Posts Tagged With: tips

Another Kind of Map (and Library updated)

I’ve written about how an outline can serve as a great tool, a sort of map, to guide you on your course as you write. Another kind of map, one closer to its namesake, is a sketch (or much more detailed drawing, if you need it) of the area in which your story takes place. Depending on how much your character(s) move(s) about in the town/castle/prison/whatever, a sketch of the layout will help considerably in keeping your story consistent.

Will the sun be in the character’s eyes when walking out the door? Where will the shadows be in this scene (will there be shadows)? Is the destination to the left or right (or north or south, etc)? Is the building visible to the character from here? If there is a chase scene, where can the character run to/through? A sketch also helps keep things consistent between books, if you’re writing a series (as I am).

Early in writing Dragonlinked, I realized that a sketch of Caer Baronel’s layout would be required. There were just too many locations in the Caer to keep straight in my head and the characters did a lot of walking around. That sketch has served me well all through the three books I’ve written so far. The sketch isn’t meant to be exact; it merely serves as a handy reference to where things are in relation to each other.

I’m adding the sketch to the Library (accessible from the menu at the top of the blog) along with a sketch of the dragon stable layout. The remains of erased pencil (which became much more visible when I increased the contrast to make the fainter lines visible) let you see where I changed the layout of the Caer and changed some of the buildings a bit. The Woodworking building used to be two separate buildings, part of one of which was the armory, and the Water Hall used to be called (only briefly) the Pump House, for instance. Also, vegetable gardens used to be nearby, before I decided that an entire farm would better serve a community as large as the Caer and moved all that off to Baronel Farm ten miles or so east. You also get to see the sheer awesomeness of my chicken-scratch handwriting! I thought some readers might get a kick out of seeing these.

Categories: Dragonlinked, Fan Extras, Lethera, Tips, Writing | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writers, Be Wary of this Affliction

I’ve written before about the great things you can learn by attending a critique/writer’s group, and now that I am in a brief lull between books (though I am doing research for the next one), I thought I’d give a specific example of one of the things I learned from one such group.

When I first started attending the Saturday meetings, I had just put out Dragonlinked and had nothing unpublished to bring for discussion. I had maybe one very rough chapter of the next book started, but wanted to try something different. I decided to write a short story centered on one of the characters from Dragonlinked. This short story eventually became Moonflower, but it wasn’t called that at first, and the section used below comes from a part I removed entirely and turned into its own mini-story. At any rate, this was what I initially brought for discussion once I had it mostly written out.

One of the critiques of the piece, to the best of my memory, started out very flattering.

“This story is so good that many don’t notice the errors. One of the biggest is that you suffer from pronoun-itis.”

I looked at the woman and raised my brows. “Suffer from what?”


I let out a little nervous chuckle and looked around at the others. Some were nodding wisely. I looked back at her and asked, “What do you mean?”

“You use too many pronouns. Many could be left off or the sentence reworked in such a way that they are not needed.”

Hmm. Pronoun-itis, eh? I’d never heard of this problem. After she pointed out a sample paragraph, however, it became obvious what she meant. I will present that paragraph below and will then show how I changed it up to make it better.

“Lie down?” she mumbled, still trying to remember her task. Unable to do so, she slumped to her side on the ground. Her heart began to beat wildly. Though ignored, her fear still made its presence felt. The pounding in her ears confused her for a moment. She was supposed to relax, wasn’t she? Rolling on her back, she stared up between the trees. The ground was cool beneath her, and stars were visible through the canopy above.

Thirteen pronouns. Thirteen. In that little paragraph. When first read, the paragraph doesn’t seem so bad, but once the pronoun-itis is pointed out? Sheesh.

So, what’s the problem? There are two, really. One, the least important, is word repetition. Having the same word repeated too many times gets distracting. One way to fix that is to use a synonym for a few of them, but going too crazy with synonyms can also be distracting. Reworking a few of the sentences to eliminate the word is another, and possibly better, method. The second problem, and the one I feel is more important, has to do with deep point of view. In order to draw your readers into the story (particularly a section or scene that you want to be intense), you want as few signifiers as possible that tell the reader they are reading a story instead of experiencing a story. One of those is continually telling them that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is doing something.

‘No, dear reader, it isn’t you who is being attacked by this horrible creature, it is HER.’

