Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 2015 Survival Guide to Living the Dream as an Author.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Janet. By day, she slung medical insurance to the masses. By night, she attempted to hush the voices in her head aching to have their stories told.

Fueled by coffee, dreams, and men in kilts, she slaved long hours every free moment, working to get these stories into the world, shaping them into a beautiful book baby hopefully someone would love.

Thus, the querying process begins. And here's what you need in your satchel, purse, pants, or under your desk in order to survive:

Step 1 in the Survival Guide to Living the Dream as an Author - RESEARCH

This word will be your best friend for life in this business. Learn it. Love it. Live it. You MUST....let me reiterate in case you glossed over it. YOU MUST research whom you are querying. You will only do yourself an injustice if you don't. Not to mention waste your time, other people's time, and countless years of your life if you don't.

Not every agent/editor/publisher is created equal. Say it with me. Not every agent/editor/publisher is created equal. Now say it again.

It's your job as a writer to do your homework. Know where your work best belongs. Then, when you find someone who you think is a good fit, research them further. Google, look on Absolute Write (For the love of all that's holy, don't skip this step), Preditors and Editors, Twitter, Query Tracker...there's a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips in this techno day and age. USE IT.

Just because someone shows interest in your story, do not jump in without doing ….what's that word again?


Just like anything in life, there are people who prey on the unknowing, the naive, the uninformed. Don't be a victim. You wouldn't walk in the middle of the worst part of town, alone, at night, wearing a kick me sign would you? Don't do that with your book baby either.

Also, research if you want to go direct to a publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts or if you want to pursue an agent. But do not query both. Pick which option you feel best for your career. They are two different career paths. Research which option is for you. It may even lead to self-publishing after you've gathered all your research. But that's why it's very important to know what you're jumping into. And there's no other way out of it other than research.

Similarly, research agents to see which authors they represent, which editors they work with, what their sales records have been, how long their client this is. All of these are factors in making a decision for your career. How long have they been in business? Is a new agent good or bad? A new agent is not necessarily bad, they may lack years of experience, but they also have a smaller client list and you can build careers together. Weigh your options before you choose.

Does research take a lot of time? Yes. But you wouldn't hire someone to work for you if you knew nothing about them would you? So why do it with your precious words?

Step 2 - ALCOHOL. Accepting Life's Cold and Often Harsh Outcome with a Level Head.
(Also known as The Querying Phase.)

Don't drink? You should start. Okay, maybe you prefer chocolate, or ice cream. 

Once you've done step one, conquered it, stalked it, made it your bitch, you're ready for the query phase.  

Have plenty of your chosen poison on hand. Once you hit send on that query, you will need to save your nails from being bitten off. Waiting is hard. Rejection is harder (but we'll get to that later). So enjoy the waiting period while there's still hope in your heart and a song in your step. (I'm so full of happy, can't you feel it?)

READ SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. ←Do Not Skip This Step. It's as important as Research.

If you don't read submission guidelines, your chances of making it out of the slush are as good as Chris Hemsworth knocking on your door with a marriage proposal. Ain't gonna happen. If you leave out a vital piece of information or assume you're above everyone else and attach a full manuscript when the agent only wants a query? You've just shot your own damn foot off. Why would you do this?

It floors me to see how many agents each day get queries for genres they don't rep, get attachments when they strictly advise they do not open attachments, and get links to websites instead of a query and samples in the email.

If you claim you didn't know what they were looking for or how to even do a traditional query? You obviously skipped step one in the whole process....what's the word again? RESEARCH. Yes...old friend....RESEARCH.

So many places online, all you have to do is type in the word query and you will get a wealth of information on how to work up the perfect query. Query Shark is a great place to start. All Hail Janet Reid (moment of reverence). In your researching of agents/editors you should have come across their websites which have their specific submission guidelines. Another good place for information is QueryTracker. Agent Query is another good place, but beware, it's not always current. Publishers Marketplace is another good one. These are all good places to start, but ALWAYS go to the agent/editor's website for the most current sub guidelines.

Follow them. Send your query. Drink Alcohol while you wait. Or eat chocolate or stare at Chris Hemsworth on Pinterest. Whatever will get you through. Or, here's a novel idea ←See what I did there? Write a new book!

