back up to the maître d' stand.

"I uh, I think you have me at the wrong table, sir," she said, trying to remember to breathe.

The maître d' frowned, as though he was deeply troubled to discover he had not escorted her so safely after all. Stella suppressed a grin at his dire facial expression. Cleary this man took his job very seriously. "I am quite sure it’s the correct table, Madam. Mr. Vice is a regular customer, and he always sits there."

Maybe she wasn’t wrong; maybe it was them. But the thought of going back to face them, and the evitable embarrassment that would surely ensue, didn’t seem worth it. "Oh. Uh, well, another party came and said it was their table."

The maître d' frowned again. "Let me straighten this out, Madam. I apologize profusely."

"No, it’s okay, I—"

He ushered her back to the same table. The curtain was still half open and they were lounging on the cushions. The hunk looked up at them and smiled. "Change your mind? Have lunch with us, angel moy."

The maître d' smiled. The lady fair was safe once more. "Ah, here you are. And I see the rest of your party has arrived."

He must be crazy. Or maybe it’s me who’s going crazy. She wanted to tear her hair out. "But, I, I’ve never…"

"Though she is welcome to join us, I sadly have never met this gorgeous woman until now," the hunk finished for her. His voice sent waves of tiny shivers down her spine.

The maître d' looked at Stella. "Madam, are you sure you have the correct last name?"

The blonde tittered, winning a frown from the hunk.

"Yes, I am sure," Stella said. "Vice is a hard last name to forget. It’s not like Smith or Green."

The hunk grinned like this was a huge joke to him. Great, they all think I am an idiot.Stella was past humiliated and coasting into angry. "I didn’t get it wrong, and you said this was Mr. Vice’s table." There, Stella, blame it on the maître d'. "Vice. It’s spelled v-i-c-e, but it’s pronounced ‘vee-tsuh'." Stella crossed her arms over her chest.

Now they all looked at her with identical expressions of mirth. Like there was a secret they all shared. She felt like she had broccoli in her teeth. "What are you all staring at? I am not the one who messed up." Stella jabbed her finger at the maître d'. "You said this was his table. I doubt there’s thousands of incubi in the city with the last name of Vice, even if it is L.A."

"Nyet, only two," the hunk said.

Stella’s train of thought derailed. “W—huh?“ She looked at the hunk. The tiny horns. The thick, Russian accent. His dead sexiness.

He waggled his fingers at her and sat up. "Is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Illiya Vice. I am Con’s younger brother."

Stella rubbed her temples. "Oh, you have got to be kidding."

"Nyet." Illiya grinned mischievously. "Can you not see the family resemblance?" He pointed at his horns.

"I should have known," Stella said. With my luck, and ability to embarrass myself, I should have at least guessed. Stella looked at the maître d'. "I suppose in the future I shall have to specify. Constantine Vice’s table, then. If he hasn’t already left thinking I showed him up."

The maître d' almost apologetically gestured towards the table where Illiya and his harem were sitting. "This is his table as well."

I really might be sick this time. Stella thought and nodded. "I see. Good day then."

"No, wait, he must be stuck in traffic or something," Illiya said. "When did you talk to him?"

"This morning. Really, it’s okay. I will reschedule the business meeting."

Illiya’s eyes lit up. "Then you must be Stella!"

"How do you know my name?"

"He is so excited. Nyet, please wait."

The maître d' abandoned her, and Stella was left to stand awkwardly again. Illiya took her wrist and tugged. Bolts of electricity shot up her wrist and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. "Come sit. Sit down. I will call Con and see where he is."

"No, I don’t want to interrupt your meal. It’s been inconveniencing enough. I will—"

Illiya grinned and tugged harder. "Is not inconveniencing. Con will be here soon. He is probably caught in traffic somewhere, sit."

He tugged, as Stella pulled back, and she lost her balance. And fell forward. On top of him.

Before the shame and embarrassment could register, her insides went liquid and shimmery. It felt good, too good to have his arms around her. She found herself an inch away from his face, staring into his liquid silver eyes. He smelled like something musky and warm. His lips were thick and looked very soft. Illiya chuckled. Stella slid away.

