Friday, July 31, 2009

Critique Session #5

Genre: YA fantasy
Name: Tricia J. O'Brien
First page below:

The blue marble floor stretched before Fiona like creaking ice in a frozen river. She was ordered to attend the King's Gathering. To herself, she called it the King's Harvest, his right to pluck sixteen-year-old maidens from their families and place them where he pleased.

She was accompanied by her only relative, Great Aunt Celia. Several noble families were in front of them, and Fiona thought the girls' stiff smiles meant they were as frightened as she. The king could marry them to any of his allies; some old, some cruel.

Great Aunt Celia, who rarely left her fireside chair anymore, clutched Fiona's elbow tightly. The opulence of the royal hall felt oppressive as they moved toward the velvet-draped dais upon which King Cadric and his new bride sat in gilded chairs.

To ease her anxiety, Fiona studied a porcelain vase on a side table. It must come from the far realms, brought by sailed-ship and wagon, tucked in straw to keep it safe. The twining vines and flowers were unknown to Fiona. She tried to hear the plant's song even though it was painted, not real. Softly, she hummed a possible melody.

Great Aunt Celia's fingers bit into Fiona's arm like teeth. "Stop at once!" she hissed.

Fiona stifled the notes and glanced around. Her aunt forbade her to sing or play her most prized possession, a small harp, for others, but no one could have heard her humming. They all were focused on the king as he conversed with an unfamiliar girl who didn't live in the castle as Fiona did.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Critique Session #4

On the Other Side of Sleep (working title)
Mainstream Fiction
Ian Bontemps

Sarah Turner is a young woman living in northeast England who has grown up living with her nightmares and learned how to control them.

Now she finds she can leave her dreams entirely and enter the dreams of anyone, anywhere. Resolving to embrace this, she begins to lose herself in the dreams of others, only to find herself in mortal danger.

However, her biggest mistake may be bringing hope to a man in a coma; when she finds not everyone should wield the power she has been taking for granted, and that death is not always the end.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP (working title) is an 80,000 word mainstream novel, which explores the beguiling prospect of living in dreams and the consequences when they clash with the jagged reality of contemporary life.

It will appeal to fans of the surreal worlds of Neil Gaiman and the readers of Michael Marshall Smith, where uncomfortable and extraordinary events fracture the lives of relatable characters.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Critique Session #3

YA SF (dystopian)
Elana Johnson


Dear Ms. Revis,

I read on your blog last week that you are looking for young adult queries to critique. Because of this, I believe you would be interested in my young adult novel, CONTROL ISSUES.

In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces.

After committing her eighth crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!), Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. She’s found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn’t think it’s a word either) and exiled to the Badlands—until she demonstrates her brainwashing abilities. That earns her a one-way trip to appear before the Association of Directors.

Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen. She busts out of prison with sexy Bad boy Jag Barque, who also has no intention of fulfilling his lame ass sentence.

Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriend—and Jag as a possible new one—leave Vi little time for much else. Which is too damn bad, because she’s more important than she realizes. When secrets about her “dead” sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled.

A dystopian novel for young adults, CONTROL ISSUES is complete at 83,000 words. Fans of Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER and Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES will enjoy similar elements, and a strong teen voice. CONTROL ISSUES addresses the topic of teens fulfilling their duty as citizens of society, along with how hard it is to grow up under the expectations of parents and other adults when they're trying to make their life their own.

I am an elementary school teacher by day and a contributing author of the QueryTracker blog by night. If you would like to consider CONTROL ISSUES, I’d be happy to forward the complete manuscript to you. I have included the first ten pages in the body of this email.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Elana Johnson

First 250 words:

Good girls don’t walk with boys. Even if they’re Good boys—and Zenn was the best. He strolled next to me, all military with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing the black uniform of a Forces recruit. His shirt had green stripes on the sleeves where his initials flashed in silver tech lights, probably recording everything. Probably? Who was I kidding? Those damn stripes were definitely recording everything.

Walking through the park in the evening is not technically against the Rules. Good people do it all the time. But walking through the park with a boy could get me in trouble.

When darkness fell, another Rule would be broken.

The whir of a hovercopter echoed high above the trees. In this park, the saplings stood an inch or two taller than me. Some trees in the City of Water are ancient—at least a century old. But the forest is off-limits, and even I know better than to break that Rule.

The filthy charcoal shade of the sky matched the impurities I’d filtered from the lake in class today. I imagined the color to be similar to the factory walls where my dad worked, but I hadn’t seen him for years and had never been there, so I couldn’t really say. People don’t return from the Badlands.

“Vi, I’m glad you stopped by,” Zenn said. His voice was smooth, just like his skin and the perfectly fluid way he walked.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Critique Session #2

Title: Poseidon's Trident
Genre: Action/Adventure
Name: Little Scribbler

First 250 Words

The earthquake hit at 12:05 am. If measured on the Richter Scale, it would have measured 10.0 - described as an “epic”, and would require one teraton of TNT to replicate. However, the majority of the force sent by the quake was absorbed by a single, oblong island, measuring 370 kilometres in diameter at its centre.

The effect was immediate. Flimsy wood houses were flattened instantly, the occupants either killed or running from the rubble screaming. Wooden walls toppled over, and domesticated animals - pigs, goats and horses - scurried off away from the city, seeking non existent shelter. Entire forests were unearthed, and large faults opened up, displacing large amounts of rocks and dirt.

Then, it was all over.

Of the original 10 000 inhabitants of the city, fewer than 300 were left alive. Seeking help, all made their way over to what used to be the city centre, stumbling over rubble, and crying for the loss of loved ones. They all stood there, waiting for someone, anyone, to take charge.

Finally someone did. Considered the best warrior in the whole city, Atlas stood tall, at a little over 1.9 metres. His long blonde hair was untidy, and his golden beard was stained red from a cut above his chin, caused from his falling roof. A similar cut sat on his forehead, also from falling timber. Standing on a pile of wood, he bellowed:

“People of this city! The Gods have sent a curse to us, for failing the capture of Athens. Our King and Queen are dead, and our houses destroyed. Many of us have been killed, and I have seen the curse from Poseidon!”

Readers: If you were an agent/editor, would you request to read more based on this sample? If not, at what point and why did you stop reading? What stood out as well done in this query/sample?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Critique Session #1

Dreaming Isis
Young Adult Fantasy
Mim Caldwell


Dear Agent,
Seventeen-year-old Isis’ life changes the day she uses magic to save herself from an exploding car. It wasn’t like she had a choice in the matter—instinct kicked in—and she did it without thinking. The only problem was that in the process she saves Dane—her stupid class project partner. The bomb was meant for him, but did he say thanks? Nope, instead he kidnaps her because of her powers and pulls her into a world of magic where two societies are warring for control.

Afraid of her family’s rejection Isis doesn’t want to join either group, but Dane insists on training her, and she begins to fall for him as they spend more and more time together. Isis discovers she is the dreamer. That means her gift is stronger than most and she can do things other people can’t –like walk around the world of dreams. It allows her to take control of people’s minds and tell them what to do and believe through their dreams. Not to mention all the magic she can do in the real world. Both societies want her and her choice could end the fighting, but Isis doesn’t know whom to trust.

