Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Value of Software for Writers

I admit it, I'm a gadget-a-holic. Maybe it's because my day job deals with computers, or maybe my day job deals with computers because I like gadgets, but I do like gadgets. I like all the latest little cell phones, Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), handhelds, laptops, desktops, and so on. If I had an unlimited budget, I'd probably have to buy one of those steel buildings for all the gadgets.

And along with gadgets I love software. I buy all kinds of software which I ultimately don't use, but wanted to play with anyway, and that's what this article is about. Unless you are fabulously rich thanks to all those bestsellers you have published, I actually have one piece of advice: don't buy software for writers.

Sounds odd, doesn' it? Particularly since I just bought ANOTHER package today, and I quite like it. However, in point of fact, other than giving me another excuse to mess around with something and avoid editing the paranormal manuscript I have sitting here needing to be edited, most writing software really is just a waste of time and money.

Sort of.
But not really.
Well, no, really. Most writing software is just a way for you to give your money to someone else.

Here's the long and short of it: writing software just gives you a framework for you to fill in your story information. Sadly, you still have to write and edit your story. So you can save your money and create your own story framework with the questions you need for your story, in whatever word processor or other software you already have. You don't need the software to do that.

If that is the case, why do I continue to buy writing software? Oh, I don't know. Actually, I do know. It's because I keep hoping the software will be the magic bullet. If I fill out all the little blanks, the light will go on, the heavens will break open, angels will appear, I'll write a brilliant manuscript, and I will be published.

This will never happen.
If I manage to write a brilliant manuscript, it is because I put in the work and sweat to improve my skills and actually write a brilliant manuscript. Whether it gets published or not is an entirely different matter and in no way relates to the use or purchase of any software.

Software might help, however.
Oh, NO! Aren't I contradicting myself? Didn't I just laboriously go over in excrutiating detail how software will not create a brilliant manuscript for you? Yes, I did. However, there is always a flip side and this is why writing software continues to sell and continues to be written about in writing magazines (and blogs).

I doubt writing software will be of much use or relevance to authors who are already published. They know what they are doing, they are doing it, and they are doing it well (or at least well enough).

However, if you are just starting out and having problems, and you really, really like messing with software, you might think about writing software. I still think it may be a waste of time and you would be better of going to some classes and getting character/story grids such as those from the Creating Story Magic classes, however...

  • So, you have some disposable income and you like software.
  • You are writing, but unable to get anything published. You seem to be having problems with character developement, and getting all the story elements in place.
  • You're not sure what the story elements are that you should be getting into place.
  • You have problems organizing things and just need some kind of framework
Given those factors, you might consider writing software. You see writing software does offer a few advantages. If you use it, it will force you to learn all about those nasty little things such as: turning points, conflicts, who is in what scene and why, does the scene increase or resolve the conflict or is it useless? Things like that.

Those "things" can be pretty handy things to learn about. Software will force discipline into your story magic-making process and help you realize why you may have a sagging middle (the scenes don't increase/resolve any conflicts) or where you have gone astray. However, you will have to use the software in order to learn what it has to offer.

Then, once you learn it, you pretty much stop using the software because you don't need it anymore. Entering all the story details you have to enter gets to be a major pain in the patootie and after a few stories, I can almost gaurantee that you will stop using whatever software you are using and just do it with a simplier grid or two in your wordprocessor, and then go on and write your story. Or use index cards. Or a scroll (that's what I do). Or whatever.

Software can be a data entry nightmare, but it will teach you what the critical story elements are, how to identify them, and how to put them together. If you can stand it.

Software also has a very steep learning curve.

Now, since you've come this far, I have the following information for you. I've used the following software and here are my comments. Take them for what they are worth.

Power Structure
Very expensive and a very high learning curve. However, this is the product that will teach you (through blunt force trauma--or so it feels) how to avoid a sagging middle. It makes you enter WHY you have each scene and what it does for the story. You can plot the escalating tension and/or see if you don't have any escalating tension. It will teach you the elements of a story, broken down in three parts (3 acts). You can create plot points (even color coded) broken into chapters. You can document everything there is to know about your characters PLUS what their journey through your story is, where they start out and where they end up. What they learn along the way. The hero's journey as well as the traditional characters that help or impede the hero's progress.

