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Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I have been terribly laggard with this blog of late. Apologies to all. The holidays and family gatherings have occupied lots of time, along with preparing for the launch of The Spirit Lens on January 5th. Preparations included:

  • setting up events (see the schedule on my website)

  • writing a piece for the Roc newsletter about the novels of the Collegia Magica and how The Spirit Lens took shape

  • writing a piece for the Knight Agency holiday blog

  • sending out postcards to bookstores

  • etc. etc.

Should likely have done more, but I've hardly had time to write as it is! When a bit of minor surgery clogged up the works, my kind editor gave me an extension on The Soul Mirror, which is an incredible relief. I hope to get back to serious work on the book in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, in the hullabaloo surrounding the release of The Spirit Lens, I don't want to forget the Lace and Blade 3 anthology that should be hitting the shelves in mid-February with my Song of the Beast follow-on story called, "The Heart's Coda." Here is the lineup for the anthology:

LACE AND BLADE 3 Table of Contents

Kari Sperring, "Featherweight"
Sean McMullen, "Culverelle"
Sheila Finch, "Fortune's Stepchild"
Judith Tarr, "The Horned King"
Jay Lake & Shannon Page, "Embers"
Tanith Lee, "Question a Stone"
Dave Smeds, "A Swain of Kneaded Moonlight"
Rosemary Hawley Jarman, "Fire and Frost and Burning Rose"
K. D. Wentworth, "The Garden of Swords"
Diana L. Paxson, "Blue Velvet"
Samantha Henderson, "Outlander"
Carol Berg, "The Heart's Coda"

Whew! Is that a lineup or what? I am so pleased to be a part of this project. Should be seeing cover art soon!

I'll keep you posted, and get back to regular blogging as I get into the last third of The Soul Mirror development. You can catch more regular, brief updates on Facebook. I'm "Carol Berg, Northern Colorado."
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

ARC Giveaway

My publisher is giving away ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of eight forthcoming Ace/Roc novels at the Dear Author blog today. Hie thee over there and you could win one of eight different new releases, including, as it happens, The Spirit Lens.

All you have to do is comment on the post, telling which are your first two choices and who among all Ace/Roc authors you recommend. Read more of this post!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Supporting Your Local Booksellers

I wanted to order a book this morning. A fellow member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has written a couple of mysteries about an elderly man with short term memory loss (Mike Befeler's Retirement Homes are Murder and Living With Your Kids is Murder)and I think one of them will be perfect for someone on my Christmas list. Ordering occurred to me when I got an email from one of my favorite independent bookstores announcing Mike's signing this Sunday. Unfortunately, I can't make the signing. So I promptly boinked my bookmark for Amazon.

Uh, what's wrong with this picture?

Don't get me wrong. I love Amazon. It's so easy. I can research book titles and availability instantly. I can get free shipping and discounts on popular books and films, notification when the price drops on something I'm hedging about. They have worked hard and developed a great online shopping model. BUT...

When I'm not sure of what I want, when I want to see what's new, what's captivating, which Italian cookbook has the prettiest pictures and easiest directions, which travel guide for France has things laid out in a useful way, I need to browse... I need to read the backs, flip the pages, compare, read a page here and there. You can do this at online booksellers, but it is actually slower (and much less satisfying) than having a stack of books at your side and comparing. The Amazon business and transaction model is primo, but the browse model falls short. And although Amazon will recommend "if you like this, you might also like this," it is the result of database tags and sales data and not the recommendation of someone who loves mysteries or fantasy or cookbooks.

So, one can browse a bookstore and then rightfully compare prices to get the best deal, right? Well, sure. Except that if we all do this, the brick and mortar stores will vanish right before our eyes. And they are doing that.

I just sent out about fifty packets of bookmarks and fliers to bookstores recommended by readers and fellow writers. As I had last sent out bookmarks in 2007, for Flesh and Spirit, I decided to validate the addresses on my list. Fully one-third of the bookstores on my list had gone out of business in the past two years. Many of them were independents who had messages on their dead websites: "After 65 years in the Bay Area..." or 50 years or 80 years, or "All of our stores in the DC area..." Many were Waldenbooks, small, friendly shops that a number of my readers mentioned had knowledgeable staff who loved reading. Borders/Waldens just announced another round of store closings last month.

And so, I left Amazon on this day, and bopped off an email to my friendly independent in Denver, asking them to get Mike to sign a book for me and ship it up here. It might cost me a few dollars more. I might have to pay for shipping. But I'm hoping Ron and Nina will be there next time I need to browse.

Buy at least one book from a local store this season. Chain or independent, big or small. Call it a vote for browsing!

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Writing Exercise

The past couple of days, I've been consulting with a friend who has been invited to submit some chapters and a synopsis to an agent. She sent me her first attempt at a synopsis. There are many good books and blog posts on how to write an effective synopsis (one is Pam McCutcheon's book Writing the Fiction Synopsis). All of them will tell you to
- write in present tense (no matter how the book is written)
- tell the whole story including the ending
- use your best storyteller's voice.
(A synopsis is not an essay.)

But here are a few of my own extra tips and an exercise I think can be valuable:

  1. Highlight the goals, motivation, and conflict of your main characters. This is much more important than he went here and there and did this and that. That is, don't overload your synopsis with stage direction. It's more important to know what your heroes, heroines, and villains are trying to accomplish and why, than all the steps that get the result.

  2. Don't overload with names. Name your protagonists and antagonists and the city/village/kingdom where the story takes place (especially if it gives a flavor of the story milieu - Chicago, Arbonne, Derzhi Empire). Be very selective about any name beyond this. Identify characters by roles, such as "Valen's sister, the diviner" if possible.

  3. Even though you have limited space, don't minimize character introductions. Your characters and their conflicts are the heart of the story, and their personalities and problems are what will distinguish your "search for the lost sword" or your "werewolf in Denver" from someone else's. To give good character introductions means that sometimes you have to tell, not show. You don't have the space to slowly reveal character as you do in the novel itself. Don't be shy about using adjectives. "Seyonne's father, a gentle, scholarly man, wholly without magical talent, must accept the life of a farmer..."

  4. Sketch out character and relationship growth. You do have in there, right? Highlighting it in your synopsis will show the synopsis reader that you know what makes a rich story.

  5. Inject your passion. You only have room to show a few incidents, the turning points in the story. These are usually the pieces you like best as well. So use vivid language, not formal or stripped-down language. And consider carefully every incident you include. Trying to include too much detail in the synopsis leaches out the color and warmth.

Exercise Before writing the synopsis (or before tearing your hair out with one you've been working on) try writing the back copy for your book. Back copy, like the synopsis, is a sales tool. It needs to be vivid, and sketch out what's interesting about the protagonist, as well as the primary conflict of the book. In the back copy you're not going to give away the pasyoffs, which you must do in the synopsis, but that's ok. Read the backs of lots of books and feel the rhythms. Figure out what grabs you. The juicy bits, right?

So write your own. Let your critique partners read it. Then use it as a basis for writing your synopsis, layering in the secrets and the ending (YES, you must include the secrets and the ending in the synopsis) as well as the turning points in the story, including all the juicy bits and how they affect the progress of the story. I've found that writing sample back copy forces me to think about what attracts ME to the story, what I think might attract a reader to the story, and what sets my story apart from other books on the shelf. Think about it.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Momentum and Description

I've talked several times about working to regain momentum after life events, vacations, distractions such as revisions or proof reviews for earlier books. I usually have a few days of spotty work, where I'm easily distracted, trying to pick up the threads of plots and subplots, the dynamics of character understanding, of relationships, of evolving mysteries... At times words flow. At times, they're balky and spurty, like turning on the water after the main system has been shut off for a while and is full of air bubbles.

For me, three things contribute to word flow:

1. Familiarity with characters and situations; ie. not having to pry details of goals and motivations from a character, or invent that parallel world I've been putting into square brackets to look at later;
2. Knowing (and liking) where I'm going;
3. Having my mind immersed in the writing - the ability to focus

There are also some important intangibles, like having chosen the right starting point for this section of the book. If I hit a major block, it's usually because I've headed off in a wrong direction - see earlier postings on what I do when I'm stuck.

I'll also get bogged down in description, especially the first time I visit that particular place. Sometimes I go around in circles for not much reason, like the library at Castelle Escalon. Is there a need for this library to be all that different from other libraries I've described? Probably not. Back up. Go a different direction.

