Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Perils of October

My blog posts have been a bit erratic lately, but that’s not unusual for the month of October. Fall is my favorite time of year and I enjoy spending time outside, savoring the sights and smells of Autumn before they go away. (Fall doesn’t last long in Michigan) Best of all, the season culminates on Halloween, one of my favorite days of the year. As a result, my muse is firing away on all cylinders and it’s difficult to stay away from my manuscript -- especially since Halloween is the perfect time to be writing a story about Hogwarts and the wizardring world.

This year, however, I have the added workload of preparing for NaNoWriMo. Yep, I decided to go for it this year. I’ve known about NaNoWriMo and the challenge of "writing a novel in a month" for a couple of years now, but I’ve always declined to enter. My main reasons were:

1) I didn’t want to steal time away from my Hogwarts story.
2) I wasn’t ready to think about a new story.
3) I’m such a slow writer I couldn’t imagine writing 50,000 words in a month without having to throw away 90-95% of it anyway, so what was the point?

But these days I find myself more and more anxious to work on something I can actually publish, and NaNoWriMo seems like the perfect kick in the pants to jumpstart the process. I’ve had an idea for a story for a couple of years now (fantasy, magic, high school students) and this is my chance to lay the groundwork for my story.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks outlining and plotting, and as November approaches, I can feel it all coming together. I may still end up throwing away 50% of November’s writing once December rolls around, but that’s a number I can accept. Besides, I getting used to having to change 50% of chapters after my critique partner gets a hold of them anyway.

So I wish the best of luck to everyone else who’s participating in NaNoWriMo. I suspect this blog won’t be the only one to hit a lull in a week or so.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Do You Clear Your Throat When You Write?

Every writer has certain words that seem to sprout up like weeds in their manuscripts. For me, those words are “started” and “began.” Apparently, my characters are unable to do something; they have to “start” doing something. They don’t climb the stairs; they begin to climb the stairs.

Why is this bad?

Because these added words weaken the sentence. Writers refer to this problem as “throat clearing” -- when the author pussyfoots around the verb instead of just coming out and telling the reader what happened. I throat clear a lot, as demonstrated by the many strikethroughs I’ve left in the post.

Consider these instances of throat clearing.

He stepped to the front.
I write: He took a step to the front.

He opened the door.
I write: He managed to open the door.

He walked to the kitchen table.
I write: He began to walk to the kitchen table.

Do you see the problem? Instead of sticking with the active verb, I change it to a noun or an infinitive, which decreases its impact, and then add a weaker verb whose only purpose is to point toward what should have been the verb in the first place. Both versions of are grammatically correct, but the second sentence is wishy-washy. Pull this stunt too many times throughout your story and your readers will notice.

“Started” and “began” are among the worst offenders of throat clearing and I think it’s because of the way writers have to choreograph scenes. When we write “He walked to the kitchen table,” we are telling the reader that the character reached the table before anything else happens. Which is fine – assuming that’s what we meant to say.

But what if something happens before he gets there? You don’t want to write, “He walked to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a fur ball before he arrived.” You’d be jumping back and forth in time and confusing the reader. So how do you get around this problem?

Solution #1: Use “started” or “began.”

“He started to walk to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a gummy worm before he arrived.”

This is the main reason, I think, why “started” and “began” litter the pages of so many manuscripts. The author wants the reader to know the character is doing something, but doesn’t want the reader to assume that the character completed the task. But throat clearing isn’t a great solution.

Solution #2: Use Past Continuous tense.

“He was walking to the kitchen table when the cat hacked up a rubber band.”

Okay, this works. Not surprisingly, because this is exactly the type of situation past continuous was invented to solve. Unfortunately, past continuous is considered weaker than simple past tense, so editors tend to frown on this.

Possible solution #3: Change the wording of the action so that it can be completed immediately.

“He walked towards the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a rubber spider.”

By adding “towards”, the character only needs to take one step in the desired direction for the action to feel complete, so the reader doesn’t assume he made it to the table.

What words cause you the most throat clearing problems in your manuscripts?

BTW, for the record, our cats do eat a lot of strange things.

Friday, October 12, 2012

I Joined SCBWI!

This will be a short post today.  It's my birthday!

Assuming I did everything correctly, you might have seen the new SCBWI logo on my blog's sidebar. (I'm still playing around with the positioning) As a birthday present to myself, I ponied up the money to join the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) . My critique partner, Sherahart, has been recommending this for a while, so I used my birthday as an excuse and joined. I signed up only yesterday, but being a part of SCBWI already makes me feel more like a real writer. :)

I signed up for the Michigan listserv, so if there’s anyone else from Michigan reading this post, be sure to drop me a line. Actually, if you’re in SCBWI and not from Michigan, send me a message anyway. I’d love to hear from you.

Back to planning my next birthday present.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Getting What You Wish For

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

What makes me insecure as a writer this month?
Answer: Time.

As some of you know, I have a day job – research chemist, of course – so I have to squeeze my writing in at night – after I’ve fulfilled my other obligations as father and husband. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. Now I’m not complaining. I’m sure many writers are in similar situations, but the simple truth is that I’m a very sloooooow writer (just ask my CP) and the lack of writing time hits me harder than most.

I’ve often wondered how much of my slowness stems from being forced to do most of my writing in quick fifteen or thirty minute spurts. Seems like I’m just getting started when it’s time to quit. On those rare occasions when I can spend three or four hours straight working on my story, I (usually) make good progress. So I occasionally daydream about what it would be like if I could stay at home all day and just write. How much difference would that make?

Be careful what you wish for.

Due to circumstances at work, I just learned I will be spending several weeks at home this November. And while I’m not happy about the hit to the wallet, I’m cautiously excited about the prospect of having all that time to write. Of course, my wife has her own ideas on how I should spend that those days at home, but I should still have oodles of time left over for writing.

But I also admit to being nervous about the whole thing. What if it turns out I don’t write any faster even when I have plenty of time? That would be pretty disheartening.

So wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted on my progress when the time comes.

Is it coincidence or fate that this will occur during NaNoWriMo? You tell me.