Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would Elizabeth Bear Do?

Spoilers for "Spacelift" follow, in case anybody cares.


A lot of the feedback I received for "Spacelift" seemed to indicate to me that I wasn't ending the story on a conclusive enough note. Tying into Algis Budrys's seven point structure (I finally found a link!), perhaps I wasn't sending enough validation at the end. Or maybe not. The feeling I got was that Jorge's big transformation, his big reveal, came too late, was treated too shortly, and was anticlimactic. He spends a scene arguing with Adriana about what he's going to do . . . when he finally does it there is no surprise for the reader, and no real closure.

I decided the ending would work better if Jorge transforms himself into Magda's double just a bit earlier--before his confrontation with Adriana. Have Adriana spying on him, and have her confront him when she catches him in the act. The climax of the story, I think, is their confrontation. If the transformation occurs after this, it's anticlimactic. Hopefully, with the transformation occurring before, it's not.

Moving this transformation up, though, has had a couple of challenging consequences.

One thing I struggled with is how to refer to this character after this point. Jorge or Magda? He or she? I came down on the side of calling the character Jorge, reasoning that the name is tied to the underlying identity. Besides, Jorge tells Adriana that "Jorge" is the name closest to his true Catarine name.

But what about pronouns? Is Jorge-as-Magda a he or a she? To all outward appearances, after the shift Jorge is a girl. My initial thought was to use female pronouns. (Besides, if I stick with the male name and the male pronouns, won't it be easy for readers to lose sight of the fact that a change has taken place at all?)

A couple of readers have suggested I base that decision on how Jorge sees hemself. I haven't really explored Catarine concepts of gender in the story and it would be well beyond the scope of a 5,000 word story to do so. In my mind, gender roles in a society of shape-shifters are a lot more fluid, but if my mind is as far as that goes, what difference does it make? (Does it make any practical difference that Dumbledore is gay? Is he really gay if readers are never shown or told this within the narrative? Does it matter what I say about Jorge's gender, unless I make it explicit?)

On a tangential note, I've always been drawn to art that is gender-bending. I think this is largely due to the fact that my own views of gender are out of step with the prevailing conventional wisdom. I would like to write a story that can be classified as gender-bending, but I'm walking a fine line here, with pitfalls I can see on either side. If Jorge takes Magda's form but keeps his name and keeps being, for all intents and purposes, male, then I'm not really exploring gender here, am I? He's basically in full-body drag, no? On the other hand, if I start referring to Jorge as a she because of the shape shift, then I'm basically implying that gender is a superficial thing. (We may refer to transsexual people who have had sex reassignment by their outward gender, but the outward change they go through reflects a much more profound internal process.) I believe that gender roles are societally constructed to a much greater degree than we realize, but that doesn't mean it follows that gender identity is a superficial thing, as easily changed as a set of clothes. It takes a lot of soul searching for a transgender person to identify as such, and the whole point of identifying as transgender is that gender goes beyond what is visible from the outside. I don't want to be unintentionally insensitive to this.

And then there's the much more practical issue of whether my use of pronouns throws the reader straight out of the story. Right now I have passages like this:

A crashing sound broke Jorge’s concentration, and she turned around to see the lavatory door flapping against the bulkhead. Inside the darkened stall, she could just make out Adriana, eyes wide, sliding against the wall until she was kneeling on the floor by the toilet.

Now, I don't see why this is such a big deal. I mean, the first time maybe, sure. But once you figure out that Jorge is being referred to as "she," need this continue to throw you? But my First Reader has indicated that it does. Maybe it comes down to how we view the world and how adaptable we are to things that confound our expectation (particularly when it comes to gender). Granted, I'm the writer and not the reader here, but I'm confident that something like the above would not bother me. I'm hoping that I could ease the transition by adding a sentence where the shift in pronouns was made explicit. Something like "Jorge looked down at his hands--her hands--and . . . "

So, my eight readers, what do you think?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Short Story Analysis: Jaiden's Weaver

I often go through short stories that have been effective on me, analyzing their structure in depth and trying to figure out how they work. I'm especially likely to do this with stories I can get my hands on electronically, like Hugo nominees, because then I can copy and paste them into Open Office, triple space them, turn them into Windows Journal documents, and scribble all over them. I was doing this just today when I realized that my blog would be a good place to put my observations. This way I can find my analysis again later and possibly gain new insights or remember insights I've had but forgotten. (That certainly does happen to me. I'm so disappointed when I realize I've forgotten a hard-learned lesson and been banging my head against a wall, trying to reinvent the wheel.) (Blogs are a cliché-friendly zone, right?)