Sometime the thinking time is fruitful, like my time figuring out what I meant by "three water gates" to the Spindle Prison. It expanded what I thought was a throwaway scene between Anne and her hostage brother into something creepy and meaningful.

I wrote the first few paragraphs of her journey to the prison on my last wonderful, productive few days in the mountains with fellow writers. I figured I'd be done with the chapter within a days of getting home, as I had gained so much Momentum from the retreat. But completing Chapter 14 took me an entire week. The crucial reunion at the end of the journey kept moving further away. Why? What happened to Momentum?

As Anne was seeing the city of Merona after half a month in the closed world of palace life, I wanted her to witness more evidence of the changes that were happening in the city as a result of the Bad Things Rising in the world. Which meant, of course, that I had to figure out what they were. Something different, larger, creepier than the things she had seen fourteen days before when arriving at the city. That took a bit, but I was happy with what she discovered, like:

A few turnings farther down the hill, Duplais pointed out another deserted tenement. A cracked signboard, painted with three gold balls, dangled by one corner over the door. The windows and door gaped black like empty eye sockets. Air rushed into them as if they were sucking every breath out of the world.

Then we got to the Spindle.

It's important to judge how and when to describe settings in detail. Too much can slow the pace of the action. There are even times when the first visit is not the time to do it.

We visited the Spindle once in The Spirit Lens. Portier visited a prisoner there. The problem was, we were building up to the climax of the book. Portier was in a hurry, and I didn't want to reveal the details of his discussion with a certain prisoner. It would have been cheating to give readers a detailed description of the locale, and then skimp on the meat of the visit. The narrative is supposed to reflect the point-of-view character's state of mind. Portier was in a hurry to accomplish something on his visit. He was focused on that and not on the prison itself. So we learned that the Spindle is a grim tower prison, set on a nub of rock in the deepest channel of a river. And it has three water gates. That's it.

In The Soul Mirror, the atmosphere of the journey to the prison, the place itself, and what my heroine discovers there is quite relevant to the actual events that occurred inside, and her growing certainty that there is something BIGGER going on.

And, of course, there is. Poor Ambrose. Not a good place at all.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fascinating and Depressing

Here is a great blog post about science fiction and fantasy's continuing struggle for literary recognition:

John Howell on sffmedia

As anyone who's ever heard me rant, this is a pet peeve of mine. I groan every time someone says, "Oh, you're published! What do you write?"

And I say, "I write epic fantasy."

And the face blanks out. "Oh, my kids read that."

Or, "Oh, I don't read that sort of thing. I like to read about real people."

And, of course, it doesn't help that fantasy is dissed by many hard sf writers in exactly the same terms as Atwood disses sf. "Oh, fantasy is nothing but elves, dragons, and unicorns. That soft and fluffy crap. Where's the tension, when any problem can be solved with magic?"

But, of course, such criticisms have to keep us honest. Bottle up those elves and unicorns. And don't let magic solve every problem!!

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Heart's Coda

Last spring I received an invitation to submit a story to an anthology of high fantasy. With such a tight schedule for the Collegia Magica books, I wasn't sure I'd have the time. (Still not sure I had the time!) The editor offered to send me copies of her previous two anthologies so I could see if I wanted to join in the third of the series.

The anthologies are called Lace and Blade, from Norilana Books, a small press that puts out absolutely gorgeous editions of classics, as well as some original works and these anthologies. Check out the luscious cover art for the first and second volumes.

Well, I read several of the stories in the two volumes, including the lovely novella, "The Night Wind" by Mary Rosenblum that had just been selected for this year's Nebula ballot. Not only was I impressed (and intimidated) by the quality of the stories, but I really wanted to have a story in the new one. So I told her yes. The due date would be August 1.

So, of course, the next thing was to figure out what to write. Length could be variable, wrote the editor. Write tight, but make it as long as it needs to be.

The only way I can produce short fiction while writing another book is to piggyback on one of my existing worlds. Which was quite all right, said the editor. And when I spun the bottle and got to thinking, the right project stared up at me.

Song of the Beast was not my first novel published, but I actually wrote it before Transformation. I always intended it to be a standalone, and I was happy where it ended. The primary story arc was complete and satisfying (certainly to ME!) But, in truth, I did leave Aidan MacAllister's world in upheaval. He had changed the world so dramatically that nothing would ever be the same. His personal story - a visionary musician imprisoned as his fame reached its height, released after 17 brutal years, unable to sing or play his harp or hear the voice of the god of music who had guided his musical development - led him into a wilderness where he hoped to repair half a millennium of injustice. And I never told readers whether or not he got the girl who helped him do what he had to do.

Needless to say, I heard from a lot of readers that they wanted to know what happened after. That was what I wanted to write.

But once I got to thinking about it, something unexpected happened. As I told the editor:

Like many authors, I don't believe that my heroes' and heroines' lives end on the last page of my books. Which means, of course, that when you check up on them long after the grand and terrible events are over, you occasionally discover that their futures haven't gone quite as you expected. Thus it happened when I looked up Aidan MacAllister, the visionary musician-hero of Song of the Beast. What I found compelled me to write "The Heart's Coda."

Forthcoming in Lace and Blade 3 from Norilana Books, February 14, 2010

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Proof is in the Pudding

One thing electronic copyedits did for my publishing schedule was to shorten the time from turning in copyedits until seeing proof pages! Well, it certainly seemed to shorten the time, because the Packet of Proof Pages from Penguin arrived last week while I was off having a great weekend at the Colorado Gold Writers' Conference.

Of course, just because they got them back to me quickly, it didn't mean I had a lot of time to work on them - about ten days. And darned if I wasn't just getting back into The Soul Mirror development! But, in general, reviewing proofs means one read-through and goes pretty fast. I just wasn't sure how things were going to look after my interesting experience with the copyediting.

So how did all those complicated copyedits hold up?

I was really impressed. Everything looked GREAT! It took only a few pages to realize that all the changes I was so worried about were correctly reversed, and all the tweaks I had made were incorporated smoothly.

Only one small thing did I notice (and, you observant ones will note, I mentioned it as a risk when I was writing about this process). Never have I needed to correct so much punctuation in proof pages.

The problem is that Word's TRACK CHANGES function draws lines from all these margin boxes to the place in the text where the change occurs. Just as when you're trying to type punctuation into an online form, the lines overwrite the punctuation, so you can't tell whether the period or comma is there just by looking. In TRACK CHANGES, you have to switch to FINAL mode (hiding all the layered corrections), to look for stray or missing puncs. And I just didn't have time to look at every line. So we're back to paper and pencil now. I mark them, return those pages, and that will be that.

The verdict: The Spirit Lens is done!

By the way, email me the name and address of your favorite bookstore and I'll send a batch of Spirit Lens bookmarks. We want to make sure your store is well stocked!!
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Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Gritty Myth Goes Live

So I don't write short stories very often. When our local non-profit writers organization, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, asked me to contribute a short story to their anthology, Broken Links, Mended Lives, I hesitated. I was in the middle of working on The Spirit Lens, and I only had one piece of a story in my trunk. I really wanted to support the organization, though, so right after I turned in The Spirit Lens, I pulled out the fragment and spent a little time with it. If I could finish the thing in a reasonable amount of time, I'd submit it. Otherwise I'd pass.

The story was mostly a voice. A girl's voice. She didn't even have a name. But she lived in a pretty nasty world, and her story would definitely fit the theme of the anthology. Every "link" she had was broken.

As it happened, I had a lot of fun with it - and to my surprise, I was able to tell a whole story within the guidelines of 5-6K words. Well, here's how this nameless girl introduced herself:

My parents never told me I had Talent. Perhaps they thought it undignified for the daughter of a city magistrate, or believed it might frighten me or make me insolent. Or maybe they just left it too late, and had the lack of consideration to die of plague before warning me.

Now don’t think me unfeeling, but when one is ten years old and the whole world is dying of plague, or slaughtering each other for fear of it, or taking flight to escape it, one has little time to mourn, or even to recall why one should. When civilization has erupted into chaos, the next meal looms much larger in importance than past grieving.

Six years I spent scrabbling in search of that next meal before I trudged up a rock-blasted hill and through the iron gate of Fenwick Priory. By that time I had seen far more of men and life than was really necessary, and taking up residence with a group of similarly exhausted women seemed sensible. The sisterhood grew vegetables, kept to themselves, and did no good works to speak of. I had no illusion that this would be a permanent situation. The sisters didn’t seem that agreeable, and entanglement of any sort made me want to cram a shiv in someone’s craw.

