Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Holidays; or, Celebrating With Your Characters

The holidays are such a crazy time of year. Not only do they wreak havoc with our schedules, our sleep patterns, and even (I think) our brain cells, but they often leave us with little time to focus on writing. I've scraped out a few words this past week--some of them are even good ones, I think--but my current WIP is still mired in the doldrums that are The Middle Of The Story.

One way to liven things up is to celebrate the holidays with your characters. When I was a kid, I loved reading stories that included Christmas customs. I adored reading about what presents Ma and Pa Ingalls gave Laura and Mary, and how they celebrated the holiday.

Last year at this time, I was chortling happily over the first book in my current series, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, and having my main character, Celia, meeting with her love interest, Nicholas, under the mistletoe for a stolen kiss ... and the consequences thereof turned out to be far greater than planned! I reveled in their shy exchange of gifts, lavished pages of description on the balls they attended, and even chattered happily about their Christmas shopping trips.

I'm editing that section of the story now, and guess what? Some of the detail that I found so fascinating to actually pretty boring to read. It might be important to know that Nicholas gives Celia a locket for Christmas; but we don't need to know what everybody gives everyone. If a gift will become important later in the story, then you certainly need to mention it, but otherwise, merely saying "they exchanged gifts" will probably suffice for most situations.

Likewise, we probably don't need to go on for pages and pages describing all of the house's decorations in loving detail. We don't need to know every carol they sing, every delicacy they eat. If the setting is important to the story, then include a few vivid details and let the reader's mind fill in the rest. Otherwise, that sort of thing is probably best left to Dickens.

The exception to this, of course, would be if you were describing holiday customs that were unfamiliar to the majority of your readers. It's amazing how easily one can evoke a holiday picture using just a few key phrases that are common to many people's experience (mention a kids' table, a silver tinsel Christmas tree, and the fact that the seats on the dining room chairs are all covered in clear plastic, and your readers will have a pretty good picture of a certain type of family and their celebrations). But if you're describing a ritual from a less mainstream culture--or even one you've made up--a little more detail might be necessary.

What sorts of holiday celebrations have you included in stories? How much detail do you, as a reader, want/need?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Genre Game; or, To YA or Not To YA

Last week, one of the members of my Worldcon critique group was trying to decide how to position and market the story he's currently revising. The question he posed to the group was whether or not he should aim the piece at the young adult (YA) market, or whether he should target the piece toward adult genre (in this case, fantasy) readers.

It's an interesting question. Certainly, thanks to the likes of Harry Potter and the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the lines between what makes good reading for teens/tweens and what will sell to supposedly "grown up" readers is far less clear than it once was. And indeed, even some of the once-clear indicators no longer apply. Subjects that were once taboo for stories targeted to the under-18 crowd (like sex, drugs...okay, maybe not rock 'n' roll) are now commonplace.

Moreover, there seems to be a growing audience of adult readers who are turning more and more to the YA section when they're in the mood for a fun read. I have to admit to occasionally doing that myself -- when the To Be Read pile just looks too dry and intimidating, sometimes I bypass it altogether and reach for, say, the latest Artemis Fowl novel instead. I know I can count on Mr. Colfer for a couple of hours of solid entertainment. It may not rock my world in the way a more literary mainstream work would have, but sometimes it's okay to read for enjoyment rather than enlightenment.

Which is not to say that teens won't or can't look for books outside of the YA section. I certainly did, when I was a teenager. And you can certainly make the argument that a good story is a good story, no matter where you find it. But in the long run, if you have a story that could be enjoyed by both groups, is it better to put it in the YA section and hope that adults find it there, or to put it in the appropriate genre's section, and hope that teens will go there looking for a good read?

It's a question that's near and dear to my heart right now. My current WIP, the Daughters of August Winterbourne trilogy, could be marketed to YA readers. The protagonist is nineteen at the beginning of the story, but that's not outside the range for YA. There is "definitely a coming of age" theme to the stories. And as of yet, there are no steamy sex scenes (nor, frankly, do I have any planned, though there may be some hanky-panky taking place off-screen). But I do have a character who is sexually active and not shy about it (at least in the second book so far), and another character whose past exploits might be considered a bit suggestive. (After all, the MC, Celia, has three half-sisters who are all close to her in age. You do the math.). The first book has torture scenes in it, and both books (so far) have scenes that involve threatened rape. While all of the above are handled (I hope) delicately, and certainly not graphically, would this be enough to make the series a no-go for the YA market?

Moreover, is this a series I'd even want to target for YA readers, or would I be better off trying to just sell it as a fantasy novel?

These are all questions I'll be pondering in the next few months as I finish the second book in the series and complete edits to the first volume.

What do you think? Is there some characteristic you look for in a YA novel? When you are looking for a good read, how likely are you to cross over from one section to the other (whether as a teen selecting "grown-up" books or an adult reader browsing the YA section)?

(And last night's lesson learned...if one has a blog posting to write, and one is planning to take some ibuprofen PM, one should write the blog posting first, then take the ibuprofen PM. Definitely not the other way around, which is what I did!)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Before and After; or, Editing an Action Sequence

As promised a couple of weeks ago, this week I’d like to present a before-and-after comparison of a first draft vs. a second draft of an action scene from last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, The Daughters of August Winterbourne.

To set the scene, in an alternate Victorian universe, Celia Winterbourne is at the Royal Academy of Science, studying to become an airship designer like her father. One night, she’s working late in the Aeronautics laboratory, accompanied by a chaperone. But when her chaperone steps out of the room for a moment, a pair of black-clad figures enter the lab and try to abduct Celia. One sneaks up behind her and puts a chloroform-soaked cloth over her mouth and nose, while the other stands waiting. Celia, of course, struggles to break free, but to no avail…

First Draft:

The arms around Celia tightened still further. It was already hard for her to breathe, and growing difficult for her to think, but she continued to struggle anyway. Or at least, she did until the figure facing her reached into his coat, drew out a gun, and pointed it at her.

Defeated, Celia went limp in her captor's arms. The sudden shift caused him to lose his grip on her momentarily, and the cloth slid away from her face for a few precious moments. She gulped a breath of air and screamed, “Help!”

“Shut up!” growled the man with the gun, advancing toward her.

Celia just screamed again.

The gun's report was deafening in the enclosed room. Celia felt something punch her in the upper arm, and she looked to see a hole in the fabric of the sleeve of her shirtwaist … one whose edges were rapidly becoming stained with crimson. Her entire arm throbbed with sudden pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth was once again over her mouth and nose, and the room was beginning to spin around most alarmingly. She tried to struggle again anyway, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm, and she was suddenly more tired than she could ever remember being in her entire life.

Meanwhile, the man with the gun had continued to advance toward her, and now he was close enough to rest the still-warm barrel of the revolver against her forehead. “Hold still,” he rasped.

Celia gulped and complied. It wasn't easy to do, given the way the room was whirling and the fact that her knees suddenly displayed little interest in holding her upright, but she did her best.

And then nothing mattered anymore, because she was falling into a nameless black void and there was nothing she could do to stop it...
Now, as written, it’s not terrible. The action is clearly described, and we have something of a sense as to how our heroine feels about the situation. But the sentences are long and a bit wordy in places, and I just think it can be better. So let’s take a red pencil to it and see what changes we might like to make:

Before: The arms around Celia tightened still further. It was already hard for her to breathe, and growing difficult for her to think, but she continued to struggle anyway. Or at least, she did until the figure facing her reached into his coat, drew out a gun, and pointed it at her.

After: The arms around Celia tightened still further. Her breath came in hard-won gasps. Her thoughts were mired in treacle. Why couldn’t she think what to do? She continued to struggle anyway…until the figure facing her drew a gun and pointed it at her.

The first thing I wanted to do was to break up that long, compound second sentence. She’s in a potentially life-or-death struggle here. Do we, the readers, really want a long, wordy sentence here? Probably not. So I broke it up into bits. Next, the bits were good enough, but not as immediate, as visceral as I wanted them to be. Which gets the point across better: “It was hard for her to breathe”, or “Her breath came in hard-won gasps”? The second one leaves you feeling a bit more of Celia’s breathlessness, doesn’t it? And saying it was difficult for her to think isn’t nearly as good as telling us her thoughts were mired in treacle. And the last sentence—also a bit long and sedate for the struggle at hand, isn’t it? Do we need to know where the gun came from? Isn’t it enough that he has it? Finally, slowing the last sentence down with an ellipsis changes the pacing of it, makes the action seem to pause for an instant – much as Celia would have done on seeing that gun.

Here’s another one:

Before: The gun's report was deafening in the enclosed room. Celia felt something punch her in the upper arm, and she looked to see a hole in the fabric of the sleeve of her shirtwaist … one whose edges were rapidly becoming stained with crimson. Her entire arm throbbed with sudden pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth was once again over her mouth and nose, and the room was beginning to spin around most alarmingly. She tried to struggle again anyway, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm, and she was suddenly more tired than she could ever remember being in her entire life.

After: The gun's report left Celia’s ears ringing. She felt something punch her in the upper arm. She looked to see a hole in the sleeve of her shirtwaist…and a spreading crimson stain. Her arm throbbed with intense pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth once again covered her mouth and nose. The room began to spin alarmingly. She tried to struggle, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm. Leaden weight stole into her limbs. She had to fight to keep her eyelids open, her body upright.

