Series & Trilogies & Companion Books, Oh My!

A couple of things the last few days have really had me thinking about writers, series, and everything in between.

But first, a little clarification on the differences.  A trilogy is a series of three books that are interconnected and reach a final resolution (of some kind) by the third book.  A series is usually more open ended, and as a result tends to have more self-contained stories for each volume. It can last for four, five, or ten volumes.  And a companion book is typically a book set in the same universe as the books that came before.

So… Continue reading

On Roadblocks

I feel like I’ve talked about this before, but I didn’t see anything in my brief glance backwards.

I don’t like the term “writer’s block.”  For me, it conjures up this idea of a vast writing wasteland where the words have shriveled up and died.  And I don’t think that’s ever really accurate.  At least its not for me.  If I can’t work on Project A at the moment, then I’ve usually got something I could start working on for Project B.  Whether or not I DO start working on it depends on my mood.

While in the midst of THFD revision, I had three sections I knew needed serious amounts of work.  Either it was a transition that needed fixed, or a section that needs rewriting because of something later.  I got through the first one, blasted through the first third of the book, and then hit the second roadblock.  Its a transitional issue, where I need to add a bunch to cover changes that have occurred over the course of a few weeks in the book.  Part of the problem is that with the two viewpoints in the story each chapter is a tradeoff.  Evens go to Sage, and odds go to Nate.  So its also a balance and pacing issue.

I was literally starting to hate the book, and the characters, and I wasn’t making the kind of progress I wanted.  Then I decided to take a break and flesh out the new sparkly that caught my eye.  The idea being if I can figure out a general outline and brief character sketch for the main cast, then by the time I get back to THFD maybe I’ll have enough distance to get through my problem areas.

So I guess for me its not “writer’s block” so much as “road blocks” and all I need to do is wait until someone comes along and clears out the road.  And thinking about it that way makes me feel not quite so sucky. 😉

Dealing With Integrity

So I originally wanted to call this Dealing with Dummies.  Mostly in light of the #agentfail, #queryfail, #writerfail debacle.  And one specific post that, for some reason, really inspired a lot of irritation on my end.

Here’s my feeling on the matter.  And feel free to take it or leave it as you like.  But if something like #queryfail offends you, and you don’t take anything from the experience…you’re probably not doing your job.  Same for #agentfail.  And same for even #writerfail (which hasn’t taken off yet, but it will!)

No one’s ever going to handle every situation perfectly.  And I think #queryfail was like that.  It came from a good place, it was made of good intentions, and some people might have taken it too far, but a lot more people took their indignation about it much farther.  These are the people who didnt’ take anything away from queryfail.  They’re a majority of the people that jumped on the #agentfail bandwagon.

The difference though, as someone else said, was simple.  Queryfail attacked words.  Agentfail attacked people.  Personally.  And I tried to stay out of the whole thing, for the most part, but what’s it’s really boiled down to is this.

Have integrity.  If writing is something you feel like you’re compulsed to do, then do it to the best of your ability.  This is where I don’t understand some of the comments people make.  My first book got one request.  Obviously, both my book and my query were lacking.  So I took that knowledge, wrote a better book, and spent months honing that query.  And you know what?

That first book, I probably sent about 40 queries that I got responses to. Probably another 20 I didn’t hear anything from.  I got 1 full request.

The second book?  I sent about 35 queries, got 14 requests for more, and had only about 10 no-responses.  Because, in large part, I did my homework.  I wrote that query, posted it, and kept tightening and rewriting until it was perfect.  And I had a lot of friends who helped out on that front.  

That second book got me an agent, and at first I held off on working on something new.  I didn’t want to start a new project and have to put it on hold in case I had edits to do or something.  But it’s all too realistic that this book may not sell.  And once I started to accept that fact, I took what I’ve learned through the submissions process, talks with my agent, research on publishing, and just things I’ve learned from the books I’ve read, and started work on a new novel.  Because if that second book doesn’t sell (and it still may, who knows), then I’m going to write something else that will. 

I could sit back and complain that my agent’s not doing her job.  Or that the editors don’t understand real talent.  Or complain that books that aren’t as good as mine got published.  But I don’t.  Like Leah said to me on Friday.  "It’s like a challenge.  If this isn’t good enough, then by god I’d better step up my game until I’m on that level."  (Or something to that effect).  

