Sunday, January 24, 2010

Paralysis by Analysis

Someone coined this term on another blog, referring to the effect on creativity that comes from too much information about writing and publishing.

I've spent an hour this morning surfing various websites to gain information about editorial services and pricing. For a book I'm terrified to try to finish, for fear it will be horrible. It's all quite depressing.

The conundrum is this:  I probably won't get published until I have shelled out at least a thousand dollars for writing conferences and editorial services to improve my manuscript.  But I won't have the money to spend on those things until I get published. And don't feed me that crap about every business requiring investment.  If I don't have it, I don't have it.

So why do I think I need an editor?  Because I have taken the advice of some of my readers and tried to infuse my story with more emotion.  The problem is that sentences like, "Her heart lurched wistfully"  and "His heart was so heavy that he thought it would pull him tumbling down the path," (both actual examples from the current draft) make me gag.

If I put in too many more of them, I might vomit on my keyboard.  But then, I haven't read any of Stephanie Meyers' books (at least not past the first agonizing, first-person, teenage angst-ridden paragraph of 'Twilight') and perhaps this is what readers want.

Do they? Or is it just romantic female readers - my most likely audience, unfortunately - who want this stuff spelled out for them?

My concept is large and glorious, and my ability to convey it woefully inadequate. I am constantly torn between trying to find the absolutely, perfectly right words, and wanting to just finish it so it can be done.

Can one write a masterpiece the first time out? Obviously, yes. It's been done before.

Can I be happy if I don't?  Even if it's not published, I would be happy if I could satisfy my own internal critic.  But I fear that she will never be satisfied, at least not at my current level of proficiency.

My heart is lurching wistfully in a manner that suggests I might vomit it onto the keyboard, if it doesn't pull me tumbling down the basement stairs when I go to check on the laundry.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Are We Just Crazy?

Today I am more than 6,000 words behind my goal for JanNoWriMo.  The only thing saving me at this point is that I am revising and much of what I've already done requires little editing.  However, it's also getting pretty boring the fifth time around.  I keep finding excuses not to work on it.

Which isn't to say that I need any excuses, as there certainly is enough for me to do around here at any given moment of the day.

Which brings me to the age-old question:  Are we crazy?  Why do we push ourselves to write?

Vikk Simmons has an interesting post about the psychological phenomenon of optimal experience, aka "flow," which is supposedly the truest form of happiness.  She postulates that writers, like all other artists, do what we do in order to experience flow - the suspension of time and place that comes from total immersion in our art.

I agree that in the first draft - when our imaginations are in high gear - there is definitely that suspension of reality that produces a euphoric high.  But by the fifth time around, writing is more like drudgery.  What we are doing, however, is fine-tuning our work so that one day, if all the planets align and the publishing gods smile upon our efforts, our readers can experience that same suspension of reality.

The author of the book that she cites, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has this to say:

"The best moments usually occur when the person's body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.  Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."

So, let's make it happen.

I think that  the best way for me to do that is to stop going over the same old ground, and jump to the end of the last batch of revisions.  I stopped about 1/3 of the way through the book and went back to the beginning after my flogging.  I think I should pick up where I left off and focus on completing the entire manuscript before I revise again.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Subplots and Character Arcs, Oh My!

Two great sources to visit this week about the supporting structures of our stories.

Lynnette Labelle discusses subplots in her posts Why Use Subplots and 5 Subplot Blunders to Avoid.

Pam Halter talks about Character Arcs.

I can't add to their excellent posts, so hop on over and check them out.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Flogging the Quill

I discovered the Flogging the Quill website last April and have been a faithful follower and participant ever since. Where else can you get a professional critique of your first page by a real, live editor absolutely free?  What keeps me coming back is that the advice is not just free, but that it is good.

The one disadvantage to the FTQ website, however, is that submitting to a public "flogging" of our words is always difficult.  No matter how much we psyche ourselves up for criticism, it's tough.  As Seargant Major Harper said after being flogged in Sharpe's Enemy, "Jeez, it hurts like hell. I don't think I could have stood any more."

