Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fun quiz

Are you an introvert, an extrovert, or an ambivert?

Most writers, in my experience, tend to be introverts-- maybe it's easier to glue yourself to the keyboard (or the notepad and pen) if you enjoy alone time-- but one of the complexities of publishing in the modern era is how much publicity and promotion we ask authors to do in service of their book. It's part of the job, but I think it's hard for a lot of people. It would be for me!

What was your quiz result? I am "likely to be an introvert," which is the understatement of the century. What parts of the process are hardest for you?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Five tips for revising your novel.

1. Write a synopsis of the novel-- the whole thing. There are two good ways to do this, for the purposes of this exercise: one is to reread the novel and jot down notes as you go about what needs to go in the synopsis. The other technique is essentially the opposite: write a synopsis of the novel without rereading. Is every chapter of the work present and accounted for? Does anything jump out at you, structurally or otherwise? How many walks at the beach/the woods/the streets of Manhattan does your main character take?

2. Read the novel aloud. The whole thing. You can find someone to read it to or just read it to yourself, but it really does need to be read out loud. I always find sentences I trip over by using this technique, which is a pretty sure sign that the phrasing in that bit could use some fine-tuning.

3. Similar to #1, but suitable for more "visual" people: create a storyboard. Does too much of the action take place in one location? Does the story jump around too much? How's the flow from one scene to another?

4. Make a list of all your characters' names. Most writers, if they've chosen character names they like, will unconsciously return to the same set of sounds (phoneme set? I never took linguistics, and don't know enough about the terminology to effectively look this up) over and over again. So you get novels that include characters named Jessica, Erica, Annika, Veronica, and Monica. Morgan, Aidan, Evan, Damien. If the names are too similar, it's hard for your readers to tell the characters apart. (Watch out for recurring first letters, too-- the "J" is especially common in my experience.) Time to do some renaming. On the plus side: if you decide to have a(nother) kid, you've got a starter list of possible baby names. So there you go.

5. Print out a hard copy and go through with a highlighter, marking all the dialogue tags. Are there too many? Not enough? How flowery do they get? If a writer uses dialogue tags like "exclaimed" too frequently, it tends to be a sign that they're not very confident that the emotion behind the character's statement is effectively communicated. If this sounds like you, and if you're right to be concerned, it's the dialogue itself that really needs work.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Eyes the color of the ocean.

This morning, I got out of bed, washed my face, looked in the mirror and sighed. I haven’t had a hair cut in ages, and trying to do anything with my shoulder-length, dishwater-brown hair is hopeless.

I just put you to sleep, didn’t I?

It’s a boring way to start a blog post, but it’s a worse way to start a novel.

Much like New Year’s Day, a morning feels like a new, and natural, beginning; the perfect place to start. But unless you’ve got a very good reason for starting there—meaning the narrative absolutely must begin with the alarm clock—you’re more or less guaranteeing that your novel’s going to take too long to get going, and you’re going to lose the reader’s interest as a result.

I can think of a few exceptions to the “no mornings” rule:

-a story that takes place in the course of a single day (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day)

-a story in which hitting the snooze button or forgetting to set the alarm (or something else that happens in that very first early morning scene) sets off a chain of events that form the core of the story (the 90’s film Sliding Doors)

-a story that starts off being about the banality of the protagonist’s life (the film American Beauty) or the opposite of that (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis).

I’d love to brainstorm some more examples in the comments—I’m sure you’ve got some great ones!—but suffice to say that most of the manuscripts I see that start with this trope are not doing so successfully.

Likewise the character’s appearance. Unless an element of that appearance—a missing limb, perhaps-- is the single most defining characteristic of that person, why on earth should it be the first piece of information you give your reader?

