I earned an MFA from Wayne State University in Detroit. I've published over a dozen short stories in various magazines and e-zines. My novel, "The Dragons of Hazlett", is now out, and I have two new novels which will be published by Mundania Press, LLC this year and in 2011.
It occurred to me the other day that some of the slang that writers use isn't always easily understandable to the uninitiated. Therefore, here are a few simple terms and phrases to help you navigate writers' websites, chat rooms, and other sites:
Beta reader (or betas) - (n) readers who give critiques and advice on a writer's work in progress. This step usually takes place when the book has been completely finished, but before it is sent off to a publisher or agent.
Dialogue tags (or speech tags) - (n) those bits of description that are conjoined to a characters dialogue. For example: "But, Henry," Kristen said with tears in her eyes, "I thought you liked yogurt."
Fan Fic - fan fiction (n) a type of fiction written by fans of pre-existing stories, especially those in a television series. For example, many people who enjoy Star Trek and The X-Files write fan fic about the series.
Genre - (n) a subcategory or type of fiction such as fantasy, historical romance, horror, etc.
ISBN - International Standard Book Number (n) a unique identification code for books that are published internationally.
MC - main character (n) the protagonist or main character in a work of fiction. For example, Ishmael is the mc in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
POV - point of view (n) the perspective from which a book is written. First person and third person points of view are most common; however, second person pov is also possible.
Scifi - Science fiction (n) a genre of literature usually involving, although not limited to, space and/or time travel, advanced technology, interplanetary exploration, etc.
Voice - (n) the tone and style of a story, oftentimes the thumbprint of the author. Voice includes such things as word choice, sentence length, pacing, etc.
WC - word count (n) the number of words in a particular story or book.
WIP - work in progress (n) the manuscript(s) that the author is currently working on.
If you're lucky enough to have published a piece of fiction, you've certainly signed a contract with the publisher. Whether your piece was a short story or a novel, a poem or an editorial, you gave the publisher permission to be the first one to print your work in his or her publication.
Until these rights expire, an author may not sell her work to other markets. The contract she signs with her publisher will set forth how long the rights extend. Generally, for a short story being printed in a magazine, the rights will be set at a year. For novels, this may be different.
As simple as this sounds, confusion still abounds. If an author self-publishes her work (either by posting it on a blog or going through a self-publishing agency such as Lulu or Publish America), she has already used up her first printing rights. If she's posted her work on a message board or an online group critique forum (unless that forum has adhered to certain standards such as a 'members only' or 'password protected' policy and is unintended to be viewed by the general public), she may have already used up her first rights. And if the first rights have already been used up, many publishers will not reprint it. So be careful!
Living in the moment is important; writing for the moment is not. Good writers give their writing staying power. That is, they work to make sure that what they write sounds as current to a reader today as it will to a reader in twenty years.
There is a tendency among some writers (and I lay claim to this fault as well!) to insert such things as brand names or current iconic figures in their writing. I think this is an attempt to connect with the readers, and to make the fiction seem very 'now' and 'current'. But what seems hip and new and oh-so-cool right now will be passe and dated and completely out of vogue in a very short time.
For example, let's say that a writer five years ago, wanting to be current, writes the following:
Tom turned off the television, sick of the Hurricane Katrina coverage. There was so much tragedy in the world, so many people suffering! Not that his family cared. His middle daughter was pouting because he wouldn't let her go to the movie with her friend so that they would worship their idol, Hillary Duff. And his son was already begging him for a Nintendo DS, and the toy hadn't even been released in the U.S. yet! His kids had no idea how good they had it.
Now, let's try that with all of the trendy parts removed:
Tom turned off the television, sick of watching the news. There was so much tragedy in the world, so many people suffering! Not that his family cared. His middle daughter was pouting because he wouldn't let her go to the movies with her friend. And his son was already begging him for a video game that wouldn't be released in the U.S. for another month. His kids had no idea how good they had it.
Which of these scenarios sounds more current? The first one, with all of the references to pop stars and news headlines, definitely reads like it was written in 2004. The other one would have been current in 2004, 2009, and - unless things change drastically - 2020.
Whenever possible, leave out references to current cultural trends, news stories, and even brand names because when you do, you are placing a big 'sell by this date' sticker on your work. In this world, things change in a heartbeat. What sounds current now will only sound dated by the time your work is published.
Unless you are writing a period piece, you you don't want to date your writing. period.
* Grab the book nearest to you. * Turn to page 56.* Find the fifth sentence. * Post the sentence with instructions on your blog. * Post link to Storytime with Tonya and Friends. * Don't dig for your favorite book, the coolest, the most intellectual. Use the closest.
Or, if you prefer, just place the sentence in comments here.
Here's my contribution (from my son's copy of Weird Michigan) : "Besides inventing and perfecting illusions and escape techniques, Houdini was very interested in spiritualism."
There are so many lovely words in the English language, aren't there? Quixotic, erudite, tenebrous... All those lovely adverbs and adjectives just waiting to be used by the likes of us. Like shopping in an exquisite candy store, sometimes it's difficult to reign ourselves in. (Besides, unlike the candy store, words are free!)
But we have to. Most times, restraint and not overabundance is what makes a writer good. Consider this:
"Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon. The scent of fresh snow. Her eyes were dark birds in fresh snow. They were the birds' shadows, they were mirrors; they were the legends on old charts. They were antique armor and the tears of dragons. Her brows were a raptor's sharp, anxious wings. They were a pair of scythes. Her ears were a puzzle carved in ivory. Her teeth were her only bracelet; she carried them within the red velvet purse of her lips. Her tongue was amber. Her tongue was a ferret, an anemone, a fox caught in the teeth of a tiger."
Now, not every author has a style that I appreciate, but this is WAY over the top (and, yes, this is an actual quote from a book published by a major publishing house. I was first alerted to it by a post on Live-Journal.) The above selection is an extreme example, but sometimes it takes an extreme example to make a point.