As a writer, you may as well be saying that when you load up that many pronouns into your work. The way I try to handle it is that the closer I am to the character, the more zoomed in I am, the more I just describe what is happening as if I am looking through the eyes of the character, as if I am listening with the character’s ears, touching with their fingers, thinking their thoughts, etc. I try to only use pronouns when not using them will cause confusion, another thing that hampers deep point of view. So, here is the reworked paragraph that I went with. I removed some ‘telling,’ where I should be ‘showing,’ removed a couple of sentences to pick up the pace, and changed up some of the sentences to remove pronouns.

“Lie down?” she mumbled, trying to hold on to thoughts of escape. Like writhing eelfish, they twitched and slipped through her fingers. She slumped sideways, heart beating wildly. Rolling on her back, she stared up between the trees. The ground felt cool, and stars peeked through the canopy above.

Pretty much the same paragraph, but with only five pronouns. It feels more immediate, now, more intimate, because I describe some of the actions so that while reading them, the reader feels as if they are experiencing them. Reading it again, now, I can see how it can be improved even further, but it serves as an example.

So here is my shared tip: Avoid pronoun-itis whenever possible. It is one writer’s affliction that can be dealt with fairly easily and makes for better writing in the process.

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Another Crucial Tool for Your Writer’s Utilitybelt

I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with my brain. On the one hand, it’s my brain. It is what makes me, well, me. But on the other hand, do I really have to think about three-quadrillion different things at three in the morning? Really? I’m trying to get to sleep here!

Still. Sometimes, one or more of those three-quadrillion things I think of while staring at the ceiling and listening to all the strange sounds that my house makes at night (I fully expect The Doctor to come racing through the room one night, screaming at me to look out for the what’s-it chasing after him) are actually good ideas. They could be completely new ways to go with a sub-plot, or better ways to proceed with a scene, or perhaps an ‘ah-ha!’ moment of seeing how a few things already in-place can be tied together in sheer awesomeness. Sure, most of the things that occur at that hour of the night (morning?) are horrible. But some are little nuggets of gold caught in the panning dish of your late-night brain. Whether you are writing music, short stories, poetry, novels, or blogs, do not lose those ideas!

Yes, yes, yes. You already keep a notebook by your bed for just that reason. Well, at least for me, the dim light that seeps in the bedroom window doesn’t provide enough illumination for me to write anything in a notebook. And even if I flipped on the lamp on the nightstand, it would blind me, wasting precious time where the idea could wash away, leaving the pan empty. No, I say, and again I say, no. Instead, use something you probably already have. Most smartphones (don’t panic if you don’t have one, see a bit later) have a voice memo app or some kind of recorder app. Yes. That’s right. Like Lewis in the USA show Suits, you, sir or madam, are going to make recordings of your brilliant ideas. You don’t have a smartphone? No problem. A quick Google search (Google-smack it!) shows that you can get an electronic voice recorder for as little as 18 dollars. In the gloom of night, it is MUCH easier to launch an app from a glowing screen, or press a record button, than it is to try to scribble down an idea in the dark.

Voice memos have saved my bacon many a time (What does that even mean? Saving it from falling into a camp fire? Did bacon used to be cooked on sticks or something?). The next day, it can be difficult to recall that little nugget that occurred to you in the wee hours of night. I have forgotten a few potentially great ideas in the days before I started recording everything that seemed like a good idea. Yep, I said seemed. Because not everything that sounds fantastic at four in the morning will sound so amazing the next day. But at least you won’t forget anything.

Just recently, I had FOUR great ideas occur to me in one night. Four! And even the next day, those ideas were still great. I would have likely forgotten two of them, maybe all of them, if I hadn’t made a quick voice memo. So do yourself and your readers a favor and use a voice memo app—the under-appreciated little tool that can keep your pork product out of the fire.


P.S. I have put the tag ‘tools’ on the various posts I’ve made in which I have talked about different, well, tools. At this time there are three posts tagged this way, but in the future? Who can say.

Categories: Blogging, Tips, Writing | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Listen to Yourself

So, I’ve been pecking away at the keyboard for several weeks now, working on the first draft of the manuscript for the next book in the Dragonlinked series. I’m near the end of chapter ten. I started the chapter last week, but the writing slogged down during the second scene. I just couldn’t get into it. I knew what needed to happen in there, in general, and I wrote it out. But it wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t so much that the scene was boring, it just seemed off toward the end. I thought about it, tweaked it, and wrestled with it for two days. Nothing. I couldn’t figure out exactly what bugged me about the end of the scene. It was time to get my mind off the scene and do something else. A first read-through of the chapters so far would serve nicely.

