Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is Voice Determined By How Closely The Author Follows The Rules Of Writing?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see on the web is that a writer needs to understand the rules of writing before he can break them. Unfortunately, the second most common piece of advice is that the only rule of writing is “there are no rules.” Is it any wonder newbie writers bang their heads against the keyboard and scream? Or is that just me?

The more I learn about writing, the more I believe the first rule should be re-written as “a writer needs to understand the rules of writing in order to decide how and when they should be applied."  In other words, I distrust the notion that “following all the rules” should be the default position and that every step away from that position is fraught with danger. For one thing, not every writer agrees on what the rules are. And too much worrying about rules tends to drive the author’s voice right out of the story. Not good.

Two weeks ago I discussed how the difference between showing and telling is often in the eye of the beholder. And after spending the past couple of weeks studying Mary Buckman’s book, Writing Setting, I’m beginning to feel the same way about settings and descriptions. While I learned quite a bit about strengthening my descriptions of settings (thank you, Mary), I couldn’t help noticing that many of the examples she provided of “good” descriptions didn’t strike me as any better than some of the “bad” ones. In my opinion, some of the “good” descriptions went on for too long, or slowed the pacing too much, or just struck me as boring. Of course, not everyone would agree with me, and that’s perfectly fine, but I probably wouldn’t buy many books from authors who used such lengthy descriptions in their stories.

And then it dawned on me. Much of what makes up an author’s voice is in the way the author chooses to follow (or not follow) the so-called rules. Some authors prefer writing in deep POV, some don’t. Neither is right or wrong (despite what some deep POV zealots might argue); it’s just their preference. Some writers enjoy lots of showing, some prefer more of a balance. Some writers feel that if you aren’t specific enough with your details, you’re forcing the reader to work too hard to imagine your world, while other writers think if you paint too specific an image you leave the reader no room for using their own imagination. It’s not a matter of rules; it’s a matter of style. And based on the books I read every day, most of the styles I see involve breaking lots of rules.

As a writer, you have to make your own decisions as to how closely you follow the rules, no matter what the experts say. Learn the rules, yes. Understand the rules, definitely. But don’t feel as though you’re locked into them.

And how will you know if you’ve made the right choices? Listen to your critique partners. Pay attention to your beta-readers. If they say you’re doing too much telling, heed their advice. If they say you’re doing too much showing, heed that advice too. And most of all, listen to the readers who buy (or don’t buy) your books. Because ultimately, they are the ones whose decisions matter most. Readers don’t care about rules. All they care about is whether or not they enjoy your style of writing.

Opinions, anyone?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Revising Your Manuscript Is Like Fighting With Yourself

I’m in the middle of revisions right now (seems like I’m always in the middle of revisions) and though I’ve been reasonably pleased with my progress, it’s still a frustratingly slow process. For me, revising often feels like sculpting a block of metal by striking it repeatedly with a large hammer while blindfolded. Subsequent revisions involve repeating the process with successively smaller hammers. Not an elegant process by any definition.

Still, I’ve come to the realization that a significant portion of my editing amounts to moving blocks of words from one part of the page to another. I may still need to tighten up dialogue or add more descriptions or squeeze in a few more interior thoughts, but my first editing pass (or three) usually involves massive rearrangements of my words. I may know everything that has to go into the scene, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that I rarely know the order in which the words should appear on the page—at least at the beginning of the revision process.

For example, I've struggled with a piece of dialogue for days, desperately trying to make it seem like a natural part of the conversation, and then, in a moment of inspiration, I realize I could move it somewhere else in the scene and suddenly the dialogue fits like a piece in a puzzle. Arg! Mindnumbingly obvious once I think of it, but hard to see initially because my brain had already decided it knew how the scene should unfold.

So basically, I spend most of my revision time fighting with myself.  That's why I have critique partners—to stop by every once in a while and referee.

Do you struggle with this, or does the order of your words just come naturally to you?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Friday Links -- Volume 26

Okay, I should have gotten this out yesterday.  Sorry about that.

Before I get to the writing links, I found a link that explains why my writing desk (and every other desk I've had since second grade) is messy.  I knew there was a reason for it!  Can't wait to show this to my wife.

Why Creative Geniuses Often Keep a Messy Desk

Have a great weekend and a Happy Easter!

What Killed it For Me #6: Action Too Early

Agent Monday: Toss Me a Hook!

eBook Formatting 101

Publishing: How To Find & Work With A Cover Illustrator

Resource Round-Up: Querying Homework

What Does it Cost to be a Successful Self-Published Author? The Dirty Costly Secrets.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Showing and Telling -- In the Eye of the Beholder?