“Ringing ears” are definitely more descriptive than “a deafening report”. And again with the long complex sentences. Breaking them up helps. Next, let’s talk about that arm. We don’t need to know that it’s her entire arm; I can just say “arm,” and without further specification you’ll know that it’s the whole thing. And “sudden”? I think the “throb” tells us that it’s sudden, so I chose to say that it was “intense” instead. I may decide to go back later and take that out, though. I’m not convinced that it’s needed. The last sentence again rambles; breaking it up gives it more of a sense of immediacy. And doesn’t telling you that “leaden weight” is stealing into her limbs make you feel her utter weariness more than telling you she’s “more tired than she’s ever felt in her life”?

One more:

B: Celia gulped and complied. It wasn't easy to do, given the way the room was whirling and the fact that her knees suddenly displayed little interest in holding her upright, but she did her best.

A: Celia gulped and complied. It wasn't easy to do. The room was whirling and her knees seemed to have little interest in holding her up.

Again, breaking up the long sentence into smaller pieces brings more immediacy. Also, stripping out excess verbiage (who, me?) makes the beats sharper, more intense.

So here’s the passage after all of my re-writes:

The arms around Celia tightened still further. Her breath came in hard-won gasps. Her thoughts were mired in treacle. Why couldn’t she think what to do? She continued to struggle anyway…until the figure facing her drew a gun and pointed it at her.

Defeated, Celia went limp in her captor's arms. The sudden shift caused him to lose his grip on her. The cloth slid away from her face for a few precious moments. She gulped a breath and screamed, “Help!”

“Shut up!” growled the man with the gun. He advanced toward her.

Celia couldn’t help it. She screamed again.

The gun's report left Celia’s ears ringing. She felt something punch her in the upper arm. She looked to see a hole in the sleeve of her shirtwaist…and a spreading crimson stain. Her arm throbbed with intense pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth once again covered her mouth and nose.

The room began to spin alarmingly. She tried to struggle, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm. Leaden weight stole into her limbs. She had to fight to keep her eyelids open, her body upright.

The man with the gun continued to advance toward her. He rested the still-warm barrel of the revolver against her forehead. “Hold still,” he rasped.

Celia gulped and complied. It wasn't easy to do. The room was whirling and her knees seemed to have little interest in holding her up.

And then nothing mattered anymore, because she was falling into a nameless black void and there was nothing she could do to stop it….

And the best part? The rewrite is 54 words shorter. Every little bit helps!

What are some rewriting challenges other people have faced? How do you approach rewrites?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Trust The Process; or, Sneaky Inner Editor Is Sneaky

Writing this week has been a bit of a struggle, and I think I've figured out why.

Now that the pressure of NaNoWriMo is off, I've slowed my pace a little, trying to avoid things like the 5,000 word info-dump airship description. I'm trying to be more analytical up front and figure out which scenes are really needed and which ones are not. I'm trying to be more careful in my word choices, in making sure to show not tell, in writing believable dialogue.

In other words, my Inner Editor has crept out of her box and taken over. And that spells disaster.

Why is this a problem, you ask? After all, if you're writing better stuff up front, that means less editing on the back end, right?

And that would be true...except that, in my case, the presence of Inner Editor during the writing phase usually stifles the story to such an extent that there might not ever be a back end, because I'll never get it finished. So that doesn't really help any, either.

Still, my first instinct is to try not to produce another 275,000 word behemoth. Those are just difficult to deal with. Especially when cutting them into two more reasonably-sized pieces simply doesn't work.

But then, on the same day, I found two articles that made me re-think that decision.

The first was an article in the Irish Times, where the author was privileged to sit in on a writing workshop with author Terry Pratchett. You really should go and read the whole thing, but I'll post the bit that got my attention here.

At the end of the workshop, Mr. Pratchett listed his three secrets of writing the perfect book. The third one was the one that caught my attention:

“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft. I don’t know how. It has to do with my subconscious – the subconscious of someone who’s been doing it for a long time."

It sounds like good advice. Let it run, and turn all the knobs up to 11. Cutting into shape can happen later.

And then I found Delia Sherman's blog entry on "How To Survive A First Draft". It's another good read, and you should go and do just that. But this was the bit that seemed to be calling out to me:

"3) Bull on through regardless, throwing words at the wall in the hope that some will stick. One member of my writing group, when writing her first draft, writes scenes that seem to happen in Real Time, in which the characters sit around cooking dinner or mending harness while talking about the weather or the crops or their love lives for PAGES AND PAGES, which is fun for us to read, but not ultimately useful to the plot or the structure of the novel...She doesn't rewrite them until she's finished the draft, at which point they either disappear or get so completely rewritten that maybe only the setting and one line of dialogue survive from the original. She finds writing them immensely useful, though, however seemingly inefficient, for getting to know characters, for creating an atmosphere or details of her world."

Wow. Yes, that's actually what I seem to do, too. I write about things in nauseating detail, things I know aren't needed for the final draft. But writing scenes and details like these are what helps me to find the heart of the story. And therefore, practical or not, I need to just tell Inner Editor to sit down, shut up, and wait her turn.

(By the way, when you go read that blog entry, don't forget to scroll down and read the comments, because there is wisdom to be found there as well. Like this little gem from Ellen Kushner: "...we sometimes criticize books that are *too* tightly-written as being "only the Good Parts version" . . . . My friends, do not fear Dialogue! and Description! and Mood and Scene-Setting and.....!")

So what it all comes down to is that I need to keep reminding myself to Trust The Process. Write the draft now, edit it later. Give the characters room to breathe, and they will help me find the missing heart to the story. Editing can -- and will -- come later.

Do other people have trouble trusting the process? Is it possible to make changes to the process and still have it work?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up: The Aftermath

So here it is, somehow, December already, and another NaNoWriMo has come and gone. For those of you who are curious, here are the final stats for NaNo2010:

Total words written: 63,107
Average words per day: 2,103.6
Lowest daily word count: 265 (Nov. 10)
Highest daily word count: 4,811 (Nov. 6)

2K words a day is not bad. Last year's NaNo came in at something like 72K by the end of December, but that was mostly due to a 10K + word day that I managed to get in at the end of the month. That didn't happen this year, but I'm okay with that.

Not surprisingly, at 63K words, I feel as though I've mostly just gotten my throat cleared, so to speak, and am ready to really start writing this story. That seems to be my pattern.

There are parts of this story that I really like so far, parts that I know are going to get cut, and parts that I'm just not sure about. One thing that I've decided is that the reason some of the long and rambling passages are happening is because I've yet to uncover the true heart of this story. Last year's story seemed to have a couple of themes going on: betrayal and forgiveness, the end of childhood, using teamwork to overcome obstacles, and the importance of family. So far, this year, I've uncovered one, which has to do with finding your passion and engaging in it. Another that seems to be developing is Doing The Right Thing, even when it hurts. But it still feels like the story is missing something. I just can't quite put my finger on what.

I guess, for the time being, I'll just keep writing. After all, last year, one of the main themes didn't reveal itself until page 465 out of 510. Obviously, it's never too late.

In the meantime, the plan is to just keep writing, a little bit every day (at least; if more than a little bit happens, I certainly won't send it back!) until the story is done. And then I get to gleefully go back and take a machete to that long and flowing description of an airship. (Looking forward to that, actually.)

Along with that, I still have to finish editing Book 1 of this mess, and finish the fairy story I started in August. (I knew I was going to regret not getting that one written before November!) But I guess as long as I'm writing every day, that's what counts. Right?

Off to make my word count for the day now...see y'all next week!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo Week Four; or Winner, Winner, Turkey Dinner!

Since I was in the land of no internets for Thanksgiving (my dad still thinks dial-up is the be-all and end-all of internet connectivity), I didn't have an opportunity to post on Thursday. And since I spent at least part of Friday (the part between midnight and 4:00 am) suffering the consequences of forgetting that green-bean casserole is often made with cream of mushroom soup, and that mushrooms and I are No Longer Friends, I didn't get around to posting sooner. My apologies for that.

In the meantime, despite the distractions of the holiday, I've gone and crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line. I have accumulated 50,207 words as of just a few minutes ago. And yes, I know already that some of them are not especially good words, and will end up getting edited out of the final novel (like at least 5,000 words of rapturous description of an airship that can probably be reduced to a few sentences, if not eliminated entirely), and that I really need to tone down the angst between my two star-crossed lovers.

I am, of course, nowhere near finishing the story. I have no idea how long this one will end up being, and I'm very much afraid that I'm going to have to cut one of the two narrative lines out of it just to keep it to a reasonable length. However, I've also reached a point where I can skim through several weeks in a few paragraphs, and I intend to do just that.

So now I go from the mode of trying to accumulate as many words as possible in a given time-frame to trying to tell the story as economically as possible. It's going to make for an interesting first draft, as far as pacing goes!

Finding time to write on or around a holiday is always a challenge for me. On Thanksgiving, I found myself wide awake at 5:30 am, so I got out my netbook and managed to get in 800 words or so before breakfast. That seems to be an effective strategy for me; there's also something about the peaceful calm of a holiday morning that I find conducive to writing. Maybe it's just knowing that the day won't be following the normal routine, and that there are surprises and treats to which to look forward that makes it easier to focus on the story for a few minutes instead.