Dreaming Isis is Young Adult Fantasy novel complete at 57,000 words. Further materials are available upon your request. Thank you for your consideration.


First 250 words

The halls were crowded as school ended for the day. Everyone was heading home. I was having a bad day, and I wished that I could just go home like everyone else. Instead I had a group project to work on with Dane. I struggled to keep up with him. We weren't speaking to each other, but every minute or so Dane would say hello to a friend or slap someone on the back.

Dane was getting a lot of strange looks. I guess it was because I was with him. He'd just shrug and smile as we kept walking together, not talking. I hated school. If I didn't want so desperately out of the house, I'd skip a lot more. It was just a means to an end.

Everyone seemed to be staring at us today. Normally I didn't get noticed quite so much, but the freak walking with one of the most popular boys in school was bound to draw some attention. It didn't make me feel any better that Dane had always been more than nice to me. Not that I really knew him. He had never made fun of my clothes and he didn't seem upset when we got paired up for the history project. He treated me like I was normal, just like anyone else.

When we finally got to the parking lot, we climbed into Dane's red Subaru. It was clean inside.

"You okay?" Dane asked looking over at me as he fiddled with his iPod.

Readers: If you were an agent/editor, would you request to read more based on this sample? If not, at what point and why did you stop reading? What stood out as well done in this query/sample?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Critique Sessions are a GO!

Judging by the poll on the sidebar, critique sessions seem like something everyone would like to try out. So, let's try it!

First, what this is NOT:
  • This is NOT going to be a snarky, point-out-every-wrong-detail critique by anyone
  • This is NOT going to be a win-a-prize thing...I ain't got no prizes!
  • This is NOT going to be a critique with lots of pressure
Second, what this is:
  • This is a chance to get feedback from fellow writers
  • This is a chance to see reactions from readers to your writing
  • This is a chance to know what you're doing RIGHT...and what could be improved
What to enter: Your query pitch and/or your first 250 words of your manuscript. These are the first two things an agent/editor will read, so making them good is essential.

Who can enter: ANYONE. I don't care if it's finished, what genre it is, anything. Just send it.

What will the critiques entail? Basically, I'd like for each critique to answer the simple question: would I want to read more or not? I don't intend these to be line-by-line critiques--just a simple yes or no...but if the answer is no, I wouldn't want to read more, then a short explanation as to what point made me (and the other critiquers) quit reading.

Who will critique? Everyone on the blog who wants to. I'll post the entry here. All critiques--including my own--will go in comment box.

How do you enter? Email me (bethrevis at your submission. Please include the following information:
Your name: (optional! you can be anonymous)
Your blog/website: (optional!)
Query: [You may submit your query AND/OR your first page. Self-edit or redact your bio if you prefer anonymity.]
First page: [First 250-ish words, please.]
How long will this last? Depending on interest, I'm thinking we can do 1-2 of these every day next week. I hope that if we keep the number posted per day low, then people can go a little more in-depth and be more thoughtful than if I posted everything at once (which has a tendency to overwhelm people and make them skim).

How many entries will be taken? This might vary, but I really only want to do a few each day next week and then stop. If there's overwhelming interest, that may change, but as of now, that's the plan. This may mean that if I get 20, I'll only post the first 10. Sorry--but if there's a ton on here, people lose interest or just start repeating themselves in the comments.

Will there be another critique session in the future? *shrug* I dunno. Let's see how well this one goes.

ETA: Just to clarify: you can chose whether or not you want to be anonymous--entirely up to you. Also, feel free to send your query, your first 250 words, or BOTH--you decide what and how much you want to share!

It Matters

As writers, there is very little in our control concerning our manuscript. What we can do is simply write the best we can, then with a little hope, perseverance, and networking, get our best writing into the hands of agents, publishers, book reviewers, and readers. Along the way, a lot is out of our control. Which agent will like my manuscript the best? Which editors does that agent know--and which will want the manuscript? How much marketing will the publisher provide? Will the readers like it?

And what will be on the cover?

They're important questions--and they all matter. The wrong answer to any of those questions could make or break your book. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that judges the book by its cover.

To the left is Justine Larbalestier's latest book, LIAR. Isn't that a stunning cover? The narrator of the book, a pathological liar, has her lying mouth covered by her own hair. It's gorgeous--and the thing that made me plan on buying a hard cover instead of waiting for a paperback.

There's only one problem.

That isn't the narrator.

The author describes the narrator as:
"Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."

Now, there are a few arguments pro the white girl on the book cover.

First, the symbolic argument:

“The cover works symbolically,” said Catherine Linka, children’s and young adult book buyer at Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, Calif. “We have a character who is hiding a lot, and the cover does a wonderful job of communicating that secrecy—the bangs, the hair crisscrossing across the face.”
(This argument, by the way, is invalid to me, as they could have as easily done this with a black model instead of a white one.)

Second, the "she's just a liar anyway" argument:
"One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true."

(This argument, by the way, is refuted by the author herself: "In an interview with PW, Larbalestier, who is married to Uglies author Scott Westerfeld, said Micah told the truth about her race.")

In the end, I think the publisher just didn't think it mattered.

But they're wrong.

This kind of inherent racism, exclusionary tactics, an underlying belief that white is more marketable than color--that white is actually preferable to color... Seeing it, addressing it, and confronting it...

That matters.

[For more on the topic: E. Lockheart's own experience with racism on covers, the PW Article on the topic, the author's blog on the topic.]

So, I'm dying to know: what do YOU think about this?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Simplifying Your Theme

As I've been studiously avoiding working on my revisions for my WIP, I realized something.

When I wrote the book, I had a general idea of my theme. I didn't write it to preach a lesson, and I didn't have an agenda that I was going with, but if someone had asked me to summarize my work in one word, it would be:


Each character must face a harsh truth, and then decide how they'll deal with that truth. I wrote the book with that main concept in mind: what is truth? Is it easier to face truth or live a lie? Given the choice, would you choose truth or lies? Does everyone deserve the same truth? How do people react when faced with a harsh truth?

As I'm revising, though, I've come to realize that "truth" as a central concept is too weak. Truth is a simple noun: it just sits there. And too often, it allows the characters to just sit there, talking. And whenever characters are just sitting there, talking, the text is boring. Truth as a concept is a little to static.

When I looked back over what I'd written, and refocused on those central questions revolving around truth, I saw another pattern, another central concept that, while I didn't set out to write about, emerged from the text.


Sure, my characters face harsh truths: but the dynamic part of the story was when they chose how to live with and what to do about those harsh truths. When I focused my writing on "truth," I too often had the characters listening, talking, and thinking. When I focused my revisions on "choices," the characters still heard, talking about, and thought about the truths--but they were quicker to react and put into motion their ideas.

In fact, this has led to a complete rewrite of my opening chapters. Before, I had one character very accepting of the lies that he was told. He was, to put it simply, a pushover. He allowed himself to be bullied, and he was weak and low self-esteem.

