Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Never Underestimate the Power of a Reader’s Imagination

I’m not a great writer. My prose will never win any awards. And I grudgingly accept the fact that a majority of writers (including unpublished ones) will always be able to construct snazzier sentences and snappier descriptions than I could ever hope to do in my lifetime. I’m not being pessimistic here—just realistic. I’ve spent much of my life avoiding the practice of writing, so I have no reason to expect myself to suddenly be able to write sentences with the same skill as people who’ve known they wanted to write ever since they could hold a pencil. Some people have a flair for words. Some of us don’t.

But that’s okay. My gift is dreaming up stories and plot twists and crazy characters, so if I have to hammer away at the words for an extraordinarily long time in order to keep the reader entertained, so be it. Still, I always worry if my words will be good enough to keep someone reading long enough for them to get hooked on the plot. Fortunately I’ve discovered it’s not always about the words.

I recently finished a (self-published) book that was, well … truly awful. I won’t mention the name, but the writing was simplistic and repetitive, the dialogue was embarrassingly bad, the characters were cardboard cutouts, and the story had no plot twists other than a few that were telegraphed so blatantly I was sure the author was attempting to trick me in some way. In other words, a book that even I could have written better.

And yet, during the final quarter of the book, when the protagonist and his party were breaking into the bad guy’s stronghold, I found myself surprisingly captivated. The sentences and descriptions were just as lackluster as the earlier parts of the book, but I didn’t notice (at least not much). I was right there with the MC through the whole scene, constantly worrying that the daring plan was about to fall apart.

I was shocked. How could I have gotten so caught up in such a poorly written scene? The answer is simple. Once you’re emotionally invested with the characters and/or the plot, it’s a lot easier to ignore simplistic writing. And what does this mean for me?  It means I have a chance to succeed as an author. Of course, I’m not suggesting that good writing isn’t important—if I have a choice, I’ll always choose the story that’s better written—but a great plot and interesting characters are just as important as the prose. And as long as I keep working on improving my writing skills, my chances of being published can only improve.

Has anyone else found themselves pleasantly surprised by a poorly written book?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

If You Want to Make Your Story Better, Read It To Someone

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've spent so much time getting my garden ready for summer, I haven't had time to post -- even though I have plenty to post about.

One piece of advice you hear from agents and writers alike is that you should always read your work out loud to yourself. This gives your ear a chance to catch mistakes and pacing problems that your eyes might miss. Sound advice. But here’s a suggestion to make that advice even better.

Read the text out loud to someone else.

The previous sentence may have caused more than a few skipped heartbeats among the more bashful of writers out there. It’s hard enough handing your baby over to someone who’ll read it in silence. Trust me, I understand. But I cannot overstate the power of this technique.

Some critique groups operate by having everyone send in their submissions ahead of time, so that each member has a chance to critique the work prior to the meeting, saving the meeting for the actual discussions and arguments. My local critique group does things a bit differently. There are no pre-submissions. We show up and read our pages out loud. We often provide hard copies so that the group can read along and mark up the pages with comments as they wish, but many of the group members close their eyes and focus on their initial reactions to the words.

And one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how clever your words looked on paper, or sounded when you read them out loud to yourself, you’ll be stunned by their apparent lameness when you read them to someone else. The parts of your chapter that need work will stand out like spaghetti stains on a white shirt. Flabby passages will sear your eyeballs and make you wonder why you ever thought you could write. Most of the time, you’ll find far more problems with your work than your critique partners ever will.

Reading out loud also makes it easier for your partners to spot pacing problems. As readers, we’re used to skimming over sections of a story that don’t hold our attention—even if we’re not always aware we’re doing it. But when we listen to a story, scenes that drag stick out like a sore thumb. Try listening to a book on tape sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

I remember listening to a chapter at my critique group a few months ago that had a slow beginning. When I read back over the hard copy to mark the offending pages, I was shocked to discover that the boring section was only two paragraphs long. It had only seemed liked two pages when I was listening.

So if you really want your words to shine, force yourself to read them to someone else. You might be embarrassed, but you’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Insecure Writer and Deciding Whether to Self-Publish

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

Why am I an Insecure Writer this month?

Because I don’t know which route I’m going to take—traditional or self-publishing.

Now it might seem I’m jumping the gun here a bit, especially when you consider I’ve only recently begun working on my first potentially publishable manuscript. Even if my productivity were to suddenly skyrocket, it will be at least a year before the story is polished enough for publication. And by that time, the publishing world may have changed so much that any decisions I make now might be irrelevant.

So why worry about it now? Because I’m wrestling with a few questions about my story—questions whose answers may depend upon the route I take to publication. .I know what my story is about and I know the setting (magic, castles, humorous characters, etc.), but I still haven’t decided on the age of the main character. Right now, he’s fourteen, making it an upper MG story, which means I need to write with an upper MG style. I have no problem with that, but I can also envision the story with an older MC, one who has recently graduated from college. In that case, the style would be different—something like Harry Potter meets The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (If you haven’t read either one of these series, you should.) As it stands right now, I haven’t decided which style plays more to my strengths, or which style would be more interesting to potential readers.

Now I could just let these things sort themselves out as I write, but I worry that the correct choice may ultimately depend upon the method I choose for publication. Most of the self-published books I find on Amazon involve older characters*, whereas most of the MG stories are traditionally published. From what I understand, libraries and parents are less inclined to buy self-published MG books, unless from an established author, since there are no assurances a self-published book wouldn’t be full of profanity or other topics unsuitable for MG readers. In other words, if I write the story with a MG MC, I better hope I find an agent and publisher. Then again, I've heard many adults enjoy reading MG books, so who knows?

Perhaps I’m getting the cart before the horse and should just write whatever version of the story most appeals to me and worry about the publishing route later. But that’s what being an Insecure Writer is all about, right?.

If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear them.

*BTW, I’ve ignored YA in this analysis, since I suspect I’d be terrible at writing YA.