Category Archives: Craft

The “Rules”

Years ago when I completed my first “professional” novel, I anxiously scoured the internet to find out how to get it published. I got a lot of advice, from split it into two books to put it on scented paper to get an editor’s attention. Seven years on, I have learned a lot, not the least of which was most of that early advice was wrong. Not just wrong, but ommigodhowcanpeoplebesonaive-wrong.

So today I’m going to start a series that will explore some of the myths out there that new authors fall for – and rightly so, since the source of the “advice” is generally someone who seems to be a seasoned pro. Which I’m not. However, I have learned a few things the hard way, and am willing to share.

First off, let’s talk about manuscript formatting. Oh man, are there a million ideas out there on this one! I was told that if my margins were not just so, if my itaclics were not underlined, and if my mauscript was not at EXACTLY 25 pt, it would never sell. Yeah, whatever. As a general rule, I like to write double-spaced with one-inch margines and in Courier Dark. However, if your manuscript is in Times New Roman, and your italics are underlined, if it’s a good story, it will still sell. The key here is to do your research. For example, Samhain wanted TNR, so I changed the font on my manuscript before I sent it in. If the agent/editor you want to submit to wants it in a specific font or with specific characteristics, follow their rules. It proves you can read and follow directions. However, if they do not specify specifically what they want, basic proffessional formatting is perfectly acceptable, italics and all.  Don’t put it on colored paper, don’t put it on scented paper, and don’t get cutesey. Those are the things that will get your manuscript shoved into the slush pile faster than you can say “I’m the next J.K. Rowling.”

Then there’s the whole, “You have to have an agent before you can sell” myth. While it helps to have an agent first, and sometimes advisable, I am living proof you can sell without one. In fact, I would say there are certain times that selling a book prior to being agented is a good idea, and I believe my situation is one of them. There’s a variation on this one that goes, “You have to enter contests/attend conferences to get a book deal.”  Not that I am anti-contest, by any means, but contest wins, with a few notable exceptions, mean very little to most agents and editors. That doesn’t mean you don’t gather valuable information from feedback recieved from contests, and if you’re into it, go for it! However, don’t feel it’s a requirement. As for conferences, I highly recommend them. You get to know other writers, agents, editors, and even readers in a face-to-face situation. You can make yourself memorable this way – in good ways and in bad, so remember to be a professional. Have fun, but keep it business-like. (And no, do NOT pass your manuscript to an agent or editor under the bathroom stall. Bathroom time is alone time.) However, conferences are not manditory, either. I live in a part of the country where I am far away from most everything. I allow myself a conference every year or two, but life has gotten in the way and I’ve not managed it. Don’t go bankrupt getting to a conference, but do try to attend. Really. Great time and valuable eperience.

Enough lecture for today? Don’t worry, I have more coming soon.

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Good Writing – Does it Supersede Genre?

Most readers have their favorite genre, be it romance or mystery or sci fi or…whatever. But I think most of us have crossed the line at some point and found a book we absolutely love in a genre we never read. For example, I read a lot of non-fiction and mystery as a kid, but my father put me onto a fantasy series (the MYTH books by Robert Asprin). The writing was so amazing, and the stories so vivid and amusing that it led me to read other fantasy stories. None of which I cared for.

I’m in the midst of this phenomenon right now, but it’s as a TV viewer. True Blood. I’m not too keen on vampire stories, and Twilight makes me yawn. Yes, I know that’s sacrilege.  But it’s true – I’m just not that into vampires, sparkling or not. Shapeshiters? Meh. But True Blood? I am tuning in every week, just for the sheer talent of their writing staff, who can take Sookie and Bill and all their crazy buddies, put them in impossible situations, and still get them out of it believably. Well, believably for a world where there are vampires and shapeshifters, anyway. (There’s a new shapeshifter book coming out soon, by the way, that has maybe just changed my mind about shapeshifting books, but I digress.)

Some could argue that it’s less about the writing and more about the story. (WARNING: more sacrilege to come) J.K. Rowling is a perfect example of this. Some people can tolerate her waffling along for hundreds of unnecessary pages each book and breaking the rules of her own world (Harry and the thestrals? Anyone?), but I lose patience with her. But still, I forge through the dreck because the stories are amazing! I come out of a Harry Potter book wondering why there isn’t really a Hogwarts and why can’t I go there?

So in the end, what attracts us to a book, a movie, or a TV program? Is it the genre? Is it the writing? Or is it the story? If we’re really lucky, I think we get all three. Then again, I’m not closing myself off to anything, because my favorite could be something new I’ve never seen before.

