Sunday, November 29, 2015

Gray I news and thanks

First of all, I want to thank everyone who read and liked the Gray series. For those of you who recommended it to a friend or reviewed it, an extra helping of thanks for helping it find more readers!

Gray III is drafted, I begin revisions tomorrow, it should be for sale in January (exact date depending on proofreader availability.)

This month, Gray I crested 10,000 sales and rentals at Amazon, and the only reason it did that was because of you, my wonderful readers. I firmly believe I have the smartest readers around, too--and not just because you like my writing! (grin) As I add people to the mailing list, I often see a little something about them, and you all are fascinating, with many of you being professionals, business owners, academics, world travelers. I'd love to have a party for you all. (Though all the airline tickets from Australia would break the bank, so I won't…)

Not as a direct result of reaching that number, but I'm going to be raising the price for Gray I from 99 cents tomorrow, December 1. (Tell a friend to grab it today!)

Even writers' eyes will glaze over at this rationale, but I'll explain the reason anyway. It has to do with using the most effective ad sites for books, which require a book be discounted, in addition to Amazon's requirements for when that can be discounted relative to the last price change, in addition to my planned release date for Gray III. Or, to be more concise, the price has to go up so it can go down for sales.

My tentative publishing schedule for 2016:
  • January - Gray III
  • April - Storm (a stand-alone disaster novel)
  • July - Crawl+ (2 novelettes bundled together)
  • Summer - Paperbacks of all novels
  • October - New Series Book I
  • December or January - New Series Book II

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Writers: whose craft do you admire?

Writers--no matter how skilled and successful they are now--are always trying to improve. They also love reading and, if you get them onto the topic, they can talk for hours about whose technique they admire. I asked a handful of my fellow authors this question:

What's a specific piece of the fiction-writing craft at which you can see another author doing well, and that you would like to imitate or perfect for your own writing?

Lynda Wilcox, writer of mysteries and children's books, said:

Writing traditional British whodunits, I yearn for the day when I can emulate my heroine, the great Agatha Christie, at writing pithy character description. While I would struggle with eye and hair colour, height, weight, and apparel, Mrs Christie disdains them all and gives us a vivid picture of the Countess Vera Rossakoff in one wonderful sentence:

"Without the least warning the door flew open and a whirlwind in human form invaded our privacy, bringing with her a swirl of sables (it was as cold as only an English June day can be) and a hat rampant with slaughtered ospreys." 

Amelia Smith, fantasy and historical fiction writer, cites complexity of plot as something she admires.
The example that jumped out at me was Connie Willis's two-book series, Blackout and All Clear. The books are about history students from the future who go back to WW II London and try to do their research without disrupting the time line... mostly. She weaves together multiple narratives and story lines so well, complete with jumps in time. I wish I could put together such a complex story so effectively.

Amy Corwin, author of historical romances and mysteries says,
Most of my novels include a mystery of some sort, even if it is a simplistic one. Author Christopher Fowler has really perfected mysteries with unusual events, strange historic details, and complex plots that seem to take crazy, unrelated clues and make them all mesh into a brilliant conclusion. I’m always working to make my mysteries richer and more complex, and I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the pinnacle Fowler has reached with his Bryant and May mysteries, but I certainly hope to give him a run for his money!" 

Writer of gay shifter romances Shelley Grayson says:
I struggle with setting and trying to create the right atmosphere for a scene, because it's easier for me to focus on dialogue and what's in a character's head. Both Stephen King and Robert McCammon are masters at grounding a scene in ordinary but specific details, so when the werewolves or killer clowns show up, the readers are hooked and willing to go along with it. I often reread passages from their books to absorb how they've done it and try to find a better balance in my own stories.

Romance writer Jessa Jacobs told me:
The areas I feel I could most improve at the moment would be humor and poetry of language. Selecting just the right combination of words to evoke an exact emotion in the reader is an exercise in patience, but I'm always working on it. Thinking back to the last book that absolutely shattered me, not only for the story but because I utterly despair of writing that well, I came up with author Jodi Picoult as someone to study. 