This kind of writing should be done as a warm up activity only. Or, it can even be helpful to brainstorm in this way. Frequently, I wil freewrite for ten minutes when I'm confronting a passage of description. But after I put those words on paper, I edit my work. Three paragraphs of writing may be condensed down to a single sentence or two.
Grapes, wine, and pansies can all be purple. But never, ever, let your prose get that way!
If you're like me, the moment you finish writing a story (or a novel, or a poem, or whatever), you want to dash off a thousand queries to a thousand markets in the hope that one will accept it. There's something about typing the words 'The End' at the bottom of the last page that make me want to send that manuscript off pronto!
But when I feel this way, I always remember those immortal words, "Patience, Grasshopper."
Over the years, I've found that the very last thing I should do when I first finish a story is send it out. That's because finishing a work is a lot like finally consummating a passionate, oftentimes rocky, relationship. You've struggled with writing the story, maybe even laid awake at nights thinking about it. The plot has thwarted you. The descriptions have plagued you. The characters have evaded you. But now you're finished. It's a genuine high. (I've been known to literally do a dance in my office after finishing a piece, much in the same way that quarterbacks will dance in the end zone after completing a touchdown.)
This is the time you'll have that post-consummation, dreamy feeling about your story. You won't see its flaws; you'll only be rejoicing that you've finally finished the darn thing. You'll be thinking of seeing your name on the printed page and fan mail and royalties.
What you need (and what your story needs) at this point is a good dose of reality. You need to look at your work - not with those dreamy, lovey-dovey eyes - but with the cold, hard eyes of someone who has woken up the next morning and realized that she's written a book (or a story or whatever).
Once you complete that story - even if you've been editing all along - set it aside. For a week. Better yet, if you can stand it, for a month. Then re-read it carefully. Read it out loud to yourself, in fact. You'll be amazed at what you discover. Those words you thought were all perfectly spelled, that carefully crafted plot, those passages of description... There is nothing like time and distance to make the flaws in your writing stand out (and I am saying this from a lot of personal experience).
When you send your work off to the agent or market of your choice, you want to be 100% confident that your work is the very best it can be. For that, you need to give yourself some time away from your work.
National Public Radio is hosting another writers' competition. This one has to do with writing titles. In honor (well, kind of) of the late Robert Ludlum, NPR is asking listeners to tweet their attempts at the worst possible title for a spy movie. In order to read the entries, go to Twitter and enter #AbsurdSpyMovies in the 'search' box. Some of my favorites include: The Carradine Complication, The Freudian Fling, and "Live and Let Tie-Dye". I'm also proud of mine: The Gordian Nautilus.
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Okay, onto today's real topic. Slush.
No one likes to think about slush piles. Not editors, not agents, and certainly not writers. The very idea of a slush pile can make hardened writers tremble and turn gray. Today's blog title, "4,000 to 1" is actually a statistic that was posted on Mike Resnick's recent article Slush. This is the odds of a new writer being accepted by Asimov's magazine. And the picture for today's post? You guessed it - it's a slush pile.
Over the next few posts, I hope to help you improve your slush-pile odds. But let me be clear: I cannot guarantee that you will be accepted!! I am speaking as a somewhat newbie writer myself (though, I will say that I have a dozen or more publishing credits!) Certainly, I suffer from slush and rejections as much as anyone.
But even though there is no magic formula to success, there are concrete things that you, as a writer, can do to help your manuscript the best it can be and - hopefully - make it to the top of the slush pile.
It's been so long since I've last written that when I tried to enter the Blogspot site, I was sent to the login page. It's like being asked for your ID at the neighborhood bar. But to be fair, I haven't written in a while.
Sometimes summer just gets in the way.
Well, I'm back with a few new ideas for posts (including some on how to proofread a story and what makes a story work), but for today, I'd like to share a fun bit that I found on NPR (National Public Radio).
Writing flash fiction is difficult. It may not seem that way, but it is. The fewer words a story contains, the more difficult it is to tell the story. It's like trying to run a household on a tight budget. There's no room for extras.
Enter NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Writing contest. Last June, National Public Radio asked its listeners to submit stories that could be read in three minutes or less. After slogging through 5,000 submissions, the results are in. You can read the winning entries here.
Flash fiction has never been something I've been able to write. I guess I'm just too verbose. But I had a fun time reading these winning entries, and I hope you will too.
I knew fairly early on after completing my novel that I wanted to publish with a small press. I'd run the gauntlet of submitting to major publishing houses before and, having some idea of the massive slushpiles and phenomenally long response times, didn't feel up to the task this time around. Agents, of course, are another route, but the first agent I queried (a big name in the speculative fiction markets) said that he thought the world in which my book took place was too unbelievable. Worrying that other agents might feel the same way, I began to seriously consider an alternative.
The obvious place to begin looking for a small press was the Internet. The first thing I discovered is that there are a lot of small presses! Some of these I immediately rejected because they weren't very established: their author lists were quite short and their name recognition seemed to stretch only as far as the boundaries of their web page. Others didn't print speculative fiction. When I came across Mundania, however, I found that it met all my criteria. It had a history of publication with many authors, it was well rated on the writing advocate websites I checked, and its authors produce quality, award-winning work. After researching the company, I knew I'd found a place to submit.
Not that submitting to a small press is a sure-fire guarantee that an author will be published. Like the major houses, small houses like Mundania receive a significant amount of queries. And the numbers of submissions keeps increasing. Right now, Mundania estimates that it only accept one query in five-hundred. Anyone assuming that a small press does not have high standards and therefore will publish anything is wrong. When I received an e-mail from the publisher letting me know that my novel had been accepted, I was thrilled. I knew that I'd accomplished something major.
Since then, my experiences have been very positive, and I like that I've been able to cut my publishing teeth with a small press. The editors are very easy to work with and the publishers work hard to keep their writers happy. There is ample opportunity to network with other Mundania authors. I've been able to give input into such things as my cover art and am allowed to ask questions and offer opinions. Perhaps most importantly, there have not been major turnovers in staff and therefore I have not been passed around to people who aren't familiar with my work.