"You'll tend a plot, Girl," said the bony Prioress, licking the beaded honey from a suckle blossom grown right out of the crumbled courtyard wall. "Each of us has one."

"Don't know how," I said and scratched my itchy foot on a cracked step. "Not opposed, but I never learnt. My parents called planting hireling’s work. I’ll scrub for you. Fetch and carry. Steal, if you want. I'm good at those."

"You don't tend a plot, you don't eat. Go or stay, as you will."

I stayed. The road had got tiresome of late. My boots had fallen to pieces, and a thieving tallyman had jacked my knife. Bare hands or sticks weren’t enough to fend off the skags now I was ripe. Last thing I needed was a squaller planted inside me. My own belly was empty half the time.

The story is called At Fenwick Faire, and I would call it a gritty myth.

The anthology is Broken Links, Mended Lives. There are some excellent stories in the anthology - some by published authors, some by authors who certainly should be. It is mixed genre - in keeping with the organization's membership - but I would estimate that more than half the stories are in the "speculative fiction" realm.

If you'd like to support an organization that works hard to educate and support aspiring writers, as well as catch some great talent, give it a try.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

So Right!

My friend Kathy pointed me to this blog post.


Yes, yes, writing is really hard. I had no idea, but then I never really wanted to do it either.

Though I loved to read, it had never been a dream of mine to write books. It seemed like it would be too hard. So it always surprises me how, upon hearing that I am a writer, so many people say, "You know, I've been working on this novel..." or "I'm going to do that when I retire." As in I'm working now, but when I don't have to work, I'll write.

Before I took up writing I worked full time, paid attention to my family, gardened, wrote letters, exercised, cooked, did needlepoint, volunteered, read multiple books a week, canned peaches and tomatoes, made jam, and numerous other things. And my house was always clean. Let's see, I try to spend some time with ES (Exceptional Spouse) and the kids when I can and they're around. I am dreadfully behind on my reading. I volunteer for one program a year. I still cook, more this summer with all the fresh veggies coming in (that was one of the objectives), but with far less variety (another objective.) And I obsess about my books (as anyone who reads this blog will know).

Watch out for what you're getting into, folks. It eats you alive!
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Monday, September 7, 2009

The Soul Mirror Redux

Here we go again. After intensive revision on The Spirit Lens, some family fun and summer timeouts, writing the Song of the Beast story, and spending almost ten days doing nothing but reviewing Spirit Lens copyedits, the new book has sat sorely neglected over the last few months. Scarily neglected, in fact.

As always when I've been away, I take the first couple of days to read through what's there. I can't really fault it, except that it's wordy and perhaps a bit repetitive in some areas. (And who is surprised about that?) The first three chapters feel pretty solid. But something nags about the five following.

There are lots of interesting tidbits. Our heroine - yes the narrator of The Soul Mirror is a young woman, whose family has been torn apart by the events of The Spirit Lens. Anne is smart, well educated, and braver than she thinks. She considers herself plain and very dull compared to the rest of her family. She has a terrible habit of thinking of what she really wants to say hours or days after the opportunity to say it. All of which results in a person who is very reserved. And she has nasty case of hayfever. Bummer.

But after being away from the story for a while (yes, this is a really good thing, even though that February deadline is much larger than it appears in the mirror) I could see two things:

First, there wasn't enough spooky music playing. Spooky music is not just for murder mysteries like this one, where bad guys are playing around with spectres and ghosts. Spooky music is what a reader hears when something bad is going to happen. It's what tells the reader that things are not going to always seem as peaceful as they are now. It is tension, of course. Tension signals potential conflict, one of those words writers sling around like reams of paper.

A story is populated by [we hope!] interesting people. These people want certain immediate things, whether it is a shelter for the winter [like Valen, in Flesh and Spirit] or to survive the rest of his horrid life without thinking about the past [like Seyonne in Transformation]. If the characters are realistic, they have longer term wants, too, as we all do, but sometimes they can't articulate what those are at the beginning of a story. But tension is the growing certainty on the reader's part that these poor people are not going to get what they want - at least not for very long. Tension draws readers into a story and keeps them reading.

In the case of The Soul Mirror, we're starting off four years after the end of The Spirit Lens. Though the overarching mystery posed in that story was solved, some strange things were happening in the world by the end. Anne is forced out of a self-imposed blindness and into the wider world, a place far out of her comfort zone. Trouble happens along the way (chapter 3) but then, godlike, I lifted her up and set her in the new place without allowing her to get a sense of the effects of the badness of the first book. No effects implies no unsettling certainty that she's found herself in the middle of things worse than she can imagine. No tension. No story.

The second problem, as one of my critique partners so eloquently confirmed: "Geez, Carol. This is all good stuff. She meets some interesting people. I can see clearly where she is. But...nothing happens!"

Well, yeah, OK. Once she gets through the traumas of the first three chapters and is dropped into this new place, Anne meets a lot of people, some nice, some not. She takes stock of her surroundings, hears some gossip, gets set up to look into some Very Bad Things that triggered the opening of this story. But in chapter 4 and 5, nothing of note really happens. You can get away with this for a chapter - maybe, but not two, and certainly not three or four. (Yes, by Chapter 8 things were popping.) But you need action to keep the story moving forward. We can't let Anne just observe and prepare. Being a retiring sort, she needs to be challenged with events.

Now this wasn't all bad news. Everything I had written was necessary. Most of it, I'll use (except for the usual reduction of wordiness and repetitions). Writing it got me into Anne's head and her world and the situation and her feelings about what had happened to her family.

So my work is set out for me. I need to consider the ramifications of the "strangeness" at the end of The Spirit Lens and thread them into the background as Anne arrives at the center of the new mystery. And once I've wired these chapters for "tension," I'll know what events need to happen.

I start back with the beginning of chapter 4, where instead of jumping ahead to find Anne in her situation, Anne and her escort are just approaching the gates of Merona:

"Will they truly shut the gates with all these people outside?" I asked. My crawling skin and buzzing skull worsened with every centimetre closer to the city. "We’re not at war — not with anyone close enough to threaten Merona." Not that I’d heard, at least.

"It is certain...disturbances...inside the city cause the gate closings." Duplais did not shift his roving gaze from the crowd, examining the multi-hued sea of faces as if the king himself might arrive to explain further. "Officious fools believe they can stay the wind by locking the gates."

Do you hear a bit of spooky music here? Let me see if I can go find it.

I'll keep you posted.
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Monday, August 24, 2009

Spirit Lens Copyedits: The Nitty Gritty

As my long ago post noted, I've been fortunate with copyeditors through the years, having only one bad experience - an overzealous copyeditor who worked on Revelation. I had to spend a lot of time undoing what she had done. I've never had any problem getting my copyedit changes accepted, whether I've rejected or altered the CE's suggestions.

One glance at the Spirit Lens manuscript, and I knew this was going to be more complicated than usual.

As you might be able to tell from other postings, I am meticulous about words. I tweak and change, ever searching for the right words to evoke mood, time period, character information, action. The difference between shout and scream is important. Burned and the archaic form, burnt, have a different sound and feel to them, and egads evokes a very different time locale than godamighty or by Grapthar's Hammer. Words are an intricate part of world building. I feel that my job isn't done until I have all the right ones.

I was also well trained in grammar and spelling, and a lot of my craft learning was how to adapt the formal writing rules I learned in school for fiction writing. My manuscripts are long, somewhere between 150, 000 and 180,000 words. By the time I turn it in after revision, most of the words are the ones I want, and almost all spelled right, and put together with every regard for proper grammar. Where the grammar is informal or incorrect, I've chosen it to be that way. Though, to be honest, I am terrible at compound words: sylph-like or sylphlike, mid-afternoon or midafternoon, and so forth.

Words are also a critical component of narrative voice. Is my narrator educated or ignorant? Thirty years old or ten? Is he verbose or terse? Is he a storyteller or is he a librarian converted into a royal investigator? All these things should be revealed not only in the character's dialogue, but also in the narration of the story if it is told in an intimate point-of-view. Sometimes, a character speaks in a rural or uneducated dialect. Sometimes a character speaks in fragments. Sometimes particular archaic or peculiar words show up in a character's voice to evoke a time that is not 21st century USA.

