Thursday, October 29, 2015

Effect, Not Fun

I've been known to do a few unconventional things in my writing.  I've added a question mark to the end of a word in parentheses to denote that its status is uncertain, and I've done a few paragraphs in a different font to convey a different tone.  These things are done for the effect I hope it produces.

It's hard, though, knowing when to do such things.  Don't get me wrong - I have fun doing them sometimes, but I wish more writers remembered these things are done to help set a mood, not just for the fun of the author.  I've had more than one writer tell me, "I had so much fun doing xxx."  When I ask the reason behind doing what they did, they usually come back to me with something along the lines of, "No reason.  It was just a blast."

I'm glad you had a blast,. but the reader needs more.  Ask yourself why you're writing unconventionally.  Writing is a hard medium to convey tone, so we can use techniques to help create feelings, but that's got to be the intention.  Stephen King did this amazingly well in The Shining.  When a character's thoughts and motivations were vital to the mood he wanted to set, but weren't part of the action at the time, he set up those thoughts and motivations in parentheses.  This broke up the writing to allow for readers to catch up without disturbing the flow.

I'm sure King had a good time messing with us in this way, but he kept his focus on where it should be - when the reader needed to feel something beyond what words could describe.  It wasn't just for grins.

This is something for us all to think through, and to think through carefully.  Words are horrible at setting a mood, yet that's what we have to do as storytellers, so how can we make it easier?  Jarring things a bit can help, so long as it's not overdone, and so long as the reader, rather than the writer, is the target audience.
(After all, how would you feel being left out of a private conversation?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stringing Me Along

We writers want people to love our work.  We live for the shower of affection that comes with someone saying, "That was some of the best stuff I've ever read!"  This is one of the reasons we share our work to begin with.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as into reading as we are.  I'm not going to say that I don't care what someone thinks about my work, but I understand that reading tastes are subjective, so if you don't like something I wrote, there's a chance someone else will.  However, don't string me along by telling me you've loved what I wrote and then not be able to prove it by telling me specifically why.

This happened to me recently.  I mentioned to a colleague that I've written several novels, and he asked to see the one that he said sounded like it was up his alley.  With the subtlety of a college freshman looking to score for the first time, I rushed out to print off a copy of the first few chapters, laid them on his desk, and silently sat back to wait to hear what he thought.

The silent part was hard.  I didn't want to come across as some love struck high-schooler who wanted to know if a second date was possible, so I didn't say a word.  However, somewhere around the two week mark, I started wondering if he even picked it up.

"Sure did," he said.  "It was great!"

Relief passed through me like a current, and I pressed him for details.  "What did you think worked?  Did the fight scene grab you, or was it the part afterwards where Seth was inducted into the Order of Mount Sion?"

"Um, well it was all pretty good," he replied.  "I didn't really have a favorite part."

Of course my antennae perked up at this point, so I threw out a trap.  "What did you think of the various vampire tribes having different abilities?"

"Oh, that was great.  Really made me think about the whole vampire lore."

At this point, I knew he was full of shit.  That's not to say that the vampires in Akeldama don't have different abilities based on tribe - they do - but that part was much later in my novel, and I didn't give him that.  We had a polite discussion about leading me on, and I reclaimed what I gave him.

Again, if what I wrote isn't for you, that's fine, but don't lie to me.  If you're not going to read it, just say so.  You won't hurt my feelings, and I'll have more respect for you in the end.  Not everybody likes to read, or their life gets busy.  It's okay to say "no thanks;" you don't need to act interested out of politeness.  By wasting my time with you, I lose out on others I could get to read my work.  Just like you, my time is precious as well, and I'd rather spend it with someone who might give me real feedback rather than just a pat on the head,

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Move It Along!

As I continued writing The Onyx Cluster, I started wondering about the meat of the book.  I had some vague notion of getting from A to B, but how do I bridge that gap?  Then it occurred to me that how I built the bridge wasn't as important as the understanding that it just needed to keep going until it got to the finish.