(Also known as, don't be a Douche-Canoe. Similarly, how not to get yourself blacklisted.)

So, you've sent your book baby into the world. You've done your research, you've picked agents or editors/pubs to query. You've waited patiently to hear back.

Going back to reading the submission guidelines, most agents/editors will post their query response times. If they say to give them six to eight weeks, DO NOT send them a nudge five days later wondering where your response is. Follow up only if you haven't received a response after their normal response time-frame has sufficiently passed.

That day will come when your email dings and you run to it in slow motion through a field of wildflowers. Inside you find......*cue ominous music soundtrack*....the ugly form rejection. I'm not going to lie, it's going to hurt. It's going to be THE SUCK. But rest assured, you're not alone. I promise.

First off, if you get a form happy. Wait...what? Be happy?  

In today's techno age, electronic querying is pretty much the only way agents/editors accept queries. Some still accept paper/snail mail queries. A select few still take ONLY paper queries (that one still boggles my mind, but that's another post). So imagine it from the agent's point of view. They're inundated with queries, some get hundreds a day, tens of thousands a year. For you to get a response to a query, even if it's form, be thankful you at least heard back. Don't be a dick and think you deserve a personalized response when these agents/editors don't know you from Adam. A lot of agents have gone to no response at all means “no thank you, please drive through.”

Imagine you land an agent. Don't you want your agent spending their quality time on YOU and YOUR BOOK, not sending out ten thousand personalized responses to general mass queries? Would that leave much time for you? No. So rethink unleashing the ninth circle of hell on an agent/editor for sending a form rejection. Yes, your time is just as valuable as theirs, so be thankful they took the time to even bother responding. END OF STORY.

Do not respond and berate them for not wanting your book. Do not stalk them and cause them physical harm. Do not publicly shame them for not writing you back with all the ways your book can be improved from the five sample pages you sent them. DO NOT BE THIS GUY!

A form rejection can mean lots of things. True, you'll never really know why they didn't want your book. Suck it up and move on. In the end, the only thing that really means to you is, they weren't the right people to represent you and your vision. End of Story. Wash, rinse, repeat. The best way to respond to a form rejection is not to. Agents don't expect to get a response on a form rejection. So don't give them one. Even if you want to say thank you for their time, don't. Say it when you send the query before hand. Responses on rejections just clog their inbox. You don't want your query smooshed between an irate rejection response or even a “thanks anyway”. Rule of thumb....just move on down the road.

Keep in mind, publishing is truly a small world. People talk. Agents talk. Editors talk. They're not out for blood with each other (unless they're vying over the same awesome manuscript). More often than not, they're friends and respected colleagues. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Don't let your name be acid on their tongues. Let them remember you for being gracious.

Everyone gets rejected. EVERYONE GETS REJECTED. Because your book is not meant to be represented or published by everyone! Cold, hard fact. If you can't deal with this fact, then unfortunately, you should hang up your writing hat right now because that's the nature of this business. Because guess what, it's still a business. Your words may be beautiful, and the world may need to see them. Unfortunately, sometimes it just doesn't happen.


There are many options now in this techno age. Self-publication, Small Press, Hybrid Presses (that's another post). Or good old perseverance. So this one tanked in the query trenches. Write another book. With each book you'll get better, you'll have lived through more experiences, you'll learn patience. And some day reap the reward.  

Maybe you'll be the exception and be the next J.K. Rowling. I truly hope that happens for you. Sure, I'll be jealous, but if you followed all the instructions above and you got through, I'll also be your biggest fan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Planes, Trains, and Picnic Tables - A Writer's Zone by Janice M. Wilson

Andy Farmer - first day as a novelist had experienced his first writer's block

Anyone who knows me and has visited my home, the first thing they ask me is ‘where do you write all the time’?   They look around for an office or desk, puzzled.  I don’t have a desk.  As much time as I claim to spend writing, this surprises most people. 
Let me clarify that statement.   I do have a desk, but there’s not one in my home, nor do I have a private paid office somewhere.  My office is where I can relax and get inspired, express that inspiration without distraction, and be free to reach and stay in that ‘zen’.  My office is most often the great panoramic outdoors.