I try not to re-read completed chapters until I have a few done. One can get bogged down tweaking every last thing to perfection. You can end up with something wonderful, but six hours will have flown by and you’ve got one singular paragraph done the way you like it. No. My preferred method right now is to just read through and fix only the things that pop out at me, things that take me out of the reading experience. It could be a spelling error, punctuation, the wrong character’s name used in a speech tag, the flow of an idea/conversation being out of whack…just the big stuff. And there was some big stuff. I had the wrong character making reference to a previous thought. I had references to the wrong time of day (morning vs evening). I had a few misspelled words. Well, the words I had spelled were actual words, they were just the wrong words. Thus, spell-check failed to catch them. All of these things I fixed over the course of two or three days. Then, it was time to get back to that problematic scene.

I didn’t want to. I pictured myself like a kid with feet shuffling and dragging, a kid doing anything to keep from having to do the chore that must be done. Buck up, mister, I told myself, get in there and let’s see what we can do. Well, one thing I realized was that the second scene should be the first scene. It would make the chapter flow better. Easy enough; a quick cut and paste and I’d switched them. Then, as I read through the problem scene it finally dawned on me what I didn’t like about it. A lot of the information that the characters were learning had already been revealed to the reader in a previous chapter. It was repetition of information, a no-no. Repetition, whether information or even the retelling of some action by characters, should be cut out (or summarized) whenever possible, unless it is needed for some dramatic or plot purpose. Neither was the case here, and worse, the information wasn’t really needed by the characters in the scene. I highlighted a good chunk of text, gulped, and hit delete. This left me with a very short, skimpy scene, however. What to do? Well, there was some information that in the previous version of the scene I was going to summarize. Maybe I could flesh that information out instead. With that in mind, I set the scene in my head and let the characters do their thing. I liked where it was going. Once the first write was completed, I read over it. It was much, much better.  And in fact, two cool things happened with the re-write: a new plot-point, a new layer for the antagonist’s evil plan, emerged, and I was also better able to tie what these characters were doing into the larger plot. Sweet!

If something you are writing just feels off, it might be your subconscious letting you know that there is definitely something wrong with it. Take some time away and then come back to it refreshed. And don’t be afraid to scrap it! The re-writing might reward you with more than just better prose.

Categories: Lethera, Tips, Writing | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Be Afraid to Scrap

I’ve been working on book 3 of the chronicles since Monday. I knew, in general, what I wanted to accomplish with the book, but I had no ideas about specifics. So I spent Monday brainstorming with OpenOffice Calc opened on a new outline spreadsheet. It was completely blank except for the headings: Timeline. Plots. Plot Points. I sat and stared at it. It was so blank. Where to start? Well, what did I have, story-wise? I had a vague idea of what should happen by the end of the book and I had a potential starting point, the epilogue of the second book. But starting right at the end of that would be a little boring. There wasn’t much going to happen at that point, aside from the surprise that had already occurred. And something pulse-pounding or dramatic or scary or something action-y should open a book. But nope. I had no ideas for an opening.

Alright, I thought, then think more about the book as a whole. It took me a few hours, but eventually I filled in some plot points. Not all from the same plot, and not all actual plot points. Some were mere scenes that I knew could eventually become plot points. I think I filled in maybe six that first day. Even so, it felt a little underwhelming. But it was just the first day–I had time. More ideas would come as more plot points were filled in. One idea would lead to another and that to another one or more, and so on.

Yesterday, I decided to use one of my tricks from writing book 2: focus on one subplot at a time. I knew who/what the antagonist was going to be, so I decided to focus on the subplot that would get Antagonist hooked into the main plot. I sorted the spreadsheet by plot and started brainstorming again. It helped. I came up with many ideas about how Antagonist would think and actions (along with Protagonist reactions) that might be taken during the three acts of the book. I also made sure I could come up with justifications for those actions that made sense. At the end of the writing day I had about eight more points for that sub-plot. They were decent enough, would lead to some exciting and cool scenes and events, but something was nagging me.

