Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Self Editing

It's hard. It's really, really hard. I'm in the midst of something new. I poured out a first draft of 83,000 words. Parts of it are good. Parts of it are not so good. I went through and started re-working the most troublesome areas and still wasn't happy with it.

When I tracked down the culprit, I found it right at the beginning. I'd done what I criticize other writers for doing all the time. I'd started in the wrong spot and loaded the beginning up with backstory, which was leaving the rest of my story pretty bland. I'm a firm believer in that you need a solid base if you want a strong story, which means I have to start almost from scratch (at least there's a little framework to guide me this time.)

Before I started deleting out mass amounts of text though, a tiny thought crept into my brain, "maybe I can let it slide for now, send it out to a few Beta readers and see what they think." I've already been working on this one for months, and I've set myself some pretty firm deadlines. But I couldn't do it. I personally get hives if anything leaves my laptop that I'm not psyched to share, and I try not to burden my Beta readers with multiple drafts. I trust my internal editor when she says something's wrong, even when she says, "This needs a complete rewrite." (Although there might have been some cursing involved)

I've seen some work from Beta readers with comments woven into the text, "Do you think this is too much?" And every time I  answer, "yes." They're not posing those questions because they think they can slip something by, they're asking because good writers always question their work, and unfortunately the validity of their own opinion.

And sometimes my own characters try to tell me something's wrong.

"I didn't know why I was acting this way. It wasn't like me." If my character can't explain her actions, then maybe I shouldn't be making her do them.

I feel like there are lots of little signs we give ourselves, flags we wave to say, "Hey, this isn't working," and we let them slide because we don't trust ourselves, or we're so close to the story we can't make them out anymore. Which is why self-editing is so hard. So I'll ask you, how do you self-edit? Are you able to listen to your own gut, or do you need a second opinion? How do you take your work from good to great?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Girl on a Wire

Rating: 3 out of 5 kitties

Jules Maroni is one of the Amazing Maronis, a family of circus folk whose own small circus is failing. To bring them into the spotlight, she pushes them into joining the Cirque American where they come face to face with family rivals, the Flying Garcias. At Cirque American, the past comes back to haunt her, and Jules and her newfound crush, Remy Garcia have to uncover the secrets of the ancient feud if they want to end it.

I don't exactly know how to describe this except that it needed to be much muchier. The description sounded incredible: mystery, acrobatics, magic. I was hoping for something more along the lines of The Night Circus, and instead got something kind of blah.

I was wary from the beginning, with the dreaded prologue that every literary agent says never to use. For good reason. It was all backstory. History was piled onto me, and then somehow we end up rushed into the circus and dancing in the muscular arms of Remy. Surprise. Surprise. What happens next is a lackluster romance in which I have no idea why either character likes the other one except that their parents might be kind of mad if they were dating, they are both attractive, and they are the same age.

The "threat" is kind of the same. Nothing really happens to Jules so the stakes aren't running real high, and I didn't love any of the characters enough to care that much anyway. Then, around page 250, we go from 0 to 60 in a few pages. The mystery picks up from there and I was definitely intrigued enough to keep reading, but I had to slog through 250 pages of nothing to get there. I never got hooked on the romance. There just wasn't enough passion or tension or emotion or anything. It was sort of like be together, not be together, whatever. *Shrug.*

While I was reading I tried to pinpoint why this was falling flat, and I think it was because there was a lot of "telling." At the beginning of each chapter Jules tells us what happened in a one or two page summary that sounds much the same. She tells us the history of her family. She tells us she likes Remy but we don't really see it through action. But then there were parts that shone, like when Jules mounts the wire for her first outdoor walk, because it was described with feeling and tension.

What I did like about this throughout was the voice. Jules is a stubborn, focused, quippy girl with her eyes set on stardom. The author also did her research on wire walkers and circus life, and the way Jules relates this information to us felt authentic, not like a regurgitated lecture. 

It's frustrating because I know I would have really really liked this is if was just a bit more. Even the ending came off a little Scooby-Doo-esque. I wouldn't shy anyone away from reading this, but I don't know that I would recommend it either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: City of Heavenly Fire

Ah, the long-awaited conclusion the the Mortal Instruments series, which I almost didn't read except it has such wonderful reviews and one of my friends suggested it. I was kind of over the whole series with the last book. It's not that I still totally don't think Cassandra Clare is a wonderful writer, and that the characters are well-developed and unique and that the Shadowhunter world is vibrant and full of's just that it's too much. It's like when a television series hangs on for too long and the cute kids are old now and they desperately throw in new, younger characters to keep it alive and then we start heading toward spin offs. CoHF was that. Exactly that.

I just re-read the book synopsis, and truth be told, that's maybe one-third of it. There is a one-hundred page end battle and then an eighty page epilogue that I mostly skimmed through. About forty-seven people narrate this story, and most segments were obvious set-up for other novels or unnecessary backstory from other Shadowhunter novels. We also have a lot of characters passing out, another situation that prevents Jace and Clary from having sex, and countless drawn out soliloquys.

"By the time we found you, you'd already broken free on your own. So what it showed you, that wasn't what you want...but it wasn't what you want, not really. So you woke up."

How many times do we have to say the same thing? And this is only one example of many, many speeches like that. What CoHF still had, what made me fall in love with the other Mortal Instruments books, was Cassandra's classic blend of humor, adventure and was just suffocating under a lot of politics and useless drama. I certainly wouldn't shy anyone away from reading this. Overall it's a good conclusion to the series. Just be prepared to do your own editing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What's that smell

One of my first critique partners left a very simple comment that has stuck with me ever since, "What does it smell like?" Good question. What does it smell like? I often read scenes where a picture is painted describing the color of the walls, the feel of the upholstery, the glisten of sweaty muscles, the sounds of screaming, and the taste of someone's tongue...which is all great, but the picture is incomplete. We're forgetting about smell.