I am finding, however, that there are stigmas against publishing with a small press. Some people seem to think that "small press" and "vanity press" are the same thing. This is not true. Mundania passes the vanity press litmus test with flying colors. That is, they pay me for my work; I do not pay them. And although I was not given an advance, my royalty percentages are the same as those given to authors at larger houses. In fact, Mundania's royalties on e-books are significantly greater than those offered by large publishing houses.
Another difference between larger houses and a small press is exposure. This seems to be a sticking point for some people who think that, because a small press author is expected to promote her books, she is somehow being taken advantage of by the publisher. However, authors in larger houses - especially new authors - are expected to do this as well. Bookstore signings, speaking engagements, public appearances, maintaining an author website and blog are all tools that all authors must to use if they want to promote their books and boost sales. For writers who are unsure of whether or not to try a small press, I would highly recommend it but with a caveat. Do your research to make sure that the publishers you are interested in are reputable. Check their booklists and publishing records. Definitely read a few of the novels they have published. Finally, realize that you will be responsible for promoting your work. But if you are willing to put in this effort, a small press may be just what you're looking for.
As writers, we are, at times, tempted to show off our skill. We want to write that amazing word picture of the windswept coastline or give a detailed description of our favorite character. We are artists, and words are our medium...
Okay, let's get real. Yes, writers use words to create pictures for their readers, but they also use words to tell stories. Too much description, however, will bog down a story; it may even stop it in its tracks. Personally, I'll take a well-written descriptive sentence over a lumbering paragraph every time. Maybe that makes me a cretin, I don't know. But what I do know is that I'm not alone in this opinion.
Today, the editing blog The Blood-Red Pencil posted a link to an essay written by Elmore Leonard entitled "Easy on the Hooptedoodle". Some of the hints include not opening with a discussion on the weather, not going into too much detail in our character descriptions, and not to use words like 'suddenly'. If you are unfamiliar with Leonard's work, I highly recommend picking up one of his books. His prose is tightly written and full of action yet contains vivid descriptions and interesting characters. The man is a terrific writers and knows what he's talking about in this essay!
Putting your thumbprint squarely on your manuscript is as bad of an idea as putting it in the middle of the pie you just baked. You might appreciate it, but others probably will not.
Making readers want to read on, that's the writer's goal. No one wants to have their readers stop halfway through the book or story. Surprise endings are one way to create tension (though not a very good way.) So is dramatic irony. A third method is plot progression.
Plot progressions are a type of dramatic irony in that the audience is clued in to what is coming next. The story starts with a small action, repeats that action on a somewhat larger scale, and then repeats the action again with even greater consequences (and a greater payoff for the reader). Readers are kept on the hook because they can see where this course of action is leading (even if the protagonist cannot).
There are many, many examples of this kind of plot (in fact, I challenge you to come up with your own examples!), but my favorite comes from Stephen King'sPet Cemetery. (Warning: spoilers follow!)
Pet Cemetery centers around the idea that dead bodies buried in a secret Native American burial site will come back to life. Well, 'life' in a reanimated corpse kind of way. The plot begins with the death of a student; a person who is only marginally associated with the protagonist, Dr. Louis Creed. But this action makes Creed begin thinking about death and his own philosophy of the afterlife. Next, Creed's elderly neighbor dies, and the doctor gets a more personal look at the tragedy. A while later, Creed's daughter's cat dies and the doctor, unable to bear his child's sorrow, buries the cat in the enchanted cemetery. The results are disastrous, and he vows to never do it again. But then his son dies...
Looking at this progression, you can see how King builds the tension and intensifies the payoff. Sure, the audience has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen, but they can't wait to read it. Like watching an impending car wreck, you can't tear your eyes away.
Plot progression can be as simple as a fairy tale (which is the basis for such stories as Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Jack and the Beanstalk) or as complex as a Stephen King novel, but it is a terrific way to keep your readers involved in your story.
I love to poke around on the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Mostly, I hang around the scifi/fantasy genre boards, but lately I've ventured out into the novels section. I'm not sure why I've never run across this before, but today I found some excellent posts by author, James D. MacDonald.
When I read this one, I just knew that I had to post it. So here it is, 'Uncle Jim's Twenty-five Simple Steps to Becoming an Author':
Rules for Writing
There are twenty-five simple steps to becoming a published author.
Here are the steps:
1. Black ink on white paper. 2. Place your name and address in the top left-hand corner of the first page. 3. Place the title and byline, centered, half-way down the first page. 4. Put a running head (your name, the title, and a page number) in the top right hand corner of every page. 5. Your pages should have one-inch margins. 6. Doublespace your text. 7. Use Courier 10 or Courier 12 only. 8. Type on one side of the paper only. 9. Continue until you reach "The End." 10. Rewrite. 11. Rewrite. 12.....21. Revise 22. Obtain the guidelines for a market that accepts material similar to what you have finished. 23. Follow the guidelines scrupulously when you submit your material. 24. While you are waiting for your rejection slip, start again back at step 1 for your next work. 25. When the rejection slip arrives, send the manuscript to the next market on your list, that same day.
Okay, maybe these steps aren't as simple as they sound (but what worthwhile thing ever is?). But this is heck of a good bit of advice.
I, for one, am going to do my best to follow the plan.
1. A baby name book. This sounds strange, but it is an invaluable tool. Most times, writers have the names of their main characters already picked, but there are times when a minor character needs to be named and a baby name book can help with this.
2. A flash drive. Backing up your files is extremely important! I've blogged on this before. Having a good flash drive will make backups much easier.
3. Index cards and a small file box. Every time you finish a story or other writing project, write down the information (title, word count, genre, etc.) on the file card. Under that, keep a list of the markets you are submitting to (noting the date you submitted and the date your response came). This is an easy way to keep track of your writing and submission record.
4. A library card. Writers need to read as much as possible, but who can afford to buy every book she wants? Libraries are a poor writer's best friend.