There were a couple of times when we were waiting on things to cook when I really wanted to whip out the netbook and start writing, but I had to be sociable instead. And honestly, being sociable is a good thing, most of the time. After all, new material for writing has to come from somewhere, right? How better to come up with ideas for dialogue and plot twists than by carrying on conversations with other human beings (instead of just the voices in one's head!)?

I could easily have gotten another 500 or so on the hour's trip home from my parents' house, but by then it was dark, and my Beloved Husband doesn't like to drive after dark. Which is unfortunate, since I seem to write well in the car. Sadly, we had no writing road trips this year. Maybe I'll plan one for next year.

At any rate, I've met my deadline for the month, though I'll continue to write every day for the next four days, at least. And probably after that, until the story is finished. Hopefully, that will be sooner than the March that it was last year, or the May the year before that!

Has anyone else met a writing goal this month?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

NaNoWriMo Week 3; or Now That We're Properly Warmed Up...

Lots of ups and downs this week. A good day of writing on Sunday, followed by a bout of stomach flu/food poisoning on Monday (which also yielded a higher-than-average word count, thanks to having to have something to do between acts of worshiping the porcelain god), followed by a couple of days mired in court intrigue*, and ending up today with a somewhat unplanned trip to the movies.

But in spite of all of that, I am well over 30,000 words into this story, and things are beginning to roll. There is no hope on earth of finishing the story in the next 20,000 words, but at least it will be well begun!

Sadly, this week saw several of my WriMo buddies drop out of the race, for various reasons. I understand that; life happens, and there's no shame in that (says the woman who didn't even try in 2007, because we were refinishing two floors' worth of wood flooring that month).

But in watching the various lists and communities that are part of the NaNoWriMo experience, this week also saw a lot of--to be blunt about it--whining.

I'm not going to post any specific examples here, but some of the common themes I saw this week were:

- I did okay the first day, but I haven't been able to write anything since.
- I get distracted too easily by my job/boyfriend/girlfriend/television shows/lifestyle.
- I just can't find the time to write.
- When I do write, I get bored with my characters/story after five minutes.
- I don't know where my plot is going.

Now, I could address each of these excuses/reasons for not writing, but after I thought about it, I decided that there actually is a common theme among them.

These people aren't writers.

Now, I will be the first to agree that the writer's journey is different for everyone. 1,667 words per day for 30 days is not the be-all and end-all. It's definitely not "The One Right Way To Do It."

But if you want to be a writer, you've got to write. And what struck me about all of these people was that they didn't really want to write. They wanted to sit down at a computer and have a perfect, well-written story magically fall out of the sky and into their keyboards, with little or no effort on their parts.

After all, maybe they don't have the muscle and footwork to be a star linebacker, or the skill and fine motor control of a brain surgeon, or the talent and good looks to be a movie star. But they passed high school English, so that should have taught them everything they needed to know about how to write. Right?

What they don't seem to grasp is that none of these people can do what they do without an investment in certain skills and plenty of practice. You don't just show up at a hospital one morning, put on a surgical gown and some gloves, and start carving away at people's heads. You go to school for many years, and you study and learn and practice.

And if you want to succeed at being a writer, just like those other professions, you have to practice. That means you sit and you write. Maybe you don't have a plot. Maybe your characters are boring. Maybe what you're writing right now will (and should) never see the light of day. Lord knows, buried in the depths of my storage unit are spiral-bound notebooks and floppy diskettes full of writing that no one but me will ever get to read. There's one particularly soap-opera-ish series of stories that I started in college and continued to add to for the next eight years or more that is truly dreadful. Plot? What plot? Characters? Seriously? Can you say, "Cardb0ard"?

BUT...after you do that long enough, then you start to see how bits of plot can come together, how characters can come alive and be made to interact, how pacing works. You might discover that the act of writing can be satisfying in and of itself. Once that happens, you will find the time to write. You will set the distractions aside at least once in a while. You'll learn that you can write even when you don't feel like it.

Maybe you won't write every day. Maybe not even every week, or every November. But you will write.

And that's what separates the writers from the wanna-bes. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, making the words happen.

Okay. I'll get off of the soapbox now.

Just get out there and write something this week. Okay?

* In the story. Not in Real Life(tm).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

NaNoWriMo Week 2; or, I've Got The Week Two Blues

Hello from Week Two of NaNoWriMo.

This week, things are going along less swimmingly than last. I was nearly two days ahead on my word count; now, if I don't get 1,500 words written before I go to bed tonight, I'll be behind on my word count.

Why? Well, as I see it, there are three -- no, make it four factors:

1) I've been thinking about where I wanted to start this story for the last couple of months. So I had already pre-visualized the opening sequences pretty thoroughly. That meant that when I sat down to write them, they fell out of my head in one big blort. Which was cool, and actually quite encouraging, since the scenes turned out even better than I had imagined them. But then ... well, the first few scenes ended up setting a sort of structure of scenes alternating between two main POVs, and I'm finding that harder to maintain than I'd expected. I will probably end up bagging that structure for this draft and just get on with the story as I know it now.

2) The chapter I'm currently writing is one that I'm pretty sure won't exist in the final novel. However, my lizard brain insists that I write it anyway. But Internal Editor is screeching at me to just forget it and move on. I know I should just write the scene and mark it for later editing -- after all , it will provide useful background information for me later in the story -- but it's hard to do when Internal Editor won't shut up about it.

3) I accidentally fell into Edit-head. My posting to my critique group got moved up two weeks, and I thought I had my next piece ready to go. Only when I looked at it, I kept finding another bit that I wanted to take out ... and another one ... and another one ... plus there was that whole action sequence that needed to be re-done (the mechanics of which will, I think, end up being a posting of their own in December). In the end, I shortened a 14,000 word section of the story by a full 25%, or 3,500 words. I'm pleased with the result, but the problem is that switching to edit-head let Internal Editor out of her box, and now she doesn't want to go back in. In fact, she's identified at least a dozen more changes she'd really like to make to that section of the story before we call it a second draft. Dealing with that has been a challenge.

4) Related to that has been the fact that I'm just a victim of my own poor time management skills. When I can roll out of bed at 6:00 a.m. and spend an hour or so writing before work, and then spend my lunch hour writing, that gets me a good jump on the day's word count. If I have a solid 1,200 words in the can by the time I get home from work at night, picking up the remaining 500 or to meet the day's quota is a piece of cake. But when, as today, I ended up hitting the snooze button instead of writing, and then since my Beloved Husband was off work for Veteran's Day, he came and took me to lunch, my word count for the day so far is, well, zero. (Too bad I can't count this blog entry!) Plus we've spent some time this week hanging out with friends -- which really is more important than word count in the long run, and which I certainly don't begrudge them, but it does mean that there is simply less time available for writing.

But not to worry. I've got a good, solid two hours left to write tonight, and maybe more if I'm on a roll. I'll make those NaNos happen, see if I don't!

Anybody else struggling with the morass of Week Two? What works for you when you need to up the word count but the words don't want to flow?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Week 1; or, The Battle Begins

This week finds me already deep in the throes of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, or as some prefer to think of it, the time of year when tens of thousands of normally sane people abandon their grasp on reality and decide to do something irrational, like write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days.

I am, once again, among their numbers. I think I've reached the point where it would seem strange not to be pounding away at the keyboard while munching on the leftover Halloween candy, and trying to plan Thanksgiving so as to maximize the writing time I have available.

I love the first week of NaNoWriMo. I love crawling out of bed a little early each morning to try to get a scene written before work (though some days that goes better than others), and gulping down my lunch as quickly as I can so I can crack open the netbook and pound out a few more words, then stopping to grab supper on the way home so I can eat quickly and get back to the keyboard. All of those movies and TV shows in the To Be Watched pile will just have to wait until December. (Thank goodness we finished up The Man From U.N.C.L.E. last month!)

As I've mentioned previously, this year I'm working on the sequel to last year's story, "The Daughters of August Winterbourne." Until just a few hours ago, the title wasn't any more imaginative than "The Daughters of August Winterbourne, Book Two," but now I've added a subtitle: "The Skies of War." I think it's still more of a working title, and it may be that that is a more suitable title for the third book in the planned trilogy. And of course, it means I need to go back and come up with a subtitle for the first book at some point.

Book One was written mostly as a tight third-person POV around Celia Winterbourne, the main character of the story. There were a few digressions into other points of view here and there, but Celia carried the main body of the narrative.

This year, I'm trying something a little different. I'm planning to alternate between Celia's POV and that of her love interest, Nicholas Fletcher. I've rarely done a male POV character in the past, so I hope I can pull it off. Thus far, Nicholas appears to be an easy character to write, though he is a bit prone to info-dumping. I'm letting him have at it for the time being, but I've already earmarked a few passages for later trimming.

For example, does the audience really care that the Tarmanian language is a combination of Hungarian, various Slavic languages, all with a little Mongolian thrown in, and that it has two distinct dialects, High and Low Tarmanian? Nicholas seems to think so, but I'm not so certain. It does, at least, explain why anyone would have difficulty learning it, but perhaps that level of detail isn't necessary. Still, as they say, write now, edit later.