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Chapter One

Start where the trouble starts. That’s a simple rule of writing -or, I should say, it sounds simple. The first scene in a book is always the most difficult to bash into shape. You have about a paragraph to get the reader hooked. In fact, most of the time, you have one line, so it had better be good.

Assuming you can hook the reader with line one, it must be backed up with a bang-up first scene. She needs to finish that scene wanting to know what happens next. To get the reader to pick up the book again, she needs to care about the characters, be invested in them. All in the first scene.

I went through about five opening scenes for Let’s Dish. I couldn’t get it right. I got lucky with Another Time Around. My first scene was fine once I added a few tweaks and a brief intro-scene. But currently I’m working on the first scene for two books, Happy Medium and Guys and Dogs. Both scenes start where the trouble starts, and yet… not. There’s a delicate balance to be maintained, between revealing the characters and the dreaded “info dump” where the author over-shares. If you know me, you know I’m all about over-sharing.

Another problem with my first scenes – they tend to be too long. That’s right, I can’t waffle on for ten pages and expect the reader to hang in there with me. I need to reveal the characters, put them in a no-win situation, and get out all in about five pages.

Is it any wonder writers are insane?

My solution? Move on. Yes, I am throwing in the towel, fixing the rest of the book, and then going back to the beginning. I am what is called a “pantser”. I go into a story with a basic plot in mind, but I let my fingers do the plotting. The story leads me, not the other way around. So on a first draft, I don’t really get into the book myself until about a quarter of the way through. When editing, it’s the same issue. So if I can polish the rest of the book and make it sparkle, I should know where I need to start. Right?

Yeah. I’ll keep telling myself that.

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Is There a Book in You?

It’s funny how the real life me and the writer me are colliding. Twice this weekend I was involved in conversations where writing came up. I’ve known these people for years, and neither is a writer, but somehow when I walk into a room nowadays, everyone feels compelled to tell me they’ve thought about writing a book.

Good for them, I say, and far be it from me to discourage anyone. I mean who knew there was a book in me, let alone five? Two of which are even publishable. (Grin.) However, I still maintain that people don’t really want to write a book, they want to have written a book. It’s not always a fun process, though when things are rolling, there is a certain high to it.

So for all of you out there who think you want to write a book, here are some things to keep in mind. Kind of a litmus test to see if you’ve really got it in you.

1. Are you willing to devote time to your writing every day? There’s plotting to be done, craft to learn, and characters who need to weasel themselves into your brain.

2. Once the book is written, are you willing to edit and re-edit and re-edit? On your first one, at least three passes are needed to make sure the piece is clean, tight, and well-written.

3. Are you willing to throw out your favorite scene – the one that made you laugh/cry/smile/declare yourself a literary genius – because it doesn’t advance the plot?

4. Are you willing to summarize your brilliant prose in 7 double-spaced pages or less? And then into a paragraph? And then a sentence?

5. Are you willing to research agents, editors and publishers to be sure you’re submitting to the right people who will be the right fit for you?

6. Are you prepared when those people tell you that what you’ve slaved over doesn’t fit the market or is just not polished enough for them to consider?

7. Are you prepared for them to love it? (Yes, this can be scary, because it means you have to do all this over again. And again.)

8. Are you willing to read the book at least five more times during the process of edits and galleys? (Trust me, you’ll be sick to death of it at that point.)

9. Are you willing to let it go? To let it out into the world where people will call you “appallingly awful” and tear your book to bits? Do you have a thick enough skin to let the bad reviews run off your back, and are you centered enough to take the good ones with a grain of salt and not let them swell you head?

10. Finally, are you willing to have people you know, care about and respect read your book? And talk about it? Perhaps even email you continuously as they read it? (Yes, this happened to me. Line by freaking line.)

If the answers to all of these questions are Yes, then you might have a book in you and the wherewithal to see it through. If you answered No, that’s okay, too. Like I tell my kids, everyone has their strengths, and they’re all different. I don’t have it in me to go into space, but we need astronauts to explore and maintain satellites so we can watch HBO on Saturday night.

And one last thing for those of you who think you have a book in you – stick to your guns. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone discourage you. Not even me.

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When to Say Goodbye

I have fallen in love with several series over the years, both books and TV. Heck, even a few movie series, too.  But what happens when that series starts to disappoint?