Anyway, today I followed a link on Mary Robinette Kowal's blog to her story "Jaiden's Weaver." I actually remember when Diamonds in the Sky came out, but even though I'm a fan of Kowal's, somehow I apparently managed not to read this story at the time. I think because it was an educational story anthology. That's dumb of me, I know, but what can I say?

"Jaiden's Weaver" is a sweet story with a determined young protagonist who is active in pursuing her own goals. If you're not turned off by young protagonists or sweet stories, then I encourage you to go give it a read whether you're interested in my ramblings or not. And then go read everything else by Kowal you can find, if you're a science fiction fan. You'll get to see what will surely be a long and successful writing career from near the beginning of its arc. You'll thank me later.

On the surface, this story seems to follow Algis Budrys's seven point story structure. (I used to have a link to an article by him on it bookmarked on my old computer, but not on this one, and Google is only leading me to other people's write-ups of his ideas. Which makes a pretty good argument either for storing my bookmarks off of my personal computer, or for throwing links up here like I've been doing.)

The character of Jaiden is pretty well-defined through the first person narrative. I find it extremely easy to identify with characters when they tell me what they're feeling and what they want. Her problems? Feeling trapped by the (admittedly beautiful) landscape in her steep valley home, and the tight finances of her family. Her goal is to get a spider teddy, which could solve both problems for her: she could explore the valley by riding the spider teddy, and the spider teddy's weavings could be sold for a profit.

We've got the typical three attempts to attain the goal. First Jaiden asks her parents to buy her a spider teddy egg, but they tell her they can't afford that. Then she drops hints in the hopes of receiving an egg for Christm Bottom Day, but, to her dismay, her parents merely buy her a toy spider teddy instead, and finances are again mentioned as a reason why Jaiden's goal is unattainable. Then, in true protagonist fashion, Jaiden takes matters into her own hands. Her third attempt is to raise the money to buy the egg herself, and in this she succeeds.

All this happens in just about 2500 words, and it doesn't feel at all skimpy. There's great world-building (a little too much on the rings for my taste, but then this is for an educational anthology), effective characterization (the parents are only painted in broad strokes, but something's gotta give when you're writing in such a short medium), and Jaiden's attempts to solve her problem are well-fleshed out. A perfect example of Budrys's structure.

Except . . .

Except that at this point, the story is just over half over. Once Jaiden gets her egg, we get to see her care for it, get to experience the hatching, and we live through an apparent disaster: the fact that her teddy spider is missing a leg. The story doesn't feel anticlimactic even though it keeps going after the initial goal is attained, because there are continuing complications: her parents' initial intent to put the deformed creature down, and Kali's consternation when she first tries and fails to weave normally.

Though the story works, I was at a bit of a loss to understand the mechanics of it, until I remembered something I read on Nancy Kress's blog some time back. (I want to attribute this advice to Arthur C. Clarke, but I have a tendency to attribute all sorts of writing advice to him, and it usually turns out to be apocryphal.) As Kress related it, a good short story should have two unrelated problems, or two situations, and the resolution of one should tie up the other as well. Looked at in that light, Jaiden's Weaver isn't over when Jaiden gets her spider teddy because the family's finances are still strapped--more so if they must now care for a large disabled pet. The story can't end, then, until Kali grows a bit and manages to prove the doubts about her ability to weave to be groundless. Since this takes time to happen, the other complications basically keep the story moving until that point.

At least, that's what I'm seeing. Now I need to go back and see how she accomplishes all that she des in so few words. Kowal is a master of this; her Hugo-winning "Evil Robot Monkey" isn't even a thousand words, IIRC. Clearly she's good at making every word carry as much meaning as possible, so she doesn't have to belabor points like I tend to. (I think this may be a place where my love of detail gets in my way. Attention to detail is a good thing, when it takes the form of a few Telling Details, but I need to get away from feeling like I need to flesh out an entire universe in each short story.)