5. A sense of humor. Don't get me wrong, I love to write, but writing can be one of the most discouraging, frustrating endeavors a person could ever take on. To keep up my spirits, I keep cartoons (Snoopy atop his doghouse, writing 'It was a dark and stormy night'), funny bumper stickers ('Sometimes I creep myself out'), pictures of my kids (to remind me that there are other things in life besides writing) and other positive motivators pinned to my bulletin board.
6. Patience, patience, and more patience. Patience with yourself, with your writing, with the response times of the markets, and with everyone and everything that seems to get in your way when you want to write.
How I've envied artists over the years! Unlike fiction, paintings and drawings can be viewed (and judged) in an instant. Of course, I know that to gain a full understanding of great art, one must spend time studying it; however, no one can walk away in the middle of a painting. Even a cursory glance allows a viewer to see the piece in its entirety.
Not so with writing!
One of the biggest challenges a writer faces is to make sure that her audience reads to the end of the piece. This is especially true of slush editors who, within the first few sentences of a story, know whether it is worth their time to read on or not. Recently, I've had several rejections in which the editors indicated that they read to the end of my story. Even though the rejections stung (they always do!), it gave me great satisfaction to know that I could write a story that people - even editors! - wanted to finish.
So how can that be accomplished?
As I mentioned in a previous post, a shocking ending is not a great way to accomplish this. A writer who composes a story with a shocking ending must put so much energy into the buildup, that other elements of story telling (characterization, setting) oftentimes get lost.
One great way to build tension in a story and keep a reader moving forward is the use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a situation in which the readers know something that the characters do not. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo thinks his beloved is dead. The audience, however, knows that Juliet is simply drugged.
Dramatic irony is a twist on story telling because in a traditional, linear plot, readers and characters are carried into the unknown by the writer. The advantage to dramatic irony is that the audience can become very anxious on the behalf of their favorite character, wondering when and how the character will finally come to realize what he doesn't know. Mentally, they can be begging him to do or not do something because they have knowledge he does not. (Sometimes, the audience might be verbally communicating this - have you ever gone to a movie and shouted at the actress on the screen, "Don't go into the basement!!"). At it's best, dramatic irony can create an almost unendurable tension in the readers, making them want to read on in order to see how the tension is resolved.
Of course, using dramatic irony is a difficult skill, for in order to work, dramatic irony must weave more than a single thread of narrative. There is the thread that the audience knows (Juliette is drugged, not dead), as well as the thread that only the character knows (my beloved has killed herself!). It takes some skill to do this, but the payoff can be tremendous.
Twitter this and twitter that... What's the point?
Well, up until now, I wasn't sure. I, for one, am not interested in who is walking the dog and who is eating toast with jam. But in a recent blog post on Reading, Writing, & Stuff That Makes Me Crazy, Marianne Arkins explains how she used Twitter to not only chat with people, but to draw attention to her blog. Clever!
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Twitter is a messaging system in which people can post very brief messages on what they are doing. But a clever few have turned this strange new communication tool into works of art. Sort of.
Some Twitterers give out information, for example, entries of free fiction that has been posted on the Internet. But others actually post full-fledged fiction Twitters. Well, at least as full-fledged as fiction can be in 120 characters.
For me, I decided to post 120 character book reviews on my Twitter account (which you can view here.) And since 120 characters seems awfully short, I've decided that I could actually make my reviews rhyme. I've always admired the poet Ogden Nash whose famous couplets (such as, "candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker") were both clever and insightful. And while I don't claim to be either clever or insightful, I can at least write a rhyming couplet.
Today's book review is "Duma Key" by Stephen King:
Duma Key was not for me/its lengthy plot was scary - not!
So thus, the birth of the Book Review 120 is born.
I hardly dare even say the words, "writer's block" for fear of cursing myself, but we all experience it. So if you are stuck in the middle of a dry spell, check out today's blog post on Apollo's Lyre, Writing Exercises to Get You Going. These exercises are terrific, and I'm sure will help you circumnavigate that block.
How many times have you heard this on television? Nearly every week, some show or another is promising its viewers an ending they won't believe. Or can't imagine. Or will be shocked by.
Sure, surprise endings have their place, but they've been way overused of late. Unexpected surprise endings might work in a short story or a television show, but a very good surprise ending is very difficult to write. Why?
1) In many cases, the audience is expecting it. Most people, when reading a story, are working to forecast the direction of the plot (Where is this story going? What's going to happen next?). This means that, aside from children (who are more of a pure audience due to their lack of experience), most readers will spot a 'surprise' ending a mile away. And, believe me, there is nothing worse than a surprise ending that falls flat.
2) Because of #1 above, writers must reach farther and farther for an ending that will actually surprise the readers. This means that, in many cases, surprise endings are becoming more and more improbable. Some even reek of deus ex machina.
3) Surprise endings often fall into the realm of cliche. Joe Bob thinks that everyone has forgotten his birthday, but all of his friends were merely planning a surprise party for him. Mary Jane thinks her boyfriend is cheating on her because he's out all night, but - wow! - he's really a vampire. Little Billy is being chased by a huge monster, but - surprise!! - he wakes up and finds out that it is all a dream.
Again, there is nothing worse than a surprise ending that is no surprise.There are much better ways to build tension in your fiction. Over the next few posts, I'm going to explore some of these ways. There. I've told you what I plan to do and, therefore, have spoiled the surprise.On purpose.
Maybe it's because yesterday was Mother's Day, but I've been thinking a lot about child characters in adult books. So often I've read what I've thought was a very good novel only to be annoyed by the lack of authenticity in its younger characters. Every character in a book, even the little ones, need to be convicing. I'm not sure if some authors don't have any experience with kids, or if they think their characters are exceptional, but after living with and working with children, I have found that, despite their differences, they share a lot of similarities.
1. Children are not tiny adults - This seems obvious, yet so many times I've read stories in which the children behave like adults. Obviously, there are some very well mannered children, but even these will get cranky at times. Children fidget. They cry. They whine. They pick their noses and blow bubbles with their saliva. In Martin Scorsese's movie Kundun, a very small boy is chosen to be Tibet's next dalai lama. As such, the boy is expected to meditate several hours each day. One of my favorite scenes in this movie is of the little dalai lama, who is barely out of toddlerhood, wandering off while the other monks are deep in meditation. Of course he's not able to sit motionlessly for hours on end! He's just a child!