And that’s what it really comes down to.  If writing is something you have to do, if you can’t do anything else to be happy, then put your best foot forward.  And always remember to keep an eye on that road you’re on.  Keep it in perspective. And don’t forget that it’s always a journey – we’re never static.

Dealing with…the first draft.

I’m allowed to suck.  It’s okay.  It’s natural. 

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I start working on a new project.  My concern is more about getting all the pieces out there onto the board, and not worrying about the little details.  And this system might not work for everyone, but it’s the way that I go about things.  So I figured I’d share in case it helps anyone else. 🙂

I think that’s my biggest piece of advice if you’re just starting out on a new project.  Be allowed to suck.  If you’re spending more time worrying about whether or not your writing is good, or whether the adjective on page 37 is really appropriate, you’re going to get bogged down with stress.  At least, I would.  And then I’d start revising like crazy.  So I try not to do that as much as possible.

With the new book, I already know in the first 30 pages that my pacing is all screwed up.  And I might go back and fix it before I finish the draft.  But for now?  I’m more concerned about getting through the rest of the scenes I already know.  Because I’ve got forward momentum, and if I stop to fix things that I already wrote, then I’d lose that momentum and might possibly get stuck again.  I’m one of those people that can and will get stuck quickly if I don’t keep pushing myself forward.  Even if I take a few days off from writing, it’s hard to get back into the zone.

So what I do is add a new file to my WIP folder.  It’s a blank Word document, that I title ‘TITLE revision notes’.  And as I go along, if I realize something I need to add to it, then I do so.  By the time I finished the first draft of Witch Eyes, I had somewhere between 40 and 50 notes.   A lot of them were small – double check the name of GIRL that’s hanging out with Jade.  Or – go back and adjust the scene in Chapter 7 that ties into the ending.  Stuff like that.  And then I had the big ones.   Make sure Riley is consistent throughout the book.  Read through the magic sections, make sure those have the same kinds of descriptions in place.

This way, by the time I get to the first round of revisions, I’ve been keeping tabs all along on what I need to fix.  I don’t have to start fresh and try to remember what it was about the beginning that was bothering me.  

So that’s my advice.  Polishing up the book is what revisions are for.  Keep the forward momentum and get those words out.  And I think it’s a lot easier to go back through and revise a book than it is to get the darn thing written in the first place. 

Dealing with Dominos

No, not the pizza place.

Since I started revising, something pretty awful happened.  Things that I cut, and things that needed to be moved around caused this horrible chain reaction in which the story no longer flowed right.  If A needs to happen so B makes sense, and leads into C, when all three of those are juxtaposed around, suddenly the flow is gone.  As someone on QT mentioned recently, it’s kindof like knocking down a few dominoes.  Suddenly, the whole thing starts falling.  

Personally, I’m a very linear writer.  I have to go in order, I can’t just jump around.  But I’m also not an outliner, so when I do make mistakes (hey, it could happen someday!) then I kinda have to go back and make a lot of changes.  So when I was doing my edits, I realized that a few things weren’t going to work.  No problem, I’ll fix them, I said to myself.

Yeah.

So what started as very simple edits then became a huge issue because of all those dominoes.  For Witch Eyes, Braden’s journey is fairly straightforward.  A leads to B leads to C, etc.  So once that changed, I had a lot of reweaving to go back and do, to make sure everything was fitting together.  

One thing I did that helped me, especially as far as ‘what does the character still know at this point’ was to make a flow chart.  I wrote down Braden’s name, and the facts that he was learning, as well as where he learned them (both from who, and what chapter in the book).  As I added new things, or got through edits on the next scene, I updated that.  Knowing roughly where in the book he learned it helped because I could then go back when I was looking at future scenes, and figure out where the next step would be.  

Other things I’ve done with these revisions was to go back through and edit one character’s scenes sequentially.  To make sure they flowed and made sense for the characters, and also to make sure I was being consistent.  Particularly with one of the adults in town, I had to make sure that making changes wasn’t going to screw up stuff I was missing in future scenes.