One thing I'm noticing with a quick scan through is how short Kowal's paragraphs tend to be. In particular, they seem to get shorter as the story moves on, except at key moments--when the egg hatches, and when Kali learns to weave successfully. Those are the moments Kowal describes the most thoroughly, after the first few paragraphs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This is what I want to write

(This isn't normally a book review blog, but this book got me thinking about the line between MG and YA, and on which side of it I fall.)

I was browsing the kids' department at BAM with my daughters the other day--aren't kids just the perfect excuse to be un-adult?--when I came across this beautiful cover for The Shifter, by Janice Hardy. My daughter Ana wanted to read it but didn't want to blow so much allowance on a hardcover; I offered to go halfsies on it, and let her keep it as long as I got to read it first. :-)

I was intrigued by this book--aside from the obvious SpecFic elements--because it seems to straddle the MG/YA line, just like my own writing does. I had a totally serendipitous chance to chat with a literary agent the other day, who asked, pretty much out of the blue, about my own writing, and I was fairly incoherent in trying to explain that I write YA but with protagonists that are closer to MG in age. In hindsight, I should have said something like "the low end of YA," but I hadn't been thinking in terms of making an elevator pitch. Shame on me. Anyway, I'm trying to get a feel for whether I should go one way or another, at least as an unpublished writer, so as not to defy easy classification. I look at books that are clearly MG, and I often feel like I can't write that. Sometimes--particularly when it's SpecFic--they have a twee, almost fairy-tale-ish tone about them that I personally would find condescending; other times . . . not, but I still don't feel capable of writing like some the samples I've looked at. They tend to use a more limited vocabulary than I usually want to use, and be more superficial in the emotions of their characters. (I'm not saying this represents all of MG; just what I often seem to pick up.) When I analyze my own writing, I seem much closer in tone to the YA I read--and I enjoy reading YA in general more than I enjoy reading MG--but I tend to write about younger characters.

I want to write the sorts of books I wanted to read when I was that age. (Which I still enjoy reading now. ;-) ) I guess early YA is a good way to put it. I know that there is such a thing, because I see it mentioned from time to time. (Or maybe, and here's the point, there's such a thing as "late MG," though I've never heard of that, that straddles the line from the other side.)

So anyway, I was intrigued by this book because it was shelved in the kids' section, not the teen section, but when I picked it up, it didn't seem to fall into that twee/unsophisticated category I don't care for. I mean, here are the first two paragraphs:

Stealing eggs is a lot harder that stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack, and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don't like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it's close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

This to me is a lot more sophisticated. I love the voice of this narrator. I love the matter-of-fact discussion of stealing--this suggests already that it will be a morally challenging work, which is one of the things that I think seem to separate YA from MG. (It also kind of reminds me of some of my own first person writing, if it's not too presumptuous of me to say so.)

So maybe this book's presence in the children's section was an indication that the kind of kids' books I like to read and write could possibly be MG rather than YA. I decided to read it and find out.

This book is a lot of fun. If you like to read YA or if you are buying a book as a gift for a kid, I recommend it. It features an intriguing magic system and world-building that just inspire my imagination. I totally lost myself in this world, and I loved Nya, the protagonist. I will certainly read the next two books in the trilogy.

From a writing standpoint, there is a lot for me to learn from Hardy. What really struck me as I read--because this is precisely what I'm working on at the moment--is how the tension on Nya never lets up. Literally. I don't know if I've ever read a book, written for any age, that managed that as beautifully as this one. Nya seriously never has a moment of peace. Resolving one problem always leads to the next one. And the story consists of one difficult moral dilemma followed by another. And these aren't easy choices. Nya repeatedly has to make decisions about whom to help and whom to let suffer--or whom to make suffer. Nya is a likable character who wants to do the right thing at every turn. It's not clear that she does do the right thing each time, but if she fails anywhere, it's not because she doesn't care. (And Hardy puts in repeated "save the cat" moments to make it clear that Nya really wants to help everyone that she can. Sometimes you just can't do right by everyone, though, no matter how badly you want to.)

My favorite books and stories, YA or adult, are those that pose challenging moral questions to the reader and don't answer them. I don't like being preached at, but I do like being invited to think.