Originally, I did this so that I could set him up. He was weak in the beginning, then grew stronger in the end. He was lied to in the beginning, and sought the truth in the end.

But...he was weak. And people don't like to read about how weak someone is: they like to read about how even the weak can be strong.

So I've moved Chapter 15 to Chapter 1, and I've let this character be weak for only a few pages before he's presented with information that he thinks is the truth. After that, he starts making choices...and choices = action.

And action isn't boring.

So, how about you? If you could sum up your WIP in one word, what would it be? Does that word reflect your goals for your writing? (For example, is the word very abstract when you have something distinct you want to do, or is the word very passive when you want to be proactive, or is the word introverted and contemplative when you want your writing to be extroverted and action-packed?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Author Interview: Lisa Mantchev, author of Eyes Like Stars

When I posted on Twitter that I finished reading EYES LIKE STARS and was planning on reviewing it, and would @LisaMantchev pretty please like to do an interview for this blog, I thought there was no way I'd get a response. No. Way. But Lisa is my kind of cool: not only did she respond speedy-fast, but she was super nice about it all.

Below is her interview, but if you'd like even more (!) reading material, check out Lisa's website and (highly entertaining) blog.

We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?
I cannot stand having coffee grinds on me... which makes it tricky to clean out the espresso machine!

As a child, what was your favorite book? Have your tastes changed since growing up?
Around the age of nine or ten, my favorite book was BALLET SHOES by Noel Streatfeild. I read a lot more fantasy now than I did then, but I still love the old-school British sensibility in books like the Shoes series, and those by Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An actress. That was pretty much the dream until I went to college.

Are you more of an on-stage girl or behind-the-scenes one?
An even split... I spend as much time performing as I do working behind the scenes, both with theater and with the writing.

How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?
The book is ALL me, really, and Bertie is the character the most like me, although the voices of the fairies are all aspects of my personality as well. Sadly, I never met a boy who could command the winds, nor a pirate. *really should have dated more in college*

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?
  • July-September 2006: Writing the first draft.
  • September-December, 2006: Revising the draft.
  • December 30, 2006: Submitted manuscript to my agent
  • March, 2007: Signed by my agent
  • May, 2007: Novel goes out on submission and sells to Feiwel & Friends
  • June-December, 2007: Contract negotiations
  • 2008: Editing, including copyedits and page proofs
  • January, 2009: Advance Review Copies come out
  • July 7th, 2009: Official publication of the hardcover
  • [Beth would like to add that eight freaking days after that, they went into a second printing. I mean, holy cow!!! OK, back to Lisa's interview!]
So... three years total, start of draft to finished product! As far as how I felt... well... I
have been on the EmoCoaster of crazed, elated, deflated, then more crazed for that entire time.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?
I really hope it inspires people to buy tickets to a theatrical production, or to try out for a play.

I've got to ask: What's your favorite play/character and why?
It's hard to choose a favorite, but today it's Katerina from TAMING OF THE SHREW, because I played her in high school, and a very talented artist I follow recently posted a fabulous illustration from that. Also, that line about "I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first!" is made of win.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?
It's the same goal: in fifteen years, I want still to be writing novels that people like to read.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?
It's a job. A great job, even a career, but it's less glamorous than Hollywood would have you believe.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?
See how I just said it was like a job? As an aspiring author, I think the sooner you treat the writing as a job, the better. Put in the hours, meet your deadlines, behave professionally.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?
I like writing dialogue, and descriptive bits, and using interesting vocabulary words. I'm rubbish at writing some of the action sequences, and I'm extra rubbish when it comes to losing sight of the forest for the trees. I tend to put my nose against the manuscript and forget to back up to make sure the big picture is still hanging correctly.

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?
Lazy writing... doesn't matter if it's mine or someone else's, it still irks me!

Thank you so much, Lisa, for the wonderful interview! Especially the detailed timeline--I found that really helpful. (And, for the record, my favorite play is KING LEAR...Cordelia is made of awesome, and I love how the same actor could play her and the jester.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Please Vote!

I mentioned yesterday that I was thinking of doing a critique session on this blog...I always find them helpful when they're done in a constructive criticism way, not a snarky way. I was thinking of doing it by posting the query and first 250 words of everyone who wants to submit--then we could each say where we stopped reading and why--or if we'd like to keep reading. I figured those are the first things an agent/editor read, and it's important to see where the query or writing fails.

If this is something you'd like to do--please vote in the poll below. If this is something you DON'T want to do--please vote, too. I only want to do this if you, my readers, want it as well.

Thanks in advance! And any suggestions for it--please comment here!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You!

Hey all!

So...that intermission actually took a bit longer than I'd thought. When I posted the cats, I was feeling a little down and out...turns out it was a mild case of food poisoning that I only started to recover from Saturday. So, on the down side, I, er, didn't eat much for two days. On the plus side, it's a great start to my summer diet! And, since I wasn't doing much at all during that time, I actually was able to breakthrough my revision problems and figured out (imo) a neat way to fix my early chapter problems!

Just as a heads up, this week will have a book review and interview on Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars (which I'm pretty excited to post), as well as some other reviews.

But, a quick question for you:

Would you like to have a critique session on here?

Lots of blogs do it, but I'm not thinking of doing anything so big as most of them. But would you guys be interested in posting the query and/or first page of your manuscript (in whatever genre, whatever stage of completion) here and letting everyone have a communal constructive criticism session? I'm not sure if this is something that people are interested in, or if that's what YOU I thought I'd ask.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This intermission in your regularly scheduled blog posts on writing is brought to you by:
  • The sixth Harry Potter movie, which I saw at midnight and therefore got home at 4am from
  • The flat tire I got this morning which made me late for...everything
  • And the letter G
To appease the masses, here is a picture of a kitty on some books.

And since I am writing a science fiction, here's a scientific kitty.

And a puppy who references my favorite books of all time...

And finally, this one it just funny. I am not mad, I just think it is cute.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Art's Influence on Writing

I would like to start this post by showing you a picture of a naked boy. You can thank Booknapped for inspiring this burst of nudity.

My mother loathes this picture. Which would be why I have it hanging over the fireplace in my living room.

That's not the (only) reason why I hung this painting up in the most prominent place in my house. Love Locked Out is Anna Lea Merritt's masterpiece and sole contribution to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It also happens to sincerely be my favorite painting. I discovered it in a round-about way: first I found Dante Gabriel Rosetti through Beata Beatrix, which, of course, led to all that scandalous stuff about Lizzie Siddal, which led to Ophelia, which led to me buying books about the Pre-Raphaelites, which led to me being even more fascinated with England, which led to me studying abroad in London, which led to me standing in front of this picture and having the beauty of it stealing my breath in the Tate Museum of Art in London.

See, Pre-Raphaelite art is all about the symbolism. And this picture--Love Locked Out--was the first time that I looked at a piece of art and "got it," the first time I understood why art was really worth it all.