Which is always my biggest challenge with NaNoWriMo: Keeping my inner editor leashed and out of the way. It's especially difficult for me this year because I was working on edits to Book One right up until the beginning of November. Switching from "edit-head" to "writer-head" is always a challenge for me. After some discussion, we seem to have come to an uneasy truce: She's allowed to contribute to the process, but only if she adds to the word count, or at least does not cause it to decrease. If she really insists, we can highlight a section in yellow to indicate that it will be deleted later; and of course, if she thinks of something that really ought to be added, that's quite all right. We'll see how that works out.

Meanwhile, while I've done a pretty good job of keeping on pace so far, I've only written about 600 words today, so I have another thousand to go before I sleep. I'd better get with it.

Happy NaNoing!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bonus Blog: Ten Lies You'll Hear Before Pursuing Your Dream

Okay, I know it's not my usual day to blog, but I thought this was important enough to pass it along RIGHT NOW.

One of my co-workers posted this to Facebook. It's the Ten Lies You'll Hear Before Pursuing Your Dream. And each and every one of them -- and the reasons why you shouldn't listen to them -- applies as much to writing as it does to anything else in life. Some of them are things other people will tell you when you tell them you want to be a writer ... and some of them are things you'll tell yourself.

It's definitely worth a read. And even a bookmark.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to; or More Notes From The Editing Desk

(Yikes! I got this all written up, then realized I'd forgotten to actually post it! Sorry it's late....)

I've continued to work on edits to The Daughters of August Winterbourne. So far, I've taken out almost 12,000 words, and there are several upcoming chapters that are due to be deleted altogether, or at least greatly reduced. I'm pleased with many of the changes I've made, though I by no means feel that the edited sections have reached what I would consider a final draft.

One of the things I've been working on this week is how to say the same thing, but in different ways. There are certain notes I want to repeat throughout the story, but I need to do it in ways that don't sound tiresome and boring.

Here's an example: Celia, having just had her father confirm the existence of her half-sisters, reacts by running away. It seemed a natural thing for her to do, since she'd had the same reaction on first learning the news from one of her half-sisters.

But this time, following a suggestion from a member of my critique group, I decided to change things up a bit to show that Celia had learned that running away didn't solve her problems. I had her stop running after about half a block. She is on the verge of returning of her own accord when her love interest, Mr. Fletcher, catches up to her (having been sent by the Academy's Chancellor to chase her down).

I liked this change to the scene, since it did show her growing and learning from her past experiences. And I was still able to include a little interaction between Celia and Mr. Fletcher. I was even so daring as to have him give her a little hug. On a public thoroughfare and everything! Here's what that looked like:

He stopped about five feet away from her. “Miss Winterbourne. I don't mean to intrude. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

The sympathy in his face caught her off guard, and her eyes filled with tears. She turned to study the wall, not wanting him to see her cry. “I’m fine,” she whispered.

She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and looked down to see his hand in front of her, holding a handkerchief.

“No, you’re not,” he said softly. “But if it would help to tell someone, I’m here.”

Against her will, she turned to face him, eyes still swimming with tears. “Thank you.”

The next thing she knew, his arms went around her, holding her gently against him. Once again, she marveled at how safe and warm she felt there.
Now, this wasn't a bad scene, but as it was pointed out to me, the part about how she felt safe and warm in Mr. Fletcher's arms was well enough, but it's a little cliche. Besides, I'd had her making that same observation a few scenes back, the first time they hugged.

So I made a few changes, and I think it's better:
The next thing she knew, his arms went around her, holding her gently against him. She buried her face in the grey tweed of his coat. He smelled of river water and coal smoke and peppermint; the scents wrapped themselves around her as securely as his arms.
I'm not convinced that it's perfect yet, but I think the revised version conveys the sense of feeling safe and warm without using those exact words.

[Update: After being outdoors all day today, I've decided that it should be: "He smelled of river water and autumn leaves and peppermint; the scents wrapped themselves around her as securely as his arms."]

How do other people handle the challenge of echoing a scene or emotion without resorting to repeating the same words over and over?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Overcoming The Scary, Parts 1 & 2

Bonus weekend posts from MileHiCon:

As I posted previously, one of my goals this convention was to challenge myself to overcome my innate shyness and y'know, like, talk to people.

My progress so far:

Last night, sat at the bar at a table with a couple of authors and actually carried on conversations. Yay!

This morning, attended a panel titled "Scoring in the Elevator: Writing a Good Two-Sentence Pitch". Except that it turned out not to be a panel, but a workshop. Once I learned that, I nearly turned tail and fled, but instead I stayed and presented my pitch for "The Daughters of August Winterbourne". And as a result, I had five author panelists and a room full of other aspiring authors work with me to craft this pitch:

When the techno-plundering Tarmanian Empire kidnaps their inventor father, four sisters must pilot his airship across Victorian Europe to rescue him.

I like it!

More updates as they occur. (My next challenge is to BE a panelist, but talking about start-up conventions rather than my writing. Still, it's a start!)

Friday, October 22, 2010

But They're Scary People! or, Authors and Editors and Publishers, Oh My!

(Posted live from MileHiCon)

Confession time.

I'm petrified of meeting authors, editors, and publishers in person.

I'm always terrified that I'll do or say something that will mark me forever as one of the biggest idiots to ever inhabit the planet. And that, once having done that, I will then have to locate the nearest rock and take up residence beneath it.

I don't know why I'm so convinced of that. Because my usual reaction to meeting a celebrity of any sort is to clam up and say nothing at all. I become completely tongue-tied and can't ever seem to manage anything more profound than "Hi" and "It was nice meeting you."

Last year at MileHiCon, they held an Author Meet & Greet in the bar. Aspiring authors were invited to come and rub shoulders with the pros, discuss their current projects,, and just hang out and chat.

I think I said about four words the whole time. And was terrified that someone would talk to me.

I know it doesn't make sense. I know that most authors and publishers are nice people. That doesn't seem to make them any less scary.

So it might surprise you to learn that I'm currently sitting at a table next to a small press publisher, and chatting casually, just like we were friends. And we sort of are. We've chatted at conventions a couple of times. Also, my husband went to high school with him.

And on Fridays, he runs #scifichat on Twitter, which I often pop in on over my lunch hour. So as I walked past, I mentioned it, and he invited me to pull up a chair and take part in the last few minutes of it.

Naturally, my first reaction was to run screaming. Obviously I didn't do that. Instead, I took a deep breath and said, "Sure!"

I seem to have lived through it. I wonder if that means I'll have enough guts to do more than say "Hi" and "nice meeting you" at the author meet & greet tonight? Perhaps I should make that a goal for this convention -- to actually talk to people more. Okay, maybe I've already achieved that goal -- I've already spoken with several people in the past hour who aren't people I know well. (This is unusual for a shy person like me.)

One thing that I've found does help are social networks. After I've chatted with people on Facebook and Twitter, they're not nearly so scary. Some of them are quite friendly, in fact. I had a bit of a chat with an author on LiveJournal this week -- about the preserving of apple pie filling, and how to can it successfully.

Okay, time to run along and see if my help is needed at the registration table yet. If not, I'm going to go grab my suitcase and lug it up to my room. And then see what kind of trouble I can get in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's October 14, Do You Know Where Your Plot Is; or, NaNoWriMo, Coming Soon

I looked at my calendar today and felt a rush of panic mingled with a dose of anticipation.

It's October 14.

Which means that NaNoWriMo is just over two weeks away.

And I don't know where my plot is.

Now, this is not as bad as it could be. For instance, on October 14, 2006, I hadn't even heard of National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). And yet, November 1 found me pounding away at the keyboard of my laptop. November 30 had me well over the 50,000 word "finish line," and before Christmas, I'd brought my first NaNoNovel in at right around 100,000 words.

The problem is that back then, I didn't really have a goal, other than writing a novel. But this year, my plan is to try to write the second book of the Celia Winterbourne trilogy. And I don't know what happens in this book.

All right. I know a few things. I know that it starts with Celia sitting high in a tree, looking down over a gypsy encampment, on what should have been her wedding day. And I'm pretty sure that it ends in an airship over the Atlantic Ocean. I even know a few of the things that need to happen in between. (For a look at those, check out my story synopsis on the NaNoWriMo website.)

What has me in a panic is that I'm not sure what the story arc needs to be for this middle book in the series. I have a much better idea of the story arc for the third book, but it's not time to write that yet -- especially since things that happen in the second book will affect the plot of the third. At the moment, I'm worried that this second book will end up feeling like nothing more than a placeholder, a place to kill time while waiting for the third book to happen. There needs to be a satisfying amount of action and character growth to make the story worth telling.

I suppose I just need to knuckle down, shove Inner Editor back into her dungeon for the month, and keep reminding myself to write first and edit later. But that's not always the easiest thing in the world to do.

I also don't want a repeat of NaNoWriMo 2008, where I decided to write the sequel to my 2006 NaNoNovel. That year, I didn't finish until March, and when I did, I was left with a 280,000 word behemoth that I still haven't figured out what to do with (except, perhaps, to print it up and use it as a really effective doorstop).

On the other hand, maybe if I have fewer story details going in, I'll have an easier time bringing the story in at a reasonable length. (I'm still trying to trim the first book down from its original 186,000 word length -- so far, I've cropped 11,000 words out of it!)

So is anyone else attempting NaNoWriMo this year? Or have you set some other writing goals for yourself?

(p.s. For anyone who is doing NaNoWriMo and hasn't already done so, my NaNo handle is arwensouth, if you'd like to add me to your buddies list.)