Awful examples of this one abound—and could start their own Bulwer-Lytton style contest, if one doesn’t already exist. Maybe we’ll run a “bad character descriptions” contest (your own inventions, not ones you’ve found elsewhere) sometime soon.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know that I’ve (as of a year or so ago) started taking on a lot of romance and women’s fiction clients. I mention this because it feels like romance, as a category, should be the easy exception to this: of COURSE it matters what the characters look like, because the whole point is that it’s a love story. Especially if you’re telling a “love at first sight” story, it may well feel like, yes, the heroine’s auburn hair IS the most important detail to lead off with.

I think you’re wrong.

I’m not saying you should never give your readers a physical description of your characters. I am saying that when you give us that description, you need to find a way to make it feel organic, like that moment in the story is the only possible moment at which to deliver that information. For romance, why not the moment when the hero/heroine first lay eyes on one another?

One last thing, a Tip for the Day, if you will, that a friend and colleague alerted me to. The modern world is full of resources for writers in the most unexpected places. When you’re writing your description of your titian-haired detective, and a phrase pops into your mind, start typing the phrase into a Google search bar. If Google “suggests” the description you had in mind, that’s a pretty good reason to come up with another one.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

As you know, Bob.

"As you know, Bob." Are you familiar with this phrase? We (agents and editors) use it a lot as a shorthand. It's a first cousin of a phrase that we're all taught beginning in elementary school: "show, don't tell."

One of many things novelists have to watch out for, when it comes to good ol' show don't tell, is not to drop in a big block of background information in one (or, heaven forbid, several) paragraph(s) of narration. You have to find more artful ways of giving your readers the information they need to follow the story. This is especially tough, as a number of you can attest, when you're writing in an "alternate world" situation like sci fi or fantasy, because there's so much worldbuilding that needs to happen. That's part of what we love about reading stories in those genres: the immersion in a world that's not our own. The staircases at Hogwarts move on their own.

But you as the writer put in a lot of time crafting the details of that world. You probably have a "story bible" that's longer than the manuscript itself, explaining all the nuances of how different the gravity is on the planet where your novel takes place. That's GREAT. As a reader and as an agent, I want you to know all of those things about your work. But what I don't want is for those details to get in the way of the actual story. I don't want the plot to grind to a halt while you detail the etymology of a word you made up. If I really have to know that in order to "get it," you as the author have to find another way to explain it to me.

(Likewise historical fiction: you've done an incredible amount of research to make sure your novel is as historically accurate as possible. It's easy to want to "get credit" for all that time in the library by shoehorning one too many facts into the novel. The story suffers.)

"I know," you're thinking. "I'll put it into dialogue. That way it doesn't count as a big block of exposition, and I've escaped the 'show don't tell' pitfall."

Well, maybe. There are at least two things you have to watch out for, in the exposition-as-dialogue scenario.

First of all, and this is kind of obvious, but based on some of the submissions I get, it's worth mentioning: you can't put quotation marks around a paragraph of exposition and call it dialogue.

Secondly, if you're going to put these details into a dialogue format, it has to actually work as dialogue-- meaning it has to consist of things that one character in the novel would actually say to another. This needs to sound like a real conversation. You can't have Character A feeding all the information to Character B, when Character B's part of the conversation reads like this: "Oh. Mmm hmm. What do you mean? Can you say more about that?"

And now we come to "As you know, Bob." This term refers to a specific subset of dialogue-as-exposition, where both characters already know all the information being explained to the reader. "As you know, Bob," points to a conversation that's really obviously fake: if Bob already knows everything Jane is about to tell him, why would Jane bother explaining it?

Does your manuscript bear signs of "As you know, Bob?" What techniques do you have for ferreting out those moments in your work? Do you have any pointers for providing those crucial world-building details in a more subtle and non-plot-derailing way?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A must-read.

If you're reading this, I'm guessing this link is going to prove useful.

Which one is your biggest bugaboo? I've narrowed it down to two, myself: 20 and 22.

Go read the post. Then come back and tell me a story, and tell me what you're going to do differently.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

happy new year

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.

-T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Little Gidding)