Take a look at it again. Heck, it's so beautiful, let's just post it again:

On the outside, it looks like a naked child (probably a boy) standing in front of a door, unable (apparently) to get in.

And it's beautiful in its own right. Even if you don't like naked boys, it's still a beautiful painitng, isn't it?

Then, add the title: Love Locked Out. Now you can see that the boy represents Love, and he's locked out. Look at the details: a lamp, shattered on the ground. No light there--no hope there. A crushed rose on the ground, a vine of roses more thorn than flower. Dead leaves scattered on the ground.

Dig a little deeper and you learn that Merritt painted this after her husband died.

That Love is locked out of the tomb.

That the only thing Love cannot conquer is Death.

Booknapped posits (along with Hemingway) that we have a lot to learn about writing from art. And we do. A technically well written novel is like a technically beautiful painting. It's good--but what's the point? Add in those details--the broken lamp, the crushed rose--and you add depth, substanance, meaning to your work. Sure, it takes a lot of work just to get to the finished painting. But it takes so much more to get to the finished painting that will make a study abroad study cry in the Tate Museum.

So, what's your favorite piece of art--and how does it inspire your writing?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Story Arc

I've been thinking a lot about story arcing. I don't write with distinct ideas of charts and graphs in mind, but now that I'm editing, I just want to make sure that everything is there the way it should be. For example, look at this chart:

I like this chart because I've been thinking of something much more like a bell curve--straight up and down. But this one has little spikes for each of the crises.

I decided to come up with my own chart. For each chapter, I assigned a number 1-10 for tension. But my book's strength, I think, is that it not only has tension, but also a great deal of emotional response from the reader. So I gave a number for emotion, too.

So, here's what I came up with in my own work

Along the bottom is every chapter. Then I gave a numerical rank of 1-10 on tension (red) and another rank for emotion (blue). Basically, for the purposes of this, tension = how on the edge of my seat I am, and emotion was how heart-wrenching the scene was.

Now, you may see immediately that my graph has a lot of up and down spikes--that's because I alternate POV in each chapter, so while one character's tension is rising in his story arc, the other character's maybe isn't. While I think next time I'll separate it based on the characters, I think I can see a clear line here.

Of note:
  • A spike of tension at Chapter 3; a spike of emotion at Chapter 5. Those were my early hooks.
  • The 20s are low, but the rise is in the 30s and a climax in the 40s--imagine that as a steeper, steadier curve with the overall plot--those are the "crises" that keep the reader reading (I hope)
  • The last chapters shoot up in tension--this is the revelation of the murderer--and emotion--the revelation of the "twist"
  • In the last chapter, tension shoots back down, but emotion shoots up. I wanted to leave the reader emotional, but with questions asked, so I think that's accomplished here.

  • This was MY numbers--what *I* think is heart-wrenching or tension-filled. Another reader may not have that reaction. While I'm happy with how my overall story arc looks like, it's only effective if my readers think that those heart-wrenching scenes deserve a ten, or that tension is worth top points.

So, how do you track your story arc?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's That Time Again...

I am a lazy, lazy person. I don't like doing things until the absolute final minute. Which would be why writing is sometimes so difficult for me: as I have no contract, I have no deadline.

The husband casually mentioned last night that, oh yeah, Guy's Night of Poker and Destroying Beth's House was, er, TONIGHT.

Last time the guys had a poker night, I got rather a lot of writing done...or at least I set a goal and strove for it.

Here lately, I've been, er, not been revising. I've been playing on the intarwebs, and I've been watching the television, and I've ever been cleaning house, but I've not been revising.


Let the Live-Blogging (Revision Edition) Begin!

7:50pm: Hey, look at me! I'm starting 10 minutes before my goal of starting at 8! I'm awesome. I should update this on Twitter. Bet I lose my 10 minute head start that way...

8:03: The Intarweb gods are against me. As soon as I updated Twitter, Firefox crashed. Perhaps this is a sign.

8:06: OK, I need goals. Here's where I am now: I'm adding "comments" to my work as I read through it. I'm not stopping to change anything (save a word or comma...I am a grammar nerd, after all). I'm just reading through and adding in ideas. Here's a sample of what I'm doing:

(Click pic to enlarge) At the end of each chapter I'm adding that note: listing out the things I KNOW I need to keep focus on in chapters, what I know I struggle with the most. I'm also adding little marks to check references or continuity throughout.

So--GOALS. My goal is to make it to the middle of the book by the end of the night. That's a running start!

Hey! I'm starting a Twitter Revolution! Use #liveblogrevisions to follow me, @ckmarciniak, and @DanyelleLeafty (and anyone else who wants to join in) as we update our revision process tonight. Or, just add some updates to your own blog or comments here to join in the fun!

8:11: OK, updates to revise a bit and will check back soon!

8:22: Busted out the post-it notes.

8:38: I'm actually fixing more than adding notes right now...revisions can be a process, like writing. I'm going to go with it for now, and do a combo of both notes and change-as-I-go.

8:49: This is going soooo sloooooooooow. But it's also giving me a realistic idea of how much work I need to do, especially with my male MC.

8:51: I got distracted by Twitter, then realized that revisions has my name in it. Seriously considering referring to myself as REVISions from now on...

8:52: Maybe I need a milder energy drink.

9:10: More post-its. I may not make my goal of half the ms. tonight, but at least I have a clear three-step program as an order of what to fix when.

9:11: The husband and friends have started watching Kill Bill Vol. 1. It is loud, but my typing is louder!

9:15: Resisting urge to check email...failing....

9:17: My writing theme song came on my iTunes playlist! Feeling suddenly revitalizes! Here I am to save the day revise my manuscript!

9:24: An advantage to taking notes during a read-through, as opposed to editing as I go: I can just highlight phrases, etc., and say "Should I cut this?" I don't have to decide to murder my darlings yet, I can do it later.

9:25: I've reduced my play list to three repeating songs. I hardly notice them as I revise.

9:31: Holy crap! I've only read through one chapter?! Well, I always knew that the chapters in the beginning from this character's POV were bad, but....dang!!!

9:43: Resisting email. Resisting....

9:49: Am now just listening to my book's theme song in constant repeat. No other songs, just that one. It lulls me into focus.

10:03: Made it to page 50. 125 more pages to go to meet my goal. Feeling a bit doubtful in my ability. But I will try at least!

10:04: One thing I really like doing: making the end note (see pic above) for each chapter. I've added a lot more internal notes on consistency checks, possible passages to delete, etc., than I've meant to, but even when I don't take too many notes in chapter, I still feel good thinking critically with those end notes. I do feel like I'm getting somewhere, especially since I make myself think of at least one thing to revise per chapter (or else give a reason why I don't need to revise that chapter)

10:27: Took a short break to ask some editing questions on Twitter. I have many opinions on dingbats (the # used for scene breaks) to sift through! But I LOVE getting immediate, direct aid from authors and editors.

10:36: The husband brought me a whiskey sour. Had to refuse--it will put me to sleep, and I need to focus! ARGH.

(PS: Whiskey sour recipe: Fifth of Jack D. Can of frozen lemonade concentrate. Can of beer. Blend in blender. Driiiiink. So good.)