It's really hard to put this book down, between the moral dilemmas and the constant worrying about what danger Nya is going to face next.

There are ways in which I think The Shifter could have been improved. Often it felt like Hardy glossed over details, like she was racing to get to the next big thing. Often I was unable to picture a setting in my mind. A character would do something that I hadn't realized was possible because my concept of the scene wasn't accurate and needed hasty revising. This certainly could have been my failure as a reader, but it's not something I often encounter in my reading, leading me to believe it was the book. Similarly, the political history and the rules of magic often felt glossed over. There were plenty of times when I was confused, and if I was confused, how much more confused would a less experienced reader be?

Additionally, there was a section at the end where all of Nya's friends basically hash over those moral dilemmas, and reassure Nya that her choices were, in fact, the right ones. (Okay, they are arguing the point among themselves, but the argument is pretty quickly resolved in Nya's favor.) As a reader, I didn't care for this. First of all, the climax had passed and I felt that continuing the story for so many more pages got anti-climactic. Beyond that, I think it cheapens the moral dilemmas. Remember my point about books that raise moral questions but don't answer them? (This doesn't exactly violate that preference, because the opinions of characters do not necessarily translate into a definitive answer. I certainly still think there is room for debate on whether or not Nya made the right choices.) Having the characters reassure Nya at the end that she did nothing wrong makes the guilt that Nya suffers feel like Mary Sue guilt--this is unfortunate, because I don't see Nya as Mary Sue-ish in general.

(If you're not familiar with Mary Sue guilt, it goes more or less like this: Protagonists should not be perfect, we are told, so the author gives Mary Sue something to have done and feel guilty for. But the author can't bear to give Mary Sue any actual faults, so instead it's a fault that Mary Sue perceives in herself, that nobody else can possibly agree with. At the end, in the big reveal, where everybody tells poor suffering Mary Sue how much they love her, all the other characters reassure her that they never saw her as flawed at all. That really isn't a fair description of what's happening here, but that scene, for me, treaded the line. I think it would have helped if Aylin, the character who questioned Nya's choices, had stuck to her conviction that Nya was wrong to do as she did. She could have stayed on Nya's side, and kept being her friend, but still believed that some of her actions were ultimately wrong. From a reader's standpoint, having likable characters who disagree reinforces the point that there are no easy answers, and gives readers permission to form their own opinions.)

In the end, I'm not sure if this book really answered my question about YA versus MG. It was shelved in the kids' section, and Harper Collins has it categorized as a children's book, but Nya appears to be around fifteen or sixteen--I don't think we are given an exact age, but I seem to recall her mentioning early on that she could pass for eighteen--putting us right in YA, agewise. There isn't any overt sexuality, that I can recall. There are some twitterpations of like, and the suggestion that Nya and Danello will have romantic possibilities as the series progresses. I seem to recall some unexplicit mentions of bad things that could happen to homeless kids, and maybe an unexplicit reference to the existence of prostitution. Certainly YA can get a lot heavier than that. If I'd simply read this book, I'd probably call it YA though, based on the sophistication of the writing--vocabulary-wise, this book makes no concessions--and on the age of the protagonist.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

::insert sound of torpedo tube firing::

I dropped a story in the mail today. Well okay, today's Sunday. So I put a story in an envelope, sealed it, and put it by the door. Same thing. This baby hasn't been exposed to the mean, cruel world out there yet--on the upside, it hasn't garnered a single rejection yet! I'm sending it to Fantasy and Science Fiction, which Duotrope lists as one of the twenty-five hardest markets to crack. Go me.

I revised it until I thought it was as good as I could get it. Then I revised it until I thought I couldn't revise it any more. Then I revised it some more. Lots more. I've lost my first draft somewhere along the way, but I'd say I've culled two thousand words from this sucker.

You know? I think I'm getting halfway decent at this revision thing. Time will tell, but I feel as though the words, clauses, and sentences that aren't moving the story forward and need to go are starting to jump out at me. Maybe not compared to people who aren't naturally as given to overwriting as I am, but certainly compared to where I was a year or two ago.

Some day I need to look back and chart my [past] course. I'm vaguely aware that at different times over the last few years I've focused heavily on different elements of my craft, and I've seen improvement in each. I've got to think that sooner or later I'll reach the point that pushes me over the top, and makes me good enough to be professionally published. All I have to do is keep working at it.

