pbray: (writer)
Lesson #10- Where did my beautiful story go?

Polishing your story is a part of the process that every writer must go through. Think of your original story idea as a diamond in the rough-- you carefully chip it out of the rock, and then polish the gem until it gleams. But you're not satisfied, so you keep polishing it, and keep cutting new facets, until the gem is gone and you have nothing left.

This is what I call "Death by critique" and it's something we writers do to ourselves. In an effort to respond to critiques, comments from contest judges, and the perceived requirements of an agent or editor, the writer slowly strips away everything that is unique and fresh about their story, until they are left with a story that may be technically well-written, but it's completely bland and ordinary.

Consider the example of Jane Author. She has an idea for spy thriller set in the 1960's, featuring a Russian ballet dancer who has a secret life as a spy and his manager/controller. Think "I Spy" meets Mikhail Baryshnikov. There's a homo-erotic subplot between the dancer and the controller, and she's writing this in first person point of view.

She loves this story and has already written several chapters when her critique group convinces her that no one is publishing Cold War spy novels, so she changes it to a contemporary. Everyone likes the hero, but they think a ballet dancer is going to have limited appeal, so he becomes a NASCAR driver instead. She's heard that it's easier to break into romance writing than mainstream fiction, so she changes the manager to a woman and the romantic subplot becomes the main plot with the spying as a secondary plot. Finally she hears that romance publishers aren't thrilled with first person POV, so she rewrites the entire novel in third person. By the time she's finished, there's virtually nothing left of what originally drew her to this story.

She sends it to a publisher, who then rejects it. Why? Because Jane no longer loves this story, and neither does anyone else. It's bland, and ordinary. Everything unique about Jane's writing has been ruthlessly stripped out of the manuscript, until there was nothing to attract an editor.

Would the Cold War spy novel have sold? Maybe, maybe not. But it would have been recognizably Jane's story.

You need to learn to recognize your voice, what makes you unique as a writer. You need to trust your instincts. Critiques can be helpful, as can the advice of publishing professionals, but in the end you need to remember that this is your story, not their story.

Ask any editor or agent what they are looking for, and you'll hear "great stories" and "fresh voices". No one asks for a tepid recycling of a plot that has been done a thousand times before, where the prose has been carefully homogenized so that it has all the interest of a cereal box.

The sad thing is that we do this to ourselves. A friend of mine rewrote one of her books several times, changing the story until it was twisted out of all recognition and had lost any meaning for her. We don't even need critique groups-- sometimes the hunger to be published is so strong that we'll eviscerate one of our manuscripts simply because we think that the changes will make it more marketable.

Revising is an important step of writing, but if you no longer love the story after you've finished your revisions, then you've gone too far.

It took me a while to understand this. When I started writing I was part of a writers group, and the support that we gave each other was tremendous. We critiqued each other's works, and much of the input was valuable to me. But I still remember the moment when everyone agreed on what was wrong with my latest chapter and how I needed to fix it, and I knew they were wrong. I smiled and thanked them for their comments, but inside I was thinking "You're wrong. If I made those changes, I wouldn't be telling my story. I'd be telling your story instead."

I stuck to my guns, kept writing the story I wanted to write, and went on to sell it.

Writing is first and foremost an act of passion. Writing a novel will consume months (if not years) of your life, and you have to love what you are doing to make the effort worthwhile. If you write a story that you are passionate about, the editor will be able to see this. Similarly, if you constantly revise your story until you've lost all interest in the plot and the characters, the editor will know this as well.

Polish your story until it gleams and then know enough to let the story go. If you're lucky, it will find a publisher and reach an audience of appreciative readers. And while you're waiting for it to catch the eye of an agent or editor, start working on your next story.

I wish everyone success.

That's all for our series of Top 10 Mistakes. I hope folks have found this helpful, I know [livejournal.com profile] jennifer_dunne and I enjoyed putting this together. Here's the link to the index in case you missed any of the previous posts.
pbray: (writer)
Lesson #9 - You've got to keep the reader's trust.