Technical note: After using it for a while, it started locking up on me. Data entry also got to be a major pain in the patootie. It was hard to copy or include characters from one manuscript into another, and since I often have "continuing" characters, this was a problem for me.

Power Writer
This is the baby sister of Power Structure. It is easier to use with less of a learning curve, but what you will not get is the disciplined approach to "does this plot point/scene really add to the story and escalating tension or is it a waste of time" kind of help. It is less expensive. Because it is easier to use, you may use it longer than you would use Power STructure, but since all these products are crutches, eventually, you will probably find you don't use any of them because you have internalized what they have to offer.

Power Tracker
I bought this to track submissions because I didn't want to develop my own database.
This is really for screen writers. It has a database of contacts for movie producers and the like and it is IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of all this junk if you are not interested in writing screen plays. It was moderately expensive (under $100) but like Power Structure, after a while, it started locking up on me. I grew so annoyed with the built-in database of contacts I didn't care about that, I finally wrote my own database to track my submissions. Then I got an agent and I no longer worry about tracking submissions. She does that.

So, if you are not writing screen plays, I would not purchase this. Just track your submissions in a spreadsheet or document or database or whatever, but this is way overkill. Besides having pre-populated junk that you might not want. And it finally crashed on me and wouldn't come back up, so good riddance.

Anthemion's Writer's Cafe
Okay, this is sort of like a much cheaper and easier to use version of Power Structure. I just bought it today (I told you I have this addiction, didn't I?). It's under $50 U.S. It really is cute. It doesn't force you to learn all the elements of a story (3 Act structure, escalating tension, etc) the way Power Structure does, but it is very well organized so the learning curve isn't so steep. It's got places for a Journal, Notebook, Scraps and Storylines. You can even keep track of web sites and pictures. Within the Storyline part, you can create your character sketches and you enter your plotlines with little scenes/plot points for each plotline. This is similar to PowerStructure, but it does not force you to identify how this relates to the tension you are trying to create. This simplicity, then, is both good and bad. It is good because there is less data entry and it is quicker to just develop your story idea and go one.

In many ways, Writer's Cafe and Power Writer are very similar products.

However, since you don't really need software specifically to write up character bios and an outline of your plot, well... That's the problem. PowerStructure is triple the price and harder to use, but it will force you to identify all the necessary and critical story elements so that you will learn where you may be going wrong. You will learn discipline. You will not be so disciplined with Writer's Cafe, nor will you learn anything about the 3-act structure, escalating tensions, hero's journey, and so on. But it's more fun and easier to use. It's more likely that you will continue to use it. We'll see if I have the same kinds of technical problems when I've plotted out a couple of manuscripts in it.

So, those are the products I have played with.

So, my final conclusion is that most software for writers is just a way to give your money to someone else. None of them do things you couldn't do yourself, fairly easily with a few wordprocessing documents and a regular folder structure on your computer. I have a master folder for a project and then within that I have subfolders for:
  • Communications (e.g. letters to agents, etc)
  • Contests (if I submit it to any contests)
  • Critiques, with subfolders for source chapters and assimilated critiques
  • Reference material
  • Synopses
  • Background (character sketches, etc)

I save off web pages and any information I scan or use in my book in the reference material folder. The other folders are self-explanatory (I hope). All of these folders contain what these software products try to make you enter in them.

I'm seeing if I find any lasting value in Writer's Cafe. I actually bought it because I do the National Novel Writing Month challenge each year, to write a 50,000 word novel in one month, and I find that I can only write 50,000 words in a month if I have the manuscript plotted out, first. So, I'm thinking this software may be a conveniant way to do that.

However, you should see from that, that I am no longer looking for software to "improve my writing." PowerStructure taught me the elements I needed to know, as well as teaching me that software cannot write a novel for you. It was an expensive lesson.

These days, I'm just looking for organization. Of any kind.

And of course, to feed my software addiction.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Who me? Artistic Integrity?

You know, I never figured I actually had any artistic integrity, because I figured I would do whatever it took to publish my manuscripts, but I'm finding out this isn't exactly true. I'm still waiting for a contract from Cerridwen Press, who I hope will publish my first Regency romance, so I'm making a lot of assumptions such as thinking they might also publish some of my other manuscripts.

However, during the last few days I've realized that even if they don't, I will get my manuscripts published, one way or the other. Not the horrible first ones I wrote, but the ones which are good.