It wasn’t until a few hours after I’d stopped writing for the day (I never stop thinking about a work in progress, or rather, my brain never stops thinking about it) that the reason came to me: this whole sub-plot didn’t excite me. It wasn’t that it was boring, it just didn’t click for me. And if it didn’t click for me, I wouldn’t be able to make it click for a reader. To make matters worse, another subplot I’d thought of didn’t seem to be related at all to this one, which meant one or both should be eliminated. But I loved that other sub-plot. Not only was it cool, it could dovetail into ideas I had for future books. A few thoughts on adjusting the Antagonist sub-plot popped into my head throughout the rest of the night, but I was still unsatisfied.

This morning I grabbed my mug of coffee, my cinnamon toast, and headed to the computer determined to tweak this sub-plot and make it better. I spent an hour or two brainstorming. What if this happened, or that? What if Antagonist had this desire, or that desire, instead? The ‘what if’ game helps to come up with potentially off-the-wall ideas, some of which can be awesome. But I was having no luck. I decided to think about that other sub-plot. How could I get it involved in this sub-plot? I spent time thinking about it but couldn’t come up with anything. That is, until I thought: How can that sub-plot be connected to Antagonist. I thought about Antagonist a bit and an idea came to me. It would mean abandoning the current sub-plot entirely and scrapping everything I’d done on it the last two days. So what? Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Whether they are darling because they are awesome, or darling because you worked so hard on them, if they don’t work, lose em.

Now, I’m not entirely crazy. I saved the current outline and then used Save As to create a draft 2. In the new draft is where I would start fleshing out this new sub-plot. I’d have the old one handy in case this new one didn’t work. I sat back then and thought about the new plot. I spent a few hours doing so, following ideas where they lead and considering how everything could be connected into a story. It was working rather nicely. And as I thought and typed in plot points I realized something: this new plot clicked with me. I liked it. I liked where it was going, where it came from, and some of the things that could happen because of it. It also gave me an idea for a dramatic prologue.

That’s not to say it will end up exactly as I have it conceived right now. It might end up being tweaked later, but it certainly feels more right than the previous one. So don’t be afraid of scrapping something that isn’t working. It just might give you the freedom to come up with a better idea.

Categories: Dragonlinked, Lethera, Tips, Writing | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Another writing resource: Etymology

I wrote a piece a few months back about how Google can be used as a great little writing tool. While I was writing The Bond, sequel to Dragonlinked, I found I used Google a lot in another way: to find the etymology of several words and phrases.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way they have changed through history. Why is etymology important? Well, Dragonlinked Chronicles takes place on another world. I wanted the books to have some tie to the familiar, however, so I set Lethera at almost the same technology level that Earth was during the same time period, the late 1800s. In some ways Lethera is a little more advanced than Earth (medicine, and thus, hygiene—due to diagnostic, preventative, and curative magic), while it is behind in others (electricity, gunpowder—also due to magic being used instead). Therefore, since the books are pseudo-period pieces, I wanted to ensure that words and phrases I used made sense for the time and technology, etc. For example, in the Preface of The Bond, I initially referred to anaphylactic shock, but a quick check of the Online Etymology Dictionary (Google: anaphylaxis ety) revealed that the term anaphylactic shock wasn’t really in use until 1916, which is just beyond my 40 year allowance for medical terms (the book takes place in 1874), so, I decided against using it and conveyed the medical issue another way.

For period pieces, and even for pieces set on other worlds/societies, there are many instances where an etymology check can prove handy. For example, say you are thinking of having a character or the narrator say or think ‘Such and such took off like a rocket’ or ‘rocketed away’ (Clich鍏? Probably, but useful enough for this example). Well, do they USE rockets on that planet/society? Has the character/narrator seen or heard of one? Could they have? When did rockets (or that specific phrase) come into general use on Earth? Does it makes sense for that character (or the narrator) to use that phrase? a quick etymology check will answer many, if not all, of these questions.

Hand-in-glove with the discussion of etymology as a tool comes the idea that you should concern yourself with this aspect of writing as well. It ties into suspension of disbelief. As readers we are willing to let a lot go, but if some wildly out-of-place detail pulls us from the story, our suspension is broken and that is something, as writers, we want to avoid doing.

So, think about adding this nifty little tool to your kit, and keep at your craft!

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Outlining: Not So Bad After All

I’d tried outlining a bit while writing my first novel, but it didn’t work well for me. The biggest problem, I think, was that I outlined in a text document, and it was too easy not stick to short plot descriptions. I’d start with a nice brief point, then add more details, and more, and more, and soon, I was writing the whole scene. Another big problem was sequencing. It is cumbersome to rearrange plot points in a text document. If I decided I wanted a plot point to occur earlier or later in the novel, it was a pain to cut the plot point(s)and search for the new place and then paste everything back in. Eventually, I just gave up. I saved the ‘outline’ document with a manuscript file name and just wrote.

