Friday, August 24, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back From Vacation!

My family and I just returned from a trip to northern Michigan, so this is going to be a short post. Overall, it was a great trip. We did all the necessary touristy things - climbing Sleeping Bear Dunes, swimming (or at least wading) in Lake Michigan, and trekking through miles of forests. Northern Michigan can be a fun place to visit, but it’s easy to get lost up there, even when you have maps. The locals are rather relaxed about the whole street sign thing, and even when there are signs, you aren’t guaranteed that the naming system used by the signs match the system used by the maps. For example, the road called "County Highway 708" on all of our maps was named Deadstream Rd on the signs.  Took us a bit to learn all the proper translations.

 BTW, I’m going to have to find a way to use “Deadstream” in one of my stories.

Speaking of stories, despite dragging my laptop along on the trip, I did absolutely no writing. I tried working on the manuscript once when everyone else was in bed, but was so sleepy myself all I could do was notice how much rewriting needed to be done and so I called it quits. Still the story was never far from my mind.

When you're walking through woods like this, it's easy to image I'm trekking through the Forbidden Forest. 

Or that I'm gazing at the lake which lies next to Hogwarts?

At least now that I'm home I'll be able to work on my manuscript again. Yay!

P.S.  Thanks to my wife and son for taking these pictures.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Links

Here’s an article which should be of interest to writers. How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read. Interesting. Makes me wonder if we’ll be reading a similar article about e-books in ten or twenty years.

Madeline Ashby’s debut novel, vN, came out a couple of weeks ago and there is a small writeup about it over at BoingBoing. Sounds fascinating. Perhaps if I were better connected to the reading world (instead of spending all my free time writing) I might have heard about this one before now.

Finally, have you heard of LeakyCon? It’s one of the annual Harry Potter conventions and it wrapped up this last weekend in Chicago. I’ve never been to one, but would love to attend one at least once. It’s probably not going to happen though (unless it comes to Detroit – yeah, right!) What makes me really jealous is that next year LeakyCon will be held in London. OMG! I’d take a trip to London even if LeakyCon wasn’t there.  And this is from soneone who doesn't like airplanes! Anyway, Selina Wilkens over at Hypable wrote a quick article describing her experiences at LeakyCon .

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Breaking Up is Easy to Do

One skill new writers have to learn is how to provide a description of a new location or a new character without slowing down the story. Experienced writers have discovered all sorts of tricks for weaving descriptions naturally into the story, subtly slipping them in during bits of action or interior thought or in the middle of dialogue. For those of us who have yet to learn these skills, our descriptions tend to read more like lists. You know what I mean. Three or more sentences in a row whose sole purpose is to list the contents of the room the MC has just entered or to catalog the physical appearance of the character who has just shown up. I’m guilty of this myself. And while this method works fine in most cases, as long as the description is written in an interesting manner, there is room for improvement.

One trick I’ve been using of late involves breaking the description up into pieces and spreading it out over the page. Instead of starting out with four or five sentences describing the spooky room the MC has just entered, I find it works better to limit myself to two or three descriptive sentences at first, enough to give the reader the right impression, and then dispersing the rest of the description over the next several paragraphs (or pages).

Not only does this keep the story moving, but by delivering the description in piecemeal fashion, you make more of an impression on your readers. One thing I’ve learned while teaching chemistry is that you can’t drown the student with too much material at once. You need to spoon it out a little at a time and then build upon what you’ve already told them.

It works the same way when writing fiction. You can only have so many sentences in a row telling the reader the room is spooky before their effectiveness dwindles, but by spreading the sentences out over several paragraphs, their effects multiply. Every time they see another hint that the room is spooky, it reinforces all the earlier references to spookiness.

This technique works for backstory too. Although I don’t mind backstory as much as some, too much backstory all at once can be a drag. By dripping in bits of the backstory a sentence or two at a time, in small doses dispersed over many pages, most of the problems with backstory disappear, especially if you’re good at weaving backstory naturally into the narrative.

Question: Are you one of those writers who weave description gracefully into your story, or are you like me?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Links

Okay, so Friday is almost over in Michigan, but I can't miss two Fridays in a row, so here goes.

First up, we have a letter from Pete Docter of Pixar, in which he writes about how patience and working on your craft can pay off.  Enlightening.