So many books I've read have what I call "filler" material.  This is stuff that adds pages to a book but doesn't advance the plot very much.  Even many of the so-called classics, like Moby Dick, are filled with this stuff.  Too many in the bookstore share this trait where I'll be reading it and wonder, "Why is the author telling me this stuff?  I don't see any relation to the plot."

For all the grief I give traditional publishing, one of the things they help sift through is some of the unnecessary garbage that holds down our work.  I get that some writers pour their hearts and souls into what they just wrote, but if it doesn't advance the plot, it gets annoying.  Here's a tip - if you have to add filler to your book to make it as thick as you think it should be, maybe your idea isn't as fleshed out as necessary.

I'm not talking about paring things down so far that you lose the feel of your work, but when you re-read, ask if it's truly necessary.  In Salvation Day, I eliminated several chapters that, while nice, did nothing to move the story forward.  Sure, the scenes fit in with the overall mood, but they didn't add anything new.  They felt like placeholders, sort of like in chess where you make a boring no-nothing move in the hopes that your opponent will do something that will make the next series of moves that much more meaningful.

Unfortunately, in writing, this jeopardizes your relationship with your audience.  It can lead to a droning atmosphere that will make them look past the actually important parts when you need them to.

So go back into your work and ask what things mean.  Do they push the story forward?  If not, then they're only stalling traffic, and you have to push them to the side of the road in order to make way for faster cars.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

In A Single Sentence...

I like to write complex novels.  Simple stories easily bore me, so I want what I write to capture the whole imagination of the reader.  That doesn't mean, however, that I can go so complex that I'm the only one who gets it.  You can write whatever you want, but if your audience can't understand it, then no one but you will read it.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to figure out if your story is too complex - try to condense its description into a single sentence.

Right now, many of you are screaming, "I CAN'T DO THAT!  IT'S AN INSULT TO ME TO SIMPLIFY MY WORK LIKE THAT!"  I get it - we're arteests who need complexity to flourish, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to boil it down to its essence.  A sampling:

A man tries to kill God - Salvation Day.

A second American Civil War - Schism.

A ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost - Wrongful Death.

A key trait of my work is that I can tell folks what it's about without having to sit them down in a comfy chair while I recite an hour long soliloquy.  In today's fast moving world, readers want to quickly know if what you've written might be something that'll interest them.  If it takes too long to understand, they'll move on.  God knows there's plenty in the world that'll meet their needs.

From authors much more accomplished than I, here are a few more:

Time travelers help the South win the Civil War - Guns of the South.

A boy wizard tries to stop the return of a malevolent sorcerer - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

A haunted hotel tries to absorb the psychic abilities of a young boy - The Shining.

Reducing a plot to a single sentence is the conundrum I find myself in with my current novel, The Onyx Cluster.  It's a complicated time travel novel about an arrogant scientist who accidentally travels to an apocalyptic wasteland.  Sure, this sentence gives a little bit, but the story has so much more that I know I can find a better description.  I think this is one of the keys to putting out a good story - finding a way to hook people in one sentence.  Remembering this will make your work better.  I only hope I can do the same now, otherwise I'm wasting a lot of time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Similes And Metaphors

Description.  It can be a hard thing.  Since a writer's medium is descriptive rather than visual, we have to find ways to induce visualization within the minds of our readers.  Such a thing is hard enough when the mind of the reader is open, but it stretches towards impossible when either that person has a closed mind or the writer has a style that would put jittery cats to sleep.

So how do we best open the minds of our readers?  The easiest way is through the use of direct comparison using similes and metaphors because we've all either had experiences like the ones described, thus giving us reference, or because the description is so vivid that our mind automatically creates a link.

I can talk all day about wet pavement and the loss of friction on a roadway, but nothing matches quite like saying something is as slick as ice.  I could say that my character is a lowlife cheating scum who is always unfaithful, but that doesn't serve as well as saying he's a dog.  These descriptors do in a sentence what might take a whole paragraph otherwise.