That's better!

I envy those such as Jodi Picoult or Stephen King who have a particular place at home they can sit each day and type, or maybe write with a quill in a tiny Maine cabin like Henry Thoreau often did.   Jane Austen could still pull it together amid family chaos, and actually thrived from it professionally.
Maybe someday I could if I had a place of my own big extra bedroom - or better yet - an airy loft or porch with open windows facing a broad view.  That’s the only way I could ever do work at home.  That’s a big maybe….

I'd be okay with this desk in the Hamptons Beachside!

Several spirited attempts were made at home but my senses, insight, ideas and story lines shattered as glass thrown against a brick wall if I sit facing one. Sometimes the wall and I just stared at each other. Or the clutter piles grow and creep along the floor to swallow me whole.  Then the food beckons me for a bite, the washer buzzes to be emptied of clothes, and the bills scream to be paid.
That’s when I grab my bag, my keys, hiker boots, blanket, Snoopy doll, my warmies and I run out.
Weeks ago, as I walked along Atsion Lake in the Pinelands of New Jersey on a cold day, the sunlight sparkled on calm cedar water   It warmed my face for a little while, as I watched some quails peck at the ground nearby.  I felt welcomed here, as if the elements were glad to see me and promised to stir things up in my head.   And just like any day I walked back to the car at the vacant cabin just itching to write.

Atsion Lake, 2014 in the fall.  Pinebarrens, NJ  for an inspiring hike, picture by Janice  M. Wilson

Out of respect, I usually ‘unplug’ from society when I am in the finest of nature.   Everything is perfect as it is – the trees and the ocean don’t need my EVM vibrations any more than they need a forest fire or hurricane.   My cell phone rests in my pocket put on airplane mode to keep me undisturbed by distractions.  I bring it along only to take some pictures if I forget my camera.  In my other pocket sit some pinecones and flagrant long needle pine branches (or shells) that I find, sacred artifacts to pull out later. 
Like old friends sitting nearby, I do my best work when I release the freshness coaxed by fragrant shells or conifer needles into my imagination, then the sorrows, love and adventure pour out onto paper or a keyboard.  I still prefer paper.  If I don’t bleed the drama, I suffer a ‘writers’ regret’ headache after forgetting it all later.

What my picnic table often looks like when writing.

Back to the question of where my desk is: If I can write it there, it becomes my ‘desk’.  The element I need is fresh air.  I want to sit right here and write all the time, despite the cold or heat. 
Now today, the snow falls thick enough to block the view of the other side of the lake, and there’s no way I can use my laptop without it getting ruined with melted snow inside the warm keyboard.  My paper would just get wet and the ink would run.  But a story is brewing, a new love affair blossoms in my mind and heart that I have to share or the characters will run off to another writer only too ready to enflame their passion.
The lovers I ‘feel’ right now want to stay inside this summer cabin near where I sit locked outside - in the cold wet elements.  I can’t get in either, even if I wanted to. What do I do now in this situation? Most writers would go home or to a café.  Not this one. I simply sit under a canopy of trees or camp out in the car.  Out comes my thermos of hot tea, my snacks, my quilt, my natural artifacts, Snoopy, and my tablet of paper and pen.

Yes, I am famous for sitting outside during a blizzard.  I even have the boots!

Yes, I have attended writing retreats in cabins and beach lofts where I got a lot done (only with a lot of windows and outside time around a fire or on the beach). There are a few cafés (and even one old fisherman’s bar) where I can pick up the pen and work near a window with a great artisan java. For a rainy day at the beach, I find a gazebo or patio or sit in the truck and imagine some brave seamen skillfully battle their sails through the treacherous Barnegat Outlet.  When at a park, I find a picnic table and people watch.
I wish I could tuck away into some home office sometimes.  It would probably be easier, warmer and cheaper. What I found surprising is that many famous names write in their own homes in messy offices, attics, on the couch, bathtubs, in bed or brightly painted rooms.  Kindred spirits like me prefer transitional states of mind to pen their works at motels, libraries, riding on trains, plains, boats, buses, in terminals or dark corners in museums, bookstores, local cafés, diners and some even rent space to write.
A few simply need regular gatherings with other creative or just quirky, interesting people to watch. Quite a few had rituals they attended to faithfully, such as watching the sun rise, boards on a barrel, on the soles of their shoe, hiring Feng Shui masters to help with ‘flow’ in their homes, or to write by natural elements.