"My apologies," Illiya said, but he didn’t look the least bit sorry.

What on earth have I gotten myself into?
Stella thought.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How to Write a Novel 5: Setting, and the Importance thereof

Quote: “I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett

Song: Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack

Today I would like to talk about something really, really important to me, and something I feel gets overlooked quite a bit.

The setting.

I know, you probably think I am crazy. You’re sputtering into your coffee/tea/whiskey, “Every book has a setting! It’s hard to write one without it!”

This is true, loyal minions, very true. But not every book is well anchored in that setting.

Have you ever read a book that felt like it just sort of floated along? That the events and characters were compelling, but they almost seemed to occur in a vacuum? I think this is because of a lack of setting. Sure, you can describe the chair, or the book, or the smell of grass, but cursory description here and there doesn’t really make up for a lack of clear setting.

Let me elaborate, and keep in mind, all of this is just my opinion. You might think I am stark raving mad, and need to be locked up in a padded room. I don’t necessarily disagree with you either. But this works for me, and I saw a huge difference in my writing when I paid closer attention to setting than when I wasn’t. So maybe this will help you. It couldn’t hurt to at least think about it.

You’ve heard that books contain all the following: who (characters), what (plot), when, where, and why (theme, story question)? Setting covers the where? and when?

1. Where?

You know you need a place for your story to happen. You can’t get around this. Every if the entire story happens in the character’s mind, that is still a setting.

You have many different aspects to the setting, more than you might think. If you set a book in New York, then you have the city. You have the main character’s apartment, their kitchen, their bedroom, their job, the street they take to the bus, the bus itself, their best friend’s apartment, the parking garage…you get the point.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes, a little. But sometimes you have to nit-pick. You as the writer are creating a new world. Even if part of this world already exists, like a city set on Earth, you can’t assume that everyone already knows what the city looks like. You definitely can’t assume that everyone already knows what your character’s apartment looks, or their friend’s apartment looks like.

You also have fun things like the weather and season to think about. Is it summer? Spring? Hot? Cold? The rainy season? Tornado weather? Even small details like these can build to add atmosphere and resonance to your story, sometimes even conflict and suspense if there’s a bad storm keeping the character from getting on a crucial flight.

How your character views the setting is also a really great way to characterize them. Does your character feel uncomfortable in large cities? Does she assume she’s about to be mugged? Or she is perfectly at home? Both attitudes shows something about your character, but it SHOWS us what your character thinks, instead of just telling us.

These are just some reasons to pay more attention to your setting, but first, here’s how.


"Ahhhhhhhhhh!” squeal the minions, “It hurts us! It burns us!”

I know. Not everyone can be weird like me and enjoy research. But it’s necessary.

How much research you do, and when, and how, is a personal call. Some people like to do their research after they write the book, because then you only research the stuff you need to know. I like to do it before, because I always suspect I could have worked the details into the story better if I had known it all along. I look at it this way: my main character is walking through Central Park. She knows what she sees, so I should too. You never know when some nifty bit of research can serve as a plot point, too. You might need a fancy restaurant to set the proposal scene in, and find the perfect restaurant in real life. Huzzah!

This research I consider part of worldbuilding, and I treat the material the same way I would treat a city I made up myself. I have only been to New York City a few times myself, but there are lots of people living there. I better make sure I do my research properly, because if I state the Empire State Building is in Spanish Harlem, there will be a lot of unhappy readers. Not because they are looking for ways to call you out (although there are some people like that), but because you threw them out of the story, because they immediately knew it wasn’t true. You ruined their suspension of disbelief.

But, on the flip side, even if you have pages and pages of facts about the place your book is set in, that doesn’t mean cram every single bit in there. The setting should be in the background, a line or two of description here and there. I like to imagine the setting seeped organically into the story, holding it up, like a plate holds your food. That’s why I like to research the setting a least a little bit before writing.

“But, why even bother at all if you’re not going to use most of the information?” You may be wondering.

Case in point: Go to a world map, and drop your finger down on a random city in a random country. (No really, do it) Now, write a brief scene, even if it’s just a paragraph, about your favorite, most fleshed out character (so you can’t claim it was from not knowing your character well enough) going to the market in this town.