10:45: Just realized Chapter 9 should be Chapter 3. Or maybe Chapter 1. Either way, it needs to be moved WAAAAY up. Crap. Crappity crap crap.

10:52: Read page 60, where a major inciting event happens. Made note to cut ten pages before this, so that scene happens by page 50. It's best to have the plot turn by then, especially if I can turn it on a cliffhanger, as the first 50 pages tend to be the amount requested in a partial. This would be a much better point to end a partial than my original 50 pages.

11:15: At page 70, and feeling very strong about this. Much better revisions here--the pace is good. I like my decision to cut 10 pages from first 50. Not sure which to cut, but know it will keep this pace going strong.

11:18: Realization: I work much better when I do it all at once in one major, fell sweep. And when I publicly make deadlines. OK, 100 more pages to go! *gulp*

11:28: Apparently the husband and buddies were looking for a video game for two hours. The husband finally asks me. I find it in 2 minutes. Back to work!

11:36: Add a new note to my end-chapter notes: the gun on the mantle. (Hey, it IS a mystery!)

11:44: I kinda wish I had a beta reader in my pocket, someone I could pull up immediately, shout "IS THIS GOOD ENOUGH YET?!" and then stuff back in my pocket until the next trouble scene.

11:49: Eep! Just wasted 5 mins looking at Neil Gaimon's kitchen. Did you know he was going to be on CBS Sunday Morning in October? It is true. And that is an excellent motivation for me to keep revising as I push close to tomorrow morning!!!

12:07: On page 80 now. I had a bit of a sweet spot between pages 50-80, where I knew I liked what I'd written and didn't need to change much. Going back into treacherous water now--this next chapter is probably the biggest problem in the whole manuscript (except for Chapter 1).

12:29: Clearly I am dreading this chapter. Just took a 20 minute break.

12:35: OOooo, I am really dreading this chapter. Started cruising intarwebs for what Amy (female protag) would look like. I never do this. But this pic does sort of match my image of her.

12:43: Maybe someone like this for Elder, my male protag. A little younger, perhaps, and with narrower eyes. Maybe this guy instead. Preferably a combination of the two.

12:45: Wow. I really love that red-head girl. She's perfect for Amy.

12:48: Seriously considering purchasing the stock photo at right. I think it's not too expensive. Could make a whole new webpage layout with her--could easily change background into a night sky scene.


12:55: *blinks* When did it get so close to 1am? ... RIGHT. REVISIONS. *turns off intarwebs again*

12:56: That's a really pretty Amy, isn't it?


1:02: Crap. Out of Mountain Dew. Yellow Dye #5 is the only thing keeping me going. When did this get hard again? Oh, yeah, when I started hating that chapter...

1:19: Who's on Facebook at 1:19 in the morning? ...not a lot of people, actually.

1:21: Maybe left over Chinese food will rejuvenate me?

1:31: I have no idea what the crunchy things in my Kung Po chicken are (they are square and pale green), but they are an adequate substitute for Yellow Dye #5.

1:44: HA! Finished notes on difficult chapter!

1:45: My goal was to get to page 175 by 2 am. That...isn't going to happen.

1:56: Calling it quits. Got to page 102.

I fell short of my goal, but the important thing: I actually started revising. I'd been putting that off for so long that I ran the risk of ignoring it and doing a hash job. But I'm organized now, and I know where I want to go, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can do this! I just need more Kung Po chicken and Yellow Dye #5...

On Inspiration

I'm so going to cop out on this post today, mainly because I spent nearly all day yesterday tweaking my website ( and am now feeling slightly sick that I've not gotten any critiques done for my friends and am falling behind on my own revisions. But! I am glad to have revised my website. It still featured my other WIP, but now is focused on the current one, Long Way Home. I know that some people like to feature all their WIPs on their website, but I want to focus on the one I'm marketing now.

One of the biggest things I had to change was my page on inspiration. For my last WIP, I had a clearly defined set of character inspirations: the teacher was inspired by Audrey Hepburn, the bad guy got traits of Nathan Filion's character Captain Mal on Firefly, the main character came from the myth of Bellerophon. But in my current WIP, there was no real inspiration from the characters at all. Not physically--one character's traits come from his heritage, and the other has bright red hair only because that was the most different hair color I could think of in contrast to the first character. And these characters had no real inspiration emotionally: who could I compare to them, considering one's been cyrogenically frozen and the other born on a space ship?

Nope--instead, inspiration for these characters came from the plot--this story started with plot, and I fit characters to them. So, where did the plot come from? That's what I spent a large part of yesterday analyzing. It's on my website here, but in case you'd rather not click over, here's where my last WIP came from:

On Writing: Inspiration

I love hearing about where books come from. Although often the source of a story untraceable thing as ideas feed into each other, in some cases it is possible to pick an author's mind.

Three books had the greatest influence on Long Way Home, but the seeds of my inspiration happened years and years ago, reading Agatha Christie in elementary school and junior high. As a kid, I never liked Nancy Drew. Her mysteries were too mild. But Agatha Christie had foreign detectives, murders, and even spies! I try to include some element of mystery in all of my writing--mystery, after all, keeps the pages turning--but I've never done a novel that revolves around a mystery.

A year ago, I read Jeanne Du Prau's first book in the Ember series, The City of Ember. I adored the mystery of that novel, which awoke my old longings to write a mystery of my own. One thing I particularly loved in The City of Ember was that the mystery was in a contained location: the kids couldn't leave Ember (at first), and everything had to take place in that one city. I thought that was brilliant, and started to play around with ideas of creating a contained mystery. Another walled city sounded too close to De Prau's work...a cruise ship had been done before...but what if it was on a space ship....?

But of course, I couldn't write that because I didn't like science fiction. Sure, I liked Orson Scott Card's Ender series as much as the next girl, but those giant tomes filled with physics and chemistry that my husband reads sounded much too much like a science textbook to me.

Then I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson. The plot was amazingly clever and I became instantly hooked on the wonderfully written characters, but the thing that stuck with me was the realization that this was science fiction. This wasn't a five hundred page epic with detailed analysis of the science behind the plot. Pearson used science in the same way that JK Rowling used magic: as a means to progress and enhance the plot, without an dissertation on the mechanics.

And that is what I set out to do: use science like magic, write a science fiction that worked like a fantasy. And, of course, throw in a murder mystery, too.

But it just wasn't...twisty enough. I had a setting, I had an idea of a mystery, but I needed a twist, something more shocking than your run-of-the-mill whodunnit.

Fortunately, I read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner soon after. It featured a first person narrator, a style of writing I had never used myself before, and honestly, had never really liked. First person point of view always made me feel as if the story is being told to me by someone else, and I have trouble becoming fully engrossed with the characters. Turner was so skilled in this style of writing, though, and I fell into the world so completely that I never realized just how...unreliable...a first person narrator can be. I won't ruin the book here--you need to read it for yourself!--but I will say this: after discovering the twist the main character Gen creates at the end of The Thief, I realized that not only did I need a twist in my own novel, but by using a first person narrator, I'd be able to use my own main characters to deliver that twist.

