Archive for March, 2010

26
Mar
10

Author Toolbox: The Knife Test

This is the first of what I hope will be an informative series on the author toolbox. The little mental story tricks I use when I write to help achieve desired effects.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The knife test is something I put to all my characters. Nerd that I am, the idea comes from an anime called One Piece, which is just about the greatest show ever. If you can get past its cartoony nature and corny humor there is an amazing story there.

So, in the show there’s a character named Zoro who wants to be the greatest swordsman in the world. Around the end of season one, he comes across the actual greatest swordsman in the world, a man named Mihawk. Now, Zoro KNOWS he is too short for this ride, but he knows he might never get this chance again, so he challenges Mihawk to a duel. (Because, of course, the only way to be the greatest swordsman in the world is to beat the guy who’s already at the top.)

Mihawk refuses at first, but then he sees how determined Zoro is, so he agrees to fight, but only with a small dagger. Zoro is insulted, you’re going to fight swords with a dagger? Mihawk says the dagger is all he needs. They fight, and Zoro goes all out, but is defeated in one stroke. Mihawk stops with his tiny dagger lodged in Zoro’s chest. After the strike, they stand there, Mihawk’s dagger in Zoro’s chest, and Mihawk says,  “This dagger is an inch from your heart. Why don’t you step back? Do you want to die?”

Zoro looks him straight in the eye and says, “If I were to take even one step back, I’d never be able to stand before you again.”

Mihawk says, “Yes, it’s called losing.”

And Zoro answers, “That’s why I can’t step back.”

That’s the knife test. When the knife is scraping your heart and you can either step back, give up, and live, or step forward, not give up, not turn away from your goals, and probably die, what do you do? It’s the ultimate test of conviction, and all my main characters have to pass it, and I have to understand (and more importantly, make the reader understand) why. I put my characters through this test in the initial world building stages, and then again over and over throughout the novel. I keep making them prove that they mean what they say. Because it’s not enough for Miranda to be dutiful, she has to prove that she will put herself on the line for her duty over and over in a dozen different ways. She has to face that dagger over and over again, and always give the same answer, always step forward.

I admire conviction, I think everyone does, and I love it in characters, both the ones I write and the ones I look for in other stories. The knife test gives me a vehicle to show off that conviction. I don’t just say “Character X cares about Y more than his life”,  I make him prove it over and over again.  Though, of course, I try not to actually kill the character, because then the story would be over! But it doesn’t really matter. We all know the hero isn’t going to actually die, but we love seeing how close he or she cuts it and, even better, how on earth they’re ever going to get out of this mess. The knife test is just a tool, a mental construct to help frame tension needed for character development.

Every writer has their own tricks, this is one of mine. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting!

22
Mar
10

What’s in a name?

I spent this past weekend at Luncaon and had a blast.  One of my panels was “What’s in a Name.”  In fantasy, magical power is often attached to the name of a person or thing (we talked about Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books as an example). As writers, what names do we choose, and what do those choices reveal about the world we’re writing about?

Here are some thoughts from the panelists, me and Neal Levin, Barc Bilgrey, and Jeff Lyman.  Have a great week!

Character Names
*both first names and last names have meaning
*practical tip: use different-sounding names to delineate characters (for example, how will readers keep Noel, Niall, and Nell apart?  Better to use Noel, Bastien, and Yves)
*baby naming books are good sources for names, their origin, and their meaning
*books and websites about genealogy may reveal information about the meaning and origins of last names
*characters’ nicknames reveal character in a different way
*the names you choose may reflect the kind of story you are telling (romantic names in a romantic book; funny names in a funny book, etc)
*the musicality of a character’s name can resonate or conflict with a name’s meaning or the character’s defining traits
Titles
*convey essential information about the work
*just like naming a baby, the title will come easily for some books and take a lot of consideration for others
*in a series, it is important to link one book title to another in some way.  Like a book’s cover, related titles help signal to a potential reader that the books in a series are linked
*don’t get too attached to a book’s title.  Publishers will often change a book’s title before publication; a title is a crucial marketing hook, and signals to readers what kind of story is behind the name.

19
Mar
10

the 7 habits of highly effective authors

First off: finished my third contracted book! BOO YA!

