245 sample queries later…

I just finished going through all of the Query Shark’s posts. I’m not sure why, I’m not really in the querying stage for any of my writing. But there’s something beautiful about schadenfreude, and about watching bad writing get torn to pieces. It’s addictive.

In this case it felt even better, because the Query Shark does it out of a sense of kindness – or, at least, purpose. People submit their queries and she critiques them so that we have the chance to learn how to sell that novel we’ve got in the wings. Because query writing is a lot different from novel writing, and far more complicated than I had considered before I read through all the archives.

One of the things she would often say when a query had been rewritten to her satisfaction was, “Now go back and apply what you’ve learned about writing to your novel. It won’t do any good to have a good query letter but a novel full of all these mistakes.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously, and I would suggest that anyone interested in publishing go read through those archives. Even if you don’t want an agent, and even if you plan to self-publish, there are some great writing tips in there.

One of the things that Query Shark suggests is the removal of excess words. This isn’t exactly new advice, but it’s a piece that’s easy to forget. My old creative writing teacher used to say, “Write prose as though you’re paying a dollar for every word you put down, and write poetry as though you’re paying five dollars for every word.” Despite this advice, my prose can be bloated and my novels are full of subplots that have nothing to do with the actual story.

The other piece of advice that stuck with me was the removal of gerunds. It can be easier to  write in that more passive tense, but it makes the writing less interesting. I have a tendency to use gerunds in my writing as well.

Just a warning: it can be a little depressing to read Query Shark. I, at least, felt inadequate when looking through the criticism. But there’s some encouragement in there as well, and a lot of people have written to the Shark thanking her for her harsh but needed words.

On with the writing! Perhaps one day I’ll send a query to her myself. But for now, I need to focus on Camp Nanowrimo. I’m bombing it this year, and not in the good way. Which is ridiculous, because in Camp Nanowrimo you set your own goals and can basically do whatever you want.

 

The Clarion West Writer’s Workshop

I am an online participant of Clarion West this year.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean I’m attending online workshops or webinars, it doesn’t mean that I had to go through a big selection process. It means I signed up with the goal to write, and agreed to participate in the write-a-thon. At first my plan was to write 750 words of a novel that I wanted to get finished by the end of this year.

Then I found out about three (!) short story submission opportunities, and I think I want to go for those instead. They all have deadlines in August, and I feel like they’re all up my alley.

So that’s my idea for Clarion West during the write-a-thon: 750 words a day and three short stories at the end of it. And maybe in between, I’ll get a crack at my novel.

Too bad the write-a-thon started today. I’m already behind – it feels like Nanowrimo all over again.

Speaking of Nanowrimo, Clarion West coincided nicely with my decision to try Camp Nano this year. I’m starting up with a friend, though I’m not sure what she’ll be working on for the month of July.

Unlike Nanowrimo, Camp Nano isn’t all about writing a novel in a month. For Camp Nano, participants make their own goals and word counts. I think it’s a great way to be introduced to the concept of Nanowrimo for anyone who isn’t so sure that this write-50,000-words-in-a-month thing is a good or feasible idea. The pace is much more relaxed and you can work on finishing a novel, writing short stories, poetry, scripts of any kind, essays…pretty much anything.

In November I tried to update my blog every day with news on how the noveling was going. My experience proved two things to me: Firstly, that I would be terrible at the blog-a-day challenge, and secondly, that I didn’t necessarily want to share my tripe with the world. So I may not be posting as much as I would aim to during the month of July. But I’m sure I’ll find something to write about; no one can keep me silent forever.

On a finishing note, I have a question for any short story writers out there. I never seem to have a suitable short story when a compilation is requesting submissions. As a result I often end up writing a short story with the one compilation specifically in mind. There are a lot of cons to this procedure, which I may come back to (perhaps after I have submitted my short stories?), and I’m curious – does anyone else write a short story directly for a specific compilation? Do you do it often? Do you often submit previously prepared short stories to compilations and magazines? I guess I’m mostly asking genre writers here, since I’ve noticed that a lot of genre magazines/compilations have themes for each issue.