The sequel, which I am currently working on, started the same way. I tried doing an outline and failed. After I started learning more about the ins and outs of writing and started attending the Saturday critique sessions, I decided to put aside the book and practice what I was learning. I practiced on short stories. When I finished Moonflower and Brilliant Points of Light, I decided to return to the novel, and I also decided that I really needed to outline. Being able to work out kinks in the plot would be easier beforehand in an outline instead of while I was writing. So, I searched the internet and read a little about various outlining tools and methods and decided to try outlining in a spreadsheet.

I discovered that my two biggest problems were immediately addressed. The small cells in a spreadsheet act as a kind of psychological limiter. They help me not go crazy with detail. I type in the plot point description and maybe add a little about who is there and the mental state of important characters in the scene. That’s it. Move on to the next plot point (Full disclosure: Sometimes I will put a lot of detail in, but only for scenes where I don’t want to forget the great idea I had about how the scene should work). Also, since it is a spreadsheet, rearranging the order of the points is a snap. I use the built-in sort function.

My outline consists of three columns. The third column contains the plot points themselves. In the first column, I have the novel sequence numbers. They determine the overall order in which the plot points will appear in the novel. The second column has the subplot sequence numbers. Each separate plot line, including the ‘main’ plot, has its own sequence numbers. The first subplot started at 0, the next subplot started at 300, the next at 600, etc. Each new point in a subplot increments its sequence by 5, and the overall novel sequence numbers I increment by 10. When I use the sort function I tell it to sort by col1, then by col2. Poof. Points are in chronological order as they happen in the book. If I want to rearrange plot points I just change their sequence numbers and sort. That’s one reason I leave gaps in sequence numbers. If I want to move up a plot point to between points 175 and 180, I just change the plot point’s number to 176 and resort. Pow! It’s moved. You do need to renumber its other sequence number as well to keep it in proper place overall. And I do go in every now and then and redo all the sequence numbers from top to bottom so that they are back to increments of 5 (or increments of 10 for the overall sequence) to clean up all the reordered and added points.

That’s right, adding a new plot point is just as easy. Want a new plot point between points 455 and 460? Insert it at the bottom of all the points and number it 457, then sort. Done. Again, renumbering every now and then keeps things orderly.

Another big problem with outlining for me was also addressed by the ability to move things around. When I started trying to outline the sequel I found that at times in the book there were four subplots going. I wrote some of the points down, but I had too many ideas in my head, too many plot points from the various subplots. I started panicking: How am I going to organize all of this?!? The answer was to focus on one thing at a time. I used the sort function to re-arrange all the plot points. Instead of the order they will appear in the novel, I ordered them together by subplot. I sorted col2, col1. This put all of the first subplot together, followed by the second subplot, followed by the third, etc. 0, 5, 10, 15, 20… then 100, 105, 110, 115, and so on. This let me focus on one subplot at a time. What would happen next in this subplot. Ignore the rest until this one intersects with another. That made things so much easier. I could get in the groove with one subplot and let the creative part of my brain go to town. Sometimes this meant just sitting in my chair, staring into space, and taking the occasional sip of coffee as my thoughts wandered about before eventually coming to a stop at a nice connection or twist or dramatic event. If I ever want to see all the points intermixed again as they will appear in the novel, I sort col1, col2, check how things flow, then swap back by sorting col2, col1. That’s not to say that if something amazing occurs to me about another plot line I will ignore it. No, I go to that subplot, edit or add a new point, and go back to what I was doing.

When the subplot I am working on meets up with another subplot, I look over the other subplot. Is it complete up to where it meets the one I’m working on? If not, I flesh that subplot out to the intersection and then hop back to the subplot I was on. Sometimes I can’t continue with the current subplot because it depends on events from too many other subplots. When that happens I pick another subplot and go as far as I can with that one. And so on, jumping back when able.