These were the sources of most of the corrections caused the problem with this copyediting experience.

One of the CE's tasks is to make "suggestions" for clarity. I deliberately chose to use the metric system in these books, rather than make up a system of measurement. Because Sabria is in the throes of a scientific explosion akin to the first half of our 17th century, I wanted the feel of a very precise measurement scheme. [And yes, I know the metric system came into use somewhat later than that, but this is not historical Europe! It certainly COULD have been in use in the 17th century!] Sabria is also a kingdom that is very much a Mediterranean-style landscape and feel, so I didn't want to use the US spellings of the metric measurements. I preferred centimetre to centimeter, and litre to liter. The CE kindly changed all the spellings to the US spellings and queried every single measurement as to whether I wouldn't rather use yards, miles, and gallons for measurement. Aarrgh. Lots of "no"s and lots of stets ensued.

Another of the CE's tasks is to correct grammar, and to make sure that a manuscript adheres to the publisher's styleguide with respect to spelling [honor vs honour, backward vs backwards, and so forth]. So I found some words in the narrative, which is Portier's voice, had been corrected. The aforementioned burnt as the past participle of burn. He speaks of ten days previous, rather than ten days ago. I had to stet all those well-intended corrections as well.

Portier also is a librarian, an intensely scholarly and logical man. He thinks in lists. He often speaks and thinks in bullet points. I express this in fragments. Every CE knows that sentence fragments are OK in fiction. Certainly in dialogue. Mostly they leave them alone, resisting the call of their formal English training that says sentence fragments are a no, no. This particular CE was really bothered by Portier's fragmentary thinking and attempted to create complete sentences out of many of them. In a few cases, her point was well taken, as the fragments did not follow logically from the prior sentence (which is what makes them work.) But for the most part, these efforts to neaten up the prose didn't work. That was a LOT of retyping and correction. I was really irritated as I did it.

But once I was done, I mellowed. The CE had been meticulous about the things she caught. Though I wished she had focused on more useful aspects of her tasks, the book was better for our mutual efforts. And that's what counts.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spirit Lens Copyedits: Electronic!

So how is electronic copyediting - as implemented by my particular publisher - different from paper copyediting?

Roc has hooked its electronic copyediting to Microsoft Word 2003's version of Track Changes. [Note: they may also have other varieties for authors who don't use Word, but I do, so this is what I received to work with.] I am familiar with Track Changes, and unlike many who curse it, I find it very useful, especially late in the revision cycle. Say I want to change the personal history of a secondary character at the last minute. I can figure out where I need to thread the needed changes/additions throughout the manuscript and have those things highlighted by Word. I can then read through the appropriate sections, taking a look at how the new work flows. If I decide I don't like it, I can reject the changes. If I like how it reads, I can accept each piece, further modifying as I go, if I wish. Since my manuscripts run 500+ pages - this kind of functionality is really helpful.

I was curious to see how this was going to work for copyediting, which has to be a very precise operation. A copyedited manuscript is, in essence, a set of instructions for how a manuscript should be translated from the author's typed document to a correctly spelled, "grammared," and styled printed page.

The electronically copyedited version of The Spirit Lens is laid out fully justified, with page headers as they would be in the actual book. Titles, chapter heads, extracts [such as letter texts or poems or book extracts], blank lines, and such are attached to Word "styles" that will apply the appropriate fonts and sizes. Ellipses, em-dashes, italics, labels, and so forth are set according to the house rules.

I see the copyeditor's [CE's] changes highlighted throughout the manuscript. Additions to the text are in red. Deletions are shown in "margin bubbles" with dotted lines connection to the text location where they were removed. The CE's questions and comments are in pink margin bubbles attached to the word or phrase to which they are related. I see only a few purple bubbles, which from the initials AS rather than CE, I can tell are comments from my real editor [Anne Sowards]. So far, so good.

So how do I go about interacting with all this?

I get a list of instructions along with the manuscript, which tell me how to set up Track Changes options to be compatible with the file they've sent me. I am also to set up my identity as "Author" and initials as AU. This way, my comments and changes are linked to me, distinguished from those of the CE and AS, (and, I hope, will take precedence over all others!)

My task will be to review all the changes already made, approve or disapprove, and answer any queries the CE has made. In addition, I want to add in all the changes I've decided on in my readthrough.

To add in my own stuff is easy, of course. I just make the alterations in the manuscript. Additions show up as red, deletions in blue bubbles, etc, all with the initials AU attached. I don't take a single pass to do this, but plan to add them in as I step through what the editor and copyeditor have done.

If I agree with the change the CE has made, all I have to do is leave it.

If I want to answer a query, I just click on the colored bubble, click on the "new comment" box on the Track Changes toolbar, and type in my answer. It is labeled with AU and linked to the CE's bubble.

What gets interesting is how to disagree. On a paper manuscript, one put dots under the changed text and wrote stet in the margin. This says "leave the text as is." If I wanted to change that particular piece of text in a different way, I would use my differently colored pencil and change it.

One might assume that I could just use the Track Changes function to "Reject" a change the CE put in, but, in fact, the file has been set up so that the [Accept or Reject Changes] function is turned off. The publisher wants a record of the suggested change, and the author's acceptance or rejection. At first this seems clumsy, but then, they had the same record before - it was just paper and colored pencil marks!

So I can't just reject the CE's changes that I don't agree with. They give me two methods to reject a change.

  1. I can link a comment bubble to the change and type in stet.

  2. Or I can just go into the text and put it back like I want it - or alter it in a different way. The newer change will be labeled with my initials.

The problem with #1, is that it leaves the text in the incorrectly altered state. Somehow this bothers me more than that old paper stuff. On paper, the original text is still present. [Yeah, yeah, the electronic version of the original is still present, but you can't SEE it.] Having the new text actually incorporated into the manuscript seems more "real" somehow, than colored pencil marks on paper, even if the final reviewer [don't know who does this] can just hit reject and it all goes back to the way it was before. And one more thing, some "changes" like rearranging a sentence can result in five "delete bubbles" and two added phrases. I would have to stet each one of them. What a mess if I didn't get them all!

So I choose the second method and put the words back the way I want them in the text, sometimes exactly as they were, sometimes slightly modified. Sometimes I add a comment box to explain why I rejected the change. It is certainly easier to do all this electronically. It's much more readable than anything I penciled on a page. And I can make sure I get the words exactly the right place, rather than using arrows.

So what are the problems I ran into? From a software point of view, this technology is pretty astounding. Keeping all the versions right there so you can see how it was, how it is, and how it would look after the changes are applied, as well as showing all the individual changes and comments is really complicated.

Where the complexity gets in the way is often with [Find and Replace]. It is great to be able to say I want to change all instances of the word Librarian to librarian because the CE didn't understand that this was only a job and not a formal title in this culture. But somehow the change tracking functionality interferes with Find and Replace (probably because it goes off in the weeds adding deletion bubbles and so forth) and it can't find them all. I have to search one at a time. And then switch to just [Find] and then switch back to [Replace]. What a pain.

It is also very difficult to make sure that punctuation marks are correct around a change in the text. All those little dotted lines to connect changes with the bubbles in the margins often cover up periods or commas. To make absolutely sure it's right, I have to switch to Final mode, where it shows me what the text will look like when all the changes are applied. I think there is a lot of room for punctuation errors.

Yet another anxiety (smaller) is that sometimes words that are styled italics, don't show up that way. You have to know to look in the style box on the toolbar. I don't have confidence that they're going to be done right if I can't see it. (I believe in WYSIWYG.) And yet, not having the clues to the installed "styles" means I'm not sure which one to use or even whether I need to do anything.

I wouldn't want to be the person who has to go through all of this to choose which set of changes to use. But I'm guessing it will be easier than sorting through the paper and trying to figure out where the pink arrow goes and decipher people's handwriting.

I guess we'll see when it all comes out in the wash - or the proof pages.

But, of course, the big question with copyedits is: did the CE make good changes or ask good questions or was this a copyeditor who wanted to play god? It sure looked like there were a lot of changes in this "clean" manuscript of mine.

Stay tuned...
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spirit Lens Copyedits: Readthrough

No sooner had I come off a month of family visits and working on a short story last week, than the copyedited manuscript of The Spirit Lens arrived.