Fantasy writer Daniel Marvello has been impressed with a recent read:
Chasing Arizona by Ken Lamberton is similar in some ways to Bill Bryson's work (although not quite as humorous), and chronicles Lamberton's "year-long joyride through Arizona." Lamberton's book captivated me immediately due to the author's skilled use of language and, in particular, his powerful command of verbs. As a result, his words paint incredibly vivid images on the canvas of your mind. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some passages nearly brought tears to my eyes because they were so skillfully rendered.

Lamberton has already started influencing my own writing. I'm consciously trying to do better about using verbs in place of nouns and adjectives coupled with forms of "to be." The technique increases the sense of immediacy and movement and should improve the pace and clarity of my writing.

New writer of comedies and romances Victoria Leybourne says:
My heart belongs to the humorous writing styles of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse. With those guys, every paragraph - if not every sentence - is a neat, unpretentious little parcel of joy. They're consistently laugh-out-loud funny without appearing to really work at it. That's the dream for me!

Thank you to all of them for participating in this, the last of my posts this year on the writing craft, honoring NaNoWriMo.

Support indie authors and check out these writers' books at Amazon or your favorite e-book retailer. And jump in below, in comments, with your own answer to my question.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Revising and Editing: my process

Gustave Flaubert - Un Cœur simple (2001). Paris: Le livre de Poche (foto: Roger-Viollet)

I don’t mind editing so very much, but revision can be a chore. What's the difference between those two? I think of revision as "big stuff" and editing as "little stuff."

In revision, I might cross off pages and pages, rewrite scenes, rewrite the ending, decide a subplot went nowhere and expunge it, or radically change a secondary character's personality. I might spend three days looks at scene endings to search for the impetus for a reader to read the next scene, and if there isn't one, rewrite three or four paragraphs. These sorts of tasks can take several passes through a manuscript to fix, and sometimes require a month off between versions, so I can come back with a fresh eye to find and fix anachronistic remnants of the old version.

In revision, I look hard at issues of narrative voice, particularly if I have multiple narrators. Every narrator (and every frequent speaker of dialog, for that matter) needs to sound different from the others. Does this matter to readers? Possibly not consciously. But it matters to me. I want to get it right. So every narrator might have a pet phrase, sentence length, and diction that is discernibly different. I might give one "yes" and another "yup" and a third "sure" to say as affirmative answer to questions.

Toward the end of revision, I make a concerted effort to add a few smells and tastes, as I tend to rely in drafting too much on visual and auditory images. If I can, I take a few-week break after revision before digging in to the edits.

I begin editing with a series of 25 runs through "find" in my word processor. In drafting, when I'm typing lickety-split, I tend to use "just" and "only" too often. In editing, I erase 90% of them. I tend to make characters shrug and nod an awful lot. (I joke my first drafts all read as if I'm writing Bobblehead novels, the characters nod so much.) 90% of those must go. I look for uses of "there were" "there was" and "it was" to start independent clauses, and I try to find a more vivid way of saying that. ("There were clouds building in the west" might better be said, "A line of thunderstorms stretched across the western horizon, blocking out the last rays of the failing light.")

I manipulate sentence length and paragraph breaks to subtly alter pace. I print the novel out and mark it up. I enter changes, proofread twice more, and the novel gets proofed by two or three other people and then a pro proofreader. (And maddeningly, a few typos inevitably remain. They do in traditional novels, too.) And then I can turn it over to my Loyal Readers.

The goal of revision it to make it a page-turner of a tale, with believable characters you care about. The goal of editing is to make that tale go down easily as chocolate mousse. A writer once praised my work by saying, "It's like the words disappear into the page, and all I'm left with is the story." I hope that's still true, and I put a lot of effort into making it true. Too much effort? A lot of writers trying to make a living at writing indie genre fiction would say yes, I do. They advise me to crank out the book and let the first draft plus proofing stand. But I have to live with myself first of all, and I can't bear to do that.