Recently a woman who should have known better observed to me that it must be really easy to write fantasies because "You don't have to do any research." It was a remarkably ignorant comment coming from an industry professional, but I kept my calm as I pointed out that actually I did a great deal of research. For example, I needed to know about sword fighting techniques, how far a man on foot can travel in a day, different techniques for navigating at sea, etc. These details make up the underpinnings of my world, and contribute to the believability of my stories.

When the author gets the details wrong, it yanks a reader right out of the story. Rather than reading to find out what happens next, they're thinking "This is wrong."

You lose a bit of the reader's trust each time this happens. Get enough little things wrong (or one really big thing) and you'll lose your audience.

Even a contemporary novel requires research, unless it's a thinly veiled autobiography set in your hometown, where the protagonist works at your job and comes from the same background as you did.

Consider a thriller set in England where your British hero dials 911 to report the discovery of a body. Knowledgeable readers know that he'd actually be dialing 999 (or 112).

If you choose to set your book in Ithaca, New York, you should know something about the area. It's not enough to have visited Buffalo, New York once, and assume that all cities in Upstate New York are the same. Anyone who has been to Ithaca will spot the errors.

Some mistakes will be spotted by the majority of your readers, while others only an expert in the field will catch.

You probably know that having your Atlanta based heroine sip a Starbucks frappucino in the 1970s would be a mistake, since Starbucks wasn't ubiquitous at that time. Almost everyone will realize that medieval French peasants weren't drinking orange juice with their breakfasts, while military history buffs would know that George Washington's troops weren't carrying repeating rifles.

In some genres your readers have very specific knowledge and a tendency to rip authors who don't do their research. The Regency genre is well known for devoted fans who will point out that the heroine was wearing the wrong sleeve-length for that year, or that during this particular month Beau Brummel was at a country estate and couldn't possibly have encountered the hero. Most will forgive small mistakes, but the Regencies that included gross errors such as a silver-framed photograph or a hero who wore pajamas inspired widespread derision.

What can you do?

First, do your homework. Research is a continuing process, it takes place before writing, while you are writing, and then during the final revision phase as you do your fact-checking. If you're writing and you don't want to break the flow in order to look something up, then put a marker in the text. I'll write something like (fact check, cargo capacity?) so I know that I need to come back to that spot later, and make any changes necessary.

Second, avoid specifics. If you don't want to invest the time needed to make your book set in Ithaca feel authentic to an Ithaca resident, then name the city Delphi instead. If it's not vital to the plot whether the story takes place in 1807 or 1808, then don't mention the year.

Finally, think about the requirements of the genre you have chosen. If you truly hate research, then writing a historical novel set in the Etruscan empire probably isn't a good fit for you. You may want to choose something that requires less intensive research.

One final thought. There's a lot of common wisdom out there, under the heading of "Everyone knows." Unfortunately there are times when everyone is wrong, and it can be frustrating when you do get the details right but your readers don't believe you. An author whose story was set in the Canadian desert was given a score of 0 by a contest judge who scrawled "Everyone knows there are no deserts in Canada." The author was right, the judge was wrong. Elizabeth Bear recently commented in her livejournal that when she was workshopping her first novel HAMMERED, readers complained about her reference to an "R" hurricane in September, not willing to believe that tropical storm activity could be so intense that we would already be on our 17th named storm in September. Hurricane Rita has proven her right, but it's now 3 years later.

The only solution I can offer here is if you know you are including something that runs contrary to popular belief, then you should take the time to add an explanation. For the Canadian desert story, add a couple of sentences that remind the readers that it's not sand dunes that make a desert but rather annual rainfall, temperature and humidity. The contest judge might not have been swayed, but other readers would give you the benefit of the doubt.

In conclusion, when the details are wrong, it's like giant inkblots on your manuscript. The errors stand out and they mar the overall impression of the story. Get the details right and they blend seamlessly into the text, so there's nothing to distract from your story.
pbray: (writer)
Lesson #5: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die."

This is a great example of character motivation. As readers we understood Inigo's motivation, and all of his actions throughout the book were consistent with his underlying goals.

