I’ve been underwater this month and during the holidays… writer-speaking… inundated with copy edits, proofreading, etc. on my upcoming Titanic book and trying to write a new World War 2 time travel set in Paris… so like Alice, I’m scrambling to get to the party on time…
Not easy for this So Cal gal who’s been living on London time since my publisher is the fabulous BOLDWOOD BOOKS headquartered there. I’m never sure what day it is.
A short post this month to let you know my Titanic love story, THE RUNAWAY GIRL, is on schedule for a March 17 pub date.
Two women hold the keys to his heart.
Only one will survive that fateful night…
A sweeping historical romance set aboard the Titanic, from the author of Christmas Once Again.’
More as we get closer to March, but I’ll be starting Titanic Tuesdays on my blog ONCE UPON A STORY –– this week January 14th with Titanic and the Loo and a lord in a tub.
See you soon on the ship of dreams!
Jenny Jensen is deep into a manuscript and unable to come up for air. We’re helping her out by posting one of her articles from our archives. Hope you enjoy it.
I love quotes. I collect them, especially quotes about writing from writers I particularly respect. Since I work with writers of all levels from beginners to veterans, I find that sometimes the perfect quote from an established writer is exactly what I need to reinforce a point – so I use my collection well.
I just took on a new client who sent an outline for her first novel. The outline included a précis of the plot, quick character sketches, a few narrative bits on action scenes and several options for an ending. Buried in these concepts were the seeds of a very fresh new voice. I’m excited; it’s the kind of challenge I relish. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask the right questions, provide possibilities and help guide the story to a solid structure – all of which greases the writer’s creative wheels – the give and take nudging them to the path they want for their story.
The problem was the writer didn’t want to write a draft; she wanted to work with me to get the story full blown in her head then sit down at the keyboard and spit out a finished novel. Oh dear. I imagine there are writers who can do that but they’re as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. As Anne Lamott put it in her essay, Shitty First Drafts: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”
All first drafts suck. It’s a universal law. But it’s where you have to start. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (TY Terry Pratchett.) So give yourself permission to just spill it, write the most vapid dialog ever if that’s what comes out. It’s OK – it’s a draft. Just get the story out. If you find yourself using more adjectives than Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz combined then this is the place to do it. It’s a draft -no one will ever see it (except me but that’s all right ‘cuz I’ll never tell). Stewart Stafford hit the bull’s eye, “It’s okay to write a cliché in a first draft; it sets a marker that you can get far, far away from in the rewrites.”
That’s what a draft is for – the rewrites. Here’s where the painful process of filling the blank page becomes fun. You see the flaws and get to slash and revise, hear the perfect dialog over the noise of what you drafted, maybe see a new direction in the wreckage. I’ve encouraged my client to write a first draft. I’ll happily work with her from that, but I bet she goes over it first – who could resist? Draft one or draft two, I don’t care. I can’t wait to see it.
The creative process is a mystery to me. I like it that way. Not knowing how or why an author chooses a certain literary device makes every book I read a fresh experience. I’m not always wowed by the tale but I like to start with no bias. Just lately though, I can’t help wondering what drives so many of my clients to write in 1st person. I love a good tale told in 1st person but it’s the most difficult narrative voice to get right.
Up until the mid 20th century the lion’s share of novels were written in 3rd person. A quick glance of current literary prizewinners shows 30% written in 1st person (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Martian etc.). Current genre and commercial fiction is more like 50%. Clearly, this is the age of 1st person and I think I know why—energy, immediacy and intimacy. While those three qualities attract us they’re also what makes 1st person hard to write well.
The narrator has to be interesting enough to carry the reader through 200 plus pages of story. Basically it’s the only voice we hear so it better be entertaining. The character can be droll, hysterically funny, bitingly snarky, painfully deluded, even seriously insightful—as long as the energy exuded is compelling. Sometimes the narrator exists to showcase the main character. Watson is a rather deluded and bumbling narrator but we become fond of him. It’s his subject, Holmes that keeps the reader riveted. We want to stay for the whole ride.
1st person is both immediate and intimate. The reader sees the action through the narrator’s eyes rather than from the outside. It’s close up and personal so the reader has a sense of being present as the action takes place. With a compelling narrator and interesting plot it’s easy for the reader to feel they have a stake in the story. 1st person reads like a journal or a personal letter. The reader sees, hears and knows what the narrator sees, hears and knows. There’s no distance between us—all the more reason to craft a compelling narrator. The narrator speaks directly to us. Well done, 1st person is more exciting, more emotionally engaging and more satisfying than the viral YouTubes of laughing babies and crazy critters caught on camera. No wonder we love it.
There is one cardinal sin when writing 1st person – filter words. They put a dampening distance between the reader and the action. Because we see, hear, smell, feel and know what the narrator does there is no room for distancing the reader.
“I even thought of doing something gossipy…”
Filter words removed:
“I considered something gossipy…”
I could hear…I thought…I felt…I saw…chop away the filter words and close the distance. Good first person narrative is always from behind the character’s eyes.
Having put these thoughts down I think I’m going to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky). I love a good first person story. Do you?