Now, you don't have to.

Ray Rhamey has taken all of the wisdom, humor and encouragement of his website and packed it into a highly readable workbook-style guide titled Flogging the Quill: Crafting a Novel that Sells. I am not a fan of most writing books because they all seem to say the same things: Show, don't tell. Create believable characters. Keep your plot moving.

Rhamey doesn't just tell you what to do, he *shows* you with concrete examples and a humorous touch. I learned more from this book than I have from all the other books on writing I've read so far combined. The bigger page size definitely helps with readability, as do the cartoons and illustrations sprinkled through the text. Every section ends with a practical exercise, and there are additional samples on which to practice your new-found revision skills at the back of the book.

To make it even more fantastic, Ray is giving a free critique of your first three pages, or a free half-hour phone call (one hour for groups) to discuss writing topics, with the purchase of each book. You can't beat that for an incentive.

This is truly the best fifteen bucks I've ever invested in my writing.  Go ahead and try this at home.

The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own. I have not received any compensation from the author.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Up and Down

Writing is full of ups and downs, and today has been one of those roller-coaster days. In the end, it all comes down to confidence. Confidence in our ideas, confidence in our words, confidence in our vision for the finished work - whether it's a poem, short story, article or novel. The thing I have to remind myself is that even if someone doesn't like something I've written as much as I do, at least it was there for them to read. If I hadn't written it at all, they wouldn't have been able to comment on it, now would they?

I feel torn between my two point-of-view characters, who are so very opposite and lend such different flavors to the narrative. I intended it as a strength for the novel, but I'm wondering if it's in fact a weakness: if it will confuse readers.

My instincts say "Just let the characters tell their story." So that's what I'm gonna do.

“You are a writer. Right now. With only what you have in your head as it is. You don't need anything else. You are a writer. You just need to keep writing. Don't let the Writing Fairy tell you that you aren't. That you need something more, that you're pretending to be something you're not. Hemmingway wasn't Hemmingway when he started. He was just a guy named Ernest who sat down at his typewriter.”
~ Joseph Devon

Good Links for Fiction Writers

I went to a new writer's group last night, and had a really good time. It was nice to see real, live persons for a change. Not that I don't adore and value my blogging buddies - you guys are priceless.

Anyway, since several of the people who attended seemed unfamiliar with the resources out there for newbies, and I was foolish enough to give them my blog address, I thought I'd put up some of my favorite links.

Anybody have any good ones to add?

In no particular order, they are...

The Coffee-Stained Writer: Story Arcs
Flogging the Quill:First Page Challenge
Story as River
Transitions: From here to there, and then to now
Openings: Kitty Cats in Action
Formatting Your Manuscript
Basic Query Letter Formula
Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer
How to Write a Synopsis
How a book gets published
How to write a book proposal
What Agents Hate

Do not, I repeat, do NOT, curl up into a fetal ball at any of this information. Feel free to disregard as much of it as you choose. It's taken me three years to get past the fetal ball reaction to even the mention of the "p-word" (publication).

Just keep writing!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Someone finally figured out that January is a much better month to sit on your butt writing a book than November. No last minute gardening, no fishing, no football, no huge family gatherings to cook for, nor gifts to buy.

Hence, JanNoWriMo!

You can pick your own target word count, and best of all, you can continue a previous project. You have until the 15th to sign up.

I'm in! How about you?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What's the difference between literary and genre fiction?

I've been wondering for a while now what the distinction is between these two categories. Genre fiction seems to be fairly clear cut - fiction that falls into one of several specific types of story: Mystery, Romance, Fantasy, etc., with subcategories such as Historical Romance or Urban Fantasy. In general, these seem to follow a plotting template and be driven by external conflicts, such as a mystery to be solved.