In simplest terms, character motivation is what drives your character's behavior. It's the underlying reason why when confronted with the exact same situation, two characters will behave in different ways. Why James will stop to pick up the hitchhiker, and why George will not.

As an author, your readers need to be able to connect with your characters. If your characters behave in bizarre ways, or they act in ways that are completely contrary to the motivations you've shown, then the readers won't be able to connect with them and they'll lose interest in your story.

One common mistake of beginning authors is to confuse author motivation (or plot reasons) with character reasons.

I once critiqued a western where the story opens with the hero meeting the heroine and immediately agreeing to undertake a long journey to escort her from the end of the rail line to her uncle's ranch.

"Why would he do his?" I asked.

"I need them to travel together so they can fall in love," the author replied.

This is a classic example of author motivation. Her plot required the two of them to spend time alone together so they could learn to rely upon each other and fall in love. The heroine had a reason for going on this journey but the hero did not. His actions were unbelievable, and thus we couldn't sympathize with him as a character.

One way to fix this would be to have the heroine offer to pay him to be her escort. This solves the motivation problem-- he's doing it for the money.

Since it was a romance, we could strengthen the motivation by making it multi-layered. At first glance, he's agreed to do this for the money. Later details will reveal that what the heroine thinks is a generous wage is actually a pittance compared to what he would normally make in the booming economy of a silver mining town. We then learn that he wants her to think that he's doing this for the money, but his real reason could be:
a) He has a grudge against her uncle and is using her to gain access to his stronghold
b) He admires the courage it took to leave behind her pampered life in the east, and knows that if he doesn't agree to escort her it's likely she'll hire someone who will harm her, and he can't live with that on his conscience.

Given a few minutes thought and I'm sure you can come up with a half-dozen other reasons why he would agree to go on the journey.

Keep in mind that characters may not understand why they do certain things. Denial is a wonderful thing, and just as we can lie to ourselves, our characters can also be lying to themselves. But as the author you don't have that luxury. You need to understand your characters, even when your characters don't understand themselves. Then, once you understand their motivations, you can ensure that their actions are consistent and believable.

Your characters' motivations may change over the course of the book, as their experiences shape them. The young knight who lightheartedly sets off on a quest may transform into a vengeful assassin after witnessing the slaughter of his comrades. As his motivations evolve, so too will his actions. Here, again, consistency is the key. A man seeking adventure will behave quite differently from one who is solely driven by thoughts of revenge.

I approach writing as a character driven exercise, so I spend a lot of time contemplating the 'W' questions: What do they want? What do they need? Who/what do they love? What do they fear? The better I know my characters, the easier it is for me to write, as each action evolves logically from the previous according to the nature of my characters and the situations they find themselves in.

As you write, remember to ask yourself "Why would he/she do this? What is in it for them?" If there's no reason for the characters to be doing something, then your readers have no reason to care, and they're not likely to keep on reading.

Coming up over the weekend, [livejournal.com profile] jennifer_dunne is on deck with the next three mini-essays.
pbray: (writer)
Lesson #2. If your story starts out slowly, they're not going to keep reading till you get to the good stuff.

Another common beginner mistake is to start your story in the wrong place. We don't need to learn the life history of each character, or to watch as the author carefully maneuvers each one onto the stage. In F&SF I've noticed a tendency to open with an infodump showing all your worldbuilding. It may be fascinating to you, but it slows the action to a deadly crawl.

Ask yourself "Why is today different from all other days?" If you can answer that question, then you are starting your story in the right place.

Consider these story openings:
- A stranger rides into town
- A shot rang out
- John receives a letter with a treasure map

A perfect example is MaryJanice Davidson's UNDEAD AND UNWED which opens with the line:
The day I died started out bad and got worse in a hurry.

It's not only a great first line, it's the right place to start the book. We know that this is the moment that is going to transform the character and kick-off the action.