And you know what? I don't care if they aren't published by a big publishing house, or if they never come out in paperback or hardcover. I don't care if I can't talk about my published work in our Christmas letter this year or any other year. Somehow, I've discovered I actually have artistic integrity. I'm not willing to write purple prose to get published. While it may be true that my writing isn't great or maybe even good, I refuse to write the kind of schlock I despise, just because it is what seems to get published.

That is another interesting conclusion I've come to over the last few days. I've been scanning other blogs by romance writers and reading their articles about adding sensual elements and writing love scenes, and I'm combing through their examples and what do I find? That the examples I like are the ones which these countless other authors use as the "bad" writing lacking in sensual elements. I've discovered I like a lean style without a lot of throbbing members and heaving breasts and flashing green eyes. I don't like the flowery, sensual love scenes. They annoy the heck out of me. Maybe if they were a little more sweaty and realistic they wouldn't be so bad--in fact I've read a few which aren't so bad--except all the other romance authors use THOSE as examples of what to avoid doing.

Anyway, this has all rather been a shock to me because I've been trying to write romance novels. I've been a member of the Romance Writers of America since its inception over 20 years ago. I like happy endings where the hero and heroine are together and there is the hope (fantasy though it may be) of a bright future together. But I don't like the style of writing most associated with this genre. I like styles more associated with science fiction and mysteries, which has lead me down some very tortuous paths of late.

All the advice to "write the novel of your heart" makes me gag (do I have a heart?) but much as I hate to admit it, I think this is sage advice. Maybe not "of your heart" but a story that you would like to read. Unfortunately, that is where artistic integrity comes into play, because you may find that the novel of your heart does not fit within the current marketing schemes of the big houses.

Or you could be lucky and your work may fit just fine and you'll be published, in which case, get the hell out of here and leave me alone. Sorry. I digress.

You know what? When I finally faced this fact, and found an e-publisher who might be interested in publishing what I write, just the way I write it, I discovered that I no longer cared if I couldn't play in the same field as the big boys. Yes, e-publishers are not the same as traditional publishers. Yes, they do not have the best of reputations. Yes, a lot of what they publish is pretty awful and it's pretty obvious why a "real publisher" did not elect to publish the manuscript. Yes, they do not pay beans and you're lucky if you make $300. Yes, you may not be "qualified" in some writers organizations to be listed as a published author. Yes, you probably aren't really a published author, because you're more like a self-published author who managed to get someone else to add his or her manuscript to their webpage and charge people for downloading it.

Yes, yes, yes. Yes, I know I somehow didn't measure up.

So what.
Because what I've realized is that a tremendous weight has been lifted from my soul when I decided to stop trying to write things the traditional publishers might want. For the first time, I'm thinking I'm going to write things I WANT to write. I'm going to write all those stories burning in the back of my mind that I had put off because I knew the traditional publishers wouldn't be interested in them. If I can't even get an e-publisher interested, that's fine, too. I can publish them myself through my website. Pretty much anyone can get a copyright and be their own e-publisher if they want to badly enough.

I want to write romantic mysteries set during the Regency period. I want to develop my Regency world around the Second Sons Inquiry Agency (Discreet Inquiries) and let the Archer family go as nuts as they want. I want my stories to be funny and twisted, and I want the romance to develop naturally without a lot of heaving bosoms and stiff man-roots. I really don't care if the Regency Historical has turned into a genre that spends more time on getting characters into bed than on the story--I don't want to read that, and I'm not going to write it. I stopped reading Regencies after gothics, Heyer, Coffman, and the traditional Regencies bit the dust.

My manuscripts are going to have (and do have) sudden twists, even improbable escapades, because I want them to be amusing, fresh and fun. Some may even be sad or touch on difficult subjects, such as The Left-Handed Wife, which involves the sad death of a gay man trying to disguise his sexual orientation during the Regency period through a very public involvement with a young woman, who is unjustly accused of his murder.

Scary though it may be, I've discovered I do have artistic integrity, after all.
Perish the thought.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane: Don't be Daft

Writers really have to be careful in developing their stories. I'm going to give some fine examples. Really fine.

First...Snakes on a Plane.
Doesn't anyone remember basic biology?
Samuel L. Jackson is one of my very favorite actors, but this latest fiasco in filmmaking has me a little perturbed due to a severly flawed premise. How could he participate in such an abomination?