Now, write the same scene, using the same character (or a different one), about the character going to the market you personally shop at all the time.



Now compare the two. Do you see how specific and vivid your last scene is, the one where you knew what the aisles looked like in the store, and what sort of food they carried there? Do you see how vague and general your other scene is?

This is an extreme example of course. Most people know a least a little bit about their setting, but I wanted the exercise to be extreme, so you could see what I was talking about. When you really know a place, you know what it looks like, smells like, what sort of people frequent there, the slang, the customs, you carry that with you as you write, and your characters instinctively drawn from that knowledge. The characters feel like they are in a real place, because the place IS real, even if it’s a city you made up, because it exists within you. Just as you can’t write a character that you don’t know well, you struggle the same way with the setting. It’s just less obvious. No one is going to write to you about how there’s a description of a Queen Anne chair missing on page 104, but a book with a researched setting will feel different. It will feel more complete, more real.

Again, let me stress this does not mean cramming paragraphs worth of description into your books. But the better you know what the places in your story looks like, down to the last detail, the better your readers will too.

2. How?

Okay, so you’re all pumped up about setting! Yay! One problem: your setting either doesn’t exist in the real world, or you don’t have the money to fly to Paris and spent weeks learning the customs, language and culture.

Our friend the Internet jumps in to save the day.

There are literally thousands of websites about different places in the world. You can use Googlemaps to get street names of the smallest towns (and feel vaguely like a stalker while doing it). Travel brochures are a good start, but usually not specific enough for my tastes. Do some fact checking. Make sure the flowers you describe in full bloom can actually bloom during that time, and can grow there. No, not every plant can grow in the same place. Make sure the mountain lion that mauled the main character are actually wild in that area.

Here in Georgia, lilacs can’t grow, because the ground hardly ever freezes. Apparently lilac bushes need that freeze time to grow, or hibernate or something. We have hydrangea bushes, and the Magnolia “bushes” can grow to the size of a small tree, but no lilacs, much to my disappointment when we moved down here. It seems like such a little detail, but again, it just takes you one step closer to making your readers believe in the story you’re telling.

You can also go to writing forums and make a post about how you’re writing about such and such city, and can anyone tell you what it’s like to live there? Again, these are generalizations, but the more information you have, the better off you are.

You might tell yourself that no one will notice if you write about mountain lions and lilac in Atlanta, but they will. Not ever single reader will, but depending on your guffaws, there will be people who know that mountain lions are not ingenious to Georgia, and neither are lilacs. Of course, no one is perfect, but these mistakes do add up over time. Why have them at all if you can avoid it? All it takes is just a little bit of research.

And if you tell yourself you’re only going to write stories set in the town you currently live in so you don’t have to bother with research, and because you’re scared you’re going to mess up, you’re cheating yourself of a great opportunity. Where your story is set can add so much. I have a book about mermaids. Where did I set it?

If you picture island immediately, you’re correct. Hawaii to be exact, despite the fact that I have never been there in my life. BUT there are a lot of websites with pictures, and descriptions. I even found a real estate website about beach houses, so I know what the house looks like. These tiny details will add up over time and either help your book, or hurt it. If you think where your story is set doesn’t matter, try to picture it in the completely opposite setting. If it’s set on a tropical island, set in a land locked Eastern European country. If it’s set in a city, put it in the middle of nowhere. Do you see how differently things are?

3. When?

What time period is your book set it? You might want to at least have a few year range in mind, even if you don’t outright state the exact date. Especially recently, technology will give you away. If your character is using the Internet like it’s nothing, the book will take place fairly recently. Mentioning music can date your book, as can fashion, movies, and celebrities.

Your time period becomes a bigger deal though, if you set it during a time we aren’t familiar with, like the 1800’s back. Maybe even the early 1900’s depending on the story. Everything will change: the values that are important, the social graces, the technology, all of it. If you write historical fiction, make sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Even the expressions you use in the writing can become archaic if you use a phrase not invented until after the time period. So yes, you historical fiction writers, have fun with that.

