Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Word of Wisdom on Editing Manuscripts

Whew - I just finished doing critiques for a couple of critique partners, as well as a handful of contest entries.  As always, I'm impressed, even awed, by some of the great work out there.  It is amazing how creative people are in coming up with new story lines, wonderful characters and terrific plots, but it is humbling to realize how few will make it across the finish line and be published.  I wish I could say I will be one of those who crawl across the finish line on hands and knees, bloody and winded...

Anyway, it is all so subjective...and's not.

Sometimes you look at published work and you think: how did that get published when these other great manuscripts can't?  From what I've seen, although there are a lot of subjective elements, there are some things which the published manuscripts have and which often, the unpublished ones, don't.

A lot of unpublished manuscripts start out GREAT and then...slowly...crumble.
Here are a few of the flaws I've seen, although remember, this is subjective.  However, I have heard editors and agents talk about these very things, so I really do think (subjective or not) that they may be show-stoppers.

The easy, obvious things are grammar and spelling.  The details.  Get them right.  Enough said there.

More difficult problems:

1)  Not identifying the protagonist's problem(s) right up front.  Preferably in the first sentence.  In a different blog, I talked about what elements could be found in the first sentences in Times-Best-Seller's-List books.  They all pretty much stated in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, what the protagonist's circumstances were and what their problem was.  Here is very memorable first line that really lays it out:

Victor Gischler
From Gun Monkeys
I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down.

In a lot of unpublished manuscripts, you read the first chapter, the second chapter, and even the third chapter before you finally get a glimpse of the hero or heroine's state of affairs and what their problems are.  Unless you are writing literary fiction, you really can't wait that long.  Get it out there.  Sure, if you're already multi-published, you can take risks and take a leisurely stroll before you get down to business, but a newbie author?  Think about it this way:  a lot of agents and editors won't read past the first line or perhaps the first paragraph.  There.  I've warned you.  Take it or leave it, but you can't say you weren't warned.  If you can't grab your audience by the throat right away and NOT let go, you're done for, baby.  Toasted.

2)  Trying to eke out an entire novel with one small misunderstanding.  You know what I mean.  The heroine thought he was a junkie and he thought she was a hooker.  That may be the initial, starter, conflict or problem, but that's only going to take you so far.  A lot of writers try to eke out one small conflict that really can't give enough thrust to the book to take it through lift-off and into stage 2.  Or stage 3.  What I suggest is that you identify the starter conflict, and then, bim-bam-boom, your hero and heroine resolve that only to discover themselves in deeper doo-doo with a bigger, badder, bolder conflict.  This is the real, meaty conflict/problem that they are going to spend the rest of the book resolving.

Sure, you can start out with the bigger, badder, bolder conflict, but the problem is, this often leads to reader aggravation because about half-way through, they're like:  resolve this frickin' thing already!  That's the beauty of the mini, starter conflict.  About half-way through, you can resolve it (thereby ending any reader aggravation about this never-ending conflict that is getting on their nerves) only to plunger your characters into deeper trouble which will carry your readers, on the edge of their seat, through to the conclusion. 

You know how people talk about "sagging middles" (not middle age, which we know causes sagging middles, but plots...well, you get my point)?  The single biggest cause for a sagging middle is the false security of a big conflict that you introduce in the beginning with the disgustingly smug belief that it will carry you safely through the whole book.  Not.  Get over it. 

I think I've made my point.  You need at least two conflicts.  A baby one to start you out, and the big one.  You can, by the way, have more, I'm just saying you at least need two in a standard, single title manuscript (this is versus the shorter category length novels--I'm not going to explain that further--that's a subject for another blog).

3)  Getting sidetracked.  This can happen a number of ways, but the major way is to allow minor characters to take over the story.  A good way to test for this is to write a synopsis for your manuscript.  If you find yourself HAVING to include secondary characters--by name--then you need to take a step back because they may be TOO important and taking some of the power away from your main character (or hero and heroine).  A classic example of this is in a romance where you have the hero, the heroine, and the evil bitch trying to take the hero away from the heroine.  This is a thin plot and really more of a starter conflict, because here's the deal:  if you have this evil bitch start taking "face time" away from the hero and heroine's interactions, and the evil bitch is around until the end (unless she's around because she's a dead body lying around somewhere) then you may have a problem.  This is obviously for a romance, but that's another thing - you have to keep in mind what you are delivering.  If you're delivering a romance, the story is BETWEEN THE HERO AND HEROINE.  Not the hero and evil bitch, or heroine and evil bitch.  It's the hero and heroine who have to resolve their problems. 

If it's a mystery, then you are trying to resolve a murder and it is best if the hero or heroine resolves the murder.  It's even better if they figure it out instead of just catching the murderer red-handed doing something like destroying evidence or trying to kill someone, but then, that could work, just have to be careful about what kind of reading experience you are trying to give your audience.  Sometimes you want your reader left slightly unsettled (literary fiction does this most of the time) or if you want your reader gloriously satisfied and happy (romances try to go for this gold standard).  If you want gloriously happy, then you want to focus on your hero/heroine and make them actually and actively resolve their big, bad conflict (or murder).

That's three of the more acute things.  I'll add more on another night, but it's getting late....

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tirade about Customer Service

And I thought we were bad.  I work for the Federal government with a small team of people who manage all the domain controllers for our agency (~500) [domain controllers are the big computers all the other computers in our agency have to talk to in order to verify a person's user ID--if that helps understand the term].  Anyway, our team was always worried that we aren't as smart as the people in private industry and that we aren't doing as good a job.  Our bosses worry about the same things because they keep going to private industry and paying contractors to tell them what we've been telling them for free all along.

Well, I've just had proof that not only are we smarter, but we're doing a better job, too, which really sort of shocks me because I always thought the Federal government had dreadful people and terrible customer support.  That's the popular view, and I've certainly run into a lot of employees who needed to be terminated--badly.

You may have noticed that my web site, email, and blog have been off the 'net for over two days.  That's because of my lovely--previous--web hosting company.  When I stopped getting mail two days ago and couldn't reach my web site, I called them.  They said they were having a server problem and didn't know when it would be back up.  I gave them 24 hours.  Still not back up.  Another 24 hours.  Not only were they not back up, but they wanted me to tell them how to run their business because apparently, they couldn't decide what to do.

Now, my small team (there were two of us at the time) in the Federal government did a whole-sale upgrade including installing new domain controller hardware (~500) AND changing the operating system AND domain structure [I know - all techno-geek gibberish] country-wide and other than the technical staff who helped us at some of our sites, the biggest question we got was:  "Didn't you say you were going to do an upgrade of some kind this weekend?" 

Yes, we did, and we did.  Thank you very much and have a nice day.

In other words, we did an entire forklift upgrade of our entire infrastructure for over 270 sites (including Puerto Rico and Manila) and almost no one--certainly no users--knew about it.  Not only that, we went to GREAT LENGTHS to let people know we were going to do it, just in case anything went wrong.  We had backup plans in case anything went wrong.  FYI:  We aren't allowed to have email systems go down for more than a few hours and certainly never for two days.  And we even have to let everyone know if we are going to patch the system JUST IN CASE anything goes wrong.  We communicate