No author is perfect and none of our artistic efforts are perfect, but writers owe it to their audiences to at least give it the old college try.

So...Snakes on a Plane. Sadly, this premise is flawed from the get-go. The problem can't actually be a problem, unless you're like...daft.

Humans are warmblooded.
Reptiles, which includes snakes, are coldblooded.
It's cold at 33,000 feet.

Ergo, turn off the heat in the plane for a few minutes.
Problem solved.
Humans, being warmblooded, will whine and shiver, but remain active when the temperature drops. Snakes, being coldblooded, will become inactive. Planes shunt engine heat into the cabin because it's darn cold in the air, particularly at 33,000 feet. If you turn off the heat, you can then stroll through the plane at your leisure, picking up limp, rubbery, semi-comatose snakes and do whatever it is you want to do with them. Then, when you're done, turn the heat back on.

You're done.
There's no actual story here, other than the fact that everyone involved with this movie appears to be suffering from some kind of serious brain damage because no one appears to know what it means to be coldblooded versus warmblooded. They don't know what snakes are.

The writers appear to be cheerfully clueless.

This movie illustrates a bad premise.
This is just one problem a writer must contend with. Another is character incoherance. Not incoherant dialogue, but character actions, traits, dialogue or other characteristics that don't make sense for the type of character you are creating.

I ran into this recently in a book that I really wanted to love. It is a major bestseller and has a thrilling premise. Besides, I know and like the author. The problem is, the heroine's character is hopelessly incoherant in the first chapter. The behavior of the character is so flawed that it shattered my ability to like her at all. In fact, my only hope is that she "buys the farm" later in the book. I know she won't, but I'm hoping at least for serious injury.

This heroine is an ex-FBI agent and has been around guns most of her life. If this was a coherently drawn character, she would have her gun safety rules so ingrained in her psyche that she would do things like unload and break open a gun before handing it to someone. She would never in a million years point a loaded weapon at anyone. (I'm around law enforcement people all the time, as well as having my own concealed carry permit, and I've noticed how people, even "civilians" in even a casual situation such as looking over unloaded guns in a pawn shop handle the weapons. They hand them to each other broken open and never point them at anyone.)

You don't point a weapon, loaded or not, at anyone unless you mean to use it.

So, in the first chapter of this book, a friend of the heroine's has hired a bodyguard for the heroine. When the bodyguard arrives, the heroine is in her den. The bodyguard, the friend, and the bodyguard's assistant walk down the hallway to the den, knock, and open the door.

The heroine points a loaded weapon at them.

Now, she knew who opened the door. She knew her friend was out there, along with this bodyguard and his assistant. The heroine had plenty of firearms training and yet she aimed a loaded weapon at an open doorway where she knows her friend and two innocent people are standing.

This character is seriously broken at this point. She's incoherant. She cannot be an ex-FBI agent and act like this--I just can't believe it would happen.

But wait! There's more!

I didn't tell you that before the bodyguard opens the door, they hear the heroine giggling to herself and loading her weapon.

Now, I ask you, does that sound like something a heroine--a character you are supposed to sympathize with--should do?

The only characters I know that laugh insanely to themselves, load weapons and point them at their friends are wacko nutjobs or people with a major substance abuse problem.

The best thing that could have happened at this point would have been if the writer had the hero--upon seeing the loaded weapon pointed at him--had whipped out his own gun and shot her right between the eyes. Then we could have gotten a new, and potentially more coherant, heroine. The hero could have claimed self-defense and given the insane laughter and loaded gun pointed at him, I'm sure any court in the land would have found him completely innocent.

This heroine needs to go. She makes me want to tear off her arm and beat her senseless with it.

Now, lest you think that I'm perfect, or think I'm perfect, that is not the case. My brain short-circuited the other day and I wrote that Mercury was the sun god. Clearly, this is not the case, and I knew this. However, for some reason, my brain didn't note the error and it kept slipping through my edits. Fortunately, I sent my manuscript in to a contest, and the judges astutely pointed out that Mercury is not the sun god, he's a messenger for the gods. The judges indicated that Apollo is the sun god, which in actual fact, is not precisely true, either. The actual, original Greek sun god was Helios, but somehow, over time, Apollo got mixed up with Helios and folks forgot that Apollo was actually the god of other things, but not the sun.