That's me, lakeside and writing in a journal of course!  Lake Lenape, NJ  August 2013

That last one works best for me, but whatever floats the boat works for you.   We all have our own niche – none of them are ‘wrong’ places.
            As comfortable as my house has been made, I can never quite capture there the same tickled sensations as being surrounded by the elements.  No, home is my quiet place where I hide and relax my brain. The obliged real world at home and my coveted life ‘at the office’ refuse to cohabitate.

That's me if I stay inside! lol

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Word-building in World-building (Sci-fi & Fantasy)

To Frell and to Frak

If Captain Adama says so, it must be right! So say we all!

     Even if you've only just dipped your toe into the cosmic pool that is sci-fi, you're sure to have stumbled upon some of these words - from the old school "smeg" to the everyday "frelling, frakking, goram dren." Whether in book or TV format, it seems like every alien language has developed their own non-taboo F-word to spice up their dialogue without angering the censors. The question is whether or not "Frak" is anything more than an excuse to shock the audience and load up on F-bombs. Do writers do this simply to avoid interference from the censorship that might come from use of their taboo, human F-bomb cousin, especially as fantasy and sci-fi typically attract both adults and children?

     My answer would be both yes AND no! Yes, they're totally used to shock. However, also NO! That's not their only purpose! We (or maybe just I) neeeeeeeed these words for authenticity of character and credibility of self-expression. 

     Take into account how the words are used and by who: "Frell" and "Dren" are used by a group of convicts constantly on the run; "Frak" is the fave word of the remnants of an army who are facing the decimation of their species on a daily basis; "Goram" pops out of the mouths of smugglers dodging the law on the outskirts of civilized space; and, last but not least, "Smeghead" is a popular insult bandied about between a group of mismatched bachelors floating around in space with little else to do other than ridicule each other. It'd be weird NOT to swear like an irreverent space-sailor in these situations. Personally, average school teacher that I am, I've been known to let out a "Frell" when just dropping all my class notes on the floor. Who knows what would come out of my mouth if faced with an apocalypse. Give the wayward, potty-mouthed felons a break.

     The intergalactic potty mouth is not really the issue here, more it is the example. In fantasy and sci-fi, we create whole worlds and those worlds need NEW WORDS! We need to express our characters' feelings and thoughts but in a whole new world that surrounds them and the reader too. Sci-fi and fantasy are all about pushing boundaries to new worlds and new cultures. Writers need new words and new languages to truly express these new places!

Not Everyone Gets to Have a Babel Fish

     Books have characters and characters have cultures and cultures have languages - there's no escaping it! And the odds are that, if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy, you will have a mix of cultures and languages to deal with. Unless you're Douglas Adams and you have a babel fish handy, you're going to have to deal with different languages and clashes of languages and cultures between your different tribes or courts or space boundaries. Some people advise just ignoring the potential differences and assuming everyone speaks the same language as the reader, but that's not the way I'd go. Some of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy tales have succeeded (in my opinion) because of the strength of their excellent world-building and the intrigue that a good-old cultural clash can create. Good language-building goes hand in hand with that.

     You don't have to be J. R. R. Tolkien to pull this off though. He's my ultimate hero of world-building and a philologist too. Don't get intimidated and back away from your keyboard! We can't all be him! Also, not all of us want to master Anglo-Saxon, create multiple alphabets and imagine up entire languages before we put pen to paper. We also probably can't afford to hire David Peterson (the creator of Dothraki and many other languages for TV) to work his language-creation magic for us. However, there are definitely some lessons to be learned from Tolkien and others.

(1) Find your own Balance between Old and New Words!

Life Buoy On The Boat Stock Photo
Think of your poor, drowning reader!!