There have been a few that jumped the shark for me. Sometimes the characters don’t grow and mature, sometimes it’s evident that the people behind it are in it for the money and not for the quality, and sometimes the pressure of a successful series gets to the writer. I think that’s what happened with the series I just finished.

At least I hope it’s finished. The last book seemed to be written as a farewell. A few loose ends seemed to be tied up, the main character is settled, etc. But the series that started out so fun and well-written turned hurried and almost unedited in the end. At one point, the author even plugged a book from another series she wrote. Within the story. Kinda bad form, if you ask me. But no one did.

The main character grew and changed, but instead of becoming a better person, she got pushy and a little bitchy. Now if you’ve read Let’s Dish, you realize I know all about bitchy characters. But the idea is that the character grows out of that, not into it.

So what started out so wonderful has left me rather sad and disappointed. Then again, living in a glass house I shouldn’t be throwing stones. So as a reader, I leave this series behind with a sad goodbye. I’ll go back and read the first books, but will try to wipe the last few out of my head. As a writer, though, I will embrace those final books and hope to learn from them. Never use the cheap, obvious plot point. Don’t leave plot holes the size of the grand canyon. Keep the scenes relevant and don’t meander off into what my heroine has for dinner, unless it matters.

Now let’s see if I can follow my own cardinal rules, shall we?

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A Heads Up on Head Hopping

Head hopping. If you say those words in a group of writers – particularly if they all write in different genres – be prepared for a bumpy ride. Everyone has an opinion, and no two are alike.

First off, for those of you not blessed with the trial-by-fire education I recieved on the subject, let me clue you in on what head hopping is. It’s all about point of view – who’s “head” you’re in when you are reading the scene. Is it from the heroine’s point of view? The hero? The protagonist? When one head hops, you switch point of view in the middle of a scene without a break. (Yes, Virginia, switching between point of view at a scene break or chapter is okay. To everyone. Maybe.)

Anyway, on with our regularly scheduled argument…

So head hopping, to romance writers, is bad. Like completely unforgivable. Go to an RWA function and ask about head hopping, they’ll nail you every time. Go to a sci fi writers conference, and they probably won’t have the same opinion. Ditto for mystery or general fiction. They do it all the time. Oh, there is the odd duck who will argue head hopping is just bad craft, but it’s honestly not that big a deal with those folks.

So enter me, having grown up reading mostly sci fi, fantasy and mystery novels. When I wrote my first book, I wrote the sucker from an omniscient point of view (knowing all that is going on in all character’s heads) and with a good bit of head hopping. That’s what I grew up reading. Well, kind of. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little more about craft, I realize just how poorly written that thing is. Still, I have no issues with head hopping, as long as it’s done in such a way I can keep up with it.

So why am I waffling on about this today? (And it is waffling, since I can’t seem to type two sentences in a row today without someone needing something from me – does any of this make sense?) During son #3’s baseball practice, I was reading a book by a favorite mystery author of mine. She’s an amazing writer, and even though she writes in limited third (from the heroine’s point of view only), she’s so deep in her character’s head that I’m sometimes startled to find out she’s not writing in first person. She will occasionally – like once a book – do a little head hopping, but I can keep up with it so it doesn’t bug me.

Then in the last book I read, she jumped into our hero’s head – for one scene. Out of the whole book, just one scene. But I dismissed it and moved on. In the book I’m reading now, early on she wrote a scene from a minor character’s point of view. Again, just one scene. But what really got me thinking about point of view and head hopping was toward the end of the book, she suddenly switched into omniscient third – describing what the people at the table didn’t know was happening behind them. I stopped, re-read the page, and thought, “Where the hell did that come from?”

Totally threw me out of the story. That, in my definition, is bad craft. And saying that about this author kills me. Especially since she makes a helluva lot more money at this than I do. But still, her consistent and clean writing from her earlier books is becoming sloppier and with things thrown in to suit her purposes. The thing that really cheeses me is the omniscient paragraph was unnecessary. When X, Y and Z later happened, the reader would have realized what had gone on without the author  jumping out of the book and beating us over the head with it.

So did I just say in one post that head hopping is okay, but it’s not? No, not really. What the key is, I think, is consistency. If you are going to have a hero’s point of view, using it for one scene is kind of cheap and lazy, I think. And so is jumping to a totally different point of view just to get a point across that could be done in another way. Actors are told not to break character. The same can be said to writers.  If you’re breaking character to slip in a plot point, don’t do it. If the reader is thrown out of the story, don’t do it.

And if you’re a romance writer, God help you if you head hop!

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