Monday, May 30, 2011

Decisions, Decisions; or How Do You Know When You're Doing It Right?

I'm about 3/4 of the way finished with my second draft of the first volume of the "Daughters of August Winterbourne" series. And in the course of editing, I've had to make some pretty tough decisions.

One decision I made just today was to delete a small section that was told from the POV of Nicholas Fletcher, the main character's love interest in the story. I really loved the section, and it ended with one of my favorite lines from the whole story:
As Sophie's Lightning sailed on through the night, Nicholas Fletcher tried to convince himself that it was the cold wind that brought tears to his eyes. He almost succeeded. Almost.
It's a great line, one that shows us a great deal about Nicholas' character, including the fact that he is not good at lying, even to himself. that point in the story, being in Nicholas' head would force me to reveal information that I was not yet prepared to reveal. It lessened the impact of a later reveal, one that is pivotal to the story. So in order for that bit to work, this bit had to go.

Editing is a difficult process, one that isn't made any easier by the fact that there are no signposts, no maps to point me in the right direction. Unlike the Sudoku game I have loaded on my computer, the text does not light up red to let me know when I've made an incorrect choice. It's all based on one of two things: My own instincts, and the advice of my critique group.

I'll write more on the second in a week or two, but let's talk about the first for a few minutes.

I found this quote today, and it really seemed to fit:
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. “
--Mark Twain
How does one develop the instincts to know what changes to make, and which bits to leave alone? As with most skills, practice helps. I find that the more I edit, the easier it is to spot things that just don't belong in the story. For me, this happens on two levels: Whole scenes/subplots that aren't needed in order to tell the story, and lines or paragraphs within a scene. I may not get everything on the first pass--in fact, I'm guaranteed not to--but with each subsequent pass, I weed out a few more things.

For me, distance also helps. I don't know about anyone else, but when I finish a story, I'm convinced that if it's not the best thing ever written, then it's at least the best thing I've ever written. Every word is perfect. Nothing about it should ever be changed.

This is why I believe in letting things "settle" a bit before even attempting an edit. When I finish a story, I'm just too close to it. Depending on the story, I've spent the last several weeks or months eating, sleeping, and breathing this story. I've done my best to bring it to life, with characters and plots and consequences, oh my!

But after I've let it settle, it's easier to see that this bit of dialogue nearly duplicates that bit of dialogue over there, and that this scene is very cute and amusing, but does nothing to further the overall plot.

Sometimes, though, even after a story has had a chance to settle, it's not always easy to tell if the decisions I've made are the right ones. At the moment, I'm angsting about whether my story even starts in the right place. I currently begin the story with my main character, Celia Winterbourne, landing her father's airship on the eve of her departure for the Royal Academy of Science in Oxford. It's a great introduction to Celia and her father, August Winterbourne, and their airship, Sophie's Lightning. I've tweaked it such that it has at least some tension in it now. But is this really where the story begins? Or does it begin when she boards the train to Oxford the next morning? Or when she gets off the train a few hours later? Or is there some better place at which to begin the tale?

Sadly, I don't have the magical answer to that question. If I did, I would share, I promise.

In the meantime, the only advice I have to offer is this: Bits are cheap. If you are trying to decide between three possible points at which you could start your story, why not make three copies of it and try all three possibilities, then choose the one that works the best?

How do other people approach editing decisions?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Suspense; or Raising The Stakes

I must admit, I'm in a certain amount of suspense at the moment.

You see, I watch one television show on a regular basis (Supernatural), and because I had plans that kept me out past 8:00 pm last Friday, I missed it last week.

Ordinarily, that wouldn't be so bad. But this week was a double-header--two episodes--AND the season finale.

I. Missed. The. Finale.

Fortunately, these days, we have the Internet, so I won't have to wait until the episodes are re-run in August, or until the DVDs come out in September. But my Beloved Husband and I still have not yet had the chance to sit down and watch the episodes. So we are still in suspense.

As with most television series these days, there needs to be suspense within each episode, but there also needs to be suspense involved in the season's arc. The shorter-term suspense is often, "Will our heroes solve their current case?", but the overarching suspense often involves things that affect the characters more deeply and directly: "Will Jane and John hook up?" "Will Sally get pregnant?" "Will Tom keep his job?" Grave consequences, or at least significant ones, will result for the characters as a result of the answers to these questions, possibly changing their lives.

The trick is that if you want to lure watchers--or readers--into watching more episodes (or reading more chapters), you can't tie things up too neatly at the end of each episode/chapter. You need to leave a few questions unanswered, or at least, have the answers be sufficiently ambiguous that people want to keep turning pages/clicking the remote.