What do you need to get started writing?

Sorry but it’s going to be a short post today. I’ve been studying so I haven’t been spending much time thinking about writing. So today, my topic doesn’t demand a large word count.

A little while ago I asked about inspiration. How important is it to you in order for you to write, and how does it affect your writing?

While chewing over this question, I figured something out. It’s pretty easy for me to start writing something if I know how it begins. Then, even if I’m not particularly inspired, I can keep going until I come to another ‘beginning’ that I have to work with.

On the other hand, even if I know the plot, the theme, and the style of the story, if I don’t have that little detail of how to begin, I have a really hard time. I mess around with my prose but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. This was even true of my academic work – I couldn’t start writing a paper until I knew how it would start (not the introduction, but the actual body of the paper. Introductions are the worst).

I’m experiencing that problem right now. I’ve got a story that I’ve split up into chapters. I’m trying to work on a chapter but I can’t figure out how to start it. Usually I try to brainstorm while I’m on my bicycle. Do any of you have little ways to help you get started on a story or a chapter?

Things I Learned About (Action-Based) Writing from Horatio Hornblower

Recently I have been obsessed with the miniseries Horatio Hornblower, the story of a young man who wins glory at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. I’m not going to attempt to do it justice in this blog post, since I’m trying to get some other writing done, but if you haven’t watched it, you’re missing out. Especially if you have a thing for the BBC miniseries. It’s classically cheesy, swash buckling, and fantastic. I liked it enough that I put down the book I was reading and ordered the Young Hornblower omnibus (the first three books) from the library. The books are always better than the movies, right?

Young Hornblower doesn’t quite sweep me away like I thought it would. It’s not a great surprise that my excitement is reduced, seeing as I don’t have a strong understanding of naval terms and ship anatomy, so it’s easier for me to visually process what’s going on in the miniseries during an action scene. But the sense of strength and cameraderie is missing from the books, in a sense. In the miniseries, Hornblower’s got a whole crew of secondary and tertiary characters who bring out different parts of his character. In the books, the characters behind Hornblower change constantly so I haven’t developed an affinity for anyone else (Note that I’m only partway through the second book, though, so this might change). The format is also strange, for a book series – the first book has chapters that function like episodes, recounting isolated incidents in the life of the young Horatio Hornblower. While this made it greatly adaptable to television, I wasn’t a fan of the style. It was almost as though C.F. Forester wrote a serial for a magazine before being picked up for a full novel.

All of this rambling is only a preface to discussing some of the things I appreciated about the storytelling in the miniseries. Sorry about that. But here are some of the things that made Horatio Hornblower, the miniseries, something addictive to me:

  • Flawed Characters: I’m not just talking about Horatio here, though it sometimes seems he’s got more flaws than good points. Virtually all the characters had flaws. Oftentimes their flaws were shown in a manner that made me laugh. And on the other side of things, virtually all the ‘bad’ characters, or characters with whom Hornblower had a strong conflict, had something that redeemed them. It’s easy to provide a backdrop of characters that don’t do much and stick to one tack – support or dissent. But by making sure that every character had good and bad traits, every interaction has several factors tugging on it, not just one or two.

 

  • Strong motivations: This is another character one. People who went against Hornblower often had strong moral reasons for what they did – in other words, they truly believed their actions were for the best. A number of them were still rather cheesy about it, and of course there were a few exceptions, particularly when the miniseries was just finding its feet. But generally speaking, something greater than such influences as greed or mean-spiritedness pushed characters to act as they did.