I also made a list of the bigger changes I needed to make, and where that was going to impact the book.  Below that Big List, I wrote the specific scenes I either needed to add or cut, just to keep it all straight.  That became a kind of checklist I could go back to later, and see where I was going with it.

The story itself isn’t much different – the path to the ending is still the same.  But it’s the little details, the road signs if you will, that kept switching up. 

So yeah, that’s my little bit of craft talk for the day.

And I’m kinda excited for my next project, which I’ve talked to my friends Leah and Jess about.  It’s not a proper Nano, but it’ll be a good challenge for the winter months.  Providing work decides to (no pun intended) work out.  And I can get some time to myself.

Dealing With Dialogue

I’m just randomly grabbing at topics that catch my attention for one reason or another for these little advice posts.  So if anyone has suggestions for future ones, then feel free to send them to me.  I’ll run out of ideas soon enough. 😉

Dialogue is one of my personal pet peeves when I’m reading a novel.  Bad dialogue, that is.  But I can understand that, it’s not easy to write, but it IS one of the easiest things to screw up.  Good dialogue can invest you in a story – it’s one of the most prominent ways that you can show your character’s personality, and flesh them out.  Bad dialogue can and will pull you right out of the story without a moment’s notice.

So what’s the difference?  How do you know if you’ve got good dialogue or bad in your stories?  My first rule of thumb is the verbal test.  Can you speak the dialogue aloud, and does it flow naturally?  This is a pretty simple test, but it’s got a lot of factors.  It’s also the biggest and most difficult test to get through.  Does the dialogue sound natural for the characters?  If one character’s a genius, they’re going to speak quite a lot differently than someone who’s from the wrong side of the tracks.  Not even just that, but the way they’d speak would be different, depending on their personality and situations. 

Read your dialogue aloud.  Just the dialogue.  How’s it sound?  Now if you were ad libbing it, how would you change things?  Think about it like this: if the scene’s already written, you know what the characters are saying.  Walk away from the computer, and try to reinact that same conversation – how different would it be if you weren’t reading it off like a script?  What parts would you cut right past, and where would you make changes?  Now ask yourself why you’d do that? 

A lot of times, I think it’s easy to hope the dialogue tags will be a band aid to make it sound the way you want.  She whispered, instead of she said.  He wondered, instead of he asked.  But think about it this way.  If you’re talking to someone who’s popular, and they’re asking a question in class, are they going to use the exact same words that someone who’s incredibly shy would use?  Would they ask the question in the same way?  Or would one of them ramble?  That’s not something that dialogue tags can achieve alone.

While you’re reading your dialogue aloud, does it sound like a conversation people would have?  Most people use contractions, they’ll use slang, and they’ll be brief.  Good dialogue has a rhythm to it, a cadence.  It’s how people talk.  I liken good dialogue to a movie, myself.  It helps tell the story.  It flows from one scene to the next.  Dialogue is punchy, and it’s direct.  If your book was a movie, how would the dialogue compare to something else you’ve seen?  Would it work on the screen?  Or does it go on for too long?

Now when I say ‘does the dialogue flow’ I’m talking about conversational rhythm.  Does it sound natural?  Would a conversation actually progress that way?  There are times, however, where you’ve got to take just a tiny step back and remember you’re writing a novel, too.  Sometimes, the way people talk won’t translate perfectly to dialogue, and you’ve got to keep an eye out for that.

The next rule of thumb is how long does it go on for.  Be honest, aside from telephone conversations, how often do you have a random conversation during a tiny snippet of your day that runs for ten or fifteen minutes?  Sure, a few, right?  But how many times do you read those conversations, with all their segues, in a novel?  Not quite as often.

As the author, I think a good philosophy is ‘get in, get out.’  Dialogue should only ever last for as long as it’s absolutely necessary to achieve what’s needed in the scene.  Yes, most conversations would include more, or be longer, but you’re looking for brevity.  Too much dialogue is going to screw up your pacing.  Do you really need to start the scene with the beginning of the conversation?  All those hello’s and how are you’s?  Or can you jump right into the crux of the discussion, and then follow that up with setting the scene?  Especially in one of those scenes that really amps things up – jumping right in is way better than letting your character wax on and on about what dress she should wear that morning.  Remember that at the end of the day, your dialogue is just words on the page.  And if it goes on for too long, you’re going to drag the reader down with you.  So ‘get in, get out.’