Showing and telling. Three words that send shivers of dread down the spines of new writers. Writers like me. The number of writing concepts I have yet to master is still daunting (setting, characterizations, dialogue, etc.), but at least those concepts make enough sense I know I’ll get them eventually. But showing and telling… Arg! Every time I think I’m beginning to grasp the concept, I come across another post or writing book with an example of telling that I don’t understand at all. For me, grasping the concept of showing is like grabbing a piece of fog. Very frustrating.

Lately, I’ve been reading Show Don’t Tell by Robyn Parnell, and while I’m certainly learning more about showing, I’m also beginning to understand why not all writers agree on what’s telling. Here’s an example from the book.

It was stormy. 

Why is this telling? Because, according to Robyn, it’s not specific enough. Too generic. It's a conclusion by the writer.  What does stormy mean? Where’s the proof? Each reader might interpret “stormy” differently. So Robyn offers up a showing alternative:

He looked out the kitchen window. Rain splattered against the glass and drilled a staccato beat on the iron roof. Thunder crashed overhead. His dog whined. 

Okay, not bad. I think I see her point. Not sure I would have spotted “stormy” as telling on my own, but it’s a start. But then Robyn quotes a showing example from Frankenstein: City of Night by Dean Koontz and I get confused again.

Showered, feeling pretty in a summery dress of yellow silk, Erika left the master suite to explore the mansion.

Robyn explains why this is showing. “We probably all know what a summery dress looks like and therefore can imagine a summery dress made from yellow silk.” Hmmm….. I think I can imagine what “stormy” looks like just as well as I can a summery dress. Perhaps even more so. So why is “summery” not telling? It seems to me that it's just as much of a conclusion by Koontz as “stormy.” As Robyn would say, “Where’s the proof?"   Are the shoulders bare? Is the dress covered with floral designs? How was the dress cut?  I know the dress was made out of silk, but I’ve seen plenty of silk dresses that would not be considered at all summery.

So why isn’t “summery” just as telling as “stormy?” The short answer is: it is just as telling. Then why does Robyn consider one showing and the other telling? I suspect it has to do with Robyn’s perspective. She’s probably seen “stormy”so often it’s almost a cliché, while “summery” is unusual enough that it just feels more like showing.

I’m not saying Robyn is right or wrong. But I am beginning to understand why showing (and telling) is often in the eye of the beholder.

If anyone disagrees with me on this or has anything to add, please share your thoughts.  I'd be most grateful. Everything I learn about showing and telling is worth its weight in gold.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Links -- Volume 25

Another good week of writing.  Don't know how long it's going to last, but I'm going to milk it for all it's worth.

I saw Captain America this week.  AWESOME!  Don't ever accuse Marvel of not wanting to take risks. How many of you saw Captain America before watching this week's Agents of Shield TV show?  If you didn't, were you shocked by what happened during the episode?  Were you confused?  Changes are coming in the Marvel universe.

Advice on writing queries and synopses was the big thing this last week, so I have three of them for you in today's links.  Have a great weekend!


How to Write the Dreaded Query Letter

A Synopsis Checklist

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests

An Editor's List of Novel Shortcomings

Sorry, Your Services are no Longer Required: Eliminating Characters

Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

The Key to Creating Suspense Is...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing Blogs and the CAPTCHA Dilemma

Last week I helped co-host the Insecure Writers Support Group bloghop. I met lots of new people and reconnected with others, but I was surprised at the number of blogs that required me to pass a CAPTCHA test (or something similar) before I could leave a comment. For those of you who don’t know, CAPTCHA is that irritating little test you need to pass to prove you’re a human – usually by having you stare at a blurry picture until you figure out the hidden word. They’re usually not too difficult to solve, especially since it often seems as though CAPTCHA accepts anything I type. Sometimes, though, it takes three or four tries to get it right. Go figure.

But if you’re a blogger, do you really want to make your readers jump through hoops to respond to your posts?

I know the purpose of these filters is to keep spam from filling up the comments section, but I have to say I’ve never had a problem with spam on this website. Perhaps I don’t attract enough readers to make my site worthy of spammers’ attention. Or maybe I’m just not attracting a high enough class of spammers. Either way, the anti-spam filters built into Blogger do a great job of removing spammy comments before anyone sees them. I haven’t used Wordpress, but I assume their filters are just as reliable.

The whole point of blogging is to engage with your readers, and the comments section is where that engagement occurs. So anything you do to hinder that engagement is not a good thing. Using CAPTCHA is like putting up a sign that says “I really don’t care if you comment or not.” To be honest, every time I hit a CAPTCHA window, I pause for a moment to decide if I should continue or just click “Cancel.” Many times, the only thing keeping me from clicking “Cancel” is the time I spent composing the message. But next time I come to your site, I’ll know better.