 

  • Everything mattered: In television your characters can’t spend a morning contemplating the sunrise over the desert, the play of light on sand and rock. Things have to get done in a specific amount of time, and there’s not much to waste. Horatio Hornblower’s best episodes made certain to use every minute they were allowed to convey something important. Every incident was important to the plot of the episode, and every conversation helped both with character development and with moving the story forward. Everything was so tight knit that sometimes I think it would take me longer to explain the episode correctly than to watch it. Now, of course, this is an action-based show, and perhaps not everything is suitable for the non-action writer. But I think it can be boiled down to – every sentence should matter. In a book, every sentence should contribute somehow to the overall story. My creative writing teacher once told our class, “Write prose like you have to pay a dollar for every word you put down on the page. Write poetry like you have to pay five dollars for every word.” That stuck with me. If everything matters, it will also keep people engaged. They won’t skip the long paragraphs because they’ll be afraid of missing something.

 

  • Each Story is Complete, but has an Open Ending: I was griping about this a couple of months ago. You’re reading along, your book’s just winding up to a climax, and then BAM. No more pages. Check back in our next installment to find out how the story you purchased ACTUALLY ENDS. As you can see, this might be a tiny pet peeve of mine. It’s the next big thing in selling books – you’ll be hooked and grab the next volume if the first one cheats you of an ending! Thankfully, each episode of the miniseries was complete (with the exception of one two-parter, which I can forgive because it was so freaking amazing). Horatio was given an assignment, came into conflict, ingeniously fought his way free, impressed his superiors and all was well and good. The end was always left open, so we knew that more was forthcoming, but only one episode wholly relied on its predecessors. Now, I love book series and I think there’s nothing wrong with having a closely knit lineup. I think people are less likely to read only the fourth book in a series than they are to watch only the fourth episode of a miniseries. That being said, there is a structural soundness to a complete story, and in my opinion Horatio Hornblower does it very well.

That’s all I’ve got, for now. But maybe some of you have tips you picked up from a separate art form. It doesn’t have to be television or film, it could be any type of art.

Writing Advice that I Just Don’t Get

This post is going to start off with some feeble excuses. Mainly, the excuse as to why it’s been a while since I’ve updated anything.

I don’t know if anyone else is having this problem, but I have difficulty writing both a work in progress and a blog post at the same time. This unfortunately means that when I have a lot to say on my blog, I don’t write a lot of what I want to write. And when I hit a good streak on a work in progress, the blog languishes (as it has been doing recently).

I’ve decided to gear up for Camp Nano in July, with a goal of writing about half a Nanowrimo novel – I’ve set my goal to 750 words per day. This handily works with the 750 words site and I won’t feel like I’m trying to kill myself. Also, I reserve a special place in my heart for Nanowrimo, and I feel that the particular kind of stress it brings should be a strictly November thing.

So, if you don’t see me during July, that’s why.

When writing we all come across a lot of advice. I think that enough people have ridiculed the ‘write what you know’ advice, so I thought I would spend a post discussing some of the newer advice on the circuit which haven’t particularly worked for me.

Before we begin, I’ll just note that writing is a personal thing, and what works for one person may not work for another. Others may find them amazing. I am, of course, open to all takes in the comments.

 

Ignore Your Inner Editor: I started getting this one a lot when I joined Nanowrimo. It was on their list of advice for writers and is clearly intended to help you keep moving. It’s a terrible thing to be completely paralyzed when you know you have to write 5,000 more words to get back up to your goal.

One day in November 2011 I was at a write in and sitting next to my municipal liaison. I was studying my prose, decided I could re-word a sentence, and moved to chop it out. My ML caught me in the act and spent the next 15 minutes lecturing me on how I needed to quash that inner editor and just go, go, go.

This advice is getting popular, it would seem. But it really, really doesn’t work for me. I have strong feelings of self-doubt and I like to edit as I go, even though it means I can spend hours staring at one sentence. It means that the novel is just a little bit better if I go through for edits and rewrites. And all those little bits really add up, and make it so that maybe I don’t hate my writing with a fiery passion and confine it to the dusty spaces of my spare hard drive.