Something else I find I need is a calendar. Lethera has days that are longer than earth days* and, more importantly, months with a set 30 days each (except for leap months, and such). Therefore, I can’t just use a normal calendar. I make my own calendars on a separate tab in my outline spreadsheet. I then put a note on days where a chapter occurs (Ch 1, Ch 2, etc). This lets me look at the calendar and make sure things happen in reasonable time frames. For instance, if I know a trip takes 4 weeks, I can ctrl-page-dn to the calendar, check where in the month the chapter is, and thus know during which week later the arrival should happen. Ctrl-page-up takes me back to the first tab. At least it does in OpenOffice Calc, the spreadsheet software I use. The calendar also lets me make sure sentences like “Although he’d been trying to think of an excuse for the last XX days…” use the right number of days.

It’s been working well for me so far. I’ve got about 90% of the sequel outlined. I’ve done several re-arrangements of points, completely removed a subplot (Saved, I think, for the next book), and stared into space countless times. Through it all, the outlining process has worked. Once the outline is complete, I’ll be able to write in all the details. That’s not to say nothing will change as I flesh everything out. Something might come up, a character may surprise me, or I may think of something crazy to shake things up, but at least I have a framework and a direction so that I won’t write along a path that eventually gets cut. It should save me wasted time and effort later.

*The people of Letrhera use 100 seconds for a minute, 50 minutes for an hour, and 20 hours for a day. This is because their day is nearly four hours longer than ours and they tend to do thinks vaguely metric-y. Is that a word? Hmm. Anyway, they favor 10, 50, 100, and the like. They had to use 20 hours for a day because that’s what it ends up as. Even so, that’s 10 morning hours and 10 evening hours, so we’re back to using 10 and everyone is happy.

Categories: Books, Lethera, Tips, Update, Writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tension and Immediacy. Don’t Make This Mistake.

I’ve said before that a writing group is a great thing. And though last week I posted a link to another blogger’s tip about avoiding writing groups gone bad, good writing groups can help immensely.

Case in point. I have been struggling with a scene in my mini-story for nearly a month. I’d gotten a few notes that the scene didn’t have the punch that it could, the reader wasn’t feeling the drama, that kind of thing. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I read the scene over and over and over, even tweaked it a few times. But it didn’t quite grab like I wanted it to. It was close, but still not there. This past week, however, one of the men in the group phrased his thinking of what was wrong in a way that finally clicked for me. And once I heard it, it was the most obvious thing in the world. But I hadn’t realized it until then. I’ll use a television or movie metaphor for what was wrong with my scene.

In a show or movie, when the action heats up between two characters, the camera tends to zoom in on them. This gives you a better view of their expressions, gives more punch to their words (they’re clearer, and you can hear a hissed whisper) and allows you to see all the details and the subtle interplay between them. This gets the viewer more involved in what’s going on. Writers use the same technique. This part I knew. It’s related, in a way, to deep point of view. The kicker is there is a corollary to this. Don’t  zoom out from the close-up too many times during the tense exchanges. It’s distracting and keeps the viewer from getting into the action.

In my scene I had been cutting between close-ups and wide shots, back and forth, instead of staying close-up longer. That was a big part of why the scene wasn’t as dramatic as it could be. It’s fine to occasionally pull out to a wide shot to give some detail of surroundings, but not in the middle of a dramatic moment or as you are trying to build up the tension. Wait until a lull between exciting parts or maybe slip it in before the action gets going. After looking over the scene with this in mind, I made some adjustments. I was more careful of where the narrator intruded and watched where (and how) I described surroundings. I think it worked. The scene seems snappier and more tense.

So, if you are having trouble getting a scene to ‘pop,’ check if you are making too many switches between close-ups and wide shots. Stay with the close-up longer!

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Participate in a Writing/Critique Group

The internet and books can provide you with a wide range of information to help you improve your writing, true. But, as far as the internet, I have found that the majority of what you find are the ‘rules,’ such as grammar. And sure, there are some sites—and many books—where you can find general information about plot, pacing, conflict and the like. But for detailed information, information about your book/poem/short story, there’s no place like a writing group to get good, honest criticism to help make it better.