Smell is an incredibly important sense too because it's commonly linked with memories and emotion. When I walk by someone wearing Ponds cream, I think of my mother. Moldy basement? I remember my summers spent at my Great Aunt's house in Tennessee. Drakkar Noir? Horrible flashbacks to the elevator in my sophomore dorm.

Take this scene:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. 

Now let's add this:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. All of it complemented by the burning stench of cat pee.

We move from being a little itchy and uncomfortable to running from the room with our hand over our mouth.

But let's talk a little bit more about smells and using the right smells. The one above works because 1, we're trying to make an unsightly environment and 2, even if you haven't smelled cat pee, you've smelled pee, and you know it stinks.

Let's change our scene to something nice.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of warm, chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. 

Now I want to live there, curl up next to the cat, and eat warm, chocolate chip cookies. But let's change it one more time.

One more time.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of snozzberries in the air.

What are snozzberries? What do they smell like? Are they bitter? Sweet? Does this turn our cozy couch into something yucky or keep it nice?

So many times I'm reading books where a room or person smells like lemongrass or honeysuckle or some other plant I can't immediately identify with so it doesn't really resonate with me except to say, "it smelled like flowers." And then I wonder why I'd want to go out with a guy who smelled so flowery. Flowers are a lazy way of adding scents, and using rare or indistinguishable scents don't help paint your picture.

Just for fun, let's change it again.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions, and the smell of gunpowder in the air.

WHAT?!? What's going on here? Who decorates like Grandma and smells like gunpowder? Why did the MC's Grandma's house smell like gunpowder? Are we looking at secret, old lady spies? Or just hardcore members of the NRA? Not only does this scent add flavor to the scene; it adds intrigue.

Now I think you're ready to start smelling things up on your own. Talk a walk through your latest work in progress and stop at each scene. Once you're there, ask yourself the burning question, "What does it smell like?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

If people acted like cats

If any of you own cats, this video is HILARIOUS! Enjoy.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Write a Book

One of my author friends says she gets a lot of emails, "How do I write a book?" Her answer, and I agree, "You sit down and write it." Because if you're looking for something more; you need to ask a more specific question. Like...

Q: How do I write a young adult novel?
A: Open a blank Word Document and start writing about vampires with chiseled jaws and fantastic hair.

Q: How do I write a children's book?
A: Put together pairs of rhyming words and match them with pictures of kittens.

Q: How do I write a memoir?
A: You don't. Trust me when I say your life is not that exciting.

But all kidding aside (or some kidding aside) I'm going to do my best to answer this question using my own personal experiences.*

Step 1: The Concept
Before you can write anything, you need to have something to write about. You need an idea, but more than that, you need a concept. It's true what they say, "Ideas are a dime a dozen." Everyone has them, what you need is a plot to go with it, what agents often call, "the hook."

A futuristic world where children are put into an arena to fight to the death is an idea. The story is about a girl who volunteers to fight to save her sister, and while she is fighting, she becomes an unwilling leader of a rebellion. That's something to write about.

Step 2: The Players
Okay, you've got your idea. You've fleshed out a concept. Now you've got to pick your players. This girl who's the center of your story...what does she look like? How old is she? What's her temperament? Who are her friends? Boyfriend? Family? What are they like? Who is going to tell your story? God? The girl? Her mother? Before you sit down to write, you need to make these decisions. I find it helpful to come up with some backstory for my main characters. Whether it makes it into the final manuscript or not; it helps me make decisions later, about how my characters will act and what they will say.

Step 3: The Path
Once I have an idea and some characters in mind, I start plotting. I'm not an outliner, but before I sit down at my computer, I spend some time thinking about how things are going to go. Where do I want to start my story? Where am I going to end my story? What are some key plot points along the way? How is my main character going to change throughout the novel?

Step 4: Read
I know I'm writing a YA dystopia in a first person POV. So now I pick up or re-read every YA dystopia I have that's written in first person POV. And while I'm reading, I mark places where I like or didn't like what was done. But you know what? My story has some romance in it too. So I'll read a couple of romance novels too and see how that author made us fall in love.

We learn from other writers, and one day, writers might be learning from you. I feel like newbie writers always want to skip this step, afraid they'll end up copying someone, or they're deluded into thinking they don't need help. But you do. You really, really do.

Set 5: Sit Your Ass Down and Write
You've got the basic pieces you need to write a novel, but the thing will never come together until you actually write it. A lot reveals itself in writing. Since I don't create an outline, there are often holes in my plot and characters that I patch when I let my players take over the page. In black and white, I can see what's working and what isn't, and many, many times, I'll write 100 pages only to scrap them and start from scratch at the top of a blank page.

And here's where we really separate the men from the boys. (or the women from the girls)

If I had a dollar for every time I was at a party and overhead someone say, "I should really write a book," I would be writing this post from the deck of my yacht. Because anyone can talk about writing a book. It takes patience, dedication, and hard work to actually write one. So for anyone who's done that, Bravo! Whether you're published or pre-published that is a huge deal.

For everyone else who's just in the talking about it stage (which I did for about 2 or 3 years, fyi.) Read. Keep your eyes and ears open for that hook, and then sit down and write it.

*This is my own personal process. This is not by any means the only way to write a book, just something to help people who might not know where to begin. If you have anything to add, please put it in the comments.