On average, the work it takes me to write a natural disaster thriller assays out to about a 1:1:1:1:1 ratio--that's research to planning to drafting to revising to editing.  It might take 100 hours to research and 100 to plan a novel, 100 to draft, 100 to revise, and 100 to edit. Non-writers might only think about the 100 hours of drafting, and wonder why all writers don't put out a book each month. If I were the sort of writer who could work eight hours a day on writing alone, I might produce a novel every three months. As it is, with the necessary break between draft and revision, it takes me, in the best case scenario, six months from initial idea to final draft.

If I wrote contemporary, non-science-based novels, I could cut the research hours down by 2/3 or better. If I wrote historical fiction, I'd need to double the research time. Also, I'm the sort of writer who is burned out after two to four hours' creative work, which I do six to seven days each week. After that, I must turn to business matters, to connecting with writer friends on-line, or to tasks in the real world. (Writers, believe it or not, need to clean out their gutters and fix meals and phone their elderly aunts and do all sorts of chores every week, just like non-writers!) Or I might spend the rest of the day writing a blog post.

…like this one, which is now written. I hope you enjoyed it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Gray III is drafted

I'm still on track for a January release of Gray III. I'll be revising it in December and if all goes well, several proofreaders will look at it sequentially in January. Deranged Doctor Design has the cover finished for me:

If you want to be emailed at its release, just sign up in the form on this page (on most browsers/apps, it should be to your right.) You can also "follow" me at Amazon if you'd prefer and they will notify you about three days after its release.

Thanks so much for reading!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Is NaNoWriMo for you?

This post, of my series honoring NaNoWriMo, will talk (oddly enough) about risks to the writer of NaNo. I hope to encourage people who are just now starting to think that NaNo might not be working out for them that it's perfectly okay to think that. It doesn't make you a bad person or a bad writer to realize it's not for you. This won't, in other words, be the typical rah-rah, get-back-to-it blog post you might read elsewhere this week.
Wikimedia commons image + modification

National Novel Writing Month was a creation of Chris Baty, by all accounts a nice guy, from the San Francisco area. The goal is, commit to writing 50,000 first-draft words between November 1 and November 30. If you do that, you "win."

Tens of thousands of amateurs from around the world try to write their first novel and discover how difficult that is and give up, which to me seems an excellent result, even if it doesn't feel excellent to those people at the time. Learning something new about the world and yourself is never a bad thing, and learning how difficult writing a novel is might make you a more appreciative reader. It might not be a NaNo "win," but it's a personal win.

Other drafts from NaNo novels go on to be darned good books. Water for Elephants was a NaNo novel, as well as The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Night Circus, and probably hundreds of good indie novels that I can't name.

But let's be clear: it is not a wonderful experience for everyone who tries it. There are problems and pitfalls for both the amateur and professional writer.

For some first-timers, they cannot meet the goals and end up with confidence shaken, feeling miserable, depressed, and convinced they aren't and never will be writers. I wish they wouldn't feel that way (for all the good that wishing will do them). 500 words a day, on average, still will get you a novel draft in five months. Some people simply write best at that slower pace. Others have three kids and a full-time job, gutters to clean and snow to shovel, and the 40 minutes they carve out of every day to write 500 words is all they can spare. There's no shame in this (or shouldn't be), yet trying and failing to keep up with the NaNo pace does sometimes make people feel ashamed. It may even lose us some writers who would have gone on to write lovely books at a slower pace. That makes me sad. 1667 words per day is an arbitrary number. If you discover it's not your magical number, that's perfectly fine.