(p.p.s. Did anyone fall off their chair because I actually posted this on Thursday for a change?)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And in the beginning....

Last week after attending the Emerald City Writer's Conference (sidenote: A barrel of fun but I definitely won't volunteer to coordinate the bookfair again!), I had an idea for a novella. I have the whole thing losely plotted in my head. I know the characters. I know the journey they have to embark on. But I can't figure out where it all begins. Do I begin with the hero entering the city or the temple? Do I begin with the heroine being summoned so that she can set out with the hero? Or do I give the reader a sweeping view of the capital city on the bluff above the sea, setting up the place their story begins?

I love beginnings. I love opening sentences. It's always key for me to nail down that opening sentence and paragraph. I've thought about just skipping that for now and writing some of the other scenes. I already have a few humming around in my head. But it's hard for me to do that. Once that opening is written, I have no problem bebopping around. But I want that opening, that key piece that sets the stage before I can move on.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Visualizing Your Characters; or, How Nice To Finally Meet You!

I read a news story recently about an author whose book had been adapted for the stage. When he visited the theater during a rehearsal, he was introduced to the actor playing his main character. He paused for a moment, then said, "How nice to finally meet you!"

The actor was understandably confused, until the author explained, "You're exactly how I imagined the character when I wrote the book, fifteen years ago."

Wow. That has to be an amazing feeling.

I haven't had quite that experience (and it's unlikely that anyone will be adapting any of my stories for the stage anytime soon), but I have had the disconcerting experience of encountering a random photograph on the Internet that bore a striking resemblance to a character in one of my stories. Most recently, I found this picture of Carey Mulligan, and was struck by her similarity to my mental picture of my character Celia Winterbourne:

It wasn't so much a physical resemblance (Celia's hair should be darker and a little curlier, and her eyes should be green) as her eager and interested expression and the shape of her face. I can see this girl in Victorian costume, all excited to be going off to her first day at the Royal Academy of Science. She's pretty, in a clean, wholesome way, just as Celia would be, but not so glamorous that people would stop in the street to watch her pass.

On the other hand, I know authors who like to have reference photographs for their main characters before they even start writing. I've never needed to do that, nor do I usually(1) base my characters on actual actors or other people, but I do like to at least form a mental image of the characters before I write them. It's usually a clear enough picture that I'd recognize them if I met them on the street (or in the case of Celia's alter ego, saw them on the Internet)

For The Daughters of August Winterbourne, I went so far as to make up a spreadsheet containing basic information about all of the named characters, such as name, age, hair and eye color, and general appearance notes. That's the most organized I've ever gotten, and I think it did help. (Though now I'm wondering if I should go back and add in pictures as I find them as well.)

How do other people go about visualizing their characters? Do you haunt the Internet for pictures, or do you just build pictures in your head?

(1) There have been exceptions, of course, but only a few. And no, I'm not going to tell you which ones.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Conflict; or, Keeping Things Interesting

One of the things I struggle with in my writing is keeping enough conflict going to make the story interesting. I find that I often create friction between two characters, only to have them resolve it a chapter or two later and then everything is fine again. Life's not like that; good characters aren't like that; and frankly, it makes for boring reading.

The other thing I have to work to keep in mind is that emotional displays are not the same as conflict. So while it might be a natural reaction to have a character run off and have a crying fit when she gets some bad news, it's more interesting if we see her struggling to come to terms with the bad news and figuring out what to do about it.

This week, I spent some time editing chapters of my WIP, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, so that I could submit them to my on-line critique group. The chapters are about a third of the way into the book, when my MC, Celia Winterbourne, learns that she is not her father's only child, as she has been led to believe for all nineteen years of her life.

In my original draft, I had her running away to the neighboring cemetery to have a good cry, then returning to have yet another good cry with friends before actually confronting her father. While there were notes in the cemetery scene between Celia and her love interest that were rather sweet and helped develop that relationship further, after several readings (and some feedback on the previous chapters), I decided that rather than have her friends convince Celia to confront her father, it makes for a better story -- and makes Celia more interesting as a character -- for her to decide for herself that she needs to talk to her father. Showing that conflict within herself -- the desire to run away vs. the logical decision to meet with her father -- is much more interesting, at least to me.

But conflict doesn't always have to be a big, loud confrontation. Once I'd made revisions to my chapters and sent them off, I decided to go back and look at the beginning of the story once again. The opening scene, while it does a good job of establishing who Celia is and shows us how she and her father relate to one another, always felt a little flat to me. In it, Celia lands her father's airship. She and her father talk about how she will be leaving for the Academy of Science in a few days, one of the first female students to be admitted to the school. (Sadly, much of this comes across as an "As you know, Bob," kind of scene, and I wasn't terribly happy with that.) Then they get in a carriage and go back to London. Not very exciting.

So I revised. Celia still lands the airship, but this time, she and her father talk about how much he's going to miss having her around, and how they won't be able to just go off in the airship whenever they feel like it ... but I never have them say why. (Astute readers might figure out that it's because she's going off to school, but we don't know which school, or that there's anything special about her being accepted to attend it.) That increases the tension, at least a little bit.

After they land, they learn that there are reporters waiting to talk to them, since Celia's father is a well-known airship designer, and Celia is equally well known for her skill as an airship pilot. Celia doesn't want to talk to them, but does anyway. And that gives the scene a tiny bit of conflict that makes it more interesting.

Over the course of the interview, we learn that Celia is off to the Academy, and that yes, she is excited to have been accepted and so on. Then one of the reporters asks her if she's read a recent article stating that women are physiologically unsuited to the rigors of university life (the story is set in 1873), and what she thinks about that. Bingo! That's the conflict the scene needed.

So restructuring the scene this way accomplished several goals:

1) Increased conflict/tension = more interesting reading.
2) Eliminated the former "As you know, Bob" info dump between Celia and her father to establish the fact that she will be off to the Academy soon. Yay!
3) Helps establish the fact that Celia is a minor --and somewhat reluctant -- celebrity. Since this plays into some of the conflicts later in the story, I decided it was important to make more of a point of it up front.

I'm happy with the results.

So what have other people done to increase conflict in their stories?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Randomness today

It suddenly became Thursday without me knowing it and I don't even remember Tuesday.

This weekend is the Emerald City Writer's Conference put on by the Greater Seattle RWA Chapter. This is the largest romance writer's conference on the west coast. About 250 romance writers will be filling in to the Bellevue Hilton starting tomorrow evening. A lucky group of us will also be attending a master class in editing by Margie Lawson. I've heard great things about her and her techniques from other authors. For the class, we're to bring 25 pages of a manuscript, 3-5 pages of a turning point from your manuscript, 5 different colored highlighters and a red pen. Why do I sense that my red pen will be getting a work out....

On a completely different note, if you're on Twitter, you can find a plethora of authors, agents, and editors to follow. Angie James, head editor of Carina Press, tweeted today a list of reasons why a manuscript might be rejected.
Here's just a few of them:
- too much info dump
- lack of driving conflict
- poor use of POV
- plot or characters too quirky or dramatic
- pace problems
- the story/conflict/setup seem too cliche
- your characters' actions are inconsistent

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Blogiversary!

Instead of my usual ramblings, this week I'd like to take the opportunity to wish my fellow Melt-Ink Potters a Happy Blogiversary. It was in September of last year that we decided to take the plunge and start this blog. I think we've shared some good and useful information here, and had the opportunity to do a few writing exercises as well.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Andrea, Colleen, Katie, and Samantha for a great year together. I've enjoyed every minute of it -- well, except perhaps for those few panicked moments every week when I stare with horror at my blank screen and wonder what in heck I'm going to write about this time -- and I think the discipline of having to find a topic and do a weekly posting has been beneficial to me as a writer. It's helped me to stretch myself a little and think about why and how I write in ways that I haven't thought about them before.

In the coming year, I hope to be able to blog about topics like:

- Finally getting my website up and running;
- Actually writing a query letter and synopsis, and submitting a story for publication;
- Dealing with the inevitable rejections;
- Actually writing a novel that comes in at under 150,000 words

We all have to start somewhere, right?

For folks who have been following the blog (and I know there are at least a couple of you!), thanks for reading! Hopefully it's been entertaining at the very least. If there are topics you'd like us to cover that we haven't yet, or if you'd like us to revisit a topic, feel free to leave a comment, and we'll do what we can to get it covered.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


A few brainstorming methods:

1 - Write an autobiography of your main characters. New insights for your characters just might pop out at you.

2 - Make a collage for your book. I love doing this one.

3 - Brainstorm with someone else - another author, a non-writer, the bus driver...

4 - Create a soundtrack for your book.

5 - Analyze a favorite book or movie that is in the same genre as your book to see what worked for you and what didn't.

And be sure that when you're brainstorming that you have a way to jot down your thoughts - index cards, text yourself, send an email - you don't want to lose those ideas!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Zen of Editing; or Strategic Planning

(Sorry this post is late. I've been waging war against produce and an infection this week, and rather than stay up even later last night, I decided late was better than never.)

So this past week, I've been editing without actually making any changes.

No, really.

I'm re-reading my hardcopy version of The Daughters of August Winterbourne this week, trying to keep in mind some of the feedback I've had so far, as well as a few changes/additions that need to be made. I did a hands-on edit of about six chapters a couple of weeks ago so I could submit them to my WorldCon critique group. I took out one entire scene and parts of several others. When someone who had read both the before and after versions said that he couldn't tell where I'd made the edits, I knew I was on the right track.