However, a word of caution here - like with most things, don't overdo it.  You can end up turning your work into a joke if you rely too much on these literary devices.  Dan Rather has been the butt of many jokes for his constant overreach with crazy similes and metaphors.

Along those same lines, make your simile and metaphor use relatable to the general public.  Saying a woman's hair is as golden as the sun gives 99.9% of your audience a reference point they can understand, but saying that the dimples in her cheeks are like the indentation points on the outer rings of a used manifold assembly will go right over most people's heads.  You can perhaps get away with one of those outlandish descriptors once or twice in a loooooong novel, but no more than that.  People will quickly get irritated and put down your work.

Think of your simile and metaphor use like a serving of garlic or cinnamon - in careful doses, such things can make your work even better, but used too often, they overwhelm the flavor.  The point of them is to help readers appreciate the dish, not to make them the dish.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Advantages of Indie Publishing

Since I went over the drawbacks of indie publishing last week, I felt it only fair to revisit the good that indie publishing provides for writers.  I still think it's the wave of the future, and the future is now.

1.  You have control.  As I said last week, it's all on you.  Some folks don't like that, but I'm not one of them.  In indie, I get to decide things like my work schedule, my cover art, and my marketing strategy.  If something doesn't work, I can change it.  If I like something, I can try it.  I'm not reliant on anybody else having a greater say in my own work than me.

2.  You retain rights and profits.  I've heard story after story of authors fighting to get the rights back to their work after their publisher made the arbitrary decision to stop their print run.  As an indie writer, it's on you to decide if your work shows promise to continue to market, and you don't have to beg someone else's permission to use your own stuff.  Better than that is that all the money you make beyond overhead and startup costs is yours.  You needn't worry about royalty rates and checks every six months; you get to put all that profit right back into your bank account.

3.  Edits.  Any writer worth his or her salt wants to show the work to someone else for feedback.  If you don't do this, you're an idiot.  However, as an indie author, you get to decide if you want to incorporate feedback rather than yielding that decision to an editor in New York.  Perhaps there are things in there that I put in there on purpose.  Maybe they give it form and help shape the story I want to tell.  In traditional publishing, you have to accept the "suggested" edits of your literary agent, publishing editors, and publishing executives, or you find yourself with no prospects unless your name is King, Rowling, or Patterson.

4.  What's your best medium?  Again, back to the control thing.  Do you want to publish exclusively in ebook format?  How many copies do you want to print?  Is this Kindle exclusive, or do you want to branch out into Smashwords?  In indie, you get to make these decisions.

5.  Getting past the gate.  The biggest frustration for new authors is getting past the gatekeepers in publishing.  We all want our work out there, but traditional publishing acts as a gatekeeper that hems in new writers when it should be the market that does that.  With indie, you can publish and let readers decide if you've got the chops.

Suffice to say that I'm still big on the indie bandwagon.  With the contraction of the traditional publishing model and the expansion of technology that lets us bypass them, indie is how things are going to be done.  Unless you strike gold under a full moon, your chances for success are better in indie.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Muse - Energy

She sauntered around me, whispering into my ear and tousling my hair.  "It's all coming together, isn't it?" she cooed.

I tried keeping my eyes in the screen.  Even focusing on the work at hand, I couldn't control the smile that came to my lips.  Ever since that scare where I was afraid my Muse left me, it was a joy just to see her so revitalized.  Exhausting to be sure, but still a joy.

"Remember that time stream," she gently chided.  "If Forsythe doesn't place enough emphasis on it, the reader will never realize that that's where he's going to fail."

"I remember," I replied.

"Oh, and then look at how you're going to separate The New Order from The Restoration of the Republic."  A short pause.  "Then remember that victors right the history books and some things are only propaganda.  The Devil can use that to his advantage in the Megiddo Valley."

I stopped typing and looked up at her.  "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Just spinning out ideas, honey."

"Yeah, but those ideas are for other books.  I need to stay focused on this one."

"But it's just so much fun to have you back!" she declared.  "I thought for a while that we were done, but you've found me.  Now go find that hellhole in the backcountry where your assassin finds his way to the point where he can kill the dictator before it's too late."