I actually tried to write two historical fiction books, one set in medieval Japan and the other set in medieval Europe. I hardly found anything on Japan other than basics, and not too much more information on Europe. You have to be really, really dedicated to research if you want to set a book in a foreign time period, and I felt like no matter how much research I did, I still wouldn’t get it right. So I decided to make a new planet, and put the story ideas there. This way, I could make up what I wanted, and no one could contradict me. :P

4. Worldbuilding from the Ground Up

Fantasy/science fiction writers have a special duty to setting, because we’re writing about places that no one has ever been. We can’t just hop a plane to Middle Earth (though wouldn’t that be AWESOME?!), so Tolkien had tell us about it.

However, notice how Tolkien told the story first, and the worldbuilding bits were worked into the story flawlessly. That’s what you need to try to do when you’re telling us about New York City or some made up place.

Actually, I file this under “information” anyway, along with the character’s back story. I might know all about their terrible third grade year, but that might never come up in the story. You should only give the reader the information they need to understand the story. Your definition of “understand” might vary from mine though, and that’s how we have some authors who described each piece of fruit in the bowl, and other authors who don’t even describe the room the characters are in. Too far in either direction, and you’re in trouble.

A good litmus test to see if you’re putting too much information in your story is to write in the margin next to that bit of information what question this information is supposed to answer. If the question has already been answered elsewhere, find a way to condense or cut it entirely.

I love worldbuilding, and I spend weeks (or longer depending on the project) on it. I have lots of worldbuilding sheets, and facts, and all kinds of STUFFS about worldbuilding. It’s like a grown up version of playing house, okay? (or playing trucks if you are a boy)

You may not. You may hate it. But whether you’re researching a real city, or a place that only exits in your dreams, try to make sure the readers can share in your visions as well.

Tomorrow ia blogfest day! Yaaaay! I can't wait for you guys to meet my characters...Okay, deep breaths.

And after that, I will talk about dialogue, the misunderstood child of novel writing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Award! For me!

We interrupt this blog series to bring you an exiting bulletin: I won an award! Yay!

Apparently Mia, over at My Literary Jam and Toast thinks my posts are interesting, so she has bestowed this illustrious award upon my shoulders.

I would like to thank Mia for giving me this award, and my parents for always being supportive of me, and my fiancée for giving me a swift kick in the rear when I need it, and—oh wait. I guess I should just tell you what ten things make me happy, right?


So, Ten Thing that Make Me Happy (in no particular order):

1. Books. This sorta goes without saying, but I felt the need to say it nonetheless (which, I have noticed, is a problem in my first draft). I really, really, really, really, really REALLY love to read. Books. All sorts. Poetry, commercial fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance, cyberpunk…pretty much everything.

2. Music. I love music, and listen to it all of the time. Except when I am not. Again, a wide variety of music.

3. Chocolate. Dark chocolate with raspberry filling is my favorite, and I don’t like white chocolate. Yum!

4. Friends and family. Without them, you’re just a voice quacking in the void.

5. Nail Polish. I collect it like some women collect shoes. I have tons of nail polish, and my toe nails are always painted.

6. Cheesy horror movies. Nothing brightens up my day by watching an awful horror movie and laughing at it.

7. Lotion. Again, like some women collect shoes. I used to work at Bath and Body Works, so I have a ton. My favorite fragrances are Love Rocks (from Victoria Secret’s technically, but they are owned by the same company), Twilight Woods, Sensual Amber. For the summer, I switch to Coconut Lime Verbena and Mango Mandarin.

8. Receiving packages in the mail. I always feel so special when that happens, even if it’s something I ordered, and knew was coming.

9. Opening presents/packages in general. I love Christmas. I love giving presents and seeing how people liked what I bought them, and I love opening presents. It’s like a mystery waiting to be solved.

10. Candles. Okay, okay, I am very sensitive to scent. I will admit it. I love candles and have tons littered throughout the house.

I will post about setting tomorrow, so in the meantime, feel free to check out Mia’s blog.

The people I am going to give the award to are:

1. Lena: She is my rock, my savior, the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know what I would do without her. She has helped me so much over the time that I have known her.