Anyway, that's just one mistake I've made. There are plenty of others and I'll make plenty of others in the future. That's why it is so critically important to have other people check out your work.

Errors stop a reader cold and they will rarely continue once stopped. They may also avoid your books in the future, figuring you're an idiot. Don't let this happen to you.

  • Test your premise - is it sound or is it a "snake on the plane" premise? Run it by as many people as you can to check for logic and/or scientific flaws.
  • Understand your characters - don't have them do things like point a loaded weapon at a friend when the character's background and training would preclude such a stupid action (even without a law enforcement background, I don't know any adults who would do this, either). Even a character mentally cracking up will deteriorate in ways that reflect their own peculiar habits, training and traits, so keep that in mind. Have others read your work and look for character inconsistencies.
  • Check your facts - don't put in facts like Mercury is the sun god, thinking you will change them later, or because you're too lazy to check, or worse, because you think you need that "fact" for your story. If you need to distort the facts, see if you can't distort your story instead. Readers pick up on facts that are incorrect and it can destroy your work.
  • Don't include extraneous research just to show off you've done it - oh, I forgot to give you an example of this. Another bestseller I read spent the initial chapter on extraneous details about the FBI training facility in Quantico, VA. Not only was it incredibly boring, it annoyed me because it's only the writer showing off, saying "hey, look at all this cool stuff I learned in my research!"

Here's the thing with the last point, it was boring and the author actually got some of the "facts" wrong. The more "facts" you include, the higher the probability that you are going to misinterpret your research and/or get something wrong. Only add those details that you need to have to create the atmosphere, setting and plot you are writing. Layering on more information, particularly background information (the building was built out of native limestone in 1920--blah, blah--who cares?) bores your reader and increases the probability of error.

You must do your research, but it's more important to understand the implications than to just include a bunch of facts.

The writers of the snake movie did not understand the implications of reptiles being coldblooded and the fact that high altitudes are cold. Another writer did not understand the implications of gun safety training and how it becomes a habit in those who regularly handle weapons. Another included piles of details from her research that were not only unnecessary to the plot but in actual fact exposed a few things she got wrong.

And of course I got my gods wrong.

At one time or another, I've made all the mistakes listed above, from stupid premises to misinterpreting researched facts, so...

Keep it accurate and keep it germane.

Get another pair of eyes to review your work just to make sure.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Optimism and Pessimism

At first blush, this topic doesn't seem entirely relevant to writers, but in point of fact, it is. But I'm going to take the long way around the barn.

Generally, I'm not what you would call an optimist. In fact, for the first twenty-odd years of my life, I cultivated pessimism because I found it more soothing and less distressing to have no expectation of great things happening. Not that I didn't always make my best darn effort to be the best at whatever I was doing. It's just that sometimes, even when I thought I did a fabulous job, things didn't turn out so good. Being a pessimist seemed to make this easier to take because it meant I could either be thrilled when something good did finally happen, or...not as crushed as I might have been.

After a while I realized that oddly enough, optimists seemed...happier. Not to mention that things went their way more often. They seemed very lucky. I was never able to determine if they were optimistic because they didn't have the bad experiences and awful luck I had (and continue to have) or if they had good experiences and good luck because they expected to do so. Sometimes, it seems, Fate has a way of meeting expectations.

There was really no way to scientifically determine this, though. However, I did realize one thing. Even if I couldn't really figure out this chicken or the egg thing to know if being an optimist made good things happen or if someone became an optimist because good things were always happening to them, it didn't matter. Because optimists were happier people than pessimists. They were also nicer to be around. Other people liked them better.

I wanted, and still want, to be happy. If there is one thing I have learned is that we are all responsible for our happiness. We can choose to be unhappy or we can choose to be happy. Sure there are people caught in desperate circumstances, like being an innocent civilian in a war zone, but in general, in ordinary circumstances, our decisions and the way we choose to look at things determines our happiness. We can simply decide to be happy.

So, I tried--am trying--my darndest to convert from my natural pessimism into an optimist. It's not easy, and here is where this topic is relevant to writers.

Writing isn't easy. You have to take a lot of rejection and keep trying. For those who read my blog, I wrote one a few weeks back about publishing the first manuscript you write, but I left out one of the qualities these amazing writers who accomplish this feat seem to have: they are almost universally optimistic and SURE, absolutely SURE, that the manuscript they write will be published.

