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.

 

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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.

Who Needs Inspiration?

I’ve been reading a lot of writing advice recently. Don’t ask me why, since most writing advice hinges on style and method, which are personal to everyone. This is just one of my ways of killing time instead of doing productive things, like finding a new job.

Since I’ve been pretty much indiscriminate about which writing advice I read, I’ve come across a lot of contradictions. Sometimes the advice is meaningless enough that I don’t really care whether someone contradicts it or not. But some quotes on each side of a debate have stuck with me.

One thing people seem to be in disagreement about is the matter of inspiration. A number of authors advise writers not to wait around for it. If we sit around waiting for the inspiration to strike, it never will and we’ll finish our lives without ever having made our goals. Others say that it will come. Don’t worry about it. Better to wait and write something inspired than to wallow in bad prose, trying to push through a mental block.

I feel like I’ve been on both sides of the fence here, opinion-wise. When I’ve truly been inspired, I’ve taken every spare moment to work on my piece. I’ve been driven to ignore all temptations such as games, books, films, and the internet. I’ve neglected meals, because the end is always a few sentences away and I can’t bear the possibility of losing my inspiration and my train of thought just because my brain couldn’t control my body.

That being said, my moments of inspiration have come few and far between. When I was really busy on my MA, I only wrote when I was inspired. As a result, I have two pieces from that time – a completed short story, and the prologue to what I believe will be a very interesting novel if I can ever capture that voice again. I do regret that I didn’t spend more time on my fantasy writing during my MA.

I feel – and perhaps some of you do too – that the writing I do when I’m inspired is superior to what I do when I’m just writing because my story needs to go somewhere. But I don’t honestly know whether my writing is better. My judgment may be clouded because I enjoy writing more when I’m inspired. After I finished that inspired short story during my MA, I sent it off to a writing buddy. She tactfully avoided my questions about it and did not provide me with the critique I requested, so I can only assume she didn’t like it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, of course. I would ask for at least a second opinion before I decided to scrap the whole thing. It might, however, be something that should never see the light of day again, no matter how inspired I was to write it.

I feel as though my first drafts need more work when they’re uninspired, even if I’ve planned them out beforehand. However, my extra level of attachment to my work might cloud my judgment.

Does anyone else feel a difference in the quality of their work when they’re uninspired/inspired? Or is it just that things get done faster, so the draft is finished at lightning speed? Or does inspiration come in the ideas, rather than the more concrete written word?

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.

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?

I’m still here…sort of

Wow. It has been a looooooooooong time since I last posted. I kind of dropped off of the digital face of the earth recently.  And I won’t lie. I won’t be back to posting normally for a while.

I like to put thought and dedication into my posts, which means that it has been a challenge in the past to put out two posts a week that I could be proud of. Now my thesis is in its final, agonizing throes and I’m putting every ounce of spare energy into taking care of that. I even feel guilty sitting here, now, writing this post.

But I really, really need to write it. To say thank you to the people who have been present on this blog when I have not been. Checking my blog account for the first time in weeks, I was astonished to see that some people do indeed still care. I hope you guys will still care in February, when I’m done with my thesis and can get back to writing and discussing the craft. Until then, good luck to you all on your own endeavours, and I hope the new year brings something positive for everyone.

Love,

Lil.

Day Twenty

Well, I promised myself that I would post once a day throughout November as part of a way to track my progress. For the first time in the month, I missed a day yesterday.

It’s okay. Nothing happened, really. I met with my thesis professor and took today off to do a little writing. Unfortunately, I truly did do only a little writing. I hardly got any sleep last night and I have been sick for a few weeks now, so I wasn’t exactly my usual perky self. But enough with the excuses! I’m back on the horse, and will begin again with my posting of word counts. They’re going to be pretty dismal, I think. At least until I find a day to do a whooooole lotta writing.

Now I am going to try to drown myself in ginger tea. All that longhand writing I did today will have to be typed up tomorrow.

Actually, there’s an interesting question. When I took out my notebook at the cafe this afternoon, my writing buddy laughed at me. But who else prefers writing longhand sometimes? I find that even though I go slower, I can get into a groove more easily because I’m not being distracted by facebook, emails, skype, webcomics or kittens. Or sloths. Sloths should be the new kitten meme.

On the other hand, when I type up all that stuff I wrote today, I’m going to be highly disappointed that it didn’t reach even a thousand words. I mean, it was four solid pages!

Happy writing, guys.