The NaNo system assumes that every writer would do best by quick-drafting, not editing or researching as he goes, and cleaning up a mess of a short draft only through multiple revisions later. But that's not every writer's ideal process. Some people do rewrite as they go. Some edit yesterday's words to start every new writing day. Back in the days of typewriters, several authors claimed not to take a page out of the machine until it was correct and final. Personally, I need to research as I go, in order for the scenes to form clearly in my mind's eye, and you may need to as well.

A newer writer, not yet knowing her own best patterns and habits, seeing that some people on the NaNo forums are claiming to write 250,000 words this month and 50,000 on day one, feeling peer pressure, might see anything less than 50,000 words in a month as a failure. And that's just silly. 35,000 words in a month is great! Do it again next month, and you have a complete novel draft--and possibly one closer to finished than the one you might have written by pushing for 50,000 in one month.

I suspect that most of the first novels written during NaNo are pretty far from done. If what is produced in a month of writing isn't at all good, if in fact it needs to be scrapped entirely, is there still any value to having written it? Yes. It teaches the value of self-discipline. For people who stick to the routine and write nearly every one of the 30 days, even the ones where they felt like doing anything else instead, they've learned what they'll need to be doing to become a professional writer. They've begun to establish good habits, and if they keep up those good habits, they've solidly placed themselves on the road to success.

For the already professional writer

Not every participant in NaNo in November has professional aspirations--at least not that they'll admit to. If they do, though, let's be frank: one month per year of work isn't going to do much for them. The exhaustion that most "winners" feel at the end of November is the exhaustion I have felt for the 17 of the 18 months I've been self-published, and most of my self-published friends feel the same--there's a steady, tough workload of writing/revising/proofing plus a list of non-writing chores that has the magical ability to grow by two every time you check off one.

A writing career is not one book, and one book published a year creates enough income to pay all the bills for only a few hundred lucky writers. In the world of indie writing, the common belief (and there is strong evidence that this is true) is that we must have four releases per year, most of those new novels, in order to earn a living wage. One rough draft in November is perhaps 1/24th of the work you'd need to hit this ideal self-publishing number. 50K in 30 days is good...but it may not be enough.

The professional might also find a problem with the rigidity of the attitudes at NaNo. You must begin on November 1. You must wait until then. Look, a writer is lucky if he has 25 good novels in him. Over a lifetime, you might lose some of those. A life crisis in the middle of one can derail it forever. Another may never come together as you'd like, no matter how many revisions you give it, eating up a couple years of effort for no measurable return. A third and fourth might be lost to a bad situation--loss of editor or merger or bankruptcy--in traditional publishing. A fifth you might throw away by stopping in the middle to do something else and never being able to regain the right mental state. So you're going to write only 20 of these good novels to completion. I recently saw a NaNo official tell someone who was excited to begin his novel the last week of October not to, because it was "against the rules." He wasn't looking to report the words as November words. He was just excited to start. I wanted to tear my hair out at this terrible, terrible advice. Worst advice ever!

Do you have professional aspirations? Then if you are desperate to begin on October 20, start the damned novel! Please! Inspiration and excitement are like free money lying on the street for a writer. If you don't grab it now, a brisk wind will come and snatch it away. Much of writing is hard. Not every day is a happy day. Pros show up and pound out their minimum words despite bad moods and the urge to do something--anything!--other than write. (Upon revision, you can't tell the good days' from the bad days' words, so you learn that "write anyway" is a most valuable lesson.) On those days when you are burning to write and can pound out 5,000 words without breaking a sweat? Do. Not. Give. Those. Up. Certainly don't give them up because it's freakin' October the 20th! Ack!

The point of NaNo for pros (or those aspiring to be professionals) is that it is--or should be--used in service of your writing career. Use NaNo if you like, but don't let it use you, or limit you, or toss you off your game. Get a solid eight hours sleep October 31. Get up and write (as you always do) your best number of words, whether that is 1000 or 3000 or 5000. If you already know you need one day each week away from your writing to feel your best, continue to take it off during November. If you're finishing a project you started in October and only have 40,000 words to finish, just finish the damned novel and forget about "winning" NaNo. If your outline is only half-baked on November 1, fully bake the thing and start the novel on November 15 instead.