I sighed...heavily.  My Muse hadn't had this much energy since my younger days.  Finishing a 225,000 word novel, and doing the bulk of it in less than two months, put such juice in her system that I wondered if she was even capable of a coherent thought.

"We can and will get to all those," I said.  "For the moment, though, we need to worry about our post-apocalyptic future under the control of the Onyx Cluster.  The rest of that will have to wait."

"But I don't want you to miss anything," she said with a giggle.

"I can't have all these competing ideas," I said.  "You keep doing this and you're going to overload me.  Kind of like overdosing on medication, too much of this stuff will make it so that none of it works."

She walked back over to the bed and sat down, her lower lip sticking out a little.  After a few seconds, she tucked it back in and said, "Fine, be that way.  Go ahead and have Forsythe look at the observatory.  He should find a few answers there."

"But shouldn't the phantoms be there?" I asked.

"No.  They're more interested in crowds as being a threat to the Cluster.  He doesn't yet know his importance, and they'll back off for now."

Convinced I pulled her back on track, I returned to my keyboard and belted out the next couple of hundred words.  It was good to have her healthy again, but chock full of such vitality made dealing with her a challenge...and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hooking

One of the biggest pieces of advice regarding writing that I've heard from...well...nearly everyone, is that you need to hook your readers early, preferably on the first page.  I was in a discussion on another website, and I got to thinking, What the hell does that really mean?

Too many writers, in my humble opinion, read this to mean they have to begin with some sort of gangbusters action.  Start with a battle!  A car chase!  A murder!  I, on the other hand, think this is often a horrible way to start a novel.  Sometimes starting off with action makes sense because it fits the overall pace of the story, but I usually wonder why I should give a shit about this football game/rape scene/courtroom drama.  I have no idea who the characters are, yet I'm supposed to be instantly drawn into caring about the outcome?  I don't even know who to root for yet.  What if I accidentally start pulling for the guy who eventually becomes the villain?

However, mature writers know that there's more to hooking people than just a truck explosion or torrid love scene.  You can hook a reader with the right catchphrase or dialogue.  Maybe you've found a unique way to describe a setting, and the mood overtakes the reader from the outset.  Whatever it is, it's more dependent on your talent as a writer than it is on whether enough gunshots are fired.

That said, whatever way you start your novel, you have to be able to grab a reader's attention early.  Especially in today's culture of instant gratification, people get bored quickly.  There are so many other outlets for the mind that getting someone to take the time to read what you wrote requires effort.  Most people will give a writer the first ten pages or the first chapter to grab their attention.  If the author hasn't captured that person's interest by that point, most readers will simply put the book down and look for something else(even "serious" readers will do this).  Some are even more harsh, looking at what comes out of the first page to see if they need to continue.  While I find this confining, it's still the reality of the world in which we live.

This is where beta-readers are so important.  A good beta-reader will be able to tell you if you got his or her attention.  If you didn't, ask why not.  Ask what you could've done to grab someone by the balls and not let go.  Sometimes the answer is nothing.  Maybe you have a bad idea, or maybe you have a good idea that doesn't translate well to books.  Whatever it may be, if readers don't read you, your work will be wasted, so move on.  However, there's usually something that can be done to spice it up, and our beta-readers, being as self-important as we writers are, will leap at the chance to tell you what you could've done to get their interest.

Remember, find a way to hook 'em.  Remember as well that such a thing can be more than a massive battle.  Just do something different and in a way that gets notice.  If you can pull people through that door, they'll find themselves walking willingly, even eagerly, before they know what hit them.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Drawbacks of Indie Publishing

For all the fanfare I give indie publishing, there are some drawbacks to going into this whole book thing without a traditional publisher.  It isn't for the feint of heart, and it's probably a good idea to review some of the potential pitfalls you'll encounter in indie publishing should you choose to go that route.