Of all the stories and novels I've worked on, this one has had the most influence from books I've loved. Although Long Way Home isn't a copy of any of these works, it is the result of a reader's mind!

So, where does your inspiration come from? Do you start with characters (as I did with my previous WIP) or plot (as I did with my current one)? Or something else entirely?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Different Readers

There's been a lot of talk on the blogosphere about trust recently--and while Robyn talked about the importance of trust in yourself, Michelle talked about trusting advice, and Natalie talked about NOT trusting the rules, there's one issue about trust that kept wiggling around my mind.

The Trust of Readers.

Quit thinking like a writer for a sec--think like a reader. When you pick up a published book, you trust that author to an extent. You trust that the author is a good writer (at least good enough to be published). You trust that the author will deliver a well written book--both grammatically, stylistically, and story-wise. You trust that the book is worth your time--and (if you bought it) your money. You wouldn't shell out $15-$25 to a stranger for no good reason, would you? No--you trust that the story on those printed pages is worth it.

Now think about the last time you critiqued a friend's work.

Did you have that same trust?

I'm betting you didn't--because you weren't thinking like a reader, you were thinking like a critiquer. You didn't have the agent, editor, publishing house, and media hype to build up your trust in the work--you just had an unpublished document by a friend who freely admits (by asking for a critique) that she DOESN'T deserve your trust.

Did you rip it to shreds?

And, more importantly...should you have?

In the past few years, I've done every kind of critique there is. I've gotten beta reads from published and unpublished writers, I've paid for critiques from former editors, I've signed up for online critiques from agents and editors, I've done the first line/first page/pitch contests that riddle the kidlitosphere. I've been in three different critique groups, worked online and in real life with other writers, gone to two conferences, read writing books, and spent more money that I think I could stomach if I actually tabulated it.

Have they helped?

To some extent.

And now I can tell the difference. When I submit my work to people I've worked with before or know to some extent (either online or irl), I think I've built up a trust relationship with those individuals--moreso than with a stranger. They know I can write because they've seen me write before and are aware of my abilities. I'd even argue that you, as a reader of my blog, are aware of my abilities to a greater extent than the Internet population at large. You trust in my abilities to write a blog post, at least, and if you've been around here for awhile, you probably have a sense of my tone and style and ability.

But when I submit to online anonymous contests or do a swap with someone I'm not really close to, that trust isn't there. They don't trust that I can write--and the critique is affected by it.

Natalie's post on rules really made me think of this. If a critiquer is reading a portion of your writing and doesn't have the inherent trust of most readers, they'll nitpick the rules. Does it really matter if one sentence is passive? No. Does it really make much of a difference if you chose a different word to describe something? Not really.

I once entered an online anonymous first page contest. At least two-thirds of the commenters talked about my main character's name--NOT the story itself. Which. Drove. Me. Crazy. How am I supposed to learn something new when most of the comments are so banal?

Now, on the flip side, it's just as important not to get a critiquer who's too trusting of you. Like, say, my mother. She thinks everything I write is gold, and is, in this case, absolutely useless to my revisions.

This is why it's important to be selective about who you allow to read an unpublished draft of your work, no matter how polished it is. You need a critiquer who has Reader-Trust in you--someone who believes in your ability. At the same time, you need a critiquer who is a fellow writer, who can help with the actual writing of the story.

You have the right to be selective! Go out and find people who both trust in your ability and who help you achieve your ability!


Take heed: in the internet age, it's going to be easy to notice when everyone uses the same photo!

(But WHOA! How cool would it be to be that girl? I'd totally tote around all the books and brag to random people about how THREE different (major) books used me on the cover!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Still Alive

WriterGirl (who I've upped to Super Hero status) (whose secret identity is Heather, but shhh don't tell it's a sekkrit) (who is also one of my early beta readers) (who you should totally be following, if you're not already) (who is also awesome) (and who is totally worthy of all of these parenthetical asides) ... ANYWAY, Heather recently pointed out to me that a song, "Still Alive" by Lisa Mistovsky, reminded her of the main characters of my book.


I listend to it on You Tube, then looked up the lyrics, then downloaded it from iTunes IMMEDIATELY. Even the video, with the breaking glass montage, really reminds me of my main character Amy.

This is the New Official (Awesome) Theme Song of my Writing.

[deleted lyrics to avoid copyright infringement]

So, do you have an Official (Awesome) Theme Song of YOUR Writing?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Writer's Book Review: Maria Snyder's Poison Study and Magic Study

Why I Bought These Books: About a year or so ago, my local indie bookstore held an author event for Maria Snyder. I didn't go. I've been kicking myself ever since. Not only are they fantasy, but they're not epic fantasy, which, frankly, I'm sick to death of. They're crossover between adult and YA, they have a hardcore girl as a protag, and they deal with poison tasters and dangerous magic. What's not to love? Now I've just got to convince my husband to let me buy the third in the series...

Five Sentence Summary (Poison Study): Yalena's been sentenced to death for killing an important politician's son. The fact that she killed him in self defense doesn't matter. Then Valek, the Commander's assassin and right-hand-man, gives Yalena an option: die now, or risk a slow death as the official poison taster for the Commander. As Yalena learns about food tasting and poisons, she also learns about herself--what happened to her as a child, why she had to kill the politician's son, how far she is willing to go to protect herself now, and just how important Valek will become to her.

Five Sentence Summary (Magic Study): At the end of POISON STUDY, Yalena left Ixia for the Southern land of Sitia. There, she not only begins her training in magic, but she also meet her family--two guilt-ridden parents and a brother who hates her now that she's returned home. She doesn't have time to worry about her family or her new life at the Keep--a murderer is killing off innocent young women in a style way too close to what she experienced in Ixia. As her magic grows, so does the fear of those around her: Yalena just might be a Soulfinder, the most feared sort of magician of all. Is her magic enough to stop the killer, or will it make her as bad as him?

So what can we, as writers, learn from these books?

[As always, highlight for spoilers.]

1. The Gun on the Mantle: "The gun on the mantle" is a sort of foreshadow. If a gun is on the mantle in chapter one, by the end of the book, that gun needs to go off. It's layering in clues of possibility. In POISON STUDY, the gun on the mantle is that Yalena's a poison taster. If you have a story about a poison taster, surely she needs to be poisoned by the end of the book, right? Right. And the scene where it happens, though short, is one that I read over and was well done, surprising, and an excellent twist to the story.Ultimately, Snyder did not disappoint her readers' expectations--and that's the key.

2. Don't be a cliche:
Perhaps because I've read too many books in this genre, but I saw the potential for tons of cliche, especially in the second book. They're all spoilers, so, yanno, highlight.

OK, so Yalena falls in love with Valek, in the first book, right? Well, in the second book, Cahill confesses his love for her. Now, in many, many, MANY books, this would be the perfect opportunity for some waffling on Yalena's part: does he love me? Which do I love more? JACOB OR EDWARRRRRD???? Gag. But fortunately, Snyder doesn't fall for that cliche: Yalena tells Cahill to stuff it, she'll be friends with him but nothing more because she loves Valek. It was actually quite comforting to see a real love relationship that wasn't built on lust and actually stood up well to trials.