I realized when I wrote the story that it was slow and meandering, at least for the first three-quarters of its length. Now, after a couple of re-readings, I'm beginning to see places where I could tighten up the plot and move things along a little faster. I've even identified two "darlings" that I'm going to have to kill.

One happens about a third of the way into the book. In the scene, Celia and her sisters meet Johann Strauss II, who composes a waltz in their honor (as he was wont to do when touring and giving concerts).

It's an adorable, warm, fuzzy little scene. And I like it a lot. Celia and Nicholas are very sweet together in it. We get some nice interactions between Celia and Emmy, and between Nicholas and Eudora. Plus I even did research for it, discovering that Strauss was indeed touring England that year. But in the end ... absolutely no plot advancement takes place in the scene, and therefore, it must go. (Perhaps I'll save it to a "deleted scenes" folder, and if the book is ever published, I can offer it as a "bonus feature" on my web site.)

The second one offers Nicholas defending Celia's honor -- with his fists. Which is also very sweet, but does nothing to advance the plot. We already know that he's very much in love with her, and that he would go to just about any length to defend her. The only necessary plot point it establishes -- which is to hint that Nicholas and Eudora once had a relationship that was more than just neighborly -- can easily be moved to one of the other ballroom scenes in that section of the book.

Another scene just never worked. It involved Celia and Eudora returning to London after spending Christmas with Eudora's mother and step-father. After about my eighth reading I figured out why it didn't work: It's boring and nothing happens. It just shows them on the train back to London and looking forward to being there. As I discovered later in the story, I don't always have to show the characters journeying from place to place. I can just wave my magic wand and *poof*, they're there!

So there are three chapters on the chopping block, which might get me 10K words closer to my goal of getting the story down to 120K (from 180K). All without actually doing any editing (yet).

Now to see what else can be trimmed out...

How do other folks approach these kinds of "macro" edits?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Submitting - or I don't wanna

After “the end” has been written and the book polished beyond all measure, the next step is actually submitting it. And this part of the process is where I get clammy hands and my inner 2 year old says “I don’t wanna”.

Submitting means drafting the perfect cover letter, which, not unlike a cover letter for a job, has to get the attention of the editor/agent in .234 seconds and make them not through your hard work in the round file (or more common these days, hit the delete button). There are whole books on the submission process and how to write the perfect cover letter and I own exactly none of them.

There are workshops given and conferences devoted to the submission process and guess how many I’ve attended? That’s right, none.

Mostly it was because I was still figuring out how to write – how to put in GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) in my work, create the perfect character, show not tell, etc. But now that I actually have things completed – things that are nearing the end of the editing process, I don’t have that excuse any more.

See if I want to sell my work, see it in that space on the bookshelf or featured on that website, I have to submit the thing. And I’m going to have to get rejected – probably more times than I want to think about. In order to do that, I have to learn how to properly submit a body of work to a publisher and/or agent.

Even if I don’t wanna.

How I Choose To Spend My Time; or, Why Should I Pay Money For That?

Okay, I haven't actually gotten to bed yet, so it's still Thursday, right? {grin}

A couple of weeks ago, we were at the Denver Dragon Boat Festival in Sloan's Lake Park. The Dragon Boat Festival is a lot of fun -- there are dragon-headed rowboats, and teams that race them, and all manner of oriental foods and goods for sale. We go every couple of years or so, if the weather's not too awful (which, since the festival happens in the middle of July, means "as long as it's not too hot and horrid").

And, of course, there are other vendors with booths there as well. Like the local cable and satellite providers.

We have cable internet, but that's all. No cable or satellite television. If we can't watch it on broadcast or DVD, we just don't watch it.

But for reasons known only to him, while I was shopping for trinkets, my Beloved Husband decided to go over to the satellite television booth and strike up a conversation with them. And of course, when I was ready to move along, I had to go over and drag him away from there.

The woman at the booth was very determined to make a sale, even when I told her that there was only one show I watched on a regular basis, and that show was available via broadcast. I don't think she believed me.

"No, really," I said. "It just wouldn't be worth it to pay $35/month to watch the one show I already watch for free."

"You don't watch it for free," Beloved Husband pointed out, helpfully. "You buy the DVDs when they come out every year."

"Which is about the same cost as one month of satellite service, anyway. So we could still be saving the other eleven month's worth. Besides, I'm too busy. I don't have time to watch any more TV than I already do."

"Oh, you'd be surprised," said the saleslady. "You make the time."

I could only stare at her, horrified. Because if I'm going to make time for more of anything in my life, watching television is waaaaaay far down on the list. Writing, spending more time with loved ones, and getting my darned house painted are all much higher priorities, as far as I am concerned.

That was when it hit me how much my priorities in life had changed over the last couple of years. I would rather write than watch TV.

Keep in mind that I grew up in a household where the television gets switched on first thing in the morning, and doesn't get turned off again until after everyone has gone to bed. It's a constant background to everything that happens in the house.

Apparently, I neither need nor want that in my life any more. I think that's a good thing. More time for writing.

And sleeping.

(Which I should do very soon now.)

Suffice it to say that we did not sign up for satellite television that day.

So what can or have other people given up in order to make more time for writing?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writing Challenge; or, How I Did

So it's September now, and my summer writing challenge has ended. I wrote 30,163 words of fiction over the summer. It's not a spectacular amount, I'll admit, but I think they're mostly good words, and I enjoyed writing them.

What I ended up with was:

"Perceptions" -- longish short story, complete. It's the story of what happens when two tourist chicks who are more than they seem visit a small Nebraska town -- that also turns out to be more than it seems. It was great fun to write, especially since I based it on the road trip my friend Rivka and I took to Kimball, Nebraska -- including some of the actual sights we saw and things we did while we were there. 12,183 words.

"Faeries Living At The Bottom Of The Garden" -- novella, in progress, about 50% complete. I was reading a piece on how urban fantasy is still really hot, and how rural fantasy might be the next big thing, and I thought, "What about suburban fantasy?" And almost instantly, the thought popped into my head: What would having a faerie ring in the garden do to the resale value of your house? The result is turning out to be a lot of fun, but also a lot longer than I expected. Looks like it's headed for novella territory. 14,596 words so far.

Character Sketch, Philomena Kettlewell -- RPG character sketch written in short story form, mostly complete. My character is an Englishwoman forced to travel for her health, who ends up in the Old West, after traveling across India and Australia. She's a lot of fun. 1,346 words so far.

The Sturdy Princess -- possible novella or novel, barely started. Talitha wants to be a tall, blonde, willowy sort of princess, but no matter what she does, she's just ... sturdy. I'm thinking of giving her an uncharming prince to hang out with. Could be a lot of fun. 300 words so far.

The Locked Door -- Probable novel, perhaps one chapter written. This was my response to the story prompt posted here about a month ago. You can read it here. 1,738 words so far.

So ... I wasn't as productive as I hoped I'd be. I did meet the word count goal, but only completed one short story. I do still find writing short to be a challenge -- it's hard for me to find ideas that aren't novel-length. I really thought at first that the faerie story would turn out to be a long short, but it just keeps getting more complicated as it goes along. I adore the main character, though, and I've given her an OCD sister who is driving me bonkers, because she keeps stopping in the middle of a scene to clean something up. I have to admit that she's partly based on my mom, who would do something like washing a coffee cup that she broke the handle off of, because she wouldn't want the garbageman to think she never washed her dishes. (Mom actually makes her bed in hotel rooms. Honest.) So I'm really hoping I can bring that one in as a novella, but it might turn out to be a short novel after all. Which, I guess, would still be an improvement over the 180,000+ word tomes I've been producing. Right?

How have other folks been doing with goal setting? Is it too early to start talking about NaNoWriMo yet?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Merit Badges For Writers; or, How Do I Know If I'm Making Any Progress?

This week, I stumbled across a Web site that made me giggle: Merit Badges For Writers.* Yep, they're basically electronic badges that you can download and post on your blog, your Facebook, or wherever you'd like. There aren't a lot of them out there yet, but the ones they have are fun. I mean, don't you think I need "Grammar Ninja" on my blog? And "Historical Fiction"? I am so there!

Sometimes, as a writer, it's hard for me to tell whether I'm making any progress in furthering my writing abilities or not. I read a lot of advice, and have digested several books on writing technique, but I can't always tell whether it's having any impact on how I write, and if so, whether that impact is positive or negative. I think I'm making progress on "showing not telling," and I'm struggling hard to resist the urge to head-hop. I'm making a conscious effort to use fewer dialogue tags ("he said," "she asked," etc.); I wrote a dialogue passage last week that didn't contain a single one, yet it was always clear who was speaking, and the passage flowed naturally and easily. Shouldn't something like that deserve at least a little recognition, if only just a good, loud "Attagirl!"?

There are other important milestones in a writer's life, too, a lot of firsts: writing your first short story, your first novel, making your first submission to a critique group or a contest. Not to mention the big ticket items like querying agents or actually publishing something. I don't know about anyone else, but there are times when I would just find it comforting to be able to see, visually, that I really am making forward progress. Wouldn't a row of "merit badges" be a great way to remind yourself that your work is improving, and that the top of the mountain is getting nearer all the time?