Case in point. When I stopped by MPax's blog last week, I couldn’t get past her CAPTCHA filter, even when I was positive my answer was correct. I must have tried ten different pictures before I gave up and emailed her directly. (Turns out her website must have glitched somehow. She didn’t have CAPTCHA turned on.) But I only jumped through these hurdles because she has an interesting blog. I’m not going to do that for everyone.

Ultimately, it’s your decision. Is the small amount of time you spend deleting the few bits of spam that make it past the default spam filters really worth the loss in comments? If you have a successful website with huge comment sections that draw spammers like flies, then by all means, use CAPTCHA. But if not, I’d suggest turning off your CAPTCHA filter (or making sure yours isn’t turned on by default). You may find a lot more comments waiting for you the next time you check in.

Edit: If you're not sure if you have word verification enabled on your blog and you use Blogger, go on down to Melissa's comment for a link to instructions on how to deactivate it.

BTW, I tried commenting on MPax's blog this morning and hit the unsolvable CAPTCHA roadblock again.  I'll have to wait until tonight to see if I have the same problem commenting from home. Very weird.

Also, I saw Captain America last night.  AWESOME!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Links -- Volume 24

Woohoo! Another weekend approaches.  Actually it's not as big a deal for me, since I seem to get more writing accomplished during the week than I do during the weekend.  Go figure.  I will be meeting with my local SCWBI group on Saturday, so I'm pretty sure there I will do some writing.  The meeting calls for a massive critting session, which should be great fun.  My only concern is that the chapter I plan to share has a college-age MC, which might be pushing the MG/YA boundaries of SCWBI.

I'm still recovering from co-hosting April's Insecure Writers Support Group bloghop. I met more great writers and my inspiration levels shot up into the stratosphere.    I'd like to extend a special thank you to all the other co-hosts: Hart Johnson, Candilynn Fite, Terri Rochenski, Clare Dugmore, and Lilica Blake!  Thanks again, Alex.

Have fun with the links and enjoy your weekend.


What’s Love Got to Do with It-Part Three

The Ins and Outs of ISBNs

Five Ways to Grow Your Novel

What Killed It For Me #4: Clichéd Characters

How to Get Your Book into More Categories on Amazon with Keywords

Creating Believable High Stakes for Your Characters

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Insecure Writer and Never Finishing

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

Today, I'm co-hosting the IWSG, along with Hart Johnson, Candilynn Fite, Terri Rochenski, Clare Dugmore, and Lilica Blake!

Why am I an Insecure Writer this month? 

Because I worry I may never actually finish a story.

Not because I plan on giving up writing anytime soon. I’m stubborn enough to keep plugging away at this writing stuff until I get it right. But I’ve just started my third story and I haven’t finished the first two yet. My first story was fan fiction (I bet you can guess which one) and I worked on it for over five years before deciding I should also work on something I could eventually sell. So a year ago, I started work on a MG fantasy, but after spinning my wheels for almost a year with the plot, I decided to shove the MG story to the back burner and begin yet another story. Fantasy, of course.

So here I am, working on or thinking about three different stories and hoping that at least one of them gets finished before the decade ends. Did I also mention I’m a slow writer? 

Sounds utterly disorganized, right? Yep, but that’s my style. I've never been happy working on just one project at a time. I read five or six books simultaneously, choosing to read whichever one I feel like at the moment. Even when I make myself stick to writing one story, I jump around, working on whichever chapter appeals to me on that particular day.

The point is, I hope I don’t end up becoming one of those writers who has a dozen partially finished stories stored on their hard drive and no completed ones to show the world.


In keeping with this topic, I know someone who no longer has to worry about finishing her book -- because she's already done it! This week, fellow ISWG member Melissa Maygrove revealed the cover to her debut book, Come Back. If you want to support one of your fellow Insecure Writers, hop on over to her blog and show your support.

And one day, maybe you’ll be able to do the same thing for me....


About Melissa's book

Sometimes a single choice alters the course of a person's life forever.

Rebecca Garvey had the promise of a California future dreams are made of, until the wagon train her family was traveling with left her behind. Now she’s slowly dying in the wilderness, abandoned and stripped of her self-worth. Once the shock of her desertion turns to embittered despair, she doesn’t want to be found. Then a handsome stranger challenges her convictions and changes her mind.

Seth Emerson knows exactly what he wants. Working to save for a cattle ranch of his own keeps him busy and keeps his pain buried. Rescuing a stubborn woman from the hills of New Mexico Territory isn’t part of his plan—but she’s exactly what he needs.

Seth and Rebecca set off on a risky journey and a quest for truth, each healing the other’s love-starved soul along the way. Will they give in to their growing attraction?  Or will they honor their commitments when Seth returns Rebecca to civilization... and her betrothed?