One writer I know just got her first manuscript published and she insists that if you have the INTENTION, the serious intention and confidence in your work, then the forces in the universe will align and your intention will come to be reality. This is expressing this very badly - because it's not niave belief or wishing, and it's not just writing some terrible junk without expending any effort. It's the serious intention to accomplish something, putting all the sweat and tears into that effort that is necessary, that will cause you to succeed. If you have this INTENTION.

I'm not good with this sort of stuff--if I can't prove it from evidence and experience than I tend not to believe, and my own experiences trying to publish have not lead me to completely eliminate all doubt about this aerie-faerie concept, but ultimately, I think it may be better to believe this and act on it, than not. Because I have seen it work for other people, even if it seems not to work for me. I have a manuscript that I was convinced would be published and had the complete intent to get it published--and I've had some success with it--but so far, it has not found a home with a publisher. It is not my first manuscript, and is, in fact more like my 10th, but I was so SURE that this one was the one. It is very difficult to maintain that level of confidence when the months stretch into years.

However, that is why it is important for a writer not only to maintain an optimistic attitude that will keep them going in the face of rejections, but maintain a serious INTENT. Keep writing because during those months or even years, you will continue to develop your skills and you will eventually create the manuscript that some editor will love. Your intention to be a published writer will create that destiny for you.

You just have to keep going until it does and be happy during the journey.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

CRAFT: Point of View and Genre

Point of View and Genre

Before you even set pen to paper, there is one major question the writer must consider. What point of view should you use? Should you use first person, I should have known better, or third person, She should have known better? A combination of both? Some weird point of view?

Perhaps I should first define point of view...
Point of view is perhaps easier to explain if you think of making a movie. You can think of point of view as the angle from which the camera is filming the movie.

First Person
In first person point of view, the camera is stuck in one character's head and you "film" the entire story through that character's eyes. This character is essentially the narrator and the entire story is colored by the narrator's perceptions.

I wouldn't have shot Harry last Thursday if I had known what a world of hurt this would bring down on me less than two days later...

Strengths and Weaknesses
First person is great for stories that mainly concern the journey of one person--the narrator character. They are often used in mysteries because you learn what is happening as the narrator, who is usually the detective, discovers it.

Unfortunately, it also prevents you from showing what the other characters are thinking or feeling, except as interpreted by the narrator. All the other characters are kept at a bit of a distance and the reader never really knows what they are thinking--they can only infer it from the characters' actions and speech. Even the narrator is controlling what they allow the reader to see, by what information they chose to "tell". However, this can be very useful in a mystery.

Egregious Mistakes
It's easier to avoid POV mistakes in first person, because you're stuck in first person, but you do want to avoid things like: I flung my long, flowing locks of blond hair over my shoulder. No one thinks of themselves--or their hair--that way, so the challenge is to give the reader a picture of the narrator character without looking into mirrors or talking about themselves in an abnormally narcissistic way.

Third Person (Often called Limited Third Person)
This is the most common point of view used in the majority of fiction. In third person, the writer refers to all characters in third person, e.g. she done me wrong, or he done me wrong. The camera is external to all characters but rests on one character's shoulder, focused on the other characters as seen from the perspective of the point of view character. Usually, this perspective is maintained throughout a scene, with the perspective hopping over to other characters in other scenes (i.e. the camera is moved to rest on other characters' shoulders to film the scene from their view point).

She rested her head on her arm for a moment before turning back to Bill to complete the dismemberment process.

Deep Point of View
This is usually seen in third person and it is as if the camera moved inside the head of the point of view (POV) character--not to focus on the other characters--but to actually film what is going on inside the POV character's head. In this POV, you can take something like: Darn it--why couldn't she have arrived early for a change, he thought. And you make it as if you are inside the person, listening, so you don't have the "he thought" part, you just have: Darn it--why couldn't she have arrived early?

This helps the reader to feel and think what the POV character is feeling and thinking more intensely.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Third person is the most commonly used POV and you really can't go too wrong with it. It lets you show the actions, thoughts and emotions from any of your characters, and by using deep POV, you can even show what they are thinking.

However, you lose the immediacy and identification with the narrator that you have in first person, because third person POV puts all the characters at a slight distance, which is only partly remedied through the occassional use of deep POV.