      How much is too much when it comes to introducing new words on a page? As much as I worship Tolkien and admire his commitment to detail, I do remember racing through some Entish chapters to get back to where the more active narrative was at. Sometimes you can fall so in love with your own invention (be it back-story instead of language) that the reader gets the chance to become impatient with you. My own personal and inexperienced view on introducing a new language and new words to your reader is simple: DON'T DROWN THEM! I love languages and world-building but minimalist pages are the way forward. 

     Use your own language as your base and if there's a word for it in your language that will suffice, USE IT. However, if there's something new or unique to your created world, then give it a new word. I'd say that wine is simply wine because, you know, it's wine. However, if you're introducing a new kind of booze to your tale - one say that is distilled from a plant only grown on the planet colony AYW-82 and drunk by the slaves on that planet, then by all means name it "dengastil"! If there's a swear word that you want to use, replace it with "aiggak"! However, you don't need to replace the name of every object that your characters are going to encounter. Think of your poor reader.

     If you want to avoid losing the flow of your tale, don't get caught up in an explanation of everything every few sentences or so. At a writers' group, I was once asked why I hadn't included more "alien" words to describe the ubiquitous market scene. I accepted and nodded along to this perfectly valid critique of my work. Traditionally, market scenes are a great opportunity to show all the cultures of a world coming together to trade so it's the perfect chance to inform the reader about this world they are in. I listened and tweaked and added some more and it was better, but I didn't want to go too far with it. I hate info-dumps where the author decides to tell the reader everything dead quickly, rather than slowly showing bit by bit - and this is true of introducing new names for things too. On one page, I was happy to suggest to my reader what a "daga bloom" was as well as showing that the "angma balls" were sticky globs of sweetened tree sap that the kids craved. But I felt like two 'explanations' on a page were my limit. Also, notice that I made it easy for my reader by making my new words a mix of the exotic "daga" and the familiar "bloom" so that they at least had a general idea of what I was talking about. I kept on world-building with details without more word-building on that one page, as I didn't want to drown my reader in more new vocabulary all at once.

(2) To Build a World, you need to Build a Culture!

Frank Herbert's Dune meets the Simpsons (by Gulliver63) 

     Creating a new language isn't just about chucking some syllables together and making a new word. You've got to stay true to the culture you're creating. Don't bother creating any new words until you've already thought out the culture that uses them. One of my favourite examples is Frank Herbert's Dune in which the Fremen have their own language developed from Arabic. Water being the ultimate wealth on Arrakis, it impacts every part of life, from birth and the drinking of amniotic fluids to death and the reclaiming of the water from the body. One of many water-related sayings the Fremen use is, "Now do we consume that which will one day be returned for the flesh of a man is his own, but his water belongs to the tribe." Wasting water is sacrilege and, even when the Fremen language is translated for the ease of the reader, a ton of new words and phrases, like 'water debts' and 'water bonds,' are needed to explain the essentially alien culture and the reverence that they have for water. If you're just making up random words, you might be better off using your own language. Keep your word creations purposefully focused on the culture you're trying to share.

     Taking it to another level... if you've ever read Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, you might have been impressed by how Ness dealt with inter-species communication. The protagonist, Todd, has a pet dog called Manchee and we are allowed into the conversations between boy and dog when Todd is infected with the noise-germ and begins to hear the thoughts of everyone around him, including his pooch. It may not involve the creation of an alien language, but it's a great example of language creation in order to share a totally different way of thinking through different ways of speech. Worth a read!!

(3) Be Consistent!

     To be honest, the only real RULE is to be consistent. There are a ton of different ways to do this:

- DON'T BE SCARED OF USING LANGUAGES YOU KNOW AND ADAPTING THEM! Some novelists loosely base their alien lingos on real languages from today or the past, thereby automatically getting some cohesion of style.

- FOCUS ON THE SOUND OF THE LANGUAGE AS IT REALLY HELPS WITH CHARACTERISING THE CULTURE. Some novelists decide on a sound that appeals to them, be it lilting or growling or guttural, and simply decide how many consonants to chuck in to rough things up. Make sure you try out your words aloud. If you can't pronounce them, your readers will probably struggle with them too. You're aiming for exotic, not unintelligible.

- KEEP A LIST! While writing, it's a good idea to create a dictionary or glossary as you go, so you can check language consistency on a few pages, rather than the whole manuscript.

