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Monday, March 31, 2008


I was hoping for more from Enchanted, as it had gotten some decent reviews. The premise - a Disney cartoon happily-ever-after-wedding gone wrong so that the cheery bride climbs out of a manhole into live-action New York - was great, but they could have cut the saccharine by half and still had something kid-friendly. It felt as if someone was afraid they were going to come up with something original (pronounce that "unproven") and started picking "fantasy" elements off a shelf to throw them in: gloomy practical father, unworthy girlfriend, egotistical prince, cute motherless child, brave forest creature, wicked queen...come ON! And instead of using those things to give a truly different spin on the story - as that WAS the point - all they did was blunt the sharpest edges and make all the characters less interesting with less to actually DO. I liked the message that love needs to be based on more than one perfect kiss, but...ok, let's go behind the veil for spoilers...

...it would have been nice if they had given the heroine a MIND to go along with the message. Saying "oooh, I'm angry" and then giggling about it, does not equate with depth of character in my book - even in my fairy tale children's book!

Other beefs: I found the animated opening cute, but it went on way too long, as if the people lampooning the Cinderella bluebirds and instant true love secretly preferred the "old ways." I saw no basis for the attraction between the (now) ex-girlfriend and the prince, except that they were both leftovers. I couldn't decide what Nancy (isn't that always the name of the ex-girlfriend?) was supposed to be except Not Right for the hero - she liked museums, I think, and she liked it when Robert seemed spontaneous and romantic. The child was never used - except to "not like" Nancy and "like" Giselle. And to demonstrate that her father was an idiot - he gave her a book of strong women (like Madame Curie) instead of fairy tales. Now what message are we trying to get across here? How fun if the kid had wanted BOTH books!! Sigh. I love fairy tales, but the bits of danger and darkness make them richer - and just a FEW bits of intelligence can make them great.

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(My) Formatting Basics

One of my readers is wanting to get started writing a novel that's been brewing for a few years and asked me how I format a manuscript, as internet formatting rules seemed contradictory. I started an elaborate email answer, and then said, what the heck and put it here. My answer:

First thing: At this point format is not critical. One cool thing about word processors is that you can completely change the format in a few minutes. Right now, learning how to grab a reader with an opening, how to build tension, how to reveal the inner life of your characters is the nitty gritty [see other posts in this blog!!]. Your aim with format is to keep it easy to read and easy to edit.

That being said, here's what I do.

  • I set up my pages and paragraphs

    • double-spaced

    • 1-inch margins (approx)

    • with 12-pt Times New Roman font for easy reading

    • with widow-orphan control, keep follow, keep with next, and such paragraphing settings turned off (so all full pages are the same number of lines)

    • with the left margin justified, and right margin "ragged" (Remember, you are not typesetting the book, you are creating a manuscript.)

    • using a five-space indent at the beginning of paragraphs

    • with no blank lines between paragraphs

  • I insert a section break between chapters, so that I can format the page header to reflect the individual chapter and the page numbers (a critical element that many beginning writers forget!) Many writers use individual files for chapters and link them through an MS Word master document. As I write start to finish, a single doc works better for me.

  • I always drop down a third of the page for the beginning of a chapter, insert the centered chapter title (in my case it's almost always "Chapter X") then begin. Recently I've begun to take advantage of the Word table of contents facility, which makes it easy to pop back and forth between chapters as the manuscript goes. I strip this out of the manuscript before I turn it in. (Remember, you are not typesetting the book...)

  • scene breaks - blank lines between scenes within a chapter - should be marked with a centered "#" sign

  • I use modernisms like italics, instead of underlines, for direct thoughts and certain other emphasized words; and I use "smart quotes" because I like the look and I'm the one looking at this thing for a year or more.

If you start out like this, then, when you actually get to the point of submitting work, the things that might need to change are

  • the italics/underline thing - some editors think underline is easier to read

  • the font - the old custom was to submit in Courier New (a monospace typewriter-looking font that I despise) and some editors still want it.

More and more these two are obsolete requirements, but in ANY submission - agent, editor, contest, magazine - you hunt down the submission guidelines and follow them. Some things won't change: minimum 12-pt font, drop down at chapter beginnings, numbered pages, 1-inch margins. Magazine editors are more likely to be picky than novel editors or agents.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

No Country For Old Men

Whew. Yes, as you've heard, this movie is well acted. Beautifully filmed. Well written. There are profound truths lurking behind all the blood and despair. But don't watch if you are squeamish about violence or require even the remotest sense that hope exists among the troubles of our times.

Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, No Country of Old Men, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture (and a number of other Oscars) is the story of a drug deal gone bad. A formerly honorable welder and Vietnam vet comes across the results, including a couple of million dollars. Unable to resist, he takes the money and so moves himself into the path of Chigurh, a psychopathic murderer who sets out to obliterate anyone between him and the money...or anyone who looks at him...or anyone he encounters. Yes, he is the most relentless killer since the Terminator. But then, I didn't like anyone in this film. From the poor sap who took the money to the clerk at the motel. OK, there are a couple of innocent victims I could feel bad for, but they have a total of 21 seconds screen time.

Tommie Lee Jones plays a sheriff who believes that the evils of the world have gotten so awful, he's become obsolete. He's supposed to be the warm sympathetic voice of reason. But I got tired of homespun philosophy and his lack of urgency. OK, fella, get off your duff and call someone who will at least try to do something. I know law enforcement folk must get burned out and feel that they're not making progress. Just like anyone who sets themselves between the rest of us and the bad things that go on. I'm ok with realism, but I don't like places where there's no hope of things getting better. It may be true, but it's just not where I want to go for entertainment.
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Thursday, March 27, 2008


I waited a very long time before I began writing because I always thought it was much too complicated. I could not imagine juggling plot, characters, setting, dialogue, motivation, foreshadowing - all those things we know go into a good story. I was fortunate to have a friend who "eased" me into writing by getting me to write letters in character. As I wrote I wasn't thinking of these varied elements, only about writing a letter. So I entered the profession by the back door, so to speak, getting hooked on the storytelling and learning the craft along the way. One of the most important things I've learned about novel writing is the importance of layering. I'm not referring to the layers of complexity in a particular story, but to an aspect of drafting it.

Because of the way I create characters, plot, and world, rather than pushing through to a rough draft as quickly as possible, I try to lay down the story as completely and with as much specific detail as I can as I write. Sometimes I obsess a bit too much over getting the right plants or the right name for "that thing they carry as a reminder of their dead family members," when I ought to insert a pair of empty square brackets and go on, [I do that sometimes] but, in general the method serves me well. Yet inevitably I discover I've described two female characters as round-cheeked, or that I've got to give a date, which means I have to finally decide whether this world without Pope, Roman gods, or Zodiac really uses a Gregorian calendar, or I've described Damoselle Maura as "well contained" emotionally, yet I remember several instances of laughter, brilliant smiles to a stranger, and so forth.

Many writers would advise making a note and plunging ahead, but I prefer to take the time to sweep through and layer these things in. Get rid of "fortnight" as this society is using a ten-month year. Go ahead and name the months. Remove the damoselle's bright laugh and replace with a face that "livens with amusement" which appeals greatly to Portier, whose "mother lived in a constant upheaval of emotion." In this way, I can move forward, dropping in dates, faces, emotions, and cheeks that are "the color of milked tea" without fretting that somewhere excess round cheeks yet lurk.

I'll have many more layers to spread, both in drafting and in revision - layers of clues, of motivations ("oh, NOW I know why he did that, so he would never have revealed his fear to a stranger") of world-building. But I will work them into my Sabrian Veil "vocabulary" as I go. Now, on to the harbor, where the exploration ship, Destinne is to sail this morning, rather than its original launch date of the fifteenth day of Cinq.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Word Count Isn't Everything

I haven't written all that many words this week - a few thousand. Early action is a bear when you don't have the novel plotted and outlined. It is much easier to figure out where to start than to figure out what, out of all the myriad possibilities, happens next, and what does it look like, feel like smell like, and who on earth is there and why?

I have pages of notes by now, jotted as I write. Some are lists of Potential Clues and Their Rationale:

  • The arrow tipped with a common poison (not magic) but enspelled in a most suspicious way.
  • What does the lensmaker know?
  • Whose knife killed the mule? And why?
Many of them are Things We Need To See:
  • The suspects and the queen
  • Dante shows magic of the kind to garner the interest of the bad guys
  • The inverted village [No, I won't tell what that means.]
  • A public demonstration of the new science vs inadequate magic
Others are Events That Need To Happen
  • The trial
  • The third assassination attempt
  • A visit to Collegia Seravain
  • Ilario's science exposition (this is a new one that I came up with only yesterday)
Some of these clues, needs, and events such as the trial and the inverted village, I've known since the proposal - sketched in to give an idea of the story. More of them, such as Ilario's science exposition, are ideas generated by the writing itself - I love it when that happens. So how do I use these lists?