A beloved aunt left me her jewelry not long ago. I don’t do a lot of bling so I carefully put most of it away. Except for the sapphire ring. I love that stone. The blue is so true, so deep you feel you could drown in it. It blazes with its own cool fire. Like a crow I covet it in secret. I love to look at it. Wearing the ring is out of the question—the setting looks as if it came from a box of Cracker Jacks. It is so lifeless it buries the stone in boredom. I don’t know where Aunt Bea got the jewel but given the racy facts of her life I bet it’s a helluva story.
Setting. It carries such an impact. Every writer learns early on that setting is a critical element of good writing. A badly defined setting diminishes a great story as much as that pot metal dulls my sapphire. I’m going to have it reset someday. First, I have to figure out what the perfect setting should be—Integral or Backdrop?
With an Integral setting the story’s environment affects the action and characters. The time and place influences every aspect of the story. A good setting conveys atmosphere and mood – Wuthering Heights could not have taken place anywhere else. I’m thinking my sapphire would be lonely in the Yorkshire moors.
An integral setting can convey so much more than a background for the action. The symbolism of your choice of setting can be powerful. To simply place the reader in an abandoned house is enough to know we’re not in the security and warmth of Grandma’s kitchen — we know it’s empty and holds none of the energy of life. The stage is set for all kinds of otherworldly possibilities from ghosts to demons to zombie politicians.
In all historical fiction an integral setting defines the characters. An aristocratic gentleman in Regency England is as defined by that period as is the beautiful housemaid working in his manner. The setting will mean something to each of these characters and therein lays the story. What does that setting mean to each character? Does each character change and view his or her setting differently? The tension and the action are defined by the period setting.
Fantasy and Sci-fi, any genre with world building, offers the possibility of a setting where the world not only affects the characters, it can interact with them. That’s when setting becomes a major character in itself. In addition to mood and atmosphere setting can be a good guy or a bad guy. World building offers the added component of changing the setting. Harry Potter opens in the ordinary world and moves to the incredible, interactive setting of Hogwarts.
All the rich possibilities of an integral setting would overwhelm my sapphire. Backdrop setting however, works for a story that could take place anywhere with no affect on the action or characters—The Emperor’s New Clothes or Winnie the Pooh or Waiting for Godot. All simple stories with a central message.
My sapphire is universally appealing. It is timeless. This sapphire is like a moral tale. It has a simple message: beauty. That makes a backdrop setting my best choice. I’m not looking for vague and general like many backdrop settings. I want it to be a clear, simple setting that anchors the message and then fades gracefully away to let the stone shine. I bet I can find at least 10 of those. Now if only I can get an appointment with VanCleef and Arpels…
Janet and I co-write the Skylar Drake Mystery series and we’ve had people say to us, “I guess you proofread each other’s work.”
Both of us are intimately involved in the writing and initial editing, as such, we can get too close to it and sometimes miss big issues. That’s why we would never submit something for publication without the help of critique groups and/or beta readers to assist us.
What exactly, are we talking about? Maybe this will help.
Beta Readers are individuals who evaluate your manuscript by reading it through and telling you about flaws or holes in your story. Beta has come to mean a sort of testing phase and that is what a beta reader does. You have them read your work as a way of testing it for readability, and overall structure.
A Critique Group is made up of several people (usually writers, but sometimes includes readers) who meet together. You as an author, provide a short story or maybe a chapter from a novel for the group to read and critique.
Let me stop here—The very word ‘critique’ is based on the word criticism, and in our culture that word has taken on a negative connotation, since to criticize someone’s writing usually means to tear it apart. However, the dictionary definition of the word ‘critic’ indicates it is “someone who passes judgement on something, usually in reference to art and literature.”
That is a neutral statement…judgement can be either positive or negative, or a combination of both. So, it’s not, necessarily a bad thing.
This may all sound scary, especially to a beginning author. They’re taking your baby away from you and who knows what they will return in its place? Will your prose become something unrecognizable? After all the hours, days, and nights of sweat and deprivation…will they drop a piece of crap in your lap?
Here’s the truth: Having another set of eyes and an impartial opinion of your work-in-progress is an essential step if you are planning to self-publish, but it can also help you in the quest to secure an agent or publisher if your plan is to go the traditional route with your work.
“But it’s gonna hurt!” you say. Don’t look at it that was. This is where you have the power to accept or reject any suggestions or critiques of your work.
As a career graphic designer, I remember vividly, the first critiques in my college classes. We all posted our concepts on the wall of the classroom. The professor would walk back and forth, making “hmmph” and “umm” noises before turning and asking the rest of us in class what we thought of each piece. There were, of course, a variety of reactions to them.
As students, we’d take each into consideration. I didn’t always accept their suggestions, but I needed to hear and see it because I’d been too close to my work to be objective.
One of the things my professor said that I’ve carried over into my writing was when he would hold his hand over a portion of the drawing and ask, “Does this still work without this part?”
I found that eliminating nonessential pieces has helped streamline my work and make it read easier.
I needed to learn to accept constructive, positive critiques in either my designs or my writing, and discount those that were not pertinent or objective.
Letting others check your work-in-progress is a great way to improve your writing and make friends too. Your choice: Beta Readers or Critique groups or both. Find the right one for you.
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