2. Children are concrete thinkers, not abstract thinkers. I can think of many novels in which young characters are discussing philosophy or solving complex logic puzzles. This is simply not realistic. I'm not saying that there aren't some exceptional children who can out-think many adults, but this is the exception, not the rule. Lisa Simpson is a great example of this. I love the character - in fact, she is my favorite Simpson - but her interests in women's studies and jazz don't make her very childlike! (Obviously, this is part of the fun of the show.)
3. Most children are fearful and suspicious of change. Because their range of experience is so limited (they've only lived a few years, after all!), they tend to worry about things. If Mom has a cough, does that mean she's going to die? What will happen if I go to kindergarten and have to use the bathroom? And just try to get a child to try a new food that looks a little different from what he's used to!
Now, if you're looking at this list and shaking your head, chances are that you've had enough experience with children to know the exceptions to these observations! In that case, you are probably familiar enough with children to write believable characters. If not, try to observe children to see how they act and what they do. Even if your child character is a genius (such as Ender Wiggin in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game) he or she is still a child! Just like a female writer must pay special attention when writing a male protagonist and vice versa, so too adults must pay special attention when writing about the youngest of their characters.
[As an end note, I've noticed that the best children's characters are written by authors of children's and YA books. Katherine Anne Patterson, Jerry Spinelli, and Andrew Clements excel at writing about children and young people. If ever you need some tuteledge in writing young characters, I suggest reading a few books by these authors.]
One skill I find very difficult is describing characters. Especially minor characters who grab center stage for a very brief time. A waitress, for example, who occupies the main character in a brief conversation or the next door neighbor who pops in and out of chapters but never sticks around longer than a paragraph or so.
Part of the challenge, I think, is balance. A writer wants to offer enough of a description so that the reader has a basic picture of who this character is and what she's like. But at the same time, the description shouldn't clutter up the narrative with a lot of unnecessary details. The last thing a writer wants is for his readers to silently say, "Enough already! I've got the picture."
To help myself improve this skill, I've started doing what I think of as 'word caricatures' of people. I'm sure you've all seen caricaturists: artists who set up shop at carnivals and shopping malls and draw cartoonish likenesses of their customers. They pick out a few distinguishing details of their subjects and then drawing them at lightening speed. (My husband and I once had one done at a bar and the result was funny yet amazingly recognizable.)
I work on my caricatures as I'm waiting in line in the grocery store or the bank or wherever. I watch the other people and attempt to mentally describe one or two specific details that set them apart from the crowd. (Please note, that I never intend to be cruel or judgmental. I simply try to capture what I see.)
For example, last week, while I was helping out in my daughter's elementary school, I saw two little girls with long-sleeved black shirts. Both girls had long, gray streaks of dried mucus on their sleeves where they had used their shirts as tissues to wipe their runny noses. This, I think, is a very arresting detail that would work well to implant a minor character in the reader's mind.
Another example came today when I was at the gas station. The elderly man behind me in line walked with a cane. The attendant was a teenager with jeans that sagged well below the waistband of his boxers. When the elderly man stepped up to the window to pay for his gas, the teenager grinned widely and said, "Hey, Mr. X. How's my yo' boy?"
Again, these are very brief examples of people, but brevity is what's needed. You don't want to flood your readers with a lot of details; you want to keep them focused. But because minor characters often play important parts in the narrative, they deserve some sparkle, too.
Whenever I look at short story markets, I tend to cringe at their limits on word count. I am seldom able to keep my stories under 5,500 words; even 6k can seem a bit snug. Yet many of the short markets demand word counts of 4k and less and, of course, in the flash fiction
But, over the years, I've come to see that learning to write within these limits can be a very important exercise. Like a pianist practicing scales, writing shorter fiction makes a writer more disciplined. It makes him pay attention to what words he uses and how those words are used. Novel writers, it seems to me, can be too proliferate with their words; they're like millionaires handing out pennies. But we short story writers need to be smarter with our language. We need to dole it out carefully, paying attention to how it's spent.
So how is that done?
One major waste of words is the infodump. Sometimes called 'backstory', an infodump occurs whenever a narrator gives a lengthy account of everything he thinks the reader needs to know. This might be the history of a certain place or the background of a character's love life or even a detailed description of a certain activity. These kinds of things will bog down the plot like a heavy backpack will slow down a runner. In a short story, you want your plot to fly!
A skillful writer doesn't need to rely on infodumps. Instead, he can weave important bits of information seamlessly into a story. A paragraph on Susan's benighted lovelife can be condensed into a sentence that simply says, "Susan had never been lucky in love" or "Susan knew that, just like her other relationships, this one was doomed as well."
Using well-chosen words and combinations of words can also bring down a word count. Instead of writing, "The boy ran very quickly up the hill", why not try, "The boy sprinted uphill." Sprinted, of course, is much more incisive than ran very quickly. Lessening a word count by a two might not seem like a lot, but not only will several of these changes bring the overall number of words down, using more precise words will strengthen your writing.
Almost always, when I go back to edit a story I've written months earlier, I find that I need to trim the fat. If a piece is 7,000 words, I try to bring it down to 6,500 or 6,000. If a story is 6,000, I'll back it up to 5,500 or fewer. The important part of writing fiction (any fiction) is the impact of your words, not the number of them. After all, the shortest verse in the Christian Bible, "Jesus wept", is perhaps the most poignant.
Recently, Jason Sanford in the online zine, The Fix, also commented noted how writing short stories can discipline a writer. Short story writers, he said, "learn to balance description, narrative, plot, characterization, and insight against the need for the story to both make sense and be beautifully told. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a short story will fail."
Novel writers may have the ability to use words more freely than the short story writer. But many times, just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. markets, the restrictions are even greater.
So often, I find that gimmicks have replaced well-crafted plots, and that characters all display the bland plasticity of Ken and Barbie Doll. But then I read Galen Beckett's wonderful novel, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent.