I'm a bit torn right now over what to do next. I've got an old short story that I love that I'm thinking I ought to revise and send out. I've got a much newer short story that probably already has a lot more polish, that would probably take less effort to get out the door. I'm also feeling the urge to write something new. And then of course there's Vanishing Act. Most folks would tell me that should be my highest priority, but here's the thing: I can have one of my already-written shorts out the door in a week or two. I can have a new story written and ready to go in not much longer. Vanishing Act is going to take a lot more work. Doesn't it make more sense to do that work while some stories are out and circulating, looking for print homes? And if one of my stories should actually get bought, wouldn't that make my novel query that much stronger?

Who knows. One thing I do know is that I have learned a lot by focusing on my short stories. Short stories require a level of tightness that people tend to think novels can get away with lacking. If I hadn't focused on my shorts for the past year, maybe I'd be in that camp. Instead, I've learned lessons that I think will help my longer fiction, and that I think make me a better critter for others as well.

Now it's time to go apply them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm learning to revise, but I ain't got wings

Something in Jennifer Jackson's livejournal last week, along with a conversation I was having in Starbuck's with my wife today, got me thinking about how my approach to getting published has changed over the years. When I wrote Prototype, the internet certainly existed, but it wasn't quite as big a thing as it is now. Virtually no agents blogged, and most of the information I had about the publishing process came from books about publishing or writing. Some of those books were fantastic--Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy stands out as an excellent guide to writing in general, not just F&SF. ( dates it as 2001, but I read my copy in 1992.) Many of them were useless. (No links to useless books, sorry.) The useless ones contained--at least, my memory, which may be faulty, says they contained--lots of platitudes but little concrete advice. And then there were the articles in Writer's Market and the novel and short story version of same.

I had no conception back then of where the bar was. I knew it was higher than I'd reached yet, but I was clueless in so many ways. The existence of agent and editor and writer blogs has really opened my eyes to what the common pitfalls are, and I've also found it easier to sift through the tons of advice out there and find the good stuff. (Maybe because reading blogs involves less committment. If I check a book on writing out of the library and it seems to suck, I'm likely to keep plowing through in the hopes that I'll find some gem in it. It's mine for a couple of weeks, so I might as well. I've already made the effort to go to the library once, and exchanging it for another book is going to be a hassle. But when I read a blog post and it's not useful, I don't keep digging for more unless that blogger has already proven him- or herself to be a source of good advice. It takes no effort to keep looking until I find the good stuff. And any OCD sense of obligation I have toward the writer (ask me why I never fail to finish books I start) is satisfied by completing a blog post--I don't have to read someone's entire oeuvre. So over the last couple of years, I've found far more good advice than I found in all the years before.


I grew up being constantly told that I was a talented writer. I always got good grades in English, I wrote for the yearbook and the newspaper (and eventually edited the newspaper). I won schoolwide writing contests. And when English teachers talked about drafting, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, because the truth was that I didn't do this. My first draft and my final draft were separated by almost nothing. A cursory read-through for typos, and that was about it. And that was good enough, because all I was looking for was grammar and spelling mistakes, and grammar and spelling have always come easily to me. I think the biggest adjustment I've made in the last couple of years is realizing that this wasn't serving me in fiction-writing. When I wrote (the perhaps ironically named) Prototype, I did my usual read-through, and my wife did a read-through. And we looked for more than spelling and grammar, it's true, but we didn't put a lot of effort into the revision process. For me, it was a lot more than I was used to doing, but in hindsight I realize how laughable it was.

The last few years have taught me that fiction takes a lot more work. My grammar and spelling are clean, but am I telling instead of showing? Am I overusing adverbs? To-be verbs? Junk phrases? Is there enough tension? Is my protagonist doing, or is s/he witnessing while others do? Am I using generic descriptions and verbs instead of vivid ones? Am I being verbose and boring? (Yes!)

I wasn't trained to look out for these things as a young writer. If my writing was clean, that was good enough. I became an effective writer, but not an effective storyteller. I'm still working on that.