I think I'm going to have to work on something like that. And yes, I know that it's possible to collect all of the merit badges and still not reach the summit, but I'd still really like to look back and see the trail behind me, and know that I've overcome all of those obstacles. If I am mighty enough to do all of that, I'm mighty enough to keep pushing onward. Right?

How do other people track their writing achievements? Or do you? If not, do you think you should?

*Actually, they have Merit Badges For Readers as well. They're having far too much fun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Sex Scene That Wasn't; or, When You Say Yes and the Characters Say No

Something amusing happened to me last weekend.

In one of the stories I'm currently writing, I had reached the point where the next thing in my mental outline was for the main male character to seduce the main female character. I had, in fact, been looking forward to writing the scene with (shall we say) a certain amount of anticipation.

Now, I'm not the sort of writer who goes around throwing gratuitous sex scenes into every story I write, just for the shock factor of it. When I do include them, it's because there's a reason they need to be there. They further the plot, or develop a relationship, or define a character.

In this particular instance, the MMC was supposed to seduce the MFC so that later, when he has to try to persuade her to do something, they've developed the closeness that would allow him to talk her over to his side more easily. So I created a setting, and got them into it, and gave them the space to let it happen...

And then I discovered that the MFC really wasn't the kind of girl who would go hopping into a strange guy's bed on the first date. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't see any way for him to persuade her to take that vital step with him.

The turning point was here:

Then his finger traced the neckline of my dress, and I remembered – for tonight, I was beautiful. I was sexy and voluptuous and wearing a low-cut dress. It seemed a shame to waste that. Would it be so wrong to give in to him?

Yes, said my conscience, in my mother’s voice.
Let's face it. There are some things you just can't argue with. Mom's voice in your head when you're trying to get it on with this hawt dude you just met? That's definitely one of them.

So what do other people do when it's time for your characters to hop into bed together, but they're not inclined? What about the opposite situation, where characters aren't supposed to hook up, but they do anyway?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fan Girl Moment: Brenda Novak

Brenda Novak is coming to the Emerald City Writer’s Conference in October as one of the keynote speakers. She is a best selling author of romantic suspense and has several trilogies to her credit. She has also run an annual online auction to benefit juvenile diabetes (which affects her son). The auction has raised over one million dollars since she started it in 2005.

I have read four books by her – all of them back to back to back to back. The first was the first in a trilogy that I want to revisit, each book featuring one of three friends who run a company that seeks to help victims of violent crime. The last three was the Stillwater trilogy about a family in a small town in Mississippi who have spent the last 20 years covering up the murder of their stepfather/husband.

I got the books in the Stillwater trilogy from the library. From the first page – in fact the first paragraph - you know that this man was killed (accidentally and very much in self defense) by his stepdaughter. What follows are three books that had me sneaking reads in the middle of my work day. When I finished the 2nd and the hold I had on the 3rd from the library hadn’t been filed, I quite literally thought I was going to lose my mind. For the better part of an afternoon I tried to find it from any local bookstore and to my immense relief the book came in to the library the following day.

Novak knows how to wield a mystery. Sure, in the Stillwater trilogy, the reader knows the big “who done it” but knowing more than the outsiders in the book who are trying to solve a mystery can have more suspense than not. Knowing from the first page who killed the “good” reverend had me settled in to see just what the heck she was going to fill 200+ pages with, let alone 2 other books. The characters in her books are very much relatable and have flaws that at times make you not want to cheer for them. In fact the heroine in the first book, Grace, had me so annoyed with her for the first half if it were any other book I think I would have stopped reading it. The settings become characters and add to the flavor of the small town who combine to solve a mystery that will destroy a family. Novak writes suspense the way that I can only dream and to say that I am so not worthy and need to just stick to my little historical westerns is an understatement.

She’s recently got a new triology coming out – the first was released this month (White Heat) with the remaining two in September and October. When the sign up for the book fair came through that she’ll be signing all three at the ECWC book fair, I turned into a 5 year old on Christmas morning. There are only a handful of authors to whom I think I’d ever approach with awe and the nerves I imagine I’d feel if I were to ever meet George Clooney. In the first weekend of October, Brenda Novak will be one of them.

Turns of Phrase; or, I Never Thought Of It Like That

I'm toying with the idea of having a character in one of my stories who uses all sorts of colorful comparisons as one of his quirks. I think it could be a lot of fun, especially if I can figure out a way to work in some of my favorites.

I think my absolute all-time favorite has to be one I got from my father: "Slicker than snot on a glass doorknob." When I was a kid, it never occurred to me to question how he would know about such a thing -- after all I'd been to my grandparents' house, and it did indeed have glass doorknobs. It wasn't until later that I finally figured out that it wasn't something he made up, but rather something he'd heard somewhere and just repeated. I should ask him about it sometime.

But it's a very descriptive phrase. I mostly use it to describe icy roads. And once the people to whom you've said it get over the "ewww!" factor, they know exactly what you mean.

Another phrase to which I can relate is "Like a bull in a china shop". I was a klutzy kid who grew up to be an only slightly less clumsy adult, and proximity to fragile things only makes the likelihood that I'll break something much higher. So I have a great deal of empathy for that poor bull, surrounded by breakables, ones his horns might inadvertently knock off of a shelf, or that might be pulverized by an accidental twitch of his tail. I just want to tell him to get out of there, to run while he still can.

I like describing potentially unpopular ideas as being something that will go over "like a lead balloon." I can just see that doomed balloon, smashing into the ground again and again and again regardless of how much helium you put in it. It also reminds me of one of my favorite lines from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, in which Adams describes the Vogon spaceships by saying that they "hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't." It's wonderfully whimsical, and perfectly conveys the image of spacecraft that stay in the air even though they look as though they should plummet straight to the ground, do not pass "Go", do not collect $200.

And finally, I do love the way of describing a person you find attractive as saying that you "wouldn't kick him/her out of bed for eating crackers." As in, "You know, Harrison {sigh} Ford isn't as young as he used to be, but I still wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers." Which sort of implies that there are people you would kick out of bed due to the presence of too many cracker crumbs -- and that there was more than a snowball's chance of finding Mr. Ford in your bed in the first place!

Of course, for the character I have in mind, it might be more fun to have him either mangle a common cliche so as to negate its meaning ("like a bull in a mattress shop"), or make up ones of his own that don't quite work ("like a giraffe on an underground train").

What are some colorful descriptions you've encountered? What twists on common ones have made you either laugh or scratch your head?

(p.s. Sorry I'm late with this week's posting. I spent all of yesterday evening in Windows Update Hell, trying to get both of my computers to successfully download and install the last round of updates from Microsoft. Still have not succeeded. I'm about ready to scream...)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

contests, contests, contests...

Last week, the finalists for the Emerald City Opener were announced. I was not one of them. I was disappointed but in 4 years of entering, I've only finaled once (my first year when I won my category). Now, I won't see the comments or scores on my entry till sometime in October, but I'm already anticipating what I've seen as standard with contest entries - One judge will probably love your work and leave a comment like "Can't wait to see this published!" and at least one judge will probably hate your work and tell you that you need to take up knitting or basket weaving.

I try to ignore the extremes and just look for commonalities among the comments. Did all your judges tell you that you need to work on passive voice? Did more than one judge tell you to vary your word choice or sentence length?

Angie James, who heads up Harlequin's digital only imprint Carina Press, had a great post today about when contest judges disagree.

When Contest Judges Disagree

Friday, August 6, 2010

Prompt Time

What the what? Let's pretend my last post wasn't more than a week ago, mmmkay? I also won't regale you with tales of how much I did not write. That was then, this is now. And now here is my response to the prompt: The locked door fascinated and puzzled her.


She was in a closet. That much she knew. The bottom of a musty coat brushed against her face and when she shifted, she heard metal hangers rattle over her head. Why she was in a closet and how she got there, Greta had no idea. The last thing she remembered was dropping her keys outside after she left the gym and bending over to pick them up. Touching her face, Greta felt a lump on her right temple and her mouth was filled with the coppery taste of pennies. Blood. A cut on the inside of her lower lip stung when she ran her tongue over it and her nose ached; she must have done a spectacular face plant in the parking lot.

Reaching out with her hands, Greta felt for the way out. There was no light, natural or otherwise, and so blinded, she groped around herself for the door. A bubble of panic rose from the pit of her stomach, but she tamped it down. There was time enough later for a meltdown- right now she had to get out of here. Her hands found the door. There was no door knob and for a brief moment, the locked door fascinated and puzzled her. Aren’t doors supposed to have knobs?

“Damn.” She released a pent-up breath. There was nothing fascinating about her situation. There was no door knob. There was no light and there was no door knob and there was no way out. The panic bubble broke free from its tether and began to rise even further.

Greta braced herself for a scream when a sound made her freeze in place, mouth open and feet placed against the door ready for a good kick. Heavy footsteps, coming closer.