In both books and on the internet, I’d read authors who said that joining a writing group/critique group had helped them improve as writers. I was leery of the idea, however. But seeing the same advice over and over, I thought I should at least see what all the fuss was about. So, gathering my courage, I attended one. I had joined the Facebook group for the San Antonio Writer’s Guild, and I saw a post there about free critique sessions that were starting up. I read up how it would work, printed out copies of the first few pages of chapter one of my next book, and on the meeting day, drove over, terrified. You see, I had just put up my first book on Amazon the night before, and, while my test readers all loved it, they are not ‘professionals,’ so I was not sure how my writing would be received by other authors. It went shockingly well. Well, shocking to me—I had no idea what to expect. Everyone there was a writer, and the genres represented were wildly diverse, which in itself was valuable to me, allowing me to see and hear how plot, pacing, etc, works in varying types of writing. The one thing you need to remember, though, is to not take the criticisms personally. Use them. They are inside information, valuable insights. Do keep in mind that it is your work, your writing, so pick and choose what suggestions you want to incorporate. But even those you don’t use can help you see things in a new light.

I have learned a great deal about writing that I did not know before. Some of the things I have learned so far I had never even read or heard hints about. Others, bits I had read about, I finally ‘got’ when explained in practical terms. I find that the aspect of writing that I need to work on most right now is point of view. I tend to have a wider point of view than is customary, so I am trying to refine it, to tighten it up a bit in my writing. And that is the value of these groups. You learn about the art of writing, the craft.

Anyone can look up the definition of ‘past tense’ on the internet, but I had never found any talk about how to handle a large section in your book that takes place in the past, how to transition into that section and how to transition out, except in my group. And it works. The tip: Use a had or two to lead into the section and one or two to lead out. The rest of the time, use whatever your normal tense is (I write in past tense, though some write in present). This way had doesn’t appear a million times in the section. I also try to throw in a now (or some other mechanic) at the end beyond just going back to the normal tense to let the reader know that we’ve returned to the present.

Though it is terrifying, I highly recommend finding a writing/critique group in your area and get into it. You can’t put a price on the things you will learn.

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Literary or Commercial? I Submit You Should Do Both.

I joined a local writing guild last week and went to their meeting for May. They had a guest speaker, Nan Cuba, who spoke about the journey of getting her book, Body and Bread, published. It took her quite some time. The novel started out as a piece of flash fiction. Over the years she wrote several short stories and eventually worked them all into what became the novel. She gave out a lot of great information for aspiring authors looking to get published: websites, publications, organizations, classes and programs, and more. But the most interesting information came after her talk, when she took questions from the audience. Well, interesting to me.

The biggest problem she faced with getting published, aside from finding and getting an agent and working the book into the best shape it could be, was the fact that publishers consider her book literary fiction. Most publishers are now looking for commercial fiction instead and kept passing on her book. She eventually did find a publisher, a small press, and she is very pleased with them. In fact, she said she ALMOST wished she had started looking at small presses first. But then, she told us, she would not have as good a grasp of everything involved with publishing if she hadn’t slogged through everything on her way to where she is now. At any rate, all the questions asked of her were interesting and concerned things about which I also wondered. But one gentleman asked her the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I had seen reference to these terms during my own failed search for an agent (It turns out that Nan Cuba had used the same resource I had in looking for an agent, She also failed to find an agent through them, but that’s neither here nor there). Ms. Cuba told us that, in general, literary fiction focuses on character and words. The way words sound, the flow of them and even the structure of the sentences is important. And so is the character’s journey—who they are, where they come from and what leads them to their choices. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, focuses more on action. I think she even likened the difference to independent films versus summer blockbusters.

The thing is, while she was describing them, I kept thinking to myself: But . . . I write with ALL those things in mind. So, am I literary or commercial? Now, while it’s true that I don’t agonize for any appreciable length of time over each and every word, I do read and re-read sections many, many times, working out the flow of ideas and words within paragraphs and between them. And I think a story arc for the protagonist is important, too. That we see where they came from, where they are, where they end up, and that getting there is the result of who they are. But I also feel it important to have some action. Or perhaps a more appropriate word would be tension. You want dramatic moments to get hearts racing. It might be a Michael Bay-type action sequence, sure, but it could also be a tense argument.

Over the last several days, as I thought about it again and again, I kept coming back to the same place. I want aspects of both literary and commercial fiction in my work. I can see how leaning toward one or the other is doable, but the books I enjoy reading always have strong aspects of both, and that is what I want to create. After all, you could have one or more characters described very well, could have their lives shown on the pages in such detail that you feel as if you grew up with them. But if there is never any tension, readers will eventually get bored. And if the work is a series of action sequences with only light sketches of characters, the spectacle would soon wear thin. If readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t care what happens to them. So I try to balance aspects of both literary and commercial. Obviously there is more to a good piece of fiction than that, but at the core, that’s how I try to write.

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