Egregious Mistakes
Head hopping (see below), where you suddenly change your focus from one POV character to a different one can be a problem if done poorly. The most common mistake, however, is similar to the one listed for First Person POV. She tossed her blond, flowing locks over her shoulder. Again, no character (or person) thinks of their hair, or any other part of them, like this. You have to remember to stay in the POV you select.

Second Person
I'm debating even mentioning this POV because it is so incredibly annoying. It's the you did this POV, which is sort of the psychotic camera POV. It takes a lot of skill to write in second person and not just anger your readers, and mostly you would never see this except in literary fiction or highly experimental stuff. Definitely not something I would recommend unless you have a specific and very good reason.

Head Hopping
When you switch from one POV character's perspective to another, it's called head hopping. Most articles on writing recommend that you stick with one character's POV per scene, to avoid the unsettling shifts in perspective that can occur when you suddenly switch to another character's POV--sort of like the main POV character suddenly tossing the camera to another character. It can be done, but you need to be aware of the transition and write it smoothly. One way is to write enough description to make the scene seem as if the camera panned out to the broad scene before changing to focus tightly on a different character's POV.

When to Use What POV
A lot of the decision on what POV to use boils down to what sells in the genre you are writing, and what works best for the story you are telling. Some fiction lends itself more readily to one point of view over the other, and some genres pretty much insist on a specific point of view. The information below is not all-inclusive--I'm just trying to give you some general guidelines--so keep that in mind.

Third person is used for almost all categories of romance fiction. Some of the women's fiction, and modern, sassy contemporary fiction (e.g. Chick Lit, Mommy Lit, and all the other "Lits") is now being done in first person, because they are less concerned about the hero (or there may not even BE a hero). Third person is almost a requirement for romance fiction because it allows you to show both the heroine's and hero's perspectives and their emotional arcs as they grow to love one another.

Romance that has to be third person POV
Category Romances, e.g. Most Harlequin Lines
Historical Romances

Romances that are traditionally third person POV, but *might* possibly allow first person POV, although to be honest, they will probably make you change it to third person POV...
Romantic Suspense
Romantic Mysteries
Romantic Comedy

Romances that allow first person POV
Women's fiction

Smart/Sassy Contemporary (perhaps not specifically a romance, either) such as Chick Lit, Mommy Lit, Boy Lit, all the Lits and their currently morphing offspring

Gothics (many are now written in third person POV, but traditionally, many Gothics were written in first person)

Mystery and Suspense
Mystery and Suspense genres have many, many subgenres and break down very similar to the Romance field. There tends to be a little more latitude in these genres, however, because there is less pressure to show the emotional arcs of two people as you must in a romance--you usually just have one main character, an antagonist, and then the protagonist.

Third Person POV
Suspense (traditionally third person)
Contemporary and Historical Mysteries can vary between third and first person POV
Cozy Mysteries

First Person POV
Contemporary and Historical Mysteries, some Cozy Mysteries (see above)
Crime and "Neo Noir" or "Crime Noir", Florida Crime (which seems to be a genre in itself)

Science Fiction
Science Fiction is *mostly* written in third person POV. However, because it often embraces more experimental fiction, there is some small use of first person POV, but it is rare.

Third Person POV almost exclusively.

Literary Fiction
Anything goes in Literary Fiction.

That's about it for this blog! Let me know what POV you prefer...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How to Publish the First Book You Write...

How to Publish the First Book You Write...

What, are you crazy?
Against all odds, I know two people who have already published the first book they have ever written, or are on the cusp of doing so, and I don't know that many writers. I may even know more than two--actually, now that I think of it, I know three people who have done this. Three authors, maybe more.

How did they do it (when I'm still struggling...)?
They actually have quite a number of things in common. The problem for the rest of us is that it may not be so easy to imitate this success, but here is what I have identified as the primary traits or actions which have made these authors so amazingly successful in such a short time--generally within two years of first setting pen to paper.

1) Each of them knew exactly what they were going to write and in what genre. They knew the genre, read it, loved it, and understood it.

a) They didn't try to draw outside the lines of their chosen genre--the story fit squarely and completely within the norm for the genre. For example, one writer wrote a Regency Historical and after studying other Historicals, she saw that the majority had a small range of sensuality (sensual to HOT) and at least one love scene. She wrote hers to fit exactly in the middle of the range. She also did enough research to keep it true to the period, but did not include needless details.

b) The authors all had some small twist to make their story unique, such as a woman wanting to be a vet in Regency England, but in every other respect, the story fit the genre. They accomplished the "same but different" task the editors set out for new writers.