Sometimes I do acknowledge that I’ll just have to fix a problem later, and I usually do that with Nanowrimo novels because of the time and word constraints. But that may be connected to the fact that I have never revisited a Nano-novel. To think that I might have written that s***…

Kill Your Darlings: This could mean a number of things, but most people seem to take the advice as, ‘kill your characters, don’t be squeamish.’ So that’s what I’m going to focus on.

A week or so ago, I read a blog post on George R.R. Martin and the mixed success his last two books have had, especially compared to the smash hits of the first three. One comment that came up again and again was that readers didn’t particularly care any more. Not to spoil too much, but George R.R. Martin likes killing off his characters. A lot. Often there’s a shock factor involved.

Two things have happened to his series: first, the characters we care about are all dying, so we don’t care anymore; second, the deaths are no longer a big shock.

It’s great to have a big twist in the story. It’s great to be willing to sacrifice something you love for the good of the tale. But maybe this advice should be followed by, ‘Don’t turn a writing feature into a gimmick.’

Never Give Up: This is a hard piece of advice because it’s the kind of advice we all want. It makes us feel like we could and should keep striving for success with our work. And yes, we should persevere. Just because we have a setback or two doesn’t mean we should abandon everything. But I’m going to delve into anecdote time again to show why I don’t agree wholeheartedly with this advice.

I wrote three novels between my 16th and 17th summer. One of them was a Nanowrimo novel, one I wrote in three months, one in six. I took a different approach to planning each of them, which I will spare detailing here.

One of the things they all had in common was that they were terrible.

No big surprise there. I believe that I wrote well, for a teen, but that didn’t make me a publishable author. And when I look back on those novels, I do love them in their own way. But I would never, ever try to edit and publish them under any circumstances. I like to think of them as practice, like Nanowrimo each year. They helped me develop the skills and and determination to write a longer piece of work, and they helped me learn what I was good at and what I was bad at.

For a while, I tried to edit one of them for publication. But there came a time when I had to face facts: it simply wasn’t publishable. It would be easier to rewrite it with a different plot and an altered cast of characters, more suited to the ideas I actually have in my head now.

This still happens to me. Recently I had to stop a work in progress and start a large part over from scratch, just because books and movies at the time were coming out with the exact same concept. Though I had conceived of it independently, I had to scrap the thing and start over because no one would care whether I’d thought of it ‘first’ or not. It would be derivative anyway. And while it can be depressing to look at a monster of a work and realize its days are done, surely that’s better than bitterly slaving away for years that will end up in the editor’s trash pile, or at the bottom of the amazon kindle list.

That’s all for now. If you’ve got extra pieces of writerly advice that don’t quite work for you, or if you have a good reason to trust more wholeheartedly in the advice above, do let me know.

The Pitfalls of Jumping from Fanfiction to Published Fiction

Awhile back, I read a blog post by a writer detailing how writing fanfiction had improved her writing abilities overall. While writing of any kind will improve our writing overall, I found myself adding a number of mental provisos to her post. Not long after that, a certain infamous piece of fanfiction was changed to ‘fiction,’ and became a worldwide bestseller (out of respect for the integrity of this blog, it shall not be mentioned by name here). So I thought I’d spend some time today discussing fanfiction and what it does – and doesn’t do – for writers.

Let’s start with a little personal history. When I was six I decided I was going to be a writer, and I started writing. I’ll reserve the nuances of that story for another day (or never, if you’re lucky). The point is that I wasn’t introduced to fanfiction until almost 10 years later, when I started high school. My two best friends were very into fanfiction, particularly that of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Suddenly I was swept up into this notion that I could contribute to the stories I loved the best, and put my own spin on them, and explore things that the author had left out. It was amazing, empowering, and it got me to write.

That’s what’s great about fanfiction. It gets you to write. You have a ready-made starting point, and from there you can go in so many different directions. It also comes with an in-built audience that isn’t afraid to tell you what’s good and bad about your story.