Next, for those of you who enjoy the castle I have on my blog's banner head, here's a link to more pictures of the same castle.  It's called Castle Miranda and it's in Belgium. 

Finally, from my CP, a periodic table for Harry Potter.  This excites me both as a Harry Potter fan and as a chemist.  Thanks Sheryl.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simplicity is Often the Best

A few weeks ago, I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies on TV when my wife, after having checked the schedule, announced the movie would end at 10’oclock. “No way” I told her. I’d seen the movie many times before and knew there were plenty of scenes yet to go before the movie ended – definitely too many for it to end by ten. To no one’s surprise but my own, the movie ended at the appointed time, not only managing to include every scene I remembered (plus some I had forgotten), but with enough time left over to show us previews of the next scheduled movie.

Turns out it took less time to get through those scenes that I thought.

And that’s the point of today’s post. Now that I’m revising my way through my first draft, one problem that keeps popping up is my tendency to use more words than necessary to describe a scene. I’m not talking about simple filler words such as "just," "really," "sort of," and "rather" – although I do use them too much – I’m referring to my need to over-explain.

Periodically I go back and read Rowling’s chapters, not only for inspiration, but often to see how she handled a particular type of situation. And I’m astonished at how often I come across a scene that I remembered as being long and full of complicated explanations only to discover that the scene was only a page or two in length and written in surprisingly simple terms. Rowling had given me just enough information to explain what I needed to know and my imagination had filled in the rest.

And that is what I’m struggling with. Turns out I’m a very visual writer, so I feel the need to explain every movement and action that occurs, whether the reader needs to know or not. Here’s an example. Imagine a scene where a band of adventurers are about to enter a castle that looks ready to collapse at any moment. The leader of the party is out in front of the group (and is the POV character).

John looked up at the tower which leaned perilously over to one side. “Robert, you stay here. Sarah will enter with me.” John was disappointed when Robert merely nodded, his previous enthusiasm apparently dampened.

Here’s the problem (well, besides the obvious telling). As far as the reader knows, John is still looking at the tower and wouldn’t be able to see Robert nodding behind him. I suspect most readers would understand that John has probably turned his head at some point, but as a writer I feel this compulsion to add “John turned” somewhere in there in order to make sure no one gets confused.

I have yet to learn the art of subtlety in writing. Every time one of my characters moves, or sees something, or does something, I feel obliged to mention it. And that’s a habit I’m going to have to break. Learning the technique of giving the reader just enough information to understand what’s happening is one of those milestones I’ll have to pass if I ever expect to get published. And I might as well get started now, as I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when I get around to editing action scenes where all sorts of things are happening all at once.

Does anyone have any tricks they use for tightening up their scenes?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Letting The Rules Rule Your Writing

Today is August's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

This month’s insecurity is a little different from the ones I usually discuss. My previous entries have focused on my insecurities about being a writer and how I deal with them. This time I want to focus on a more subtle insecurity – a fear of the rules.

We writers are inundated with rules. Showing versus telling, dangling participles, too little interior thought, POV shifts, too much interior thought, head hopping, etc. You know the drill. And while I have learned enough rules in the last two years to last me the rest of my life, I wouldn’t consider myself comfortable with them. At best it’s an uneasy truce. And therein lies the problem.

You’ve probably all seen posts and comments by agents and editors bemoaning the fact that so many of the submissions they receive are lacking in voice. The authors have tried so hard to make their stories sound professional that all the voice and style have been beaten out of their manuscripts.

And I’ve begun to realize the same thing is happening to me.

Years ago, I discovered my natural writing style tends toward the whimsical, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Douglas Adams, JKK. Rowling, and Eoin Colfer. It’s definitely one reason I’m attempting to match Rowling’s style in my Hogwarts story. When I’m in a whimsical mood, early drafts flow like water and life is good. But when I get around to worrying about whether I’m following all the rules correctly or when I’m focused on sounding more authorly (whatever that means), much of that whimsicalness disappears – along with my voice -- and my story no longer sounds like a Harry Potter type of story.

I’m not saying I need to abandon the rules to get my voice back. That would be a disaster of epic proportions. I just need to become comfortable enough with the rules that I can naturally incorporate them into my voice. Of course, there’s no guarantee anyone will care for my voice once it's out there for all to see, but that an Insecure Writer’s topic for another month.

Question: Have you ever let the rules of writing take away from your natural style?