Literary fiction seems harder to define. My personal understanding has been that it involves conflict that is primarily internal, and doesn't follow a formula or rush along a plot arc like genre (also called "commercial") fiction does.

I started reading Break Into Fiction which is a workbook-style guide to writing genre fiction that uses well-known movie plots for examples (such as Casablanca and Finding Nemo). The authors define commercial fiction according to a very strict three-point structure. Naturally, this makes me want to rebel and use two or four. ;0)

In the beginning of the book they have a glossary of terms, in which Commercial Fiction is defined as:

Fiction with a specific structure that includes a protagonist ... striving toward a goal with obstacles encountered... until they reach a do-or-die moment...The story ends on a positive note. Due to the events encountered over the course of the story, the protagonist...changes as a result. Commercial fiction derives from myths and fairy tales, based on the reader's belief system that if they try hard enough they can... make a change in their world for the better.

They define Literary Fiction this way:

Not to be confused with literature, Literary Fiction is based on the reader's belief system that one cannot change their world but they can understand it better. The plot structure of literary fiction does not move toward a specific goal but involves peeling away the emotions and dark secrets of the human condition... The protagonist does not need to grow or change over the course of the story.

Well, that certainly explains why I have failed to enjoy many of the literary novels I've read. They seem depressing and pointless. But clearly they are deeply moving for other readers. On the other hand, many of the books I have truly enjoyed were those in which I could immerse myself in a leisurely way, without being whisked along from one improbable situation to another. such as Rosamund Pilcher's Winter Solstice, about a group of assorted strangers who spend Christmas together in an old house in Scotland. This is probably also "women's fiction," but it is certainly literary by this definition.

Many books overlap in similar ways, but tend to be more strongly one or the other.

What do you think about these definitions? How would you describe your WIP (work in progress)?

Friday, January 8, 2010

One More Time

Okay, guys, I hate to do this to you but I need some more feedback. I've rewritten the entire first scene and posted it here. Comments welcome there or here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writing Fears and Challenges

I came across an old post about some of my greatest challenges and fears as a writer. I thought I would list a few and invite you to do the same in the comments section.

1. The fear of not making my male characters masculine enough. In many books by women authors (especially romances) I find that the male characters think, act and talk a lot like women. Perhaps I'm sexist, but I think men should seem different. Because they are from Mars.

2. The beginning. I think all writers struggle with this. On the one hand you have to hook the reader's interest without too many boring details, but on the other hand action that takes place in a vacuum is boring as well. I really don't care who is stalking Esmerelda as she approaches her car if I don't know who Esmerelda is, what she is doing there and why the stalker is pursuing her. Putting her in imminent danger on the first page makes me feel manipulated. Like, I'm just going to go get a cookie now. Good luck, Esmerelda.

3. Keeping strong physical (or emotional) action from seeming overdone. Sometimes I find that when I'm describing a busy scene, it comes out looking silly on the page. I find it helps to read these sections out loud and to try cutting about half of the original description. It's easier to add more if needed than to keep shaving little bits off. Unlike carpentry.

4. Feeling foolish when I see my prose. Sometimes even after I've done several edits, the whole thing still just seems invalid. I have come to realize that this is a side effect of looking at my own writing on a computer screen rather than seeing it in print. Other books seem to have an authenticity about them because they are actually books. Imagining the text of my favorite novel as it would appear in a Word Document helps a lot.

5. Exposition. Where the heck do you put it? This is surely my biggest challenge right now. I want to use an omniscient voice so I can tell my readers about my fantasy world. But I'm being told, "Noooooooooo, omniscient won't sell." So where the heck do I mention that my characters aren't human? They're not going to sit around thinking about this fact, because it doesn't matter to them. There's not going to be a scene at a bar anything like this:
Lt. Harth: "Hey, Faldur, aren't you glad we're small and quick, unlike those big clumsy humans?"
Capt. Relaszen: "Hey, now, Prince Melbrinor is six feet tall but he's got magical powers, too, so he can beat any of those guys if they come our way."
Lt. Harth: "I've never actually seen a human, have you?"
Capt. Relaszen: "No, but I'll bet one's never seen you either. Hahahahaha!"

