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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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