2. Michael Emeritz: His insight posts cuts to the heat of what you’re really thinking, and his awesome metaphors keeps you coming back. Again, and again. If you haven’t read his blog yet, you should correct this post-haste.

(3) I would have given this award to Christi Goddard, but Mia beat me to it. So I shall have to pass the next award I receive onto her. But I thought I should at least mention her.

3. Merissa: Her blog is just getting started, but her posts are already well thought out and insightful. Plus, she makes lists for her lists, something I thought only I did.

4. Livia Blackburne: I love how she’s a scientist, and a creative writer, and somehow manages to connect the two in a seamless fashion. I just love it when the characters are intelligent.

And I haven’t really followed anyone else’s blog super closely, editing is sucking all of my free time, so I reserve the right to give this award out to one more person when I find them.

Okay, that’s a wrap. Too much time on the Internets this morning not enough murdering of my manuscript!

Friday, February 19, 2010

How to Write a Novel 4: Plot, Part III

Quote: “Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Helpless, by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

So I am deep in the editing trenches, and it’s heartbreaking. Once you start to see some of the flaws, you see them ALL, until you’re correcting post it notes to yourself. Did you ever see that cartoon, where Bugs Bunny sees a gorgeous woman (or bunny? Bunny-woman? Ack, no furries!) from a distance, so he chases her all through the episode, only to find out when he catches up to her, she’s dead ugly?

THAT is what editing is like. You tell yourself you’ve written a masterpiece, but you start to edit you realize how appalling your lack of ability to string a series of sentences together is. Of course, this is just me. I am sure all of your books are works of art, and you won’t have to edit them at all.

On the bright side, I bought some more red pens yesterday.
I like to edit with Sharpie ultra fine point permanent markers. They have felt tips, and bleed slightly through the paper, but my goodness does it show up well. I went to Wal-Mart first (please don’t hate me, I am broke), but could only find the multicolor packs. You would think red is the second most common color, but nooooooo there weren’t any packs of just red pens. So as I was driving away, I noticed an Office Depot that I completely forgot about. I pulled in, and spent more money on writing supplies. They have all KINDS of Sharpie colors, but I still like red the best for editing. It looks like blood. I feel like I really am murdering my darling (also, I think all this editing has driven me slightly insane. *cough*)

I edited my scene for the blogfest “Whoops”. I am very, very, very, very excited, because it has some of my favorite characters in it, and I can’t wait for you guys to met them. But again, my appalling lack of grammar was apparent in the first draft, so I have cleaned it up a bit so you guys don’t know how illiterate I truly am (drat, said that out loud. Inside voice, Elizabeth, inside voice).

But I digress. For now. Onward brave steed!

9. Title, Genre

This is pretty basic. You need to title your story. ;)

I like titles that are metaphors, or interesting in some way. I try to come up with titles that will make the reader want to pick up the book. While there’s nothing wrong with a book called “The Writer”, it doesn’t really say anything about the book either. Nothing that intrigues me, anyway.

Let’s face it: there are a lot of books in the bookstore. You might consider titling your book something eye catching. If you like simple titles, that is your little red wagon. It’s just something to consider.

Examples of titles I like:

“The Lovely Bones” I thought: How can bones be lovely? What the heck? So I picked up the book…
“Heart Shaped Box” Very evocative, and alludes to the song.
“Tunes for Bears to Dance To” Again, very evocative. Bears dancing? To what tunes?

And so on.

Your genre is important because it tells the library and bookstores where to shelve your book. Oh yeah, and editors and publishers are mildly interested in it as well. This tells them, vaguely, what sort of events are in your book.

Some people feel like genre is a yoke that stifles them and they should be able to write whatever they want. And they aren’t wrong. Write whatever you want. But if you want to sell your book, as most writers do, you’re going to need a genre for it. Just saying.

10. POV

Point of view. What tense and from who’s perspective the story is being told. We learned about POV in English, and you’re probably already aware that most books are either written in first person (I saw, I went), or in third (Detective Brewster saw, Detective Brewster went to kick some robber butt).

I like to write from both, and I don’t believe that one view is more limiting or close than another.