1.  There's no one to push you but the audience.  If you're a self starter, this isn't a big deal.  However, if you're the kind of person who needs someone standing over your shoulder telling you how much to write each day, then look elsewhere.  Indie is for self-starters.  You'll never succeed if you require supervision, for there is no one but you.

2.  You need a knowledge of how to run a business.  I've often said that writing is a business.  The main point, whether we like it or not, is to sell our work.  If you go with a traditional publisher, whichever house accepts you will take care of figuring out payment rates, doing cost analysis on the print price, and determining the legal hurdles you'll have to jump in order to bring your novel to market.  In indie, however, you need to research this stuff on your own.  Lots of writers go into traditional publishing precisely because they want to avoid all that boring business stuff.  If you don't want to be figuring out what your ideal profit point is, don't go into indie.

3.  Formatting and editing.  If you go to a traditional house, they'll put your book into a readable format.  Further, they'll have so many editors that their advice/recommendations will be coming out of your ears.  In indie publishing, you have to seek out editors and beta-readers.  No one is going to knock down your door and demand to read your novel so they can critique it and check the grammar.

4.  Cover art.  I personally like finding someone to do the cover art myself.  As the writer, I know what I want my cover to look like.  However, this can be a lot of extra work, so many writers prefer traditional houses that do that stuff for them.  If all you want to do is give a vague description of what you want your cover to look like while someone else coordinates it all, then seek out a traditional publishing house.

5.  Marketing.  Okay, this one isn't as prominent as it once was since most authors are expected to do a good deal of the marketing themselves.  However, there are things you won't have to worry about, like getting yourself into stores and putting them on Amazon.  Your publisher should do that  for you, just like they should get you an ISBN.  However, with indie, it's on your to find outlets for your work.  If you feel that'll distract you too much from writing, go traditional.

These are just a few things indie writers need to consider.  I personally feel the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, but that decision has to be up to each person.  If you're a self starter/control freak(like I am), then you may want to look into indie.  If that's all too much for you, try your damnedest to get a traditional publishing contract.

Next week, a refresher in indie advantages...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Remembering

Whenever I get an idea for a blog post, I jot it down in the notebook I have sitting by my computer.  I do this so that when it comes time to write, I'm not scrounging for ideas.  Most of the time, I write down a title that lets me easily remember just what I wanted to talk about.  However, there are times when I look at what I scribbled and wonder, "What the hell was I thinking about?"

I recently came across that phenomenon when I looked at a title called "Dissociative Properties."  Pondering it, I started to wonder what I meant.  I know I could probably take such a thing and turn it into a halfway decent post, but I'm equally sure that it wouldn't be anywhere close to what I was thinking about when I wrote it down.

This isn't the first time this has happened.  No, it doesn't happen often, but it does occur.  Maybe it's just my age starting to creep in.  Am I really going to have to start writing a brief synopsis of what I was thinking about?  The whole point behind the quick note to myself was so that I could write down the idea and come back to it later.  If I have to start writing out in advance, it's going to defeat part of the purpose.

I know, I know...I'm whining.  I just can't, for the life of me, remember what I wanted to say in conjunction with that title.  Maybe I can ponder it for a while and it'll all come back to me.  Maybe not.  But don't laugh - you may see this one in a future post...

...or I might pretend I never wrote it at all, at which point you'll never get to see it, so there!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How Off Kilter Can You Go?

There's a reason authors write the way we do - readers prefer it.  There's a set style that allows for a comfortable flow of information.  If we stray too far from that general structure, readers can quickly get irritated and put your book down in frustration.

But does that mean we can never deviate from the norm?  I think such an idea is restraining.  It shouldn't be done often, for that detracts from the effect, but if used sparingly, I think a little unconventional writing can enhance your story and get the reader even more into it.

The biggest reason to vary the way we write is to convey the right tone.  Written words are awful at getting across tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.  That's why telling a story as opposed to writing one is always the preferable choice, for we can then make sure we convey the way we want it to be perceived.  We know where the proper emphasis needs to go and just how light or dark the tone should be.

Still, how to do this in our stories?