Although it takes place in an alternate world, Mrs. Quent is written with a Victorian flourish. Characters such as Ivy, Mr. Rafferdy, and Mr. Quent might well have stepped directly from the pages of a Bronte novel. The language and dialogue are delightful, full of those sensibilities that made readers like myself fall in love with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
Not that this book is simply a magical retelling of those novels. No, Mrs. Quent is definitely its own story set in its own peculiar world. The plot is intricate, weaving together three narratives from three main characters. And though the novel's social structure is reminiscent of Victorian England, Altania (the country in which the novel takes place) is as unique as Narnia.
Although the book doesn't shy away from the grimmer aspects of its plot, it manages to remain genteel throughout. For someone like me who does not enjoy reading about brutality and torture, Mrs. Quent offers a refreshing change. The book is engrossing enough for an adult to read, but mild enough for a preteen to enjoy.
If I have any quibbles with this novel, it is with its pacing. The book is divided into thirds with the first and final sections written in third person. The middle portion, written as a letter from the main character, Ivy, to her mentally ill father is interesting enough, but it chops up the narrative so much that the impact of the book's final chapters is significantly lessened. (Think of reading the first half of Sense and Sensibility, then switching to the Turn of the Screw, and finally finishing up the Austen novel.)
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is one of those wonderful novels in which the reader can plunge herself into a whole new world and befriend the characters she finds there. I am rarely an on-the-edge-of-my-seat kind of reader, but I couldn't put this book down.
Yes, Mrs. Quent harks back to the days of the Victorian novel, and I have a feeling that - somewhere - the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen are smiling.
One day, my twelve-year-old son told me that his junior high English teacher had been explaining the difference between first person and third person points of view. When my son asked about second person, she said that there was no such thing (much to his outrage).
You opened the refrigerator and saw that your roommate had once again drunk all of your beer. Outraged, you pounded on his bedroom door, demanding an explanation. He kept his eyes on the video game he was playing and refused to answer. You stormed away, hating him.
Sounds weird, doesn't it? But while this type of writing defies convention, there are some writers who use it. One notable example is A Prayer for the Dying by Stuart O'Nan. This book is not only written in second person, it is also written in present tense which is doubly strange. Although I believe that this voice would be difficult to tolerate in a long work, A Prayer for the Dying is short. Additionally, the second-person present tense gives the story a powerful impact that it might not otherwise have had. If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. (Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another example. I have yet to read that one, though.)
In the book Story Matters by Margaret-love Denman and Barbara Shoup, second person POV is also discussed. Story Matters, an outstanding resource for writers, quotes writer Pam Houston who says, "[A second-person] point of view is always about a 'narrator who's ashamed of herself, afraid to say I'." Story Matters goes on to say, "Using the second person washes a layer of shame over the story without the narrator ever having to admit it."
After reading that, I decided to try writing a story from the second-person POV. My story, The Scarlet Wristband, involved a young, teen aged boy who had to choose between telling the truth and saving his mother. Although the piece was successfully published in All Possible Worlds, when it was reviewed, my use of the second-person POV was criticizedbecause it placed too much distance between the reader.
Personally, I enjoy reading the second-person POV (in small amounts). I think it can lend some interesting angles to a narrative. But it can also fail miserably. Like so many unique narrative structures (such as diary entries), however, second-person POV is another tool in the writer's kit.
Many years ago, I had a professor ask me this question. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. Who's my narrator? Sure, I understood that story or novel written in first person had a narrator. But what about one written in third person?
Consider the following example:
I didn't wasn't planning to steal anything when I went into the store. But when I stood in the checkout line, my hand darted out of my pocket, and my fingers closed around a pack of gum. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, my hand was safely back in my pocket again, the gum tucked away like it had a right to be there. And when the checkout girl didn't notice, I understood that this was a game. Just like my mother had always said.
This bit was written in first person (that is, from the point of view of the shoplifter). Here, the narrator is easy to identify. Who's telling the story? The woman, of course. But take a look at this example:
Carol wasn't planning on stealing anything when she went into the store. But when she stood in the checkout line, her hand darted out ofher pocket, and her fingers closed around a pack of gum. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, her hand was safely back in her pocket again, the gum tucked away like it had a right to be there. And when the checkout girl didn't notice, Carol understood that this was a game. Just like her mother had always said.
This was written in third person. So who is telling the story? Who is making the reader understand that Carol wasn't consciously thinking of shoplifting? Who is giving that little glimpse into Carol's mind when she thinks of this as a game? Again, it's the narrator.
Even if your story is not written in first person, there is a narrator. There is that invisible person who is describing the scene, giving insight into the characters' minds, and putting a spin on the entire story.
Yes, a spin. In the previous bit, the narrator might have added some incendiary comment ("Just like her mother, the thief, had always said.") Or perhaps some words to make Carol a more sympathetic person ("Carol understood this was a game. And, after what she'd gone through, who could blame her?")
The narrator decides what will be said. She (or he) will determine what details the reader is meant to notice. She will be the one who looks into the character's minds and records what he sees. In any story, understanding your narrator is extremely important.
A few years ago, long after I first heard about the narrator, I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by children's author, Gary Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt said that he always asks his students to consider their narrator when they begin to write. It was his belief that, until a writer knows who the narrator is, the book will lack focus. I have to agree with him; understanding your narrator is as important as understanding your characters.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a forum post written by an editor of a small magazine. She was discussing her slush pile and said that if she had to read another story that took place in a kitchen, she just might have to tear her hair out. "Do writers know how many stories begin in kitchens?" she asked, clearly annoyed. "And do those writers realize how boring that is?" (I truly wish I knew who said this because I 'd love to give her credit for the terrific insight; however, I don't even remember which forum it was.)
After reading that post, I went through all of my stories and - much to my chagrin - 90% of them took place in kitchens. Or living rooms. Or they began in a bedroom with the main character waking up (which, according to this same forum post, was even worse than beginning a story in a kitchen).