Observe, from my Blogfest Love at First Sight (with zombies!) Scene:


We are all in the process of dying. If I concentrate hard enough, I think I can feel the death of my skin cells, flaking off one by one.
I can sense the zombies circling around us like slow vultures, always on the back of my subconscious. It helps me survive the zombie apocalypse, but robs me of sleep and peace of mind. Still learning to cope, I woke up in a foul mood, which for once had nothing to do with zombies.
It was Valentine’s Day, and no one knew it.


We are all in the process of dying. If Lilah concentrated hard enough, she thought she could feel the death of her skin cells, flaking off one by one.
Lilah could sense the zombies circling around them like slow vultures, always on the back of her subconscious. It helped Lilah survive the zombie apocalypse, but robs her of sleep and peace of mind. Still learning to cope, Lilah woke up in a foul mood, which for once had nothing to do with zombies.
It was Valentine’s Day, and no one knew it.

Now, it will take you a little while to get used to the main character tags “I” or “Lilah” but a hundred pages into the book, you aren’t really paying attention to “I” or “Lilah”, you’re paying attention to what is happening to her.

You might disagree, but I really don’t think there’s a difference. You might have a personal preference for one POV or another, but again, experimentation is fun, and you should try it. I wrote a short story in second person, and it was a PAIN, but it was also FUN.

Mostly, I use third if I am rotating POVs, that is, if I have more than one main character telling the story, and first if it’s only one person. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have rotating POV in first person. You just need to make sure you let everyone know when you change perspective.

11. Journey

Noah Lukeman talks about journey in his book, The Plot Thickens, which is another way to say character growth. You want to make sure your character does that by the end of the story.

It’s the most satisfying to read about people that are affected by the events of the plot. You want a character who changes, who grows, who learns things about themselves, and others. This give your story deeper meaning, and helps it become more universal. It’s why I can read about an elderly man, and still relate. I relate to what he’s going through in the story, his life experiences.

It’s also how you can make your non-human characters more relatable, if the reader can relate to Bobo the troll barbarian’s inner turmoil over his dead parents.

12. The Nitty Gritty

Now that you have considered all of that, if not figured some it out (for me this is a rotating process, going back and forth between all of the different elements, tweaking as I go), it’s time to actually decide on your plot.

Yikes! Decisions! Oh noooos!

I know, it’s scary. Each decision you make it yet another way your story isn’t going to turn out. But take heart, because if you just stay in this phase of thinking, tweaking, and brainstorming, you will never get the story written. A lot of people stay in this phase, without ever writing a book, so it’s up to you to take the plunge and go for the gold, and *insert metaphor for taking a risk here*.

So, start figuring out the events of your story. By now, you might have a lot of ideas, and just need to put them in order and fill in gap.

Or, like me, you’re totally clueless and don’t know what to do next.

What I do is go back to the characters. I work on them, flesh them out, and figure out what sort of situations would challenge them, and find a way to make that happen in the story. I find that things just start falling into place afterwards.

Using our example, you could develop Detective Brewster and his sister further, and mirror their inner struggles. Maybe she becomes the second main character.

When I have more than one main character, I normally have three. Odd, I know (literally-----zing, didn’t expect that pun, did you?). Once I wrote a book with just two main characters, but there was just too much back and forth between them, and not the rest of the story. It felt very claustrophobic, and got really static. Once I introduced a third person with loose connections to the other two MCs, everything cleared up. The scenes were dynamic and interrelated, without being overcrowded. Or you could switch to an antagonist or a secondary character who isn’t present for some of the other events of the story.

Continue to develop your characters, and try to develop their inner struggles, their lives, their hopes, and fears. Think about the worst thing that could happen to them, and then make it happen. Brainstorm, talk to the wall, your dog, your mom, about what could happen, what would make people hold up a bank, and what people might do when that happens.

You’re looking for a slice of the human experience. Don’t be afraid to bring your personal feelings into the matter. Why do you think people do bad things? It’s not that your novel serves as a vehicle for your opinions, but rather a way to express what is on people’s minds. Remember, you’re saying what other people can’t articulate.

Little by little, the plot will come. We are about to talk about setting, and that also helps with the plot, believe it or not.

So, next time, Setting! A noble hero of novels, but so underappreciated.