My English teachers would be so happy. After all these years, I've finally become someone who writes multiple drafts and works his ass off on revising.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We all agree there is something to be learned from the music industry; we just don't agree on what

I've been absent from the blogosphere for a while (duh) and I'm going through the stuff that my feed reader hasn't given up on and thrown away yet. (I'm not positive how it works, but it only seems to keep stuff for about a month before it tosses it.) I just ran across this post by Rachelle Gardner. It's been a month since the entry was posted, and it already has 122 comments, so I don't see much value in trying to sound off in the conversation over there. Either it's over, or I'll be lost in the throng. Still, it was food for thought, so I figured I'd blog about it over here.

In this month's backlog, I have encountered a lot of handwringing over what the demise of the music industry can teach us about digital rights. Most of it has expressed the belief that we as a society didn't step in to protect the music industry from those evil pirates, and now the music industry is dead, and the publishing world is next. Woe is us.

I find that version of history ridiculous. The RIAA is the victim?! Absurd. Gardner is just about the only blogger I've read this month who, in my opinion, actually gets what really happened right:

We have only to look at what happened to the music industry to see that this is exactly the kind of step publishers should be taking. The big mistake the music business made was turning a blind eye on the fact that new technology was making it easier for artists to record and distribute their own music. They refused to try and be part of the new landscape and instead tried to fight against it. It was devastating for the industry, which has never recovered. They could have joined in and been part of the innovation and revolution; they could have had a piece of the pie. Instead they lost their shirts.

Now I don't know that I actually agree with her conclusions. It's not clear to me that the situations are truly analogous. I don't have an opinion yet on the publishing side of this, except the opinion that I'm just not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion. But this matches my memory of what happened with the music industry.

I believe that back at the turn of the century, before people were set in their ways and used to not paying for digital content, people would have greatly preferred a legal, official option for buying just the songs they wanted. People by and large want to do things the right way; they don't prefer to steal. A legal iTunes or Amazon type scheme would have worked. Instead, people rejected the RIAA's insistence that they pay for an entire album for the privilege of owning one song, but finding no legal alternative, and finding easy illegal alternatives, they turned to those instead.

I'm not defending the morality of illegal downloads; I'm simply describing reality. Illegal downloads were easy and free, and the RIAA had no competing product. By the time they started offering legal downloads, a downloading culture was in place, and it was difficult to dislodge that. (Especially when the alternative we were finally offered was iTunes, a crappy product that limited the number of devices you could hear your music on, and, at the time, prevented you from converting your purchases to MP3 without a second stage of lossy compression. When you're the last guy on the scene, an inferior product is not likely to win the masses to you.) Now you get spurious moral arguments, like "it's not stealing, it's sharing." But if the music industry had not foolishly attempted to wish the internet out of existence, I think things would have played out differently.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An oldie but a goodie

Elmore Leonard on writing.

I promise I'll get back to content and stop it with the link soup soon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

More linky goodness

This from INTERN:

-Open novel to a random page
-Read a couple paragraphs, or at most, a couple pages
-Can you tell what the conflict is, or what the character is yearning for? Can you explain, in just a few words, what these paragraphs are doing and why?

It can be as concrete as "she is trying to catch the rattlesnake" or as abstract as "he is struggling to understand his son's anger".

I've encountered more or less this advice before, but it's a good reminder--and a hard pill to swallow.

Some good advice on revision

. . . from Jacqueline Lichtenberg. I'm quoting it here so I can remember and think about it later.

7 points to self-test a novel for "quality"

1) PLOT INTEGRITY - check to make sure what I call the "because-line" actually tracks logically. If YOU think it tracks, ask someone you don't know to read it then ask them questions about why things happened in the novel. To FIX missing links, make sure every event happens BECAUSE OF the initial event. Anything with a very tight PLOT (PLOT = BECAUSE LINE) but very little EXPOSITION will sell somewhere (that's from Robert A. Heinlein).