Let me again go back to one of my favorites, that master writer known as Stephen King.  King peppers his books with out of place ellipses and paragraph structures that look totally random, but when taken within the context of the novel, help set the right mood.

Most of us aren't as good as King, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  Without experience, we'll never master this aspect of storytelling.  What I suggest is to start small - try sprinkling in italics or the occasional odd use of punctuation.  Then, give it to a beta-reader to read and see if they get your meaning.  If you have an honest beta-reader, that person will quickly let you know if you get annoying.  As you gain confidence and get more comfortable with what you want to do, you can spice up a story for publication with such things(please note that I said "spice up," not "overload with chili peppers and curry...a little bit goes a long way).

A large number of those "in the know" in traditional publishing warn against this, but I think it's because they've seen too many newbies overload their stuff with unconventional writing, so much so that it loses effect.  You want to dab a few spots into your work, not saturate it(I also believe that they're afraid of the new, which is why they shy away from it).  I won't tell you to throw caution to the wind, but if you look outside to see just how hard that wind is blowing, you might be surprised by what you can get away with, and that will make you a better writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I Like It Raw

Having finished Fight Or Flight about a month ago, I thought about all the things I liked writing it.  They turned out to be the same things I liked when I wrote Akeldama, Salvation Day, Wrongful Death, Schism, and Homecoming - they were fruits of the imagination in the most pure form.  They spun right out of my head, with nothing holding back the words as they flowed.

It's the completely raw nature of writing a first draft that I enjoy.  A tip for all you writers out there - don't try to edit while you write the first draft.  Let things go, knowing that you'll have to change them later.  However, if you start to interrupt the creative process by editing as you write, you'll turn into the centipede that falls over when it starts thinking about walking.  It'll sap much needed energy from just getting it out on paper.

Some of what you write in a first draft will require editing, but that's for another time and after you've had a chance to decompress.  Your goal in your first draft has to be getting everything onto paper.  Your story is like a lump of clay you have to shape and mold into a grand piece of art, but the first time you shape it isn't the time to take a beveled edge and make it exquisite.  Instead, it's the time you form the rough shape of what you hope it'll eventually turn into.

All of my novels have extraneous parts.  All have certain scenes that will need to be changed or pieces added to provide tone.  However, that's for later.  Trying to sculpt a masterpiece on the first go is an exhausting process that takes all the fun out of writing.  I'll bet when you got all hyped up to write that first draft, it wasn't because you were excited to have your energy drained.

Just let your creative juices flow freely.  Yes, it'll create a mess that you'll have to clean up later, but so what?  That's the stage of writing that's the most fun, so why take away from it?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cocky Writing

Writers are creatures of ego.  We have to be egotistical to think that we can tell a story in a way that's enjoyable to others.  There's nothing wrong with being a touch egotistical - after all, we all want our surgeon or lawyer to think he or she is the best.  However, we run into problems when that cockiness lets us breeze through a story so confidently that we forget to tell something others will think is worth hearing.

There have been times I've sauntered through a story, feeling oh-so-good about myself and my abilities, only to come back to it later and discover that it sucked out loud.  Such a discovery always crushes me, and I end up wondering what the hell just happened.

In a nutshell, my ego happened.

My descriptions will get far too brief, or the tone will take on an air of condescension(for the record, never talk down to the audience - they hate that).  I've thought, "Who is this asshole?"  Then I think back to when I was writing, and I remember that I thought I could do no wrong, that everyone would just "get it" and I'd be set.

While we're egotistical creatures, there's something to be said for having a dose of insecurity.  Insecurity helps push us to be a little bit better, and it compels me to go back through my work to make sure I conveyed both the story and tone I wanted to.

I think that learning some humility comes with writing experience.  Stephen King said, during his introduction of The Shining on a later printing, that there was a cockiness in the writing that began to grate on him as he matured.  We've all been there, but it takes time to shrug off that arrogance so we can focus on writing a good story.  Just remember that when you think you have it all down, life, and the audience, are going to find a way to bring you back to Earth...and it won't always be fun.