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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, Grá 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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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Norwescon 2

OK, my evening violence panel was really a panel on the Rhythm, Meter, and the Use of Language. A great panel with Andrew Dolbeck, poet, actor, and writer, and Jenna Pitman, a fantasy writer. We talked a lot about why rhythm is important in drawing a reader through the story, as well as revealing character and world. Great audience, too. The evening party was noisy and hot - what else is new - but lots of nice people. I left early in hopes of saving my voice.

Day 2 began with a writers workshop session. Fairwood Writers run a writers workshop in conjunction with Norwescon and it is excellent. One writer sits with 3-4 pros to who have read about 10K words of his or her submitted work. The pros are kind, but thorough. Really valuable for an aspiring writer, especially someone who is coming to feel the work is submission worthy, but hasn’t gotten it in front of anyone as yet. I’m doing three of these this weekend.

Later in the day, I sat on a panel about point-of view, a little different spin, as we were talking about how to choose the POV character. Talked a lot about advantages and disadvantages of first vs third, as well. Greg Cox, a contributing editor at Tor and writer of media tie-ins, said that for a third person story with multiple points of view, he used the rule of “who has the most stake in the events of the scene.” Sometimes, though, it’s important to have a secondary character be the witness to a “big entrance” like when Batman arrives on the scene. Lots of good things to talk about.

After a leisurely, writerly dinner with Mike Moscoe and brother Bruce, Greg Cox, and my writer friend Brenda, it was time for my violence panel. Yes really. I shared the table with Josh Palmetier, and Michael Erhart. We mostly agreed on everything about the necessity of using violence as aspects of character, whether exposing or developing or pushing characters into “change” and not putting it in because “you need to have some heavy action by chapter 5.” Talked about what puts it over the edge into gratuitous mayhem (I like the term “violence porn”). And also our shared belief that the most effective techniques for writing violent scenes is similar to that of writing good sex - show it through the eyes and reactions of the characters, rather than just the grisly anatomical details.

Another hot, noisy party, and lots of people had left by the time I got out of the panel at 11pm. But I ran into a great con friend, Gigi Gridley, a walking party. We were both surprised. (I love this!)
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Friday, April 10, 2009

Learning from Critiquing

One of the best ways to hone one's writing skills is to critique other writers' work. Yes, I know I've said this before. But even after writing eleven books, and learning an incredible amount, it never hurts to get reminders.

I just completed critiquing seven manuscript submissions for several workshops. All of these were the opening pages of fantasy or science fiction works. These ranged from utterly beginner level to one that made me sorry the submission was only 20 pages. And I want to state right here up front a Bravo! for all seven submitters. It takes a lot of moxie to put your work out there for someone else to scrutinize. Some aspiring writers never get there...and they'll never get anywhere. Because as much as we must write for our own pleasure, publishing means communicating our ideas to someone else.

This exercise reminded me of several important lessons about openings.

  1. Open with something important - the story!
  2. Be specific
  3. Go deeper - step back and view the big picture
  4. Strip TV and movie cliches from your writer's vocabulary

  1. Open with something important - the story!
    Even the most die-hard seat-of-the-pants writer [me!] knows a lot before beginning to write. Backstories of characters. World history. The nature of magic. You need to know those things. The reader may need to know them, too, but not necessarily everything, and certainly not in the first two chapters. Be ruthless. Get to story developments - events – in the first two pages. It is story that draws in the reader, not history. If it is page 16 before we know the gender of your main character or page 18 before the first “event” occurs, you will have lost most of your readers.

  2. Be specific
    Specificity is what separates generic prose from vivid prose. Think about moving from place to place. Walk is a generic movement. It almost always requires an adverb to tell the reader what kind of movement we’re talking about, eg. walked slowly or walked briskly or decisively. English is rich with verbs, especially for something so basic as movement. Pull out that thesaurus - not to find hifalutin words your characters would never use, but to find the right word: stroll, meander, stride, trot. For nouns, don’t just say flower or cup or animal. Find a word that will evoke the world you’re describing or reveal something about the character who is describing it. Tankard and teacup give us more vivid scenes without excess verbiage. Think replacement, not addition. When your characters hear a prophecy, don’t leave us with generic, “Beware of the evil one. Shadows will drown the light,” come up with something interesting and specific to your story.

  3. Go deeper - step back and view the big picture

  4. What makes your fifteen-year-old hero different from every other fifteen-year-old hero in literature? Think of the heroic deeds he needs to perform…and then think of what seeds of personality or emotion exist inside your character that can emerge to support those deeds – or what the character lacks that he must develop to be able to do what you require of him. Sometimes you don’t know these things right away, but eventually you must. You’ll not only enrich your character, but you’ll get ideas for meaningful story events that will develop or expose these characreristics. And then look at the reverse to find interesting quirks and flaws. Maybe your female love interest doesn’t need to be highly literate, but she needs to be assertive, so let her lack of literacy be something that distinguishes her from other female characters or something that bothers her.

  5. Strip TV and movie cliches from your writer's vocabulary

    How many people in the world can actually survive their boat going over a waterfall? A blow on the head severe enough to cause unconsciousness will generally cause a concussion. Look up the recovery time and symptoms of a concussion. Repeated concussions cause brain damage. [See the NFL statistics on players who are held out of games or retire because of repeated concussions.] Is it really possible to do the Jason Bourne thing and pick out the evil perpetrators from a mobbed train station? Visit a mobbed train station and try picking out one person! Labor almost never begins with one violent contraction. See what I mean? Don’t rely on film or TV for any medical advice, historical fact, or mechanical reality, ie. guns, bombs, car flipping etc. [Watch TV with a doctor, historian, or mechanical engineer and you’ll hear about it!] Besides being inaccurate, they are cliché. Boring. Unoriginal. And editors, agents spot them right away.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Norwescon 1

First day of Norwescon.

It is chilly and rainy here in Seattle, but the trees are budding. The place is already greener than Colorado.

The hotel is nice, but crammed up here by the airport, so there's not much but junk food. Too bad for such an eating town as Seattle.

I've spent the day catching up with my friend Brenda. This evening I get to moderate a panel on violence, attend the opening ceremonies, and then go to a party honoring small publishers to cap off the evening.

Why would I end up on a panel about violence???? We'll talk about why we use it in our books, how we deal with it, and whether we impose personal limits on where we go. At least that's my plan!

My own reasons revolve around the need to challenge my characters enough to affect their behavior while in an "adventure" setting. But there are other reasons. The time periods I write about were pretty violent. Our own society is violent (I was just talking with a guy from Binghamton NY) and yet we live in a relatively peaceful era.

I'm going up now to try to finish off this scene with the nasty little attack. Hmmm...

More reports later.
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