Instead I have to rely on subtle clues and hope the readers pick them up.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

First Page Rewrite

I have rewritten my first page yet again.  It's here: First Page Rewrite

First Page Re-write

After all of the terrific feedback and conversation last week, I rewrote the first page yet again.  Let me know if you think this is better.

The shadows on the snow were blue, not black, in the moonlight.  The top layer had melted in the sun and then frozen again, forming a brittle crust.  An approaching black lion would be seen or heard before it could strike. 

Faldur would have preferred to wait inside the barn, but it was too risky.  The door, which bore deep scratches from the lion's last attempt, was securely bolted to protect the sheep on whom the farmer relied for his living.  Instead, the captain had taken a position in the shadow of the south wall.  The lion would come from the north, from the treeline on the ridge.  Faldur glanced at the large pine about fifty yards to his left, behind which his friend, Lieutenant Harth, waited with his bow.  Another Ranger was positioned near the corner of the stone farmhouse, whose chimney puffed smoke cosily into the frigid air. 

Brilward, the recruit hunched beside him, couldn’t stop fidgeting.  “D’you think it’s a nightstalker?” he whispered.

There was a crunching sound of something approaching in the snow.  Something with a long, quick stride. 

(added Wednesday, Jan. 6th)

Interestingly enough, I was editing some more today, using the version that went to FTQ. If I take out some of the background in the second paragraph, more information gets moved up from the next page, which seems to address some of the issues that were raised on the site. Here's how it looks:

No new snow had fallen since morning, so the lion’s tracks were clearly visible in the lantern light as the farmer showed them to the four Rangers. It had paced back and forth in front of the barn door, searching for a way in. Deep scratches showed on the wood.

“These were made by a male. A large one,” said Faldur, the captain, stooping to examine the prints. He was as lean and cautious as the cats he pursued, with grey eyes deeply set beneath dark brows, and smoothly-weathered features that concealed his true age.

“It came out of the woods around suppertime,” said the farmer. “The dogs barked fit to wake the dead, and the dories were screaming and kicking the stalls. It gave up, but ‘twill be back. Good thing the sheep were in.” Faldur knew that the loss of even a single ewe would be a heavy blow to him, for the fine, soft wool of Glenhym sheep was worth its weight in silver.

“Show me the rest of the tracks,” said Faldur.

The farmer moved forward with the light, while the Rangers followed in silent procession. The lion had emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the barn, circled it, then come within a dozen feet of the farmhouse before disappearing into the woods again. Faldur glanced at the window, where three small faces peered out at them. He didn’t like the fact that it had come so close to the dwelling.

Writer's Groups

One of my New Year's resolutions is to try to find a local writer's group to attend.  Having never been to one before, I want to ask my readers:

Do you belong to a local writer's group?
How much of a time commitment is it?
How has it been helpful?
How has it not been helpful?
Any advice or suggestions for me?

What about online groups?

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Place to Hide Out

Dear Readers,

Welcome to "The Writer's Hole." Like that little hole you want to crawl into when you're feeling discouraged and hate the manuscript you were in raptures over just last week.

This new blog is not mine, but OURS. Anyone who wants to post something can do so. Just email it to me and I'll put it up. But I don't have time to add photos or edit the text, so just be sure it's edited beforehand, and appropriate. No profanity (you can use @#$#@! if you want), nothing offensive. And focused on writing fiction.

I also welcome short passages for which you want feedback. I'll post some of mine, too.  But it may take me a little while to put things up depending on how busy I am.  I want this to be a way we can encourage each other, but I also want to be a good steward of my time.

Please post comments with ideas/questions! I look forward to hearing from you.  I'll also try to import some of the better articles from the old site.


P.S.  I removed the "Hobbit" template because I found out that the artwork was used without permission.