First task? Do a complete read-through without looking at the copyedits. Well, OK, I could have done this the week before the copyedits came, but...did I mention family fun? Short story? A little bout of summer surgery? Updating website? Actually, I wanted to wait until the last possible moment to maximize my distance from the words.

The purpose of a readthrough is not just to "get a feel for the story" again in preparation for final edits. This is the last chance to make any substantial revision. So I want to read carefully, looking for places where the logic doesn't work, getting a feel for the pacing and ferreting out plot holes. I watch for bits that got left out (or duplicated) in the revision process. Yes, I needed to make sure the dark incident in Portier's past was made clear, but maybe I overdid it, put in too much too soon, or some such. I hunted unresolved issues, eg. did I ever mention what became of the haunted guard captain? And I wanted to make sure that the resolution of The Spirit Lens was rock solid, ready to lead in to The Soul Mirror.

So what did I find?

It is amazing how your perspective changes after not looking at the mss. for two months. I found myself pleased with what I was reading. All the warts that I saw when up to my eyes in the details of revision had faded out because of the enforced breathing space. I found that my doubts about whether I had really laid out the chain of events clearly and whether I had belabored certain bits of history overmuch were laid to rest. And indeed, I did not miss those 10,000 words I cut out of it in the least. Nor had I left five thousand ragged edges where I'd pulled them out. It all seemed to work.

One of the best parts was reading those pieces I really labored over during revision. Mostly these were the pivotal scenes, the big changes in direction and emotional upheavals that MUST make sense, and yet only come clear once you've gotten to the end of the story. All of these pieces were much more improved than I remembered. I think the grand mystery - for, as I've said, The Spirit Lens is at heart a murder mystery - unwinds clearly and logically. And I think my three investigators' relationships - which form the primary emotional arc of the story - do the same. Whew! I really expected to need some continued revision, but all I found that needed doing were some word and phrase improvements and some very minor paragraph reordering. I even cut out a sentence here and there - bits I'd clung to, but suddenly stood out as wholly unneeded.

So now it was time to take a look at the copyedits.
[To review what the copyediting cycle is all about, take a look at From Sale to Shelf: Part 3.]

First thing I had to do was get set up. For the first time, I was going to be dealing with electronic copyediting and not a paper manuscript marked with varicolored pencil. OK, technology doesn't bother me. And even though I was given only a week to get the manuscript turned around, I didn't expect any problems
, especially given my feeling that the book was pretty clean. That was before I looked.

Stay tuned...
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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Lion

Just arrived.

It is lovely. Stone. Heavy. Suitable for bookend. Very nice. Read more of this post!

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Heart's Coda (maybe)

This has been quite a month. The aforementioned medical issue included my first ever surgery - as I said before all with most satisfactory resolution. But I kept wanting to take naps all month - and I hate naps. And then the Song of the Beast story, tentatively titled The Heart's Coda, just ate my brain! Aidan was always such a sweetheart, you know, but he's been out there with the dragons for three very long years...

Oh, did you think I was going to tell you something else?

Since you looked, here's a snippet:

The man towered over me. Senai born, no doubt of it, with such exceptional height, thick, black hair, and strong, lean features. He appeared not so much burnt as angry. Not so much dead as tired and dirty and underfed. Eyes closed, face twisted in effort, he blurted, "Who?"

I swallowed the knots collected in my throat and attempted to bow from my prostrate position which I was not confident enough to alter. No Elhim in the world, not even my progenitor who is exceptionally tall and broad in the back for my race, would reach this man's shoulder. And the shredded garments, and the tangled hair grown out in all directions, even sprouted from his face—which I had been told was not at all his customary aspect—gave MacAllister a savage appearance. Surely living in the wild so long alone with beasts must tax a man's reason.

The speaker, as you may note, is an Elhim named Glyn par Davyn - yes, Davyn's "progeny." And no, the story does not address Elhim procreation. That will be matter for another story.

But thank goodness, the story is now done and sent away. Hooray! I will update with publication news when I have some.
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Friday, July 31, 2009

Cover Art

At last, I have the final cover art for The Spirit Lens to show off. I think it is smashing. The artist is Gordon Crabb.

And here's the back copy:

In a kingdom on the verge of a grand renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery, someone aims to revive a savage rivalry…

For Portier de Savin-Duplais, failed student of magic, sorcery’s decline into ambiguity and cheap illusion is but a culmination of life’s bitter disappointments. Reduced to tending the library at Sabria’s last collegia magica, he fights off despair with scholarship. But when the king of Sabria charges him to investigate an attempted murder that has disturbing magical resonances, Portier believes his dreams of a greater destiny might at last be fulfilled.

As the king’s new agente confide, Portier — much to his dismay — is partnered with the popinjay Ilario de Sylvae, the laughingstock of Sabria’s court. Then the need to infiltrate a magical cabal leads Portier to Dante, a brooding, brilliant young sorcerer whose heretical ideas and penchant for violence threaten to expose the investigation before it’s begun. But in an ever-shifting landscape of murders, betrayals, old secrets, and unholy sorcery, the three agentes will be forced to test the boundaries of magic, nature, and the divine…

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

And the Winner Is...

Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone have won the 2009 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Here is the press release. [I have to keep rereading to believe it!]

This award is really special. One has only to look at the list of finalists and winners to see it. So many of the writers and books I adored before I ever became a writer.

So they asked me to send "acceptance remarks." Here they are:

I stand in the company of giants. How can I possibly say more than that?

Well, I purport to be a writer of epics, thus I always have extra words. As I am accustomed to spending a great deal of my time in a world that is not present reality, I'm not sure I quite believe I am to join such august company. Perhaps you could all pinch yourselves and email me if you actually heard my name called.

I am terribly sorry I can't be in Los Angeles tonight to take all this in and thank every single person who opened up this world to me. The nun who put Edith Hamilton on the sophomore reading list every year. That college roommate [Yes, you, Kathy!] who shoved her battered copy of Lord of the Rings into my hands in 1968. And that dear friend [Yes, you, Linda!] who persuaded a software engineer whose kids were needing less of her time that writing some email letters in character might be fun, "as it wasn’t like writing a novel or anything."

I am deeply honored that you have found something of truth in my story and seen fit to let my dear Valen hobnob with Merlin and True Thomas, Aragorn, Corwin of Amber, and all the rest.

That's it! I'm psyched!!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lazy, Hazy Days...

Whew, it's been a month since a post. What kind of blogger am I? [Head hangs in shame.]

After the May revisions push, I started work on a short story promised to a great anthology. Dithered about it. Got distracted by a health issue which has just come to a happy resolution. Got distracted by a mountain trip where I found out Breath and Bone won the 2009 Colorado Book Award for genre fiction. [Hooray!]

Meanwhile, The Soul Mirror beckons and the short story bothers, because its opening just keeps dragging and dragging. I think I've got a good setup, but need some concentrated work [yes, really, concentration has been absent for the past 6 weeks.]

I want to base this story on Song of the Beast. I've had so many people ask for a sequel, and I did leave Elyria in a terrible mess. The primary relationship - of two people who each woke the other person's heart and courage - was resolved. But their future relationship was only hinted at. As the two people are very different and have been abandoned in messy circumstances, a variety of interesting things could happen. I wanted to give just a hint of resolution and/or new direction to Aidan's story. So what's the problem?

Well writing short, for one. I am just not accustomed to it.

Basing a story on the resolution of a novel, for another. How do I avoid too much backstory? That's where I'm bogging down. World background. Relationship background. As well as new characters and new situation to resolve. I feel as if I need to write completely for my own benefit, but I have to trust that I'll be able to pare it down enough to make it a great story for those who haven't read the book, as well as those who have. Tough. Think about it.

Timing. I need to get this done. How do people dash off short stories over a weekend?
More tomorrow.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Prequel and Sequel

Here it is the middle of June. How did that happen? May vanished in a blur of revision. I posted about the various aspects of The Spirit Lens revision process. I know the book is stronger, tighter, and cleaner than when I turned it in the first time. I believe that both motivations and - very important in the context of a mystery - my investigators' deductions are clearer. The ending is much stronger and more satisfying.

So now I am leaping back into the development of Book 2 of the Collegia Magica series, The Soul Mirror. I left off back in April with a few solid chapters written and several additional chapters left over from a time when I thought the story of The Soul Mirror would be the first of the series.

Whoa, you might say. How did the first book of a series become the second before any of the series is even released?