Using my own work as an example, DEVLIN'S LUCK starts when Devlin arrives in the city and asks for the job of Chosen One. This is the moment that launches the story, as the reader starts wondering: Who is this guy? Why is he here? If the Chosen One is supposedly a champion, then why is it that everyone is treating him with either pity or contempt?

It's the classic "a stranger comes to town" opening, so beloved of classic westerns.

We didn't need to see his long journey to reach Kingsholm, nor the events that led him here. I don't need to tell you what his childhood was like. All of the vital details can be layered in via backstory. The trick is to hook the reader from the very beginning so they'll keep turning the pages because they want to know who this man is, why he is there and what is going to happen to him next.

I've read many opening chapters that are perfectly pleasant and technically competent. But there's nothing in there to grab me, nothing to entice me to keep turning the pages. You don't have much time to catch the attention of an editor or agent, so you can't afford to waste pages on a slow start.

For a homework assignment, put your critical thinking cap on. As you're reading a book or watching a movie, pay attention to where the story starts, and whether your attention was grabbed right from the beginning or if you had to struggle to get into the story. When you find a story that you feel started in the wrong place, think about where you would have chosen to begin the story if you were writing it.

In tomorrow's mini-essay, [livejournal.com profile] jennifer_dunne is up at bat with mistake #3.
pbray: (writer)
Lesson One. How to shoot yourself in the foot, before you even get it in the door.

Standard manuscript format is important. The overall basics are:
- Bright white paper
- 1 inch margins all around
- Double-spaced
- 12 point Courier (preferred) or 12 point Times New Roman font

Yes, Courier is a boring font, and Times New Roman isn't much better. But these fonts are readable, and in particular Courier works well for those involved in the editing and production stages of the manuscript.

When you send in your manuscript printed in Brush Script on scented purple paper, you are not making your manuscript stand out from the pack. Instead you are sending the signal that you don't understand the industry, or worse that you do understand the rules but have decided that they don't apply to you. In either case, the editor/agent will take away the impression that you are going to be difficult to work with. These are busy people with lots of demands on their time. If your manuscript is hard for them to read, then they won't bother.

Once they've started reading, you need to keep them reading. This is where spelling and grammar come in. When the reader encounters a misspelled word, it can jerk them out of the story as they pause to try and decide what the author meant to say. Just running spellcheck isn't enough-- spellcheck won't catch the difference between who's and whose, their or there, or allusion versus illusion. Run spellcheck, then carefully edit your manuscript before running spellcheck a final time to make sure you haven't introduced new errors. Frequent spelling errors are a sign of a sloppy author, or someone who doesn't care enough about their story to invest the time needed to clean it up.

The same goes for grammar. Poor grammar is a red-flag for "this author doesn't know her craft" and can often prevent the reader from following the storyline. Only your mother or best friend are going to take the time to struggle through your bad grammar to try and figure out what you meant to say. An editor or agent is simply going to toss your manuscript aside.

To explain it in a different way, it doesn't matter if you're the next Stephen King or Nora Roberts. No one is going to discover your talent if you can't convince them to read your story. Give yourself the best chance possible by taking care of the details so your manuscript makes a good first impression. Format, spelling, grammar should all be clean so there's nothing to distract from your writing.


Tomorrow, I'll talk about starting your story.
pbray: (writer)
I mentioned earlier that [livejournal.com profile] jennifer_dunne and I had improvised a talk on common manuscript mistakes for the START Your Engines Writers Conference. Over the next 10 days we're going to take turns giving a short recap of each of the key discussion points.

The talk was divided into four sections, and the points are listed below.

1) Prevents you from getting in to the story
- Formatting, grammar, spellcheck (Patricia)

2) Prevents you from connecting with the characters
- Starting in the wrong place (Patricia)
- Telling, not showing (Jennifer)
- POV (Jennifer)
- Character Motivation (Patricia)

3) Interferes with story sustainability
- Dialogue (Jennifer)
- Scenes without points (Jennifer)
- Weak conflict (Jennifer)

4) Destroys an otherwise good story
- Sloppy/inadequate research (Patricia)
- Overpolishing (Patricia)

Look for the first point to be posted later today.

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