Additionally, in MAGIC STUDY, the killer's not the cliched killer. Throughout the first half of the book, I expected the killer to be Goel, who Yalena pissed off early on. There was motivation: he wanted to kill Yalena, but couldn't, so was killing other young girls instead. He was the perfect, typical (cliched) bad guy...but he wasn't the serial killer. That really picked the book up for me in the second half, once I realized that the killer *wasn't* the obvious guy. And he wasn't the it-can-be-anyone-but-this-guy guy, either. For a while there, I thought the killer would be Dax--he was just too perfect, yanno? Nope. The killer was some random guy none of them knew. Which really makes sense. How likely is it that a serial killer's going to be someone you know?

End spoilers. As you can tell from that big white chunk, I was really happy that although this book had the potential for cliches, Snyder avoided them.

3. Mixing modern with traditional:
Between these books and Kristin Cashore's books, this is what I think the future of fantasy is going to be. In my opinion, epic fantasy is on the way out, and books like this--series of mid-length books in more unique, less LOTR worlds--are on the way in. One thing that both Snyder and Cashore did was include more modern ideas (such as ideas on gender) in a less modern, almost medieval setting. This was both good and bad, IMO:

The Good: This one has the potential for controversy: The Commander is actually a girl, y'all. For reals. Yalena describes him as a girl with a man's soul, a cross dresser so adept at what s/he does that no one suspects the truth. While I can certainly see some people contesting the book on this point, I also think it fits with the story: the Commander would recieve zero respect as a woman, and zero power. Furthermore, I thought that bringing the Commander back in the second book, and Yalena's comment about his souls, fit well with the context of magic.

The Bad: Some of it was a bit too obviously modern-mixed-with-traditional. Take Yalena's parents' home in the second book. The clan lives in tree houses, which is fine, but it comes off as almost a Gilligan's Island with a coconut radio setting. There's an elevator--described as an amazing box pulled up with pulleys--and other details that were too obviously something from the modern world, but made with vines and wood and crap. Thing is: their society is a weird mix of magic and non-magic. Being too shocked by a simple pulley elevator (or an atomizer, or something that is obviously chocolate, just not called chocolate) is kind of pushing it.

4. Delving on the dark side:
There are very very dark issues with both books. Rape, murder, and torture...and that's putting it mildly. Snyder's not afraid to go into detail: and it works for the realism of these books.

But here's what made it really work: the characters reacted realistically to the bad situations--and they didn't immediately get over them. It drives me crazy when something traumatic happens to a character, they cry, and that's the last we hear about it. Something traumatic happened to Yalena in the first book, and she's still affected by it in the second one. Something traumatic happens to a character in the second book--and she never really gets over it. It's realistic and well done.

5. Coincidental:
Here's my biggest complaint about the second book: there were two scenes where everyone showed up randomly in a room. In both scenes, Yalena is talking to one person, then another person randomly shows up, then another, and another, and another. It was almost slapstick comedy. In both scenes, one character mentions something along the lines of "Hey! What a coincidence! This is crazy, man." But it just didn't work for me, especially after it happened the second time. People shouldn't just show up because it progresses the plot. There should be a reason for such coincidental meetings.

Quibbles: My biggest quibbles are with the coincidental meetings I just mentioned, which indicates a somewhat more serious problem that Snyder doesn't quite betray, but certainly dances around. Quite a few times, events happened in the book that were almost too convenient. It was almost a little too much as if Snyder was setting the characters up for the script rather than following their logical motivations and actions. It wasn't bad, but there were a few times that made me sigh.

The Final Word: These are addictive books. If you need no other evidence, then take this: I stayed up well into the night to finish both books, an honor that was last bestoyed on Harry Potter.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Four things On the Fourth

1. The first fourth of July I ever spent away from my family was in England. Which was fun. Because we went to all the pub, blew up fire works, and attempted to start pub fights in the name of honor and independence.

2. I got married on July 7th, 2007 (7/7/07). I thought, Hey! It'd be great for the two families to meet with a fourth of July cookout! Just three days before I get married! At my house! *groan* It was ROUGH...but also a lot of fun, and one of my happiest fourth of July memories.

3. I recently got back from Florida, after visiting my uncle, who is a WWII vet. He's the kind of uncle who likes to tell stories (which I love) no matter what the time, place or appropriateness (which my aunt does not love). But today, I find myself thinking about some of those stories with a smile on my face and a sense of awe in my heart. I think I'll go write him a letter today.

4. The Fourth of July is one of the few truly American holidays. It has no ties to religion, just history. William Faulkner said, "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it." So, go out and practice some freedom today! Whatever your activity, be it cooking out, writing, going to the coffee house with friends, or watching fireworks, don't forget to be conscious of the freedom you have to do anything!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Contests & Anniversary Posting

Contests updated again!

But there's one contest I especially want to highlight: Tainted Poet's contest for EYES LIKE STARS.

Here's why: EYES LIKE STARS is a book about Shakespeare, in which (judging from some characters names) it looks like MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM plays heavily. And Tainted Poet's contest ends on July 7th.

Which makes me think some stars are crossing.

Wanna know why? Here's my entry post:

When I was in junior high, I tried out for MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. I wanted to be Titania, but I got cast as Anonymous Fairy Number 3, which ended up being WAY more fun, because we got to just run around the stage and throw glitter around during the random dance sequence the drama teacher made up. In amidst the dancing and glitter, I noticed the sound guy, a guy dressed all in black with a weird name who was a grade below me. I never would have looked at him again, except fate kept throwing us together...and then we started dating in high school...and then we got married, eight years later. We celebrate our second anniversary July 7 (we got married on the infamous 7/7/07 date) if I win, that would be about the most perfect anniversary present I could imagine!!

Afraid to Tell the Story

While on vacation, my great-uncle handed me a portfolio.

"You should read these," he said. "They're short stories. My buddy writes them."

So, I read them.


Look, the story was good. Really--a man and his dog whether a storm on the ocean. A good story!

But the writing... Oh, the writing.

Y'all know I'm a grammar queen. I wanted to rip out my red pen RIGHT THERE and make corrections on the text.

But it wasn't just that. It was the characterization, the structure, the plot holes, the oh-wait-and-this-happened-to, the dues ex machina, the dialog... the writing.

The story was there--the writing wasn't.

That made me realize: this is, at least at some level, probably every writer's greatest fear. We know our stories are good! We know the plot twists rock, the characters are cool! If the story fails, it's not because of the story--it's because of our ability to write it.

While the above statement may not be true--this story, for example, is both a horrible story and horribly written--I do think that's many writers' fear.

It is mine. I know that this WIP I've got going on is probably the best story I've ever come up with. But does my writing live up to the story in my mind?

No. Not yet.

But it will.