The original story idea for the novels of the Collegia Magica, derived somewhat from some very early writing I did, had to do with a reserved, bookish young woman whose family had been described as "as perfectly balanced as the elegant ellipses of the planets" in a kingdom where new discoveries in science were elbowing magic out of the way. Through a series of circumstances, that unique, vibrant family had disintegrated, leaving Anne standing alone in a place she had no desire to be, faced with a mystery she had no qualifications but her own intelligence to solve. I wrote maybe ten chapters of that story before realizing that,

  1. I was having to cram in tons of backstory to explain the family's disintegration. As this was the foundation for Anne's mystery and the solution to it, it felt very flat,cramped, and rushed. It was like making a sandwich when you'd eaten all the bread the day before.

  2. the overarching mystery I had initially set out was much too simplistic.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the characters involved in all that backstory, Anne's family as well as the other players, were too interesting to be relegated entirely to backstory, especially when their nature and characters served as motivations for the book. Thus, I decided I wanted to start much earlier so that I could give this backstory real life, that is, to make it frontstory.

At the same time, I gave thought to the mystery and came up with a much more complex idea (which is still evolving, by the way.)

Figuring out where to start is an important decision. Sometimes it is simple. The most significant, world-altering change in the saga of the Rai-kirah - or rather in the story I wanted to tell about the Rai-kirah - was Aleksander purchasing a new slave - the day he met Seyonne. The story I told in Song of the Beast was that of a musician rediscovering the wellsprings of his art. It was not the story of a musician being clapped into prison at the height of his fame and being tortured into silence, though I had to refer to that piece of the story to give a foundation to Aidan's journey. Thus the proper beginning was the hour Aidan was released from prison.

Sometimes, you can only know where to start by knowing precisely what story you're trying to tell. And sometimes you can't know that until you've told a a part of it.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Revision 5 - Illumination

For me, the best aspect of revision is the opportunity to think deeply about plot, structure, and character now I've got the entire story in my head at once. I can't get these insights if I'm too focused on word count and grammar, so I have to formulate a list of problem areas beforehand or as I do the tighten and clean-up pass. Then I take care of those issues on the content pass, and verify on the final readthrough.

In the present case, I've had an insight that I believe will strengthen both the mystery and the character arc. [Don't worry, I'm not going to get into spoilers!]

In abstract terms, I had hedged a bit on the villains of the piece. We know some of them for sure - there is a complete story arc in this book. A few other people we're not so sure of will be sorted out in The Soul Mirror. What I'm thinking of doing is placing one of these ambiguous characters more clearly into either the villain or not-villain camp.

So why would I do this, as it seems to remove a bit of lingering mystery?

First, because it will more clearly define the positioning of another, more important, character. [Think of how a scarecrow standing in the middle of a completely harvested cornfield stands out quite starkly.] It completes a character arc that contributes to a more solid ending.

Second, because I wasn't feeling good about "exonerating" this particular person as he or she stood in the work as written. Portier and Ilario and Dante are none of them stupid. To let someone wholly pull the wool over their eyes would be unrealistic. On the other hand, to have a wholly innocent person remain darkly ambiguous for so long would also be unrealistic. So I had to make a choice--is this person a villain or a naive? Then I had to go back through that character's thread through the book and make sure my decision was well supported.

Third, because I had planned to carry this ambiguous character over into the The Soul Mirror and wasn't feeling good about it. I've had a fresher idea...

There, you see? Revision leads us into tough decision making. If we push hard enough for clarity - the goal of revision - we can feel the uncertainties we've left in our writing. Choosing, and repairing, rewriting, and repositioning, can - and did!! - leave the work stronger.

I send off The Spirit Lens last Wednesday (the 34th of May, right?) and feel really good about it. Total words cut: approx 10K. Total words revised: every other one. Beginning stronger. Ending stronger. Climax stronger. Ultimate uh-oh - much stronger. Motivations clearer, both in my head and on the page.

Now it's back to The Soul Mirror. Hooray!

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

In the Company of Giants

Hi readers,

Just got a mind-bending bit of news. My two-book series, Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone, is a finalist for the 2009 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Other 2009 finalists include Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip, and Gene Wolfe, along with debut author Daryl Gregory. Holy moly!

When I scan the list of past Mythopoeic finalists and winners, the first name on the list is Mary Stewart and The Crystal Cave. I read and adored her romantic suspense when I was a teen and twenty-something, but this delightful, lyrical tale of Merlin and Arthur brought them into my head as real living persons as no other Arthurian tale ever has. Also on the list are Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber and Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest, Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer...along with other works by Le Guin, McKillip, Susan Cooper, Richard Adams, Donaldson, McKinley, Willis, Kay, Tepper, works that shaped my love for fantasy, as well as feeding the writer I am. And they still sit on my bookshelves! Need I say what an honor that my name is now listed on the same page? Still reeling...

You can read more about the Mythopoeic Society, their connection to the Inklings (Tolkien, CS Lewis, et al), and the awards at their website.

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Revision 4: Cutting Words

In these times, editors are having to push back on writers more and more to keep their stories lean. This is not necessarily a factor of the reading market, but rather a factor of the bookselling market. Readers may love their Big Fat Fantasies. But paper is expensive. And booksellers are jealous of their shelf space. And, of course, more words does not make one a better writer! You CAN make a grand, complex story with luscious prose in less than 900 pages. (Keep telling me that.) So what do you do when your editor says, "Pare it down by 10-15K?"

First remember that the story, characters, and setting are the most important. Get them out there in the most wonderful fashion you can. That being said, we all have fat in our prose. I know I write lots of extra words. I think it's a product of my "start from the beginning and go" plot development. I think I'm writing tighter these days, but at revision time, here are some techniques I use - very fresh in my mind from these past three weeks.

1. The Easy. Start with a goal of removing one line per page. That's pretty painless unless you are a truly "spare" writer. (In that case you probably don't run into the cutting words problem!)

2. Nibbling. Look at any paragraph with just a word or two dangling on the last line. Challenge yourself to move those danglers onto the previous line by shortening the paragraph. Somehow this tactic makes you read the paragraph more carefully and find lurking phrases you don't need.

You can do also do this with sentences at the end of the chapter. If your chapter runs onto a new page by three sentences, challenge yourself to push those sentences onto the previous page. You can always find a way. Don't ask me why this works even after you've reread the chapter and worked until you feel as if it is drumhead tight. There is always a little more slack.

3. Fat Patterns. Look, for example, at dialog where you've put a short response and then an explanatory response:

"No, I won't," said George. "I never take a girl to the prom."

Why not just answer:

"I never take a girl to the prom," said George.

You still get the negative and the explanation. Much more concise. Now consider the dialog tag. Is it needed?

4. Two to One. I am an inveterate "say it two different ways" person. Read carefully to see if you're saying the same thing twice.

This sequence: Time was short. I needed to get down to the harbor. Midnight approached.

Could be rewritten as:
Midnight approached. I needed to get down to the harbor.

(Note that these are much briefer sentences than I embroil myself in, but you get the idea.)

This also applies to multiple comparisons or multiple metaphors. Your prose is often stronger with just the one really good one. "He was strong as an ox, tough as nails, and he wore a crust on his skin like barnacles." Drop the tough as nails and you can recast the sentence without the second "he". [Of course strong as an ox is cliche,too, but this is an example, OK?]

5. Excess Baggage. Target long descriptive paragraphs. If you have five sentences of description when Portier first sees the estate of Montclaire, which one can you leave out? Target the least vivid, the most cliched, the one that doesn't reflect anything unusual. Put in the four best ones and the reader will fill in the rest. If you're in a smelly alley, you probably don't have to mention the refuse. If you've got a lurking cat in the refuse heap, you probably don't need to mention the rat. Things like that. Vow to reduce all descriptive paragraphs by one sentence. Often when you start pulling out the least vivid, you realize you can actually do with only three little goodies. Or can combine two so-so pieces into one.

6. Micro-management. Look for places you're boring the reader with extraneous movements. "He walked across the room." First off, "He crossed the room" is stronger and shorter. But why not skip the walking and use the preceding and following text to indicate the change of position? Is the walking itself so important?

Or, "She lifted her purse, rummaged through it, and pulled out her wallet." Unless the lifting is particularly meaningful (ie. she's a paraplegic or you are focusing on micro-movements for a literary purpose) lose the lifting. "She rummaged through her purse and produced her wallet." Micro-movements get tedious.