Many years ago, my grandfather gave my then boyfriend, now husband, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. At first we had a good laugh. My grandfather has a habit of giving books out randomly in a “I just finished this and I liked it, here you have it” sort of way. Actually, it’s a pretty awesome thing to do, but at the time it struck us both as sort of weird. However, my husband (then boyfriend) now looks on that book as the greatest present he ever received. It was dropped into his hands at just the right moment in his life, towards the end of college with real life looming on the horizon. It changed the way he thought about life, and thought I’ve never read it (I have a certain aversion to self help books) I might as well have considering how much my husband quotes it.

I’m not going to into all the habits, but there’s one that I keep going back to over and over again, that the promises we make to ourselves are just as important as the promises we make to others.

As writers, we tend to work in bubbles. Deadlines, when we have them, are distant, all or nothing sorts of things that have very little to do with the words we’re actually writing or editing or crying over that day. Even once you land that mythical publishing contract, most authors are left to fend for themselves during the day to day writing struggles. This means managing your own time, and it is a bear. Over the six odd years I’ve been seriously writing, I’ve set thousands of  self imposed deadlines, and missed nearly as many, especially for my first book. What did it matter, anyways? It’s not like anyone knew that I’d missed my deadline but me.

But as time went on and my time began to fritter away, my husband’s repetition of this little phrase from a self help book kept coming back. Eventually, I began to understand that if I was ever going to have the kind of writing career I’d imagined, I would have to start taking myself, and my self-imposed deadlines, seriously.

The first thing I did was cut waaaay back on the number of deadlines I set, especially the arbitrary, unrealistic ones I knew I couldn’t make. Then I picked 3 deadlines I felt I could realistically make, and set these in stone in my calendar. I treated them as I would deadlines for my day job where there were real consequences, and real stigma, for missing milestones. I made a solemn promise to myself that I would keep these deadlines, even if it meant working more than I’d anticipated or missing something fun because my time was already promised. I would write, I would make these deadlines. And I did.

Sure, I still missed a few, and I made myself pay for that with extra work rather than playing like I wanted to. Then I went back and looked at why I’d missed that deadline, making notes so that I could set the next one more intelligently.

It seems like every writer and agent blog tells you that if you want to be a professional writer, you have to treat your writing professionally.  This is much harder than just keeping a schedule. This is keeping your schedule when your book is an unfixable mess and it’s spring time and real life is busy and there are new raids in WOW and the internet is interesting and no one will ever know if you blow off writing and watch Hoarders.

Make promises to yourself, and keep them. Never treat your writing time like free time. It’s your great dream, if you won’t live it, no one will help you. Never make excuses, never let anyone take it away from you.

18
Mar
10

Unofficial CP appreciation day

As many of you already know, I have a very fast approaching deadline looming on the horizon, and I’ll admit, until an alert showed up on my phone telling me I was supposed to blog today, I completely forgot. That said, I prepared no topic for today’s post and I don’t have a lot of time to think up anything clever. So . . . I am declaring it Unofficial Critique Partner Appreciation Day and I’m going to gush on my awesome CPs who put up with me and my madness.

So, what does a good CP (or group of CPs) do for a writer? (And what makes my girls over at the Modern Myth Makers so awesome?)

    A good critique partner is honest and objective. A CP should never maliciously tear into a writers work, but a good CP honestly evaluates the work and lets the writer know what is and isn’t working. Not everything should earn a pat on the head and a smiley face (though those are appreciated when warranted) because no matter how good a manuscript, there is bound to be something the writer is just too close to see. I rely on my CPs to look for too convenient situations, faulty logic, and other things I just can’t see after reading over my own words an umpteen number of times. I distinctly remember a CP once telling me, “If she doesn’t figure out BIG SECRET soon, I’m going to strangle her.” Opps, guess I wasn’t being very subtle with that secret, and that was exactly what I needed to know.
    -A good CP can differentiate his or her own preferences from you work. There is nothing worse than someone trying to push their own agenda into your words. Everyone is going to bring their own bias to what they read, and that’s fine, but if you end up in a situation where your CP is making suggestions that would turn your work into something you don’t even recognize, you might consider running. Fast. I am very fortunate to have (finally) found the group I currently work with. We all love eachother’s work, and while loving a character means we might *hope* certain things happen, there is no pressure. We are also all willing to sit down and brainstorm, throwing out dozens of (often contradicting) ideas and are all confident enough in our work to use only what resonates.
    -A good CP respects your voice. Voice is a word thrown around a lot in writing. It seems that agents and editors are buying ‘voices’ these days as much as they are buying the plot of the story. But a voice can be a very delicate thing. Voice is more than what words you choose, but also the order you use them and the punctuation you accent them with. When all the work coming out of a critique group all starts to ‘sound’ the same, you know something has gone eschew.
    -A good CP cheers you on. Okay, this one is actually a little controversial. Some people will suggest that you never under any circumstance develop more than a business relationship with your critique partners. The reason for this being that it is easier to be objective with someone who you are not emotionally tangled. I think this is ridiculous, but then, I’m an extremely blunt person and expect the same from my friends. I would never tell a stranger she looked fat in a dress, but you better believe I’d tell a friend (nicely, of course) and expect the same from her. This works the same with my writing–I want my writing to be the best it came be when it heads out into the world, so I rely on my CPs to point out the faults before anyone else gets a chance see them (see point one in this list). Depending on your personality and the relationship you build with your cp, this may be very different for you, but for me, I think CPs are the best cheerleaders. My CPs are just as excited about my successes as I am: they are there holding their breaths with me while I’m waiting to hear about a deal, they have their fingers crossed when I tuck an MS in the mail, and they celebrate with me when I first hold a printed copy of my book in my hands. They also console me when the rejections come in or when the bad reviews show up–then they make me start writing again.