Thanks to my on-line critique group, I've come to see that I don't do that as well as I could. I have a tendency to want to introduce a conflict, and then tie it neatly up before I move on to the next chapter/conflict. And yet, when I don't, the story becomes more interesting. Characters interact less predictably, scenes become more loaded with subtext and subtle meanings, and the pages turn more quickly. The stakes are higher for the characters, and readers are consequently more invested in the outcome.

So that's something I'm working on: trying to keep from draining all of the suspense out of my story at the end of each chapter. How do other people manage suspense in their stories?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing Tips from Charlaine Harris; or, The Secrets of Writing, Revealed

Thanks to a friend of mine, this week I found myself in possession of a ticket to see Charlaine Harris, author of the True Blood series, at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver.

The True Blood books have been a guilty pleasure of mine for the last couple of years, ever since my Beloved Husband first pointed them out to me in a bookstore. I've been rationing them out slowly to myself, trying my hardest not to read them all in one gulp. I've been enjoying the television series as well, though since I don't have cable, I'm forced to wait for them on DVD.

So when I had a chance to go and hear Ms. Harris speak, I jumped on it. And I'm very glad I did. She was entertaining and charming and willing to share tips on writing with the crowd.

So here's what I learned from listening to her talk:

  1. If you want to be a writer, the first thing you have to do is to read. A lot. Read everything you can find. Keep reading.
  2. And then, you have to write. A lot.
  3. You have to be fond of your own company.
  4. People who spend all of their time talking about the book they're going to write never actually get the book written.

All of which is excellent advice.

And a couple of things I learned by observation:

  1. When you love what you do, it shows. When Charlaine Harris talks about writing, she practically glows. You can tell that she loves what she does. She would probably be doing it even if she didn't get paid for it.
  2. If you're going to be a bestselling author, it helps to have a great sense of humor and a lot of charm and grace. Ms. Harris has all of these things.

After listening to Ms. Harris, I feel newly inspired to go out and write great things.

Have other people been inspired by meeting authors? What's the best advice you've ever gotten from a writer?

(Thanks again to David Boop for the ticket!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Didn't Buy "The Hunger Games"; or Reading Pet Peeves

I was out shopping the other day, waiting for Beloved Husband to return from wherever he had gone off to, and I saw a rack of current Young Adult bestsellers. Among them was "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins.

Since this is a book that has been getting a lot of buzz lately, I picked it up and read the back cover blurb. It sounded intriguing--just the sort of dystopian future story I loved as a teenager.

I almost put it in my shopping cart, but something inspired me to open it to the first page and read the first line: "When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

Aw, crap. First person present tense.

I put the book back on the shelf.

I know there are many reasons authors, especially those writing for the YA market, choose to write in first person present tense these days. They like the immediacy, the intimacy they claim it brings to a story. And, I'm told, it's better suited to the short attention span of today's teens. They don't want to know what happened yesterday, or even ten minutes ago. They're only interested in NOW.

The problem is that I guess I'm just too old school for that. I like my books to be in good, old-fashioned past tense. If it was good enough for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, it's good enough for me. I can and have struggled through a few FPP novels, but it's generally just that for me--a struggle. My brain trips and falls on it just as surely as my feet find and trip on the curled-up edge of an area rug. It's reading, but it's no longer fun.

I know I'm not the only one to have these sorts of prejudices. I prefer to write in first person past tense, but I have a friend who has an intense dislike for any first-person story. Other friends dislike stories with non-human main characters, too much romance, or any four-letter words whatsoever.

As a writer, I already know that it's impossible to write a book everyone will love, and that if I were ever to try, I'd be far more likely to end up with something that everyone hated, or, at best, something that left everyone feeling indifferent.

In the end, a writer has to be true to his or her story, and tell the story in the way it needs to be told. But I have to admit that I wonder how many authors are writing in first person present tense because they truly believe that their story calls for it, and how many are doing so because they want to sound hip and trendy?

Hmmm...I suppose in the future, e-reader technology could advance to the point where a reader could select the tense and POV in which they would prefer to read a given story. That might be kind of cool, actually.

But until that happens, I'm afraid I'll be leaving "The Hunger Games" on the shelf.

[Addendum: As I finished writing this up and posting it, my music player application chose to play Jethro Tull's "Skating Away (On The Thin Ice of a New Day)". Which includes the line, "Well, do you ever get the feeling that the story's too damn real and in the present tense?" I think that's what we call "irony."]