7. Macro Removal. Deleting whole threads or scenes hurts. But sometimes, something that seemed a good idea at the time you wrote it, doesn't pay off. Yes, you like the words, and it's interesting, but will the reader miss it if it's gone? I found a couple of those. Maybe worth 500 words each. And what was left was cleaner. The cool thing in these times is that you can save those deleted scenes for your website or blog. If you read your work aloud, you'll hear when the pacing bogs down because of a digression. Lose the digression.

8. Sinkholes. These are little places that chew up wordcount. Things like dialog tags. We often put in far more than we need. Empty dialog exchanges. ["Did you really?" "Uh-huh." "Really?" ] Repetition. Extra adjectives that can be obsoleted by using a better noun. Extra adverbs that can be made unnecessary by picking a better verb. If you use two adjectives to describe a newcomer onto the scene, try to eliminate one. Summarizing statements that do nothing but reiterate what your character just said, offering no new insight. "Those were the reasons I hated him." All of these things clutter your prose. The story will be stronger, cleaner, and clearer without.

Good luck and happy revising!
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Agent Tips

A reader sent me a query last week, and as it wasn't the first time I'd received the question, I thought I'd post it:

When I told my editor that I was looking for an agent she advised me to seek out the advice of successful authors whose works are similar to my own. Can you give me your agent's name and some tidbit of information that will help me plead my case? Thank you.

My answer?

Sure, I can give you my agent's name, as it is already a matter of public record. She is Lucienne Diver of The Knight Agency. But sorry, I can't give you any insider tidbits, because there is no pleading a case with a good agent.

Agents are business people who happen to love books. Your adviser was right that you should look for agents who represent work similar to yours. But that's only a part of it. Agents read both with heart and head, and aren't going to take on something they don't think they can sell or an author they don't think they can work with.

Here's the challenge:

First of all, you've got to get pages in front of the agent. This means you must write a query or pitch your book in person. The object of the query or pitch is to

  1. convince the agent that your work is the kind of thing the agent represents.

  2. intrigue the agent enough to request pages.

  3. demonstrate that you understand the protocols of the profession, ie. following the agent's posted guidelines and presenting yourself in a literate and professional manner wrt/manuscript format, expectations, and so forth.

These three items imply homework. You started #1 with your question to me, but I can't tell you if my agent likes the particular elements that are in your book, because I don't know them. You need to look at what else she represents, and check out her blog or her postings on other blogs or interviews or articles. #2 implies working on that pitch paragraphs. #3 means learning more about the business, like whether this agent wants paper submissions or electronic. No pink paper, no "my mother loved this," no chocolate, no tiny fonts. All those things. Learn.

Secondly, an agent must love your work (or at least believe that this is the best thing to come across his or her desk this year and every publisher is going to be mad to get it), which means you must write, revise, hone, and polish as best you can, so that when you do get pages in front of the agent, he or she will not want to stop reading.

Yes, this is the heart part. Sometimes your work is terrific, but it just doesn't connect with this particular agent. But certainly don't knock yourself out of contention by sending in something that no one but you has ever seen, that has bad grammar or misspellings or cliched plotting right on the first page.

Third, the agent must believe your work is marketable. This varies by time, season, and the whim of publishers, booksellers, and readers. But you can certainly aid this by learning as much as you can about the business before you present yourself and knowing where your work fits in. Don't write vampires just because that's what's hot right now. Write the story that lives in you. But by golly if it is about vampires, KNOW that it is hot and know what makes your vampires different from every other vampire out there.

No author can give you any shortcut past these requirements. And even a hearty recommendation from me (assuming I had read the book in question and loved it!) is not going to make a difference once that first page is in front of an agent's nose.

For more specific information about what gets a particular agent's juices flowing, check out that agent's blog. Lucienne's blog is Authorial, Agently, and Personal Ramblings, and a quick read of her archives will tell you a lot more about what she likes and is looking for than any tidbits I could drop. Agent Kristin Nelson has a great blog called Pub Rants, where she posts specific examples of queries and submissions that intrigue her or cause her to throw it back. More and more agents blog, and it is well worth your time to read up on anyone you plan to target.

This barely scratches the surface. Write well. Good luck!
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Now That's What I Like To See

My agent sent me this photo of a bookstore shelf in the Atlanta airport.

Shelf space is at such a premium in airports, so it is great to see one of my books there. And Daughter of Ancients, which is one of my personal favorites of all my books, is often a forgotten child. Lots of people assume The Bridge of D'Arnath is a trilogy and never get to the fourth and final volume! Those who've read it can tell you that there is still much to be worked out in Avonar and in Gerick's life.

Please, please, if you don't see your favorite authors' books on a bookstore shelf, request them. Bookstores are looking for any reason to order fewer and fewer books in this tight economy. And if new readers can't browse and find them, they are much less likely to take a chance.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Revision 3 - Pervasive Changes

One week in. How is the revision going? Overall, I've dealt with the easy issues. The first six chapters are much leaner, much cleaner, much clearer. I've cut out some 2500 words in a fairly painless fashion.

Now I just have to move forward on the linear review, tightening and weaving in the more pervasive changes.

Here are some examples of things I'm keeping in mind.

1. Characters At one point a character we've met only peripherally turns up dead. The implications of the death are huge. In order for this event to carry the weight that it should, readers really need to have a better handle on who this person is. My solution? Rewrite a scene in chapter 3, involving this character instead of the person who was formerly involved. Also, keep this character in mind as I read through the book and look for further opportunities to involve the person, at least enough to keep his or her identity clear in the reader's mind.

2. Worldbuilding Mages are very much resented in this world. Not only do their magics not work reliably, but "licensed" mages have a stranglehold on magical practice and do their best to eliminate the competition of small practitioners, old grannies and hedge-uncles who work magic by instinct. By the time I got to the end I realized I had not demonstrated this until somewhere around the middle of the book. I need to look for opportunities to drop in little tidbits to make this clear.

3. Dropped Threads My investigator/sorcerer Dante purposefully lets it be known that he possesses a particular set of unsavory skills. By the end I discovered that I had sort of lost that thread in the story. I know he is pursuing it, but the reader might not, and it will be extremely important in The Soul Mirror. I need to keep this near the surface of the reader's mind.

4. Clarifications One of the first things a student of sorcery learns is how to sense enchantments. There are three states that are very different: those spells that are bound and waiting to be triggered, enchantments that are active, and the residue left by enchantments that are finished. As these are essential forensic skills for our investigators, I need to make clear the difference in these three states.

I have about ten more issues, and seem to be adding items to the list faster than I'm taking them off.

Next up - the very best thing about revision. The insights that come once you get so totally immersed in the story as a whole. And yes, I had one. I'll have to figure out how to describe it without giving anything away.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Revision 2 - Editorial

Official revision time for The Spirit Lens has arrived, ie. I received editorial comments from my editor at Roc, along with the dreaded, "Can you have that done by the end of May?" As I've got another book to write and a short story due in August, I'd jolly well BETTER be able to do it by the end of May. This is the time when I must refine and finish and polish and perfect the story. There will opportunity for some changes later, but not so much a total rewrite.

So what did I hear? Several very good things. Hooray! Writers are notoriously pessimistic and confused when they submit a manuscript. Is it garbage? Does it make sense? Did I overlook the simple look over the shoulder that would have made the whole plot moot? I heard intriguing, marvelous, fascinated, fantastic (all selectively applied!) First rule of critique, tell the writer what works and don't leave out the overall kudos! (Thanks, Anne.)

And then she had a couple of pages of comments. And yes, she would really like it a few K words shorter. No big rewrites, no wholesale chopping or lopping. The comments coalesced into three main areas:

Clarifications: most of these are "short answer questions," in this case having to do with the mystery. "How did he conclude that...?" or "Was Maura from Mattefriese? I missed the connection."

Faulty threads: these are slightly larger issues (only two in this case) that are more pervasive. In this case, the comments deal with

  • clarifying one metaphysical thread. I knew this was murky (as I kept developing it along the way). But I just happened to have an insight on this very issue while working on The Soul Mirror yesterday. At some point, you MUST know what is going on.
  • the gradual unfolding of one character's personal history. This is a piece I have already improved and should require only a little tweaking.

Pacing: Some pieces just move too slowly. This is a perennial problem with me, as I want to lay in so many layers that readers can come back and say, "Ah!" I am writing for re-reading. And yet, I really need to drive the pace into the heart of the action, especially in the few places she mentioned (all right on target). This should also take care of some of the excess verbiage.