For the professional writer, a NaNo win is a little like your award for perfect attendance in fourth grade that you threw away long before you went to university. Sure, it gave you a glow of pride for a moment when you were nine years old, but as an adult you realize that it has zero actual value.

A finished novel has value. But for some people, NaNo doesn't make getting to one easier.

Do understand: I like NaNo. It works for me this year. But I keep it in perspective. I was a traditionally-published writer before Chris Baty has his interesting idea in 1999. You could be a happy writer or a best-seller without ever having heard of it. It's just ... one thing. A game. A diversion. A chance to hang out with other writers. If it's painful or damaging for you, take care of your writer self and drop out without a gram of guilt or shame.

May my fellow writers out there all write novels to be proud of, this year and every year, any time they feel the urge.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My favorite books on the craft of writing

(In November, in honor of National Novel Writing Month, I blog about the craft of writing, as I seldom do the rest of the year. I hope you enjoy these posts.)

There are a number of books that, over the years, helped me learn to be a better fiction writer. Here are some of them.

Gary Provost, Make Every Word Count. There is perhaps no better book for the new fiction writer than this, and it applies to narrative non-fiction and article writing, too! Provost corrects many of the most common line-level errors that new writers make. He explains why to avoid said bookisms. He explains why active verbs are better than passive. He tells you to "Avoid cliches like the plague." All of this is done in a friendly, humorous style in short chapters. Sadly, Provost died young, but his advice is timeless.

Because many high school and college teachers assigned it, there are many copies used for a penny plus shipping at Amazon. If you're writing your first novel or series of short stories, get it!

Jack Bickham. Writing Novels That Sell. Bickham repeated much of the information in this book in several others, but I will always be fond of this one for its first chapter that demythologizes writing and always pumps me up to read. (To summarize. It's work. If you want to make a living at it, get down to work and quit yer whining.)

The best bits of it are Bickham's summary of his mentor, Dwight Swain's, concept of scene and sequel and motivation-reaction units. Surely some people are naturals at this sort of thing, but the analytical approach could make any writer understand how to make the scenes flow well and logically and to draw the reader inexorably forward.

Much of the information on the business end--typed manuscripts and so on--is well out of date, and who is left alive who remembers QB Slingin' Sammy Baugh on the field?, but the content is golden.

Dwight Swain. Techniques of the Selling Writer. After reading Bickham, I wanted to read the original, and I began my hunt for this book. At that time, it was out of print, and I finally happened upon it at a used book store while I was on the road. Yay!

If the Bickham is dated, this one is positively antediluvian. Confession magazines, action pulps, Colliers--all are fading now in the memories of the last elderly people to have seen them. And he has a charming belief that only women write confessions and romance and only men write action, but of course he was a product of his time (and there's not a drop of viciousness in him about this. Pretend he's your kindly grandpa and listen to his wisdom).

Here it all is in the original, MRUs, scene and sequel, in many more words. I prefer Bickham's briefer approach, but you have to give credit where it is due, and Swain is the originator. It's back in print now and easy to find.

My only living author in this list (and he's no spring chicken) is Robert McKee, the screenwriting instructor, for his Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting. To me, structure is both the most important part of a novel and the hardest to learn to craft. Someone led me to this not many years ago and I was shocked to find that it's screenwriters who really understand story structure, and yet in a way novelists can adapt and use.

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat is a rung on the ladder less than Story, I think, but it still had some useful advice for me and it influenced the structure of Gray II. Snyder also died young.

I've read two hundred more craft books than these over many years, and most had one bit in them I found useful. I am not one for "you go, girl!" type books or books that have you find your mystical inner child writer or half-autobiographical books. I prefer specific advice that you can immediately take action on to improve your novels and stories, and these five books are, imo, top examples of those sorts of books.