This list could go on a little longer, but I have to get back to work now (or those CPs of mine might track me down.) So I’ll just close by saying Thank You all of you out there who are amazing critique partners, and for those of you out there who are writers but have not yet connected with a CP, here are a couple suggestions where to find one:
-Local writing organizations. Many libraries host writing groups, so keep your eyes open on local areas where writers might congregate.
-National writing organizations. Most genres have their own national chapters, which typically break down into local chapters. Look into organizations such as RWA, MWA, and SFWA (you can’t actually join SFWA until after your first sale, but the others allow anyone who is serious about writing join. I don’t write romance, but since my novels include romantic elements, I have been a member of RWA for several years and have met many wonderful writers in that time.)
-Online communities. I’m not that familiar with any of these, but I know there are several communities on the web designed for writers to post their work and receive critiques.
-NaNoWriMo (you knew I had to work this one in there somewhere.) I actually met all of my CPs over the course of several years of participating in NaNo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month and occurs every November.

If you are out looking for a cp, know that not everyone you team up with will be the perfect fit and you might have to try several CPs or groups before you find one that will really help your writing grow, but once you find one, a good CP is indispensable.

Happy unofficial critique partner appreciation day everyone!

16
Mar
10

The perils of the 3:15 muse wake-up call

If you’re a writer, it’s happened to you — you work on your book until late, you finally get into bed, and between 3-4:00 in the morning you wake up. Or to be more exact, your muse wakes you up, or that pessimistic voice in your head that you can control during daylight hours. And worst of all, sometimes your muse and that pessimistic voice are one and the same.

I’ve been getting both types of visits for the past few weeks. It’s normal for me when I’m finishing a book. With about seven chapters to go, my muse kicks me awake. I want to go back to sleep; she wants me to start on the revisions: wrap my head around the whole book, find the weaknesses, faulty spots — basically the good, the bad, and the ugly. And once you think that one book-related thought, she’s won. I know I won’t get back to sleep until an hour or less before my alarm goes off at 5:45. (Yep, I’m at my desk at my day job at 7:30.)

Thinking about book revisions at 3:15 is annoying, but it’s okay. It’s constructive. But when my muse has stayed at the “muse bar” until well after last call, and has had a few too many — that 3:15 visit isn’t from a my muse “the helpful writing partner”; it’s the Anti-Muse — cranky, hyper-critical, destructive. Those are the middle-of-the-night wake-up calls when my first thought is of every dark nook, cranny, and problem with the book — the beginning is wrong, the middle is a quagmire, and the ending. . .well, the ending simply sucks.

Don’t listen to the Anti-Muse. Yes, there may be (okay, probably are) some problems with the book, but they’re not nearly as bad as the Anti-Muse makes them out to be; in fact, they’re probably pretty minor. But at 3:15, my defenses aren’t up, and the Anti-Muse gets in. I’ve learned that what she tells me are just drunken ramblings, and when the sun comes up, rational thought returns.

12
Mar
10

The paradox of diminishing competency

You know, I’ve sold over 30 short stories to great publications, have a duology coming out soon from a well-respected New York publisher, and achieved a small degree of recognition and critical success. And yet, for some reason, I’ve never felt less competent as a writer. It feels like the work has gotten exponentially harder and the words I put on the page exponentially more sucky.

As you might imagine, this is very frustrating.