So what's wrong with writing about a kitchen. After all, interesting things can happen in a kitchen, can't they? Well, yes and no. Consider the following scenario:
Greg and Kate are having an arguement. They've been married for a year, but Greg thinks that the shine has already come off their relationship because Kate is so focused on her goal to have a baby that she's scheduled thier love making, thus taking all the fun and sponteniety out of their intimacy.
Okay, now take this scenario and put it into one of the following settings:
a) a 50th anniversary party for Greg's parents which is being held in an exclusive country club
b) a kitchen
Which of the settings makes the story more interesting?
If you are writing this argument in a kitchen in which the only two characters present are Greg and Kate, you are missing some opportunities to create tension. At the party, Greg and Kate are in a public place. Now their flaring tempers are put under even more pressure because they will probably want to remain civil to one another in order to not embarrass the family or themselves. Maybe one or both of them has been drinking too much. Maybe they have begun to argue in the cloakroom only to be interrupted by great aunt Myrtle or cousin Fred...
So you see, just by changing the setting, you are able to rachet the tension up and make the argument much more interesting.
I'm sad to say that, many times, I still opt for the safety of a kitchen or living room setting. I think this is because I am a lazy writer at heart. Kitchens are much easier to write about than restaurants. The kitchen is a very confined space; you don't have to think about the placement of the doors and tables or worry about describing the other customers or the waitstaff. It's much easier to write about a kitchen. But it is, as the editor rightly noted, it is also much more boring.
The Internet never seems to run out of places to explore!
My newest discovery is called the Red Room. Have you heard of it? It's a place for readers and writers to connect with eachother. Kind of a like a literary FaceBook.
Anyone can join and post a profile. Writers who have not self-published are welcome to become Red Room authors. Becoming a Red Room author allows you to create an author page listing your works. Additionally, the Red Room offers blog space, places to write book reviews, and snippets of news from Publisher's Weekly.
The authors posting at the Red Room range from the extremely famous, such as Maya Angelou and John Stewart, to the extremely obscure (uh, I guess that would be me!). And every kind of genre imaginable is represented: romance, graphic novels, Manga, fantasy, children's, Asian-American studies...just to name a few.
If you haven't visited the Red Room, I advise checking it out. And if you go, stop by and say 'hi'! My page is located here.
Speech tags are those bits of description attached to dialogue. For example:
"You underestimate me, Paul," Sarah said, lifting her chin.
As Anne Marie ran down the stairs, she looked over her shoulder and shouted, "You can't catch me!"
Once you begin to notice speech tags when you read, you'll never stop. They're everywhere. Sometimes, the speech tag is an adverb that is used to describe how a character actually sounds when she says something:
"You underestimate me, Paul," Sarah said loftily.
These adverbs (generally, words ending in -ly) can become quite silly if used too often. In fact, there is even a term for them: Tom Swifty. A 'Tom Swifty' is a pun, such as:
"I'm on fire," he said hotly.
"Anyone can do that," she said easily.
Using too many speech tags can make your writing appear clumsy or childish. Your characters should be able to express themselves with their actions rather than rely on you, the author, to tell the readers what is going on. For example:
Andrew frowned and shoved his hands into his pockets. "It's not fair," he said.
is better than:
"It's not fair," Andrew said huffily.
Another way to correct speech tags is to turn them into independent sentences of their own. For example:
"I hate you," Gwynneth said and covered her face with her hands.
Change this to:
"I hate you," Gwynneth said. She covered her face with her hands.
Some writers will even go so far as to say that a writer should never use speech tags other than 'said' when writing. While I think that 90% of speech tags can be effectively written out of a dialogue, I do think that an occasional one is fine. Stephen King is one author who, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft said that speech tags should be eliminated, yet, if you read his work, you will see that he still uses them. I would suggest that if you see that your writing has more than one speech tag per page (other than a simple, 'said'), you need to do some editing.
A final thing to notice about speech tags is that, other than said, there are a few words that be used when your characters give voice. For example:
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry," she shouted. "I'm sorry," she admitted. "I'm sorry," she whimpered.
Please notice that 'smiled' is not among these words! Someone cannot smile something. She can smile andsay something, but she cannot just smile it.
Now that e-books are becoming more and more popular, writers face a new concern: e-piracy.
This evening, NPR's "All Things Considered" aired a story about DRM (digital rights management) technology, comparing what is going on now to what has happened in the world of music. A few years ago, websites like Napster allowed users to download music for free. Is the world of e-books doomed to follow in the same footsteps? Will pirated e-books become as easily available as bootlegged copies of "Paint it Black" by the Stones?
I have to wonder if these concerns are really valid. After all, free fiction is already available in abundance. Websites such as Afterburn SF and Aberrant Dreams already offer quality stories and poetry for free. Yard sales, used book sales, and church rummage sales are all sources for cheap fiction. Friends and relatives trade books like kids trade baseball cards. And libraries, the worst 'offenders', are a government-subsidized way for readers to read books for free.
For myself, I've bought books by authors after taking a book of theirs out of the library just like I've purchased CD's after listening to a formerly unknown artist's song on Slacker. Sometimes, getting something for free can lead to name recognition and more sales.
I'm not alone in thinking this way. In the NPR story, author Naomi Novik stated, "The biggest danger to most authors, to most storytellers, is not that somebody is going to steal your work and pass it along — it is that nobody is ever going to see your work." I have to agree.
In my opinion, the worst crime that one can commit is not to get something for nothing, but to claim an author's work as his own. That, my friends, is the true crime. One I hope none of us ever has to deal with.
Whenever I send out a batch of rejection letters, I inevitably get a "Why?" response back from at least one author.
I completely understand why. Authors put a lot into their work. They wait and wait and wait for a response. And then it comes...and it's a mere form letter.
We all (well, probably not all, but many of us) want to improve our writing. Feedback is wonderful. So why did this editor not tell you what's wrong with your book? It couldn't take more than a few minutes, right?
Here is the reality:
1. You're not the only author in slush. There are, literally, hundreds of novels being evaluated. I *don't* have time to give everyone a detailed rejection letter.