What I want is for the Event ideas to subsume the Things We Need To See - the cool things the reader must experience in order to interpret (and, I hope, enjoy!!) the story. In this case, as I just realized, the idea of Ilario sponsoring an "exposition" because he thinks the word sounds intellectual and the event might counter the common belief that he has the intellect of a flea, has given me a place for Dante to show something that intrigues the bad guys, as well as the public demonstration of the new science vs failing magic. All of a sudden I have generated a major scene, as well as the scenes leading up to this exposition - where we will surely accomplish some of the smaller events that need to happen and the encounters that need to occur and will give Portier a chance to slip in some investigation he might not otherwise have occasion to do.

A major scene of this nature will often provide a turning point in the story. I often like to make it a twist, a reversal of fortune or expectation that will lure the reader into the next arc. Think of Osriel's revelation scene in the refectory in Breath and Bone, or Seri standing in a murdered servant's room with a flower in her hand in Guardians of the Keep, finally understanding her nephew's behavior, or Seyonne rescuing Aleksander from the prison tower in Transformation.

I never understood story arcs until my first editor pointed out the four principal arcs in Transformation. [Can you name them?] I had structured the story by instinct, and she showed me not only what they were, but where I had failed to maintain the sense of rising tension that is integral to a story arc. A novel usually has a single overall story arc that is the major character or plot arc that directs the plot. Within that, it may have three, four, five or more major arcs - these progressions of rising tension that result in a climax of some kind. And within those may be smaller arcs, nesting, overlapping, all drawing the reader through the story. Writers may or may not have a handle on these structural pieces to begin with, but by the time that novel goes to the publisher, they'd better.

Somehow, by recognizing the significance of Ilario's Science Exposition along with the other motives and clues I've struggled with this week, I have been able to make a great leap today. I now have four defined story arcs and an idea of the climactic scene of each. The accumulation of hints and clues and events that were causing me to tear out my hair earlier in the week have now begun to sort themselves out. This one belongs in the assassination arc. This one contributes to the trial arc...and so forth. I feel mightily accomplished. Word count isn't everything!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Fine Detective

I have always loved detective stories. From Jim Chee to Adam Dalgliesh to Lord Pete Wimsey to Dick Francis's marvelous amateur sleuths, I enjoy intelligent, interesting people using observation, instinct, and hard work to solving a crime. If you've read any of this blog, then you know that Unholy Alliance is an unabashed detective story only with magic and a Renaissance time frame and more levels of mystery than just one crime. So it is interesting that when I was visiting Chicago - well, more precisely, Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL last summer - the fantasy/sf buyer gave me a mystery that she, having read and enjoyed my books, believed I would enjoy. I finally got around to reading it this week. The book was A Test of Wills by Charles Todd, and she was exactly right.

The year is 1919 and Ian Rutledge is a Scotland yard detective who lost his soul, his confidence, and, he fears, his mind in the trenches of France. He is newly returned to the force after treatment for shell shock - a matter he cannot share with others, as shell shock victims were considered irredeemable cowards. Nor dares he tell anyone that he still hears the voice of Hamish, one of his soldiers who died in one of the most hopeless, horrific battles of the war. (I'll let you read that dramatic bit of the story for yourself.) He has superiors who would prefer to be rid of him, thus they give him a seemingly no win case. Rutledge is a terrific, multi-layered character, and the murder is a wonderfully complex weaving of English village society and post-war upsets.

This is clearly a first novel. A few point-of-view hops annoyed me, and I'd have to re-read to see if there were sufficient clues laid down to the tricky solution to the case, but all in all it was very well done. I'll be reading more of Todd's (well it is actually a mother/son writing team) work. There are eight or nine other Ian Rutledge novels.
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Tuesday, March 18, 2008


It is always tough to restart from a layoff. While in Chicago, I absolutely had no "space" to write. OK, there were babies involved. It was a great trip.

But the plane flights were smooth, and I did actually manage some edits while traveling, as well as reading some pages from my critique partners. But I didn't get any truly creative work done for six days. Then, of course, getting home involves things like mail and laundry and unpacking and billpaying, meanwhile trying to get back in the groove. Two days of mucking around in the edits and rereading to figure out where I left off...and then the wheels start to spin. Oh, yes, we had just discovered the body.

I love set-up, bringing characters together, leaving hints, inventing terms like "mule" and having a dead one show up, but, of course, there is a time when you have to get down to tough specifics. This story is a mystery, which means clues. I have to decide who this dead person is. Why he or...ooohh, maybe it's a she, yes, yes, and maybe even someone that Portier knows [calm down, you guys, this is not Maura!]...ended up dead when Someone didn't mean for it to happen like that. All of a sudden I am juggling so many things at once, and doubts fall upon my head like a shower of mud. "Oh no," I say, "this is all crap!"