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Have We Learned?; or, Charting Our Growth As Writers

[No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This is, in fact, my second entry for today. Which, by my reckoning, catches me up to last Thursday. Sorry. I'll try to do better in the future.]

Continuing in my series of posts inspired by going back to read some of my earlier works, I decided that it would be a good time to evaluate my progress as a writer. So here is a list of things on which I think I've made progress over the last few years of writing:

POV: As mentioned in previous posts, my preferred POV is first person. So when I made forays into third person, I didn't always get that, unless I'm writing in an omniscient POV (and so far, I haven't), POVs should be one to a scene. But in my latest completed novel, I found myself deciding, at the beginning of each scene, who should carry the POV ball for that scene. Which means that I've made progress there.

Starting and Ending Scenes: I have a tendency to either start a scene too early, or let it run on too long. or both. I don't necessarily need to know that Annalise went to bed, fell asleep, woke up the next morning got out of bed, and got dressed before going down to confront her Uncle Jacob at breakfast. I can just say, "The next morning at the breakfast table, Annalise confronted her Uncle Jacob." Poof! The reader assumes all of the sleeping and waking and dressing things have happened while we were away. Which is helpful when one is trying to reduce one's word count... (who, me?).

Showing instead of telling: My older works are rife with phrases like, "Annalise was nervous." "The Earl was frustrated." Now, Annalise stares down at the reins in her hands, wishing that her palms were not wet with sweat. The Earl grinds his teeth as he looks at his enemy. Which (hopefully) makes the characters more vivid and the story more interesting.

Using active verbs/active voice: Instead of writing things like, "Just then, there was a rap on the door", I'm now writing, "Uncle Jacob rapped on the door, interrupting them."

Reducing "weasel words/phrases": Weasel words are words that suck the life out of a sentence, like a weasel sucks the contents from an egg. These are words like: Appeared, suddenly, seemed, a bit, just. (If I had a dime for every "just" I've taken out of either of the pieces I'm currently actively editing, I could afford cable television, I think!) Also on the list are what I'm coming to think of as "weasel phrases". My characters have an appalling tendency to "make their way" from one place to another, and they keep "finding themselves" doing things. I'm getting better at stomping those out, but I still have a ways to go!

Improved editing skills: I'm getting better at editing what I've written, even when it means deleting a scene I dearly loved, or even a particularly witty turn of phrase.

So I think I've improved as a writer in the last few years. I know I still have much to learn, and many skills to perfect, but it's good to be able to look back and see the progress I've made.

How do other people measure their progress as writers?

Doing the (Head) Hop; or, Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Part 2)

In my last entry, I commented on how I had gone back to read one of my first third-person pieces, a Regency romance, and found it rife with head-hopping. I discovered that I hadn't quite exhausted the topic, so I'm back for more.

I've started to revise the novel (in between working on revisions to one of my other WIPs), and for the most part, it has been going fairly smoothly. There are a couple of scenes that are going to need a bit of work, but I seem to have discovered a few tricks that are helping a lot.

First, when I look at a scene, I have to identify who owns it. Most are pretty obvious, but some seem to have group ownership. For those, I've been asking questions like:

  • Who stands to lose/gain the most in this scene? (If Uncle Matthew tells Cousin Sarah that they will have to skip their daily ride in the park, but Sarah was looking forward to seeing her friends--especially the guy she sorta-kinda likes--then Sarah has the most to lose, and the scene should belong to her.)
  • Who is the most active character in the scene? (If Annalise is riding a horse, and the Earl is watching approvingly, Annalise is more active, and we should see the scene from her POV.)
  • Who has the most thinky-thoughts that can't be shown through their actions/reactions? (If Lady Featherspoon, the failed chaperone, is worried about how she is going to lose her position, and plotting her revenge, but keeps a smile plastered on her face the whole time, it might be her turn to carry the story ball.)
One thing that I've discovered is that on my latest WIP, the second volume in the Winterbourne series, I've been unconsciously considering these questions up front, instead of after the fact. Every time I sat down to write a new scene, I asked myself whose POV I should use. There was always an answer that made the most sense. And I've gotten a lot better at picking one and sticking to it. (Though I have to admit that in the first volume, there were still a few--fairly obvious--head hops. I've edited most of them out, and I'll get the rest as I finish this edit pass.)

Going back to the Regency romance, I've found a few scenes where I started to revise in one point of view, only to discover that I still had an irresistible urge to head-hop. Which seems to mean that I've chosen the wrong POV. Going back and looking at the scene again usually shows that I haven't really found the correct POV character yet.

What are some other tricks people have learned to fix/prevent the dreaded "Head Hop"?