So I’ve been paying close attention to what more experienced writers have to say on this subject. Elizabeth Bear recently posted in her blog about how she’s becoming more comfortable with looser first drafts, pointing toward sentences like:

The old ways–the old respect–it might no longer be enforced with terror, but enough of it lingered that he did not entirely [blah blah blah he holds out some creepy droit de seignure hope for humanity].

Of this approach to drafting, she goes on to say:

Yeah, I’ll figure it out later. Apparently, as I get more comfortable with this professional writer on closed course thing, I also embrace It’s a draft it can suck with absolutely preternatural enthusiasm.

I really admire that attitude, so I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my own work. It’s definitely helped from increased-words-on-the-page point, but it also has its drawbacks. I find that it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the project when you’re not particularly excited about what you’ve already written. For me, it’s always been the excitement of having written a good beginning that drives me to completion. Changing the motivational driver to how good the piece will be … well, that requires a lot more faith than I currently have, and may be a more advanced trick than I’m ready for.

Anyway, I’m interested in all y’all’s experience. Tell me about your periods of extreme suckitude. Looking back, did they turn out to periods where your writing *actually* sucked—as the result of, say, creative staleness? Or were they periods when you *perceived* an increase in suckage simply because you’d learned to be a sharper critic of your own work? And most importantly, what strategies did you use to move forward?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. As far as me goes, I intend to go eat some pie. There’s nothing more inspiring than pie.

P.S. If you like that graphic above, it’s available for sale from Cafe Press on a coaster, button, teddy bear, apron, notebook … all sorts of things, really! See, I don’t gank images, I market them.

09
Mar
10

Serial narratives

I’ve been working on some short fiction lately, taking advantage of the gap between manuscript submission and incoming edits to explore a few smaller ideas.  And, as is usually the case, when I’m working on something short I start trying to figure out how to handle a much longer story.  Something about the restrictions of the form automatically makes me look outside it at other models.

I’m not talking about novels.  Novels give you a lot more freedom in some ways: you have breathing space to add a few digressions or asides, you can develop more characters than the few who surface in a short story, and yet there’s an expectation that the main plot threads will at least be tied off by the end of it, the heroes riding off into the sunset/nuclear explosion or however you end it.

What I’m talking about is serial fiction, in any number of formats.  Think TV shows with season-spanning story arcs.  Long-running comics or manga.  And yes, multi-volume series of novels as well, though those tend to add another level of complexity.

There are certain stories that just don’t seem to fit in the mental space I’ve laid out for novels.  Sometimes it’s a matter of time — events over decades, or centuries, particularly if the generation of characters changes with it — sometimes it’s space, sometimes it’s just scope.  Serial fiction seems to offer a way around that: you build the world and the work piece by piece, each story separate but creating a larger picture.  There’s something about that that both intrigues and worries me, since it seems like matters could go off the rails at any moment.

(I admit part of the reason I’m thinking about this is that I’m watching the last season of Lost (wtf?  just wtf?  more wtf!) and, as a friend pointed out, this is a pretty singular experiment.  Lost is an incredibly expensive show, and the odds of seeing something like it again are unlikely even without knowing whether it’ll pull off the multi-season arc.  Yes, we’ll probably see more shows with season-long arcs, but something on this scale may be a one-time thing.  (Of course, I’m saying that after HBO’s given the green light to A Song of Ice and Fire, and yeah, that’s even more complex, so we’ll see whether that keeps going.  Hope so.)  But part of the reason Lost worked so well is that for every question it answered, it added three more.  That’s something you can’t do easily in a short story form, or even in novel form (unless you’re very, very good at balancing reader expectations).  )

When working on the Evie books, I didn’t think of them as a long serial, though I’d tossed around the possibility of writing more after the third.  But I still found myself dropping in ideas — sometimes without really noticing them the first time through — that would be useful if I decided to pick them up later on.  The Unbound Book, for example, or Woodfin’s traveling ministry, or the shadowcatchers.  But I still found myself worrying that these would be more of a distraction than anything else.  (One of my early readers used to pick up on throwaway lines I’d added to a story for verisimilitude and demand to know more about them.  At first I got irritated with her for focusing on the wrong thing; later I realized that if one line was more interesting than the rest of the story, I was doing something wrong.)

What is it about long-running serial fiction that’s such a draw?  (Or is it a draw at all, for you?)  Are there ways in which the depth of detail in such a work can be off-putting, rather than immersive?  Is it better just to follow a world through standalone pieces, or does there need to be some underlying connection?  And, just for the hell of it, what are some of your favorite serial works?