It is time for organization. I begin to organize this piece into layers:

  1. The investigators--what do they see and how do they interpret it?

  2. The perpetrators--their motives, what went wrong? Because this body wasn't supposed to be found, was it? What was/is supposed to happen? This requires a new file called The Conspiracy where I begin to list the "incidents" I know about in the past, and try to construct the villains' chain of reasoning up to the current point. This helps a lot, and I have an Insight about the villains' motivation. It fills a big hole in my book proposal, as in "What was the mysterious thing that the first investigator discovered before he vanished?" Now I know!!

  3. Everyone else in the place. We can't have mutilated bodies show up without people being worried, concerned...what do they hear and how do they react?

  4. And then there is the physical action of getting in to see the body, when the investigators are agentes confide and no one is supposed to know they're interested. OK, this one's easy.

  5. Not to mention the necessary Something That Goes Wrong, while they're doing it, and this is where I lurch between ideas, not finding the right thing until I try to explain my snarl to my husband and come up with the solution right as I talk about it.

I think this complication of composition is why, for so many years, I never believed I could write a whole story.

What my writing experience has given me is the confidence to know I can deal with these layers one at a time. That I have plenty of time for revision. That once I'm farther down the road I can always adjust. YES! It is not the Very Secret Deepest Cover villain who surprises Portier and Dante in the deadhouse - because that would highlight that person to the reader much too early. I peel away the wonderful description of that person that took me most of a day to write - no kidding! - and set it aside. I WILL use it when the situation is not so obvious. Worldbuilding - I really love this ancestor veneration piece - gives me the key. In the main, I keep asking myself "why would they do that?" over and over, rather than trying to squeeze my characters' behavior into the structure I had envisioned for this scene, and all of a sudden it unfolds very nicely. Now - on to the next scene, the next doubts, the next list, the next thousand words... Read more of this post!

Friday, March 7, 2008


We're off to visit family in Chicago this weekend. It always seems to happen that something comes up just when the writing is progressing. So what do I do on the road when I don't have the opportunity to immerse myself in my own world? I always print a "current version" to take with me, and use the travel time as a chance to read it through. I see different things when reading a printed version rather than a page by page version on screen. What kinds of things in particular?

  • Repetition - amazing how that phrase "Maura's brisk pace" occurred three times on a single page. When screen scrolling, I just thought I kept seeing the same one. The page doesn't lie.

  • Pacing - reading a chapter as a whole gives a much better idea of how the scenes meld. Three talky scenes in a row. I need Action!

  • Plot movement and logical activities - Portier spent too much time meeting the manservant, Heurot, for too little gain. Later on in the chapter, Portier needs some information, but I don't see any way for him to get it at that time. (Where and when was this body found and who cares about it?) What would a true agente confide do? Listen to palace gossip. Query the manservant. So I replace part of the "getting to know you and hearing about palace life" interaction with Heurot with, "I have an appointment at the deadhouse tonight, but a footman told me a man was found dead this morning..." Much better use of the space.

Of course I find word problems and poor sequencing and all those various things as well. But at least I feel as if I've accomplished something on the road.
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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Super Tuesday Redux

A reminder to friends in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont - this is primary day. Wish I could vote in your primaries! I still am bummed that I unthinkingly booked travel on the day of the Colorado caucuses and so missed out on one of the most exciting days ever in this state's politics - turnouts more than ten times any previous year. Today I find myself checking cnn and msnbc.com periodically, as if I might somehow plumb the feelings of the Democratic electorate, though I know it will be hours before the polls close anywhere. I have strong feelings about this outcome--as much so as any election I've seen so far. Fingers crossed.

I am on the fence about spilling my preferences. I'm just another voter with a blog, and I don't really want to get into any long political discussion. This blog is truly about a writer's travail in giving birth to a new work. But if you're interested and don't mind politics and writers getting all mixed up, you can...

I liked and respected most of the Democrats who ran this year. I could support (almost) any one of them and would like to see their talents used in service to this country, either continuing in the jobs they hold or in a new administration. I could vote for either of the remaining two - they are both intelligent and mean well - and I even like a lot about John McCain, though I cannot support someone who wants to continue this war (yes, winding it down and cleaning it up are tough matters), institutionalize the Bush tax policies, or pack the Supreme Court with more people who will chip away at hard-won civil liberties. But as a writer who believes that eloquence and vision matter, I think this country needs vision and inspiration and leadership more than we need politicians. We need to retrieve our national soul and seek new answers to the world's most difficult problems, and I don't think Mrs. Clinton is the one to do that. I wish her a long, illustrious career in the Senate. I hope to be voting for Obama in November. Read more of this post!