But.

There’s always a but.

Anecdote time again. When I left high school, I stopped reading fanfiction, more or less. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and it seemed less fun. When I stopped reading it I also stopped writing it, of course. There was only one fanfiction that I still read with regularity, and I was overjoyed to hear that the woman who wrote it was in the process of publishing a book. I followed her updates closely and, as a sign of support, I went out and bought her book the very day it was put on the shelves.

I enjoyed it well enough, but by the end I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The best way I could describe the book was ‘fanfiction-y.’ Great word, for someone who calls herself a writer.

By ‘fanfiction-y’ I mean that the entire book felt like fanfiction for another book that I’d never read. Imagine coming across some Harry Potter fanfiction without knowing the premise of Harry Potter. By the end of it you might have a rough idea of Deatheaters, Lord Voldemort, and magic in the world around us, but you’d still be missing something. That’s how I felt about this book.

Descriptions of the world were missing, little details that I would have liked to know. The characters were underdeveloped, as though we were already supposed to know them. And the plot – the plot was probably what made me feel most fanfictioned. The main plot felt like it was happening somewhere else.

All of these points made me realize why writing only fanfiction isn’t going to make you a strong author. Fanfiction is great. Fanfiction has a purpose. But the purpose of fanfiction is highly limited.

When you write fanfiction, your world is pre-developed. Your characters are ready made. And your plot works around the main plot, which is what fanfiction is all about but seems rather anticlimactic if a reader is unfamiliar with the original material.

A lot of people use fanfiction as a way to get started with writing, and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But just because a person writes good fanfiction doesn’t mean that he or she can write good fiction. Practice in the craft of writing original fiction is needed before you make that jump to published author.

 

How about the other authors out there? Any thoughts on how writing fanfiction helped or hindered you?

Picture Worth Your Words: Forbidden

I’m deviating from my usual ranting so that I can post the story I just wrote for the third Picture Worth Your Words contest, posted by the lovely Aisha.

I stumbled on one of the pictures in the contest when another entry showed up in my feed. All the pictures she posted were incredible and normally I write fiction more in line with the other three, but as soon as I saw this picture I knew what to write about.

I don’t feel that this story is at all polished, but I figured if I didn’t get out there and do it, it might never happen. I hope you enjoy.

Forbidden

There is a little room, tucked below the stairs of one of the long, thin houses in Amsterdam. It is a tiny time capsule, showcasing possessions. The snapshot of her life just before it was snatched away.

The girl must have thought she would get them back. She lovingly placed the roses so that their delicate petals would be in no danger from the other, heavier objects. She set her favorite toys to stand watch over her treasures, moth-eaten and helpless as they look now. She must have brushed her hair before setting down the brush, soothing her hair and her own nerves with the repetitive strokes. She removed the cameos from their case one last time (turning them over and over in her fingers, I imagine), but the way they lie so carelessly on the boards suggests that she dropped them in her haste to quit the room and thus keep it secret.

Surely she thought she’d return in a week or two. That her treasures would be safe until she could reclaim them. And how could she have known? That even if the next five years didn’t kill her body, they would kill that little girl who snuck down under the stairs that night and set aside pieces of her life, one by one. She thought they would be forbidden her in the camp. But she didn’t understand.

In the camp, her life was forbidden her.

I cannot help but wonder if she made it – whether her sickly, starving form was pulled from the wreckage of history or whether she slipped away, a ghost in the gas chambers. Perhaps the life inside made it impossible for her to experience life outside. Perhaps it was just impossible to remember her own life and she left the roses to crumble, the toys to molder, the ivory to yellow. Bent double in that little room under the stairs, twirling the dusky roses between my fingers, I feel so close to her that I can almost reach out and touch her ghost as she reverentially lays down her photo, rubs her thumb over the surface of the cameo.

But as close as I feel, I can never truly know her. Only wonder at the knowledge that is forbidden me.