2) CHARACTER MOTIVATION (i.e. the STORY-LINE which is the sequence of emotional states that leads the main character to change) must be clear to the target readership (not just to you). You have to explain WHY people do things in SHOW rather than TELL -- that WHY is inside the chosen plot events. When a character DOES SOMETHING the world responds with a LOGICAL consequence from which the CHARACTER derives a (possibly illogical but human) LESSON which the CHARACTER tests by doing something different "next time" which CAUSES (plot-line) another logical consequence, until the character has learned his/her lesson (theme=lesson learned)

3) When you've got both these lines whole, complete, transparent, accessible to your target reader, and precisely formulated to the genre that the symbolism belongs to, when everything makes complete sense, REDUCE THE WHOLE THING to an outline (chapter-by-chapter, describe what happens, why, and what it means in just 2 or 3 complete sentences -- this is your sales tool for your pitch). If you can't do that reduction, there's something wrong with the structure. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NOT VIOLATED A TROPE OF YOUR GENRE (that is the real criteria by which Manhattan Agents and Editors work - trope-trope-trope.) Trope is often the cause of the PACING issue that editors will cite when rejecting. Editors don't know what's wrong or how to fix it. They're not writers. That's your job. Readers expect you to do your job. If you don't, they call the work badly written or low quality.

4) Go back and DELETE 15% of the words, cut-cut-cut, use better words, delete all the adjectives and adverbs, and shift to well-chosen words. Then if necessary add-add-add to get the exact length for the genre. Then delete almost all the EXPOSITION. Take what's left and break it up like a sonic beam breaks up a kidney stone. Pulverize the exposition and sprinkle it here and there in LOGICAL sequence. The trick with exposition is to make the reader curious to know the fact you need to impart -- take about 50 pages to build the curiosity -- meanwhile drive up the suspense until the reader just HAS TO KNOW. Then tell them in a dependent clause buried in the middle of something -- use an oblique reference, nothing "on the nose." Make the reader FIGURE OUT what you want to tell them in exposition. That's a dodge for SHOW DON'T TELL -- make the reader think it's their own idea, not yours. If you do the work for them, they don't have any fun even though you do. Writing is selling FUN, which means you have to give away your fun in return for money. So you don't get to tell. You have to work to induce the reader to figure it out.

5) Send it out to test readers you DON'T KNOW and who don't know you personally (not work-shoppers you see every month- actual people who have no stake in stroking your ego -- yes, building a cadre of such folks you have access to is one thing online networking can do best). Get tech experts in fields you have used to check the facts.

6) NOW - after all that, you polish the text, not just running spell check, but going through the whole MS looking for word-substitution typos, bad sentence structure, wordy constructions "Well, the fact of the matter is that he lied" becomes "Well... he lied." Don't use grammar-check, learn grammar.

7) Yet another test reader, one who knows grammar, punctuation, spelling and reads books from your target publisher in your target genre. (each publishing house has a style sheet dictating grammar, spelling, punctuation). That's your final step - no sense polishing words you're going to delete. In hand-written times, that was known as "making a fair copy." On foolscap.
I'm pretty good at the grammar and polish part . . . I just need to make sure I'm doing a good job with plot integrity and character motivation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Food for thought

Nancy Kress on Al Zuckerman on blockbuster novels

I'm not interested in writing to a very specific formula, but it's interesting and informative to look at one (very educated) opinion on what people are after. As Kress summarizes, the characteristics of blockbuster novels, with notable exceptions, are:

  • a clear protagonist, usually sympathetic, that we want to succeed
  • characters who are not Everyman, but rather are "larger than life," by which he means driving hard to get whatever it is they're striving for, whatever that takes
  • multiple point of view (despite having one main character) to "open up" the story and let the reader know more of what's going on than the protagonist does
  • a "big" setting: the Civil War, international espionage, the world of the New York Mafia, the million-dollar art world, Mars
  • very high stakes
  • personal as well as professional relationships among characters on opposite sides of the struggle
  • a lot of action, all building to a climax that changes everything for the characters
  • usually, victory for the protagonist

It's just a flesh wound . . .

The thing with knowing I'm too wordy/my stories are too long is that sometimes I find myself going through manuscripts pointing at chunks and saying, "This can go," with more regard for whether it's necessary than for whether it's good. Fair enough--the art of the short story is precisely the art of writing without a wasted word, no? But where is the point where I actively make my story worse, by chopping to the point where it gets, well, choppy? Sometimes I'm afraid I'm taking something that's basically okay and damaging it in the name of brevity.