- CHECK YOUR LIST! Once you've completed your list, give it to a friend to read out loud and see if they feel like the words are connected to the same language - without the distraction of the story.

- KEEP TRACK OF THE ALIEN WORDS BY HIGHLIGHTING THEM! I tend to highlight the 'foreign' words every time I write one, so they are easier to go back to and review.

- USE YOUR SPELL-CHECKER!!!! It is your friend! Add your new words to the spell checker so it doesn't either accidentally change your words OR drive you crazy prompting you whether or not you're sure...really, really sure...that that's a word! 
You can do this in MS Word by: Review > Languages > Language Preferences > Proofing Tab > Custom Dictionaries button > Edit Word List.

You've got to admire the commitment!! What a guy!
Borrowing from Anglo-Saxon and then creating a whole wealth of other languages!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Hello, my name is __________

Creating characters is one of my all-time favourite parts of writing. People are so very interesting - what they say, what they do when they say it, how their own personal brand of logic works and what, exactly, makes them tick. What better way to let your creative juices run free than to create a character, right? 

Okay, so maybe character creation (or characterisation) is not everybody's cup of tea. How we create the people who populate our imaginary worlds is as individual as a fingerprint - there's whorls and lines and patterns that we can recognise, but everybody has their own personal mix. It may even be different depending on the particular character him/herself. Some of my stories' protagonists simply appear in my head, much like an unwanted guest ringing the doorbell when you're just about to step into the shower. Others have to be coaxed out of hiding, an often painful and certainly frustrating process. Some characters make you wait until almost the entire story is done before they even let you know their name. 

The problem with characters is that they often fall flat when compared to reality. They lack depth, and as such, don't come across as sufficiently realistic to the reader. A book full of cardboard-cutout characters is not very likely to succeed, at least not on its own merits. There are some bestselling counterexamples, but let's not go there - to give a cliche saying it's place: if someone jumps off a bridge and makes the news because of it, does that mean jumping off a bridge is the only way to get your fifteen minutes of fame? 

I certainly hope not! 

When I write, I try to think of my characters as real people. Character interviews help me do this, and you wouldn't believe the surprising factoids that can turn up when you do that. The better you know your characters, and that means hero, villain and everyone in between, the better you'll be at judging their reactions in any given situation the plot might throw at them. I sometimes let my characters talk to each other on random topics to get a feel for how they should react to each other in the actual story. But my favourite way of getting to know them is to sit in front of the fire and let them talk to me... 

Tessa Conte sits in a comfy armchair before a happily dancing hearth-fire in a room full of books and leather. She has a yellow legal pad on her lap, and is busily chewing the end of her pencil. 

There's a knock at the door.

Come in, please.

A man enters the room, dressed in a desertman's garb, all loosely flowing robes and leather belts holding it all together. He's armed with at least two blades -  a sword on his back and a knife in his belt - that Tessa can see, but there's bound to be more. He comes to a stop before Tessa's chair. 

TC (waits a bit, tapping her pencil against the legal pad): 
Well? Are you going to sit down? (He sits and pulls off the black turban and veil) Thank you. So, what are we talking about today? How about we start with you introducing yourself to the audience?

R: I'm Rashid.

TC: That's it? Just Rashid?

R (he's studying the room, the fire, the books, anything but looking straight at Tessa): Yes. I'm the Peacemaker's guard.

TC (frowns): Care to elaborate on that? And why aren't you looking at me?

R (deliberately turns his head to look straight at a spot behind Tessa's right shoulder): I'm just a guard, I shouldn't be looking at you. (he jumps up starts pacing in front of the chair) I should not sit in your company, my lady.

TC (watches him for a bit): Are you looking for threats, Rashid? (he just nods) So you'd protect me, too, then?

R (clearly startled, he meets Tessa's gaze and she sees that his eyes are a strangely mezmerizing honey shade): Yes, my lady. Of course I would! That's my purpose, is it not?

TC: To protect?

R (frowns, then nods as if he needs to reassure himself of this): Yes. I protect, that's what I'm here for. There's nothing else for me, is there?

TC: You don't sound very certain of that.