2. Rejection letters aren't sent immediately after a book has been rejected. For Mundania, readers turn in their slush decisions at different times.* I wait a week or so and send off ten to twenty letters at a time. This means that I don't immediately remember the reasons why the book was rejected, and I don't have the time to look it up for every letter.
3. Sometimes (a lot of the time?) a book really, truly is bad. If I told the author exactly what the editorial panel thought of the book...it would not go over well, and with good reason. I don't want to be cruel with anyone, therefore a form letter rejection is the kindest thing I often can give.
4. Feedback used to be given in the past (when the company was smaller), and nine times out of ten, authors sent back angry emails about how the editor was stupid and didn't know anything. That really discourage the practice.
It's *not* a vast conspiracy. I know a lot of people like to think this...the book is actually good, but the evil editors are trying to keep people down by being the gateway to publication. Um, no. But publishers act as a filter, and that's a good thing. If a book is rejected, it's not because we're trying to keep new authors out--often it's because either the book just isn't good, it doesn't fit with the catalogue, or it's good but just not good enough. But that's a whole other rant...
All this being said, I do, occasionally, send back a bit of feedback. Sometimes we want to see the book rewritten/tweaked a bit. Other times we just didn't feel the genre fits, but would love to see future works. If you get that kind of feedback from an editor (not necessarily me, but anyone), please try not to snark back. A personalized rejection letter is gold in this business. It's something to be really proud of.
Finally, if you ever, ever feel compelled to write back to an editor who rejected your work, *please* do nothing but thank them politely. Burning bridges = future queryfail, kids.
(I'm bringing this up because my readers are whittling through September/October slush right now and I'll be sending out the final letters *hopefully* by the end of this month. Everyone will be notified with either a rejection letter, or a full read notice.)
*If you're wondering why I don't send rejections immediately, it's basically because slush isn't my only responsibility, and therefore isn't my priority. Dealing with already contracted authors/books is. Another harsh reality I've mentioned before.
You would think that this piece of advice is so obvious that it needn't even be mentioned; however, I have to admit that I have often neglected to do this.
A few years ago, I received a long-awaited letter from a publisher that I had queried asking for a complete manuscript. Of course, I was ecstatic and wanted to send the novel back to them as quickly as possible. When I went to print the pages, however, I couldn't find the final two chapters. Panicked, I searched the hard-drive of my computer, the disks that I'd saved to (okay, it was more than a few years ago!), and even the hard copies that I'd printed off earlier. Nothing. So I had to scramble to reconstruct the final pages of the book. Because a year had elapsed since the initial query and the request for the complete manuscript, I had forgotten much of what I had originally written, and I had to improvise. That is a week I hope that I never have to relive!
I wish I could say that was my only experience with not properly backing up my work, but it wasn't. I've made the same mistake again (with the same results!) But I'm hoping that you learn from my mistakes. Back up frequently.
Backing up data can be deceptively simple. After all, what's easier than plugging a junk drive into your computer and then dragging the files from your desktop onto the junk drive? And yet, this is how mistakes get made. Replacing one file with another of the same name is a sure-fire way to get yourself into trouble. Not only may you unwittingly erase the file you intended to save but, more commonly, you will end up deleting your writing history. That is, you erase the trail of edits that you've made from your original story to your current document.
For example... Let's say that you are working on the story, "Mary in the Snow". On Monday, you write three pages. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you write nothing. Then the next five days, you work some more on your story, changing the introduction, the names of the characters, and so forth. Now another week elapses, and you're having second thoughts. Should you have made the changes to the characters' names? Should you have changed the introduction? If you've simply saved one copy of the story over and over again, you can't go back to read what you initially wrote. That information is lost.
My recommendation is to save the story each time you work on it, using a different name to mark your progress. For example, "MarySnow_3-21-09" and "MarySnow_3-22-09" and so forth. This way, if you want to look back at something you wrote, you can easily do so.
The downside to this is that it takes up a lot of space on your hard drive (or junk drive). But, unless you are 100% confident that you will never be needing those earlier pieces, backing up in this fashion is the best way to go.
Learn from my mistakes! Back up your work. Use a junk drive to keep your files and keep a second junk drive in a secure location (I have a fire-proof safe that I use). Sound paranoid? It just might be. But isn't it worth keeping all of those hours worth of work safe?
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go back up my files.
Back when I was first beginning to write, I entered a short story contest sponsored by The Writer magazine. I paid the fee, mailed my story, and waited for my prize. Yes, I was just that green and that vain to think that my work would actually win. Needless to say, it didn't. The story, I now realize, was terrible in the way that only first stories can be; however, since that time, I've never entered another contest.
But I have been curious about them. Many times, after reading the bio of an author who has won a prize, I've wondered if I should enter a contest again. Certainly the credentials of winning a contest gives an author's credentials a boost. And in some instances, prize-winning entries are printed in anthologies.
Part of the problem with contests, however, is trying to find them. Usually, you run across information on a contest after the deadline has passed. Additionally, it is easy to get sucked into scams posing as competitions in which writers are pressured into buying an anthology of the contest's 'winners'. That's where Moira Allen's, Writing to Win: the Colossal Guide to Writing Contests enters in.
Generally, it is my philosophy to not pay for what you can get for free. That is why, in previous posts, I've recommended visiting online sources for market information as opposed to subscribing to a magazine or buying a book. However, I have yet to find an online compendium of writing contests that compares to the one compiled by Ms. Allen. Because its listing are organized by writing type (poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, books, scripts and screenplays) and also by deadline (so that the author knows when to submit her work), Writing to Win is easy to use. And, with over three-hundred pages of listings, the book is probably as close to comprehensive as any resource like this can be.
Writing to Win isn't just about listing contests; it offers plenty of good advice about how to prepare a story for submission as well pointers on how to determine whether a competition is legitimate or not. The book doesn't claim to offer writers a 100% guaranteed way to win (I wouldn't recommend it if it did!), but what it does do is shed some light on how contests work and how writers can best present their work. If you are at all interested in entering writing competitions, then I recommend this book.