No answers, today. Just questions.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New School Year, 1/4 down (Self-Analysis Edition)

So the new school year is 1/4th past now. Now I have two AP preps, as opposed to last year, when I had one (and the year before, when I had none). In some ways, Calculus AB is like a new prep to me too, because I'm approaching it rather differently this year than last year. Last year my students' pass rate wasn't what I hoped it would be, so I'm trying different strategies--different and time-consuming.

Still, I tend to find the first quarter the most draining, in terms of my personal time. The reason for this is that I don't believe in spending a ton of time reviewing material from previous classes--especially when teaching honors or AP classes. So I tend to fly through the early parts of the curricula, hoping that in so doing I can free up time for me to go more slowly later on in the year, when we cover material that is actually new to the kids. The consequence of that for me is much more frequent quizzing and testing, and so a heavier pile of grading. The fourth quarter gets rough too, but that's just at the very end.

So it's time to get off my ass when it comes to writing. I've hardly done any writing or revising at all since the start of August, and I am properly ashamed about that. (In my defense, I have done more than you could tell by looking at this blog. I sacrifice blogging before I sacrifice writing. Since my last blog post, I have revised two short stories and done some preliminary planning on a new YA novel. Not a lot, I know, but not nothing.)

A huge problem of mine, and one I need to work on, is my tendency toward perfectionism--more in teaching than in writing, actually. For the past nine weeks, I have averaged around four hours of sleep a night on school nights. When I grade, I don't just mark stuff wrong--I make detailed comments explaining where student work went wrong. But most kids don't look at that; they just look at the number at the top and put the thing away. So I need to find a way to help the kids that want help, but not spend my whole life on grading. I also operate a forum where I answer questions from kids, but I tend to spend too much time on silly details. For instance, the forum doesn't support LaTeX or any other mathematical mark-up features, so I make mathematical expressions with other software, capture it as an image, and upload it that way. But then I waste time trying to get the typeface and the background to match, so that it will look as if it were actually native text instead of an image. Who the hell cares? Well, besides me, that is.

(Not all the things I spend time on are that silly. I spend several hours each weekend on lesson planning, where other teachers tell me they spend maybe a half hour. I almost never give kids seatwork in class, which means I can't get my work done while they're doing that, which means all my grading and lesson-planning and communicating with parents are always take-home work. I tutor kids four afternoons a week. I think a lot of these things make me a better teacher, but it's time for me to start thinking about bang for my buck, and about when I get time to be more than my job.)

It's not perfectionism, exactly. It's that I'm very detail-oriented. As a consumer, I appreciate that tendency in the art and craft I most enjoy. That's what I love about Disney--both their movies and their architecture. Always that little bit of extra "Ah ha!" for those of us who are looking out for it. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of the Indigo Girls--those amazing harmonies are like that little bit of extra detail that most artists don't bother with. That's what I loved about the original Star Wars trilogy: the sense that there was a greater storyline, and that someone behind the art already knew where this was all going. (That's probably why I'm more of a plotter than a pantser.)

I have a difficult time giving myself permission to not get the details right. I think as an artist, this leads to some of my strengths. I think I use foreshadowing well. I also think I'm good at throwing in little self-referential "symbols," for lack of a better word. Of course, this also leads to my tendency to spend too long revising.

As a teacher, this focus on details may be hurting me, and, ironically enough, making me less successful. I spend so much time doing things that nobody notices. Things that nobody particularly appreciates. I may be the hardest-working teacher I know; but I don't necessarily work smart. Who appreciates that I stay up until 2 am or wake up at 4 am to grade or lesson plan? Am I crankier or less effective during the day because I'm tired from working so hard? Am I crankier or less effective because I put my artistic dreams on hold for so much of the school year?

I had a bit of an epiphany at the end of the last quarter. I tend to fall behind on my projects because of my perfectionism. If I don't have time to do it perfectly, I'll wait until I do. Eventually, some things become emergencies, and that's when I finally give myself permission to cut corners, to do less than a perfect job. It occurred to me that perhaps on some level I fall behind on purpose, as a way of giving myself permission to cut those corners. (Ironically enough, nobody notices the difference between when I cut corners and when I don't, though they certainly do notice when I'm behind.)

The trick, then, is to learn to back off on the things I do for my day job without waiting until things are emergencies.

We'll see . . .