And with that, I commit once again to writing a weekly post. Next week I'll talk about the Draft That Isn't. Or maybe the Draft That Is Sort Of. We'll see.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

This Week's Prompt: My Response

Well, I didn't quite get a whole story out of this one (or at least, not yet), but it was certainly worth a chapter or thereabouts (around 1,500 words). In order to keep from cluttering things up here, I'm going to post the entire snippet over on my story blog, but here's a teaser for you with a link at the end:

The Locked Door
(c) Sheila McClune, 2010

The locked door puzzled and fascinated her. Why on earth, she wondered, would Gran have locked the door to her attic, when spells had always been sufficient to seal it before? And with a lock of cold iron, no less. Surely she’d have known that would make it impossible for Kintheriny to unlock it, key or no key? After all, Gran had been a spellcaster, too. She made a mental note to ask the solicitor about it tomorrow when they met to finalize arrangements. Perhaps Gran had left her some special instructions in a codicil to her will, or a sealed letter, or something. She’d read about such things happening in books, anyway.

She ran her fingers over the elaborately carved and painted surface of the door. Gran had been extraordinarily skilled in so many ways. The wood had been carved by hand, not through the use of magic, but its surface was still as smooth and as polished as glass. The colors were still as bright as Kintheriny remembered them from the earliest of her childhood visits, when she would sit on the landing and stare in awe at the intricate design. She especially loved the little red dragon down in the corner, the one with eyes as green as Kintheriny’s own. Sometimes she could have sworn that she saw it move...

(The rest is here...)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prompt time again

As you'll remember, a couple months ago, we threw out a prompt for the Melt-Ink Potters to take a crack at. We've decided to do that again this week. Our prompt this time is - The locked door fascinated and puzzled her.

Here is my response to the prompt:

The locked door fascinated and puzzled her. Tara could sit for hours staring at it. She would sit cross-legged in the hall watching the door. She was confident the door was watching her back. The door was just as alive as the rest of the house. To believe the house was a living thing was crazy, her older brother Billy had told her a hundred times. She knew otherwise. Tara had seen and heard too much. Pictures moved, rooms increased in size, doors only allowed particular people to enter; if the house wasn't alive, then she was simply going crazy. No one ever opened this door. Uncle George couldn't even tell her what lay behind the door. He couldn't recall ever having been in the room. It didn't seem to bother him much and he brushed off her questions with a quick dismissal. There are somethings and places that we are better off not knowing, he had told her one night at dinner.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Finding The Path; or, Which Way From Here?

The Internet is a big and wonderful place, full of websites that are helpful, useful, or just plain strange. It's like a library that's hyped up on caffeine, speed, hallucinogens, and maybe a rum-and-coke, all at once. Anything you want to know how to do, just ask the Internet. Someone, somewhere, will have advice for you. Probably several someones.

So it's not surprising that when you're an aspiring author, the Internet has plenty of advice to offer. "Success will be yours," says site after site, "if you only do this one very important thing."

The problem is, no one can agree on what that one thing is. Some say, "Find your voice." Others say, "Write every day." Still others say things like, "Write only what you're passionate about," "Eschew adverbs and dialogue tags," and "There is no good writing; there is only bad writing and good rewriting."

Can all of these helpful, well-meaning, earnest advice givers be right? Well, yes, they can -- just not all of them, for everyone. Each one has found his or her golden rule, the one thing that works best for them. The problem is that what works fabulously well for one person can result in utter failure for another.

This is because, as I am finding, no two writers are alike. They don't work alike, they don't think alike, and they sure as heck don't write the same way. So one writer might swear by outlines, while another is stifled by them. One might write a nearly-perfect first draft, while another depends more on mad editing skills to turn a sloppy first draft into something magical.

So what I -- and every writer on the face of the Earth -- have to do is to winnow through the piles and heaps of writing advice out there on the Internet in an attempt to find the path that works for me. When I've done that, I can share what I've learned with others, all the while fully aware that my Holy Grail is another person's Sinkhole of Despair.

One of the things I'm learning about myself is that it is possible for me to read and try to follow too much advice all at once. The symptoms of that are pretty clear: Inner Editor picks the lock of that cage I keep her in and hovers over my keyboard, questioning every word choice, every punctuation mark. "Because if you write the first draft carefully enough," she murmurs seductively, "you don't have to go back and do as much editing. Look at all the time that will save!"

And yes, it's true. If it really did work that way, I could save a lot of time. But what is more likely to happen -- and is, in fact, what has happened with my current WIP -- is that the story stalls out, too self-conscious to continue. Inner Editor is trying to make me follow all of the advice at once. And it's just not working.

So maybe it's time to step back from all of those enticing Twitter feeds, the ones with siren-like links to article after article about how to better one's writing skills. Maybe it's time to lock the Inner Editor back into her clean, comfortable cage for the time being and get some writing done.

Maybe I need to focus on what works for me, for now.

Anyone else suffering from advice overload? Anyone else have an Inner Editor who's been getting a little too sassy lately?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Let's do an exercise...

Okay, we're going to have a little interactive exercise here at The Meltink Pot. A few months ago, I told you about an exercise done at the Mary Buckham workshop. Basically, we were all asked to list three characteristics of a character on a sheet of paper. That sheet of paper was then given to a random person in the group. They would list things about what that word meant to them as to what that person might be like.

If someone wrote 'silent' - the response might be thoughtful or emotionally distant.

Another example: impatient -- could mean decisive or acts on impulse

We were asked to think of each word as both a strength for that character, as well as a weakness. So I'm going to give my fellow Meltink Potter and any readers out there a couple key words that I think are representative of main characters in a WIP. I'll ask you to tell me to give me responses on what those traits could mean about the characters. I'm not going to tell you anything else about the characters, not even gender.

Character 1:
easy going

Character 2:
risk taker

Friday, July 23, 2010

Plotting, Pantsing, Plotsing –

There are probably as many different ways to come up with a story and commit it to paper as there are story ideas. Some authors plot, some “Pants” (as in “fly by the seat of your”) and others do something in between. There are workshops and blog posts a plenty about them all. And when you’re a newbie it can be overwhelming trying to find just the right way to come up with your story elements.

I’ve attended workshops on elaborate story boarding complete with poster-board and multi-colored post-it notes. I’ve also attended workshops given by successful authors who didn’t plot a thing, they just sat and wrote and out plopped a best seller.

I am not an organized person – I try to be. At work I’m Little Miss Anal but in my personal life I’m neat, but not organized. I used to live with someone who alphabetized their books and CDs – mine just landed on a shelf in an arrangement that seemed nice. In my writing I’ve tried both plotting and pantsing and I’ve come to a conclusion – I’m neither, and both.

Last year I wrote a short story that I plotted out chapter by chapter. I will say that did make things easy when I sat down to write. It turned out okay and the story is finished (although needs to go through the editing phase). It worked out so well that I decided to do it for my novel length project. Turns out, plotting a novel chapter by chapter is very different from plotting a short story. But what I realized during my plotting frustration was that I was writing the ‘wrong’ story. My plot just wasn’t working and, to make matters even more frustrating, a bit of research brought up a whole new story idea that I just wanted to write. Not plot. But write.

So, that’s what I did. I set aside Novel #1 and began writing the current WIP I’m calling “Montana Groom”. The first few chapters are rough at best – there’s plenty of telling and not showing, characters who are one way and then another and we won’t even talk about the grammar issues. But yesterday at lunch I had a writer’s “ah ha!” moment. I figured out my major internal conflicts for my hero and heroine. This of course means re-writing the opening chapters (but like fellow Melt-Ink Potter Samantha said, better that than the whole book!) but it also means that from here on out I know how I want the story to go. And I’m going to plot – kind of. I’m going to write out the main scenes that I want to have happen (if only so I don’t forget). I’m not to the halfway point yet but I do feel like it’s all down hill from here on this novel.

So will this approach work on another project? It’s hard to say. What I’ve learned is that each story is different. What works for this project might not work for another. I’ve also learned that’s okay. Getting the words down is what matters in the end.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Homonym Traps; or, I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Homonyms. They're sneaky little words, really, slinking their way into sentences where they don't belong, hiding from the spell checker, and then, WHAM! There it is, glaring out at you from the text (usually right after whatever it is has gone to print), and you feel like the biggest doofus ever.

I had two different friends get caught in the same trap this week: the infamous "discrete/discreet" conundrum. Both used "discrete" (separate, individual), when what they really meant was "discreet" (tactful, confidential). They both knew better, but that didn't stop them from picking the wrong member of a homonym pair for their sentences.

Sometimes you can't help it. Your fingers are on autopilot, and they simply type the wrong word. (Mine often want to type "to" where I really mean "too".)

Another homonym trap I saw someone get caught in today was illusive (deceptive, misleading, in the nature of an illusion)/elusive (evasive; hard to catch/grasp). They meant to say that someone was hard to catch up with; instead, what they said was that he was deceptive. Hmmm, that's not quite the same.

Past/passed is an especially tricky one because the words can be used similarly. The train went past the station vs. The train passed the station. The trick to remember is that passed is the past tense of the verb pass, whereas past can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition -- in short, anything but a verb.

A couple of others that I see fairly frequently:

reign: What a king does
rein: Leather strap used to control a horse

Populace: The inhabitants of a place
Populous: Densely populated

vice: A bad habit
vise: A device for clamping things

How can a humble writer stay out of homonym traps? I'm afraid there's no easy answer. Sometimes a grammar checker will catch them, but not always. Spell checkers are definitely not helpful. About the only thing you can do is to just be aware that a word has a homonym, and when in doubt, pull out a dictionary to pick the right one. (Or you could check this list first, to see if the words are on it. It's a pretty extensive list.) Having a second set of eyes to look at something often helps, too.

So which homonyms plot to trap you? How do you catch them?