Unlike in some editorial letters, there was nothing I disagreed with. (I am always free to disagree.) And, as it happens, I have a revision list of my own that is MUCH tougher than this one.

My first moves? Pick off the low-hanging fruit. Take care of the clarifications. Some of them can be fixed with three or four words. Some, a few sentences. For a couple, I chose to rewrite a piece of a scene. I love this part! The extra insight - and the distance of not considering this particular piece for a while - makes the resulting words SO much clearer and better, more in tune with all I've learned since I first wrote them.

Next, I cleaned up my own revision list and looked for low-hanging fruit. Most of that I picked off long ago. In all, this took me a few hours.

I always turn on Word's change tracking for revision. As I address an issue, I can easily review a thread of manuscript changes throughout the book. I'll put in a change, go on to another piece, and another. At some point I'll parse through all the current changes and OK (or revise) the simple ones. The more complex rewrites I'll leave in overnight. Today I went through these. I often work on these a bit more before OKing them. This process works well for me, helping me keep track, especially of changes that affect several places in the book.

Now that's all done, I am printing out the whole book. Starting day after tomorrow, I'll read from beginning to end, keeping my editor's remaining issues and my own list of much more complicated revisions close to hand. I'll talk about that next time. Meanwhile, it's back to The Soul Mirror.
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Friday, May 1, 2009

The Truth About Writing Your Passion

Michelle Sagara West, FWE (fantasy writer extraordinaire), has written a wonderful and enlightening post about learning some hard truths re. writing what you love. She talks about why some of us do what we do despite greener (ie. more lucrative) pastures elsewhere.

Di Francis, another FWE, posts the grim reality of the present bookselling market.

The link to Michelle's post is, as they say, on another blog network. You'll need a (free) login to add comments, but not to read it or comment anonymously. [Thanks for clarification, Alyssa.]

Ditto for Di's post.
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Monday, April 27, 2009

Revision 1 - Looking at the Whole

Somewhere in the reexamination of motive, direction, and emphasis spurred by sorting out the opening of The Soul Mirror, I found a bit of enlightenment on a structural problem with The Spirit Lens. Now, I swore not to start on Spirit Lens revisions until I had put sufficient distance between my head and the manuscript to enable me to see what is missing, confusing, or non-working. I'm not sure I'm completely there yet.

Some revision work is methodical.

  • Complete read through on paper.
  • Tracing the development of an individual character or relationship or theme through the manuscript and adjusting as seems right.
  • Removing excess verbiage (always a big one for me.)
  • Going through my editor's list of issues
  • Going through my own list of issues

And so forth (we'll look at more of these as the revision heats up.)

But some things, like dealing with this insight, come on me all at once.

The Spirit Lens is a mystery that is solved (in a fashion - yes, picture grin here) by the end of the book. In the unfolding of the investigation, much bigger mysteries are uncovered. Are they solved as well? Maybe, maybe not. One of my revision tasks is to make sure that the distinction between what is solved and what is not is clear - and satisfying to the reader.

But the story is also the three investigators themselves - their individual personalities, secrets, and the relationships between them. As I look at the finished manuscript, I realize that my emphasis was wrong. The solved mystery is really a structure for the much more interesting story of the interplay of these three men and the dramatic arc of how they change.

Now, you may say, "Well, Carol, that's what your books always turn out to be. Wasn't that what you started out with?" Well, yes. To me, complex people are much more interesting than complex puzzles. But what one knows and intends, and what shows up on the page, can often be different. Thus that unsettled feeling that "things are not quite right." Distance and perspective allows a writer to see this. Thus, revision. (Thank goodness!)

So how do I deal with this? Sometimes it's a short phrase at the end of the prelude. Instead of

I, Portier de Savin-Duplais, librarian and failed student of magic, was charged to stop it.

We now see:
I, Portier de Savin-Duplais, librarian and failed student of magic, was charged to stop it. And every instinct, and every conclusion of logic and inference, insisted that my first business must be to find us a sorcerer.

More or less. Do you see the difference here?

Of course, this kind of structural emphasis permeates the book from beginning to end. I started out by tracing the evolution of the characters and their relationships through the sequence of chapters. Fortunately I keep a timeline with chapter notes, and I used that as a basis. I found several places where I needed to change the actual incident that happened, some places where just a few words would do to highlight the elements I wanted. That got me into reading some of the interior chapters where relationships change. It's feeling better. More to come...

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Grammar Peeves Update

I met a friend Dawn at Norwescon, and she has enlighted me on one of my pet peeves, the sudden usage of "troop" in referring to an individual soldier. Here's what she found out:

* Webster's New World College Dictionary 4th edition (often used in newsrooms) allows for such a use, but not as the primary definition. "... 3: [pl.] a) a body of soldiers b) soldiers [45 troops were hurt] ..."

* The 2008 AP Stylebook allows for troops to be used when meaning soldiers in certain instances. It is a change, though, because my older version made no mention of it. [AHA, says Carol, I knew it!]

"troop, troops, troupe: A troop, in its singular form, is a group of people, often military, or animals. Troops, in the plural, means several such groups. But when the plural appears with a large number, it is understood to mean individuals. There were an estimated 150,000 troops in Iraq. [But not: Three troops were injured.] ..."

So, it still sounds wrong to me. But thanks, Dawn!
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Friday, April 17, 2009

Norwescon Day 4

Ah, sweet redemption. My last panel of the con was a really good one – well moderated by Patrick Swenson, the editor-in-chief of Talebones magazine. (Be aware, those of you who write short stories that might fit his magazine, he sends complimentary copies of Talebones to all NY editors.) Along with Jim Glass, GrĂ¡ Linnaea, and Renee Stern, we talked about ways to get good feedback on your writing, from critique groups to contests to first readers, writers conferences, and workshops to Writers of the Future, to long gritty (and expensive) ordeals like Clarion. Each of us had slightly different perspectives and backgrounds.

Our most important points?

The critical importance of getting feedback and the truth that no one way works for everyone. We all agreed, too, that you can learn more about writing from giving critique than from almost anything else in the world. After taking a quick turn about the dealers’ room to sign the remaining stock of my books, I took off with friend Brenda for two days of writing in a cute B&B at soggy Gig Harbor. A very fun cozy couple of days. Good progress was made by all!
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Norwescon Day 3

Friday was my busiest day, but Saturday was packed as well. And I’ve never been to a convention where so many people costumed. What an array! As Saturday was the Masquerade, I saw everything from goggled Steampunk outfits to a 6-foot-six (at least) angel – no kidding.

I did two writers’ workshop sessions. Did I mention how terrific these are? The Fairwood Writers organization does a tremendous job running this workshop, getting 3-4 pros to site down face to face to give thoughtful feedback to a beginning writer. The pros critiquing are both truthful and kind in all the cases I saw.

I’ll say one thing to those who want to participate in such a thing, especially if you are submitting work written during NaNoWriMo. Show respect for those who are giving hours of their time to review your work by reading it over and polishing it before submission. It is cool to write 50k words in a month, but submitting even 10k words of it in such a raw state is like raking your nails on a blackboard!

Saturday was autographing also. This is always a slightly depressing time. Why?

You come hoping to find a ton of readers, but maybe two or three actually come to get books autographed. This one was especially depressing because the guest of honor was R.A. Salvatore who has about eight thousand books out, many related to role-playing games, and the convention was heavily populated by young people of the gaming persuasion. His line was endless. The upside is that you get time to sit and talk to other authors who are not the guest of honor. I had a nice chat with Maggie Bonham and Alma Alexander. I did have a few readers who popped out of the Salvatore line to come tell me how much they enjoyed my books or to have me sign their program. And one reader sent me the COOLEST buttons he had made me from images of my bookcovers. They are awesome, and I can’t wait to wear them at my next con!

Saturday was also my worst panel of the con. There is always one that gets hijacked by people in the audience who just want to sit there making comments or giving life histories and this is exacerbated by a poor or unprepared moderator. Enough said.

At 10pm, I joined in a Broad Universe Rapidfire Reading. These are always fun. Six to ten people get together and read four to seven minutes each. There is always a delightful variety of stories and an appreciative audience. Broad Universe is an organization that supports women writers of speculative fiction. Hats off to the BU motherboard and a great volunteer contingent.
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