Everyone knows That Guy who just talks and talks and talks and never seems to shut up, (in this blog it’s me, right?)  but as the author of your story, you’re the one who’s got to jump in and make those executive decisions.  You’ve got to cut your characters short sometimes, just to keep things moving.

Dealing with Voice

When you start that illusive search for an agent, and doing all your research, there’s one things a lot of agents agree on.  Voice will sell them on something that they might normally not have been interested in.  Voice can grab their attention right from the query – and a novel with voice that resonates with them will hold that attention.

A lot of people have written about voice, and I think it’s one of those topics that you can’t really talk about enough.  For every author that talks about voice, you’re going to see a slightly different perspective on how they interpret it.   It’s more than just the way the character speaks in your story, and it’s more than just the language that you use.  It’s a combination of the two of those things, but also the perspective of the character that’s telling the story, their authenticity, and the life in them.

If you can make someone forget, in the first five pages of your manuscript, that they’re reading about a fictional character?  That’s voice.  If you can make them relate to you emotionally in some manner, in the way you talk in your novel?  That’s voice too.  It’s something that reaches out from the pages of your work, and grabs the reader by the throat. 

I’ve heard voice is one of the most difficult things to master, though.  “You can teach the rest, but you can’t teach voice.”  Maybe it’s not a skill you can learn, but I do think that anyone can uncover it.  Think about it like you’re an archaeologist.  You dig and dig, and you find yourself a neat little artifact.  But you don’t want to put too much pressure on it, and possibly break it.  So you slowly brush away at it, chipping away at all the stuff that’s blocking your view of the nifty little artifact, without damaging the item underneath.  I think voice is kindof like that.

When I get stuck while I’m writing, it’s usually because I realize there’s a problem with one of the characters.  I’m not ‘getting it’ where they’re concerned.  One of the ways I try to work around that is free writing.  I’ll just open a new window and start writing for ten or fifteen minutes.  Sometimes, it turns into a two way conversation between the character and I.  Other times, it’ll be a journal entry, or just free association.  There are times when I knowingly try to journal for the characters, and others where I just start writing.  It’s all about how you’re feeling at that particular moment.  And some ways are going to work better for you than others.

If I really get stuck, I play around with scenes that I’ve already written, and try writing them from the ‘stuck’ character’s perspective.  It lets me into their head a little more, and gets me in tune with the character.

And I think a lot of voice is like that.  It’s about tuning in.  Sometimes, you’ve just got the frequency off a little bit – if you jiggle the knob, you’re going to get that clear crystal picture.

Other things you can do is try filling out internet memes for your characters.  Figure out what kinds of music they like, what they do in their spare time.  What character in the Breakfast Club would they resonate most with?  There’s a hundred little exercises that you can use to get in touch with your characters.  And when you do that, and you’ve ‘got’ the character, let them tell the story in their own way.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in first or third person.  Just let them give their perspective.  Even if you’re writing from outside of the character’s head, their actions and demeanor colors the world around them, and touches the reader.

Once upon a time, during a WIP I abandoned a long time ago, I created my own version of a ‘character interview sheet.’  It had any vital statistics I needed to know at the top, and then I broke the main facets I saw coming out in the story into different categories.  Skills – what are they good at?  Where do their talents lie?  Personality – One word descriptors, never more than 10, that touched on the basis of their psyche.  Flaws – what holds them back?  How do those things break them down?  And Quirks – anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

In my own experience, one of the lines I had in Witch Eyes and then totally forgot was this tiny little paragraph – maybe two sentences long – about Braden in the shower.  Just the idea of how hard it has to be to take a shower with sunglasses on.  I didn’t even think twice about it, honestly – until someone pointed it out to me when they were reading it over.  How that honest little tidbit into Braden’s life grabbed them and really made them think about what Braden’s life must be like.

That’s what you’re trying to do, when you’re trying to capture your voice.  As the author, your perspectives are going to shape the worlds you create.  I think that’s what instructors mean when they tell you to write what you know.  Write it from your perspective, but don’t get bogged down by that.  Write what you know, but let the characters tell their story.  Let those little tidbits of their lives help bring them out and bring them alive.