So, how about you? Do you have a great story, but are afraid that your writing won't live up to it...or are you the opposite, with great writing, but worried about the nature of the story?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Revision Update

OK, so I'm sure you're all sick of hearing about my revision process, but I'd like to keep track of each stage.

  1. Initial Reading: My real-life crit partner is still in the process of reading, but she's nearly two-thirds done. We're meeting on Saturday to discuss some pivotal scenes....
  2. First Draft Reading: My early readers have their copies! Now to sit back as patiently as I can and wait ;)
  3. My Own Revision Notes: This is what I really wanted to talk about...

At the end of each chapter, I'm forcing myself to write out a list of notes. I've been doing this long enough to know that I have certain strengths and weaknesses, so I'm targeting my own areas of weaknesses with this. Here's what I'm asking myself at each chapter:

  • Drive: I remind myself of each character's main drive in life. For example, one character has low self worth and doubts himself, another character is driven by a sense of loss for her parents and need to protect those she loves. Everyone in life has one main drive to why they make the decisions they do: it's what makes us who we are. So I remind myself of my character's drive at the end of each chapter and make sure they're acting accordingly. I don't remind the reader of it every instance, but I add a bit of dialog where one character says something a bit defeatist, or the other decides to do something herself so she doesn't put the others at risk. Think of Harry Potter: he didn't remind the reader he was an orphan every other page, but it was still a deep driving force for him throughout the entire series.
  • Event: This is simple: what happens. This won't work for everyone, but for me, I try to have one key event happen in every chapter. It sounds a little formulaic, but it doesn't read that way (I hope). Basically, with this note, I'm forcing myself to evaluate each single major event in each chapter--and whether it's worthy of progressing the plot. Sometimes we writers write really cool stuff...that has nothing to do with the plot. So I hope to use this to weed out some of the fluff.
  • Motivation: This is linked to drive, but I am going to be a little more specific. How do each of my main characters react to the major event in the chapter--and why do they act that way? By evaluating their motivation, I hope to keep the characters realistic, and spot irregularities within them.
  • Clue: This is a murder mystery, so I'm making sure that there's at least a subtle clue in each chapter. Yes, each chapter. I am striving for a bomb-shell like twist similar to that of Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF, and I'm hoping that my book has some re-readability factor to it. So I'm putting in at least one subtle clue per chapter, so that when the reader reads it the first time, they don't notice it's there, but when the reader reads it a second time, they stop and go "Wow! That was there on page two?! Cool!" This is my color red in THE SIXTH SENSE.*
  • Problem: This will not be in every chapter, but towards the middle, the main characters are going to have some problems to solve. In each chapter where there is a problem, I am going to closely examine the problem--because a problem I have in my own writing is making the characters do something because that's what I need them to do in order to progress the plot. They don't act logical, they follow my script. So when I encounter a problem in my text, I'm going to brainstorm at least three possible solutions, and then give a valid reason for my characters to do one of them. Because "just because I want them to" is not a good reason for them to solve the problem.
And that's it! That's what I'm listed out at the end of each chapter. I've already made a few corrections based on this method--in the first chapter, my main character feels claustrophobic and reacts based on that, but it fits much better with his character to have him react to feelings of low self worth (thanks, Christine, for helping me with that one!). So far, this seems to work. But I know that if this does work, it will only really work for this one manuscript. My strengths and weaknesses change with each manuscript I work on.

So, how about you? How do you tackle identifying and correcting the weaknesses in your manuscript?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

PS: Updated Contests

There's only two contests linked, but they're good.

Wait a Minute...

Some of you astute readers may have noticed that critique groups are not a part of my Massive Revision Plan. No, they're not. Technically Robyn's a critique group, but since there's two of us, we're more flexible and quicker than other groups. And the writer pros are a group, but not in the formal one-chapter-a-week kind of set-up. But I do have two groups that do weekly submissions, and they're not on the list as part of my revision plan. Why not?

The Problem with Critique Groups
  1. They have a schedule. Which means, you're stuck with a certain number of pages a certain amount of time. One of my group does a chapter a week, the other does a chapter every other week or so. By that time line, I'd be lucky to finish the novel with the second group before Christmas.
  2. They read small selections spaced out over longer amounts of time. A chapter every other week leads to the inevitable question in the notes ...did you introduce this character before? ...was there foreshadow for this in an earlier chapter? You lose the thread of things when it takes you till Christmas to read a draft, and you can only read ten pages every 14 days.
  3. They tend to focus on the minutia. In part because critique groups by their nature struggle with big picture ideas in a WIP, they also tend to comment on smaller, nit-picky details that are sometime irrelevant to the overall work.
The biggest consequence of these three things? It makes it easy for the author to lose her voice. When you become quagmired in the small details and suite your writing to a constrained schedule and ignore larger concepts like pacing, you end up listing events rather than telling a story.

Why Critique Groups are Essential
None of that was to say that Critique Groups aren't worthwhile. They are. They are. But for different reasons.
  1. Critique Groups teach you how to critique yourself. How many times have you heard the pithy statements "show, don't tell," or "POV problems"? But did you ever really understand them in your own writing until you caught it in someone else's? As a teacher, I see this all the time. I understand so much more about T'ang Dyntasy Chinese poetry now, when I teach it to my students, than five years ago when I read about it in college. When you try to help your critique group member with a problem scene, you'll realize more how to fix that kind of problem in your own writing.
  2. Critique Groups notice patterns. If you fall into a typical set-up with your chapters, for example, and always start with dialog and end with a cliff-hanger, the critique group tends to notice that much more than a reader reading the whole work. If you have repetative words or sentence structure, group members are better at spotting that sort of problem. In fact, if you stick with a group long enough, you'll start thinking of them when you write. To this day, I take out semi-colons because I know a member of my group will tell me I overuse them (but they're so much fun!).
  3. They tend to focus on the minutia. One of the downfalls of groups is also a strength. We all need help with grammar. We all need someone to point out that that one sentence on page 34 has really crappy diction. We all need to have someone show us how those three lines of dialog over in that scene are really stiff. This may not be what makes or breaks a story--it's not identifying a major plot hole or correcting a flaw in character development--but still, it's the difference between good writing and great writing.

So in the end, where do Critique Groups fit into my Massive Revision Plan?

All over. I've already started my WIP with both of my scheduled crit groups. As they read and comment, I'm storing their comments, but not using them to revise until I'm near the end. From there, I'm going to compare my final draft with their notes through the text. They're going to be my final check list. Did I fix the problems they pointed out? If they had questions in a chapter, where those questions answered (at least in another chapter)? Did I fix the minutia they pointed out?

Sure, neither group may be finished with the entire WIP by the time I've got a polished draft to send out. But that's fine. They'll both be at least to page 50 by then (standard for partial requests). And by continuing to send the WIP to them after I submit to agents will keep me focused and in line--both on further revisions and on agent submissions.

When I try to use critique groups as my only source of revision, I find that I don't push myself hard enough, and that the critiques don't always fulfill my need for revision. But when I utilize the strengths of the critique groups alongside my other revision plans, I hope to have the best possible method of revision I can get.