R (looks into the fire; his hand is resting on the hilt of his dagger, clenching and unclenching): I don't know what to think. I have no memory older than the day I was given into the Peacemaker's service, you know that, don't you? How am I to know what or who I was before then? It should not matter. I know I can't be that anymore, that I'm not allowed to, but...

TC (leans forward): 

But there's something there, shadows, echoes of something...

TC (sits back in her chair): 
We'll figure it out, don't worry.  

This is an interview I did with the MC of one of my ongoing projects. Before I sat him down and wrote my way through this interview, I had no clue about the gap in his memories - adding that little tidbit helped clear up a major snafu in my plot line. It also helped me see how overly focused he was on protecting (the peacekeeper or anyone else, really). I still have to work on that, though the instinct to protect 'his people' is a big thing for Rashid, before and after the memory loss. 

So that's what I do to get to know my characters - we sit down, all civilised, and have a chat. Once I know them a little, I make lists. Lists of likes, dislikes, physical characteristics, childhood memories, allergies, thoughts and feelings and anything else I can think of. I write it down and add it to my story file, so it'll be there when I'm stuck on a particular scene or dialogue. Writing things down also helps keep the little facts consistent. When you're on your nth reread, some things may fail to register, may even slip past an editor, but you can bet on your readers noticing every little mistake, and at the very least it will stop the flow of their reading. 

It's vital to keep your characters in line, and if they do dance to their own tune, make sure the reader knows why. 

If you're a fellow writer, what do you do to keep things real with the people you put down on paper? Do you like talking to your characters, too?

As a reader, what is most important to you regarding literary characters? Are you a stickler for consistency or can you overlook some mistakes as long as the character feels real to you? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

To Was or Not To Was

As a writer, I tend to write my first drafts quickly and without too much thought to craft.  The stories about greats writers agonizing over each word? Yeah. So not me.

The good news is I’m not alone. There’s a large contingent of us fast drafters out in the world, throwing our words, and our ideas, and our plot lines onto paper as quickly as we can type. We shape the broad outlines of our stories as we create out first draft. And when we type the end, it isn’t really the end. Or, it shouldn’t be.

Because that’s when the hard work begins.

Edits are where we sharpen of our prose, and highlight the gems we unconsciously threw out onto the page during our first draft. It’s where we identify the shallow parts of our manuscript, and deepen--deepen until we have fully rounded characters and razor edge motivations.  It’s where we trim the fat from our sentences, cutting the useless words away from the necessary ones.  And it’s overwhelming.  Finding a place to begin can be paralyzing. 

So, here is a suggestion on where to begin.

Start with a search for passive verb construction, and more specifically, for the big, bad, daddy of all passive verb construction: WAS.

Highlight each instance of the word. 
Try not to pass out upon finding thousands of uses of the word was in your manuscript.
You can do this, I promise.

Take a breath, and then try to figure out how to write that sentence more concisely, and without the word was.

Here are some examples from my unedited work in progress:

The small room felt like a cell, settled deep below the arena like it was—cinderblock walls covered with a slick coat of white oil paint.

How can we fix this so that it has more impact?

How about: 

The room sat deep below the arena and felt like a small cell, complete with cinderblock walls glossed over by a coat of white paint.

Play with the words until you have the feel you’re going for concisely expressed in the sentence. 
And remember—"was" is almost never concise.

Another example:

Ramon Garcia was the only thing standing between him and a shot at the championship and he was better than Garcia.

Okay, to be fair, was isn’t the only thing wrong with this sentence. 

But how could we fix it?

How about: 
Only Ramon Garcia stood between him and his shot at the championship. And he could kick Garcia’s ass.

One final easy tip for trimming the word "was" from your manuscript: 

Any time you see "there was" in conjunction, you can almost always eliminate it painlessly.

You want examples? Here you go:
And beat up or not, there was no need for him to be an ass.

Easy fix: 
And beat up or not he didn’t need to be an ass.

Another? Here you are:
He had no reason to care, but there was no way he wanted Nick there when he picked it up.

Easy Fix? 
He had no reason to care, but he didn’t want Nick there when he picked it up.     

It will take patience and persistence, but eliminating the great majority of your uses of the word "was" will help make your writing stand out and resonate with the reader.