2) Each of them decided on a plan up front on how to get it published. In the cases I know about, they all decided to get an agent and let the agent market the book. None of them attempted a "mixed mode" where they tried to market the book themselves while also searching for an agent.

a) I also know some authors who marketed their book, themselves, but these generally went to specific publishers where having an agent is not an advantage initially. These are houses such as Avalon and Harlequin which use a boiler-plate contract and fixed advance, and the e-publishers.

b) If you want to get an agent, do so up front and don't try to market your book, yourself. If you market your book to most of the big publishers, such as Avon, Warners, NAL, etc, and then you do manage to get an agent, you've just compromised their ability to sell this particular manuscript because they now can't submit it to the "best" places. This may also make them less enthusiastic about working with you because you have cut away at their opportunities to make a big sale.

3) They wrote with intent. This is a hard one to explain because "intent" can seem an awful lot like "wishing" or even "planning", but here is what it means: Writing with intent means you are serious about this work and you are seriously writing up to published standards. But even more importantly, it means that you intend to have it published, even if it means going to a vanity publisher. You are not writing to have fun or because it's fun (although I hope it is).

a) Perhaps my own experience with this will help. When I started writing again a few years ago, I wanted to be published, but I had very vague ideas of this. I had no real publisher in mind, and no real specifics as far as identifying the boundaries of a specific and currently published genre. I was reading Barbara Michaels at the time and sort of thought I wanted to write something along the lines of some of her paranormal mysteries. I did no market research and basically, I wrote to please myself. I had fun. I goofed around with the story and with the language because it was fun.

It sort of stopped being fun when I realized no one was even interested in it. But, I chalked it up to experience and went on to the next one. I joined a critique group. I wrote and submitted another manuscript and got a little further with Harlequin, but again, I hadn't really read anything other than their guidelines, so I really hadn't done my research. It also didn't help when the line I wrote for ended.

Again, I stepped up my efforts and seriously wrote a Regency, a la Georgette Heyer, not realizing that the traditional Regency market was dying. This book got the attention of an agent, but did not get published as the traditional Regency market crashed and burned. (Although on a good note, this manuscript has finally found a home with Cerridwen, so all is not lost...)

So I decided to make my own genre of Regency Romance/Suspense. I got an agent. Then I got a different agent. We're still trying to get it published, but as you can see, it's not my first manuscript. The jury is still out on whether it ultimately gets a print contract or I try to place it with Cerridwen, as well.

Finally cognizant of the things I've been trying to relay to you here, I am now writing a contemporary paranormal. I've done the research into the genre. I'm trying to write within the lines. During the conference, I went to paranormal and "heightening the sensuality" sessions. I just hope I get the sensuality level up enough to fit it squarely into the genre, and that I have enough of a different twist to make some editor sit up and take notice. But I am serious about this one. Deadly serious.

b) An important factor in intent is writing seriously for publication. You can't just slip in some silliness because you like the words or it sounds smart. You can't leave that "umm, is this part really okay? Maybe no one will notice" in your manuscript, because everyone will notice and it won't be good. And, the worst fault: you can't get silly or slipshod toward the middle and end when the writing gets rough as you're trying to keep all the plot balls in the air. You've got to buckle down and write it/rewrite it until it is good all the way through. A lot of manuscripts fall apart in the middle and end. That's why so many editors want to see the first three chapters and the last, or take a synopsis so seriously. They want to see if you can carry the story through to a satisfying conclusion or if you're going to get tired and slip along the way. It's so easy after you've been struggling to finish your book to just rush toward the end, just to get the draft done. And then rush your edits towards the end because you're tired of editing. You can't be tired toward the end or it will show. You have to make sure the middle and end are as good or better than the beginning.

If you're already doing all of these things and have written a bunch of manuscripts and still aren't published, then don't despair. I firmly believe that all writing can be improved. It is an art and therefore talent is important, but an artist often has many half-completed drawings and paintings. They have to practice to get those great painting. We, as writers, must also practice until we get it right. When we do, our creations will find homes, and we can only hope this happens before anyone cuts their own ear off in despair.

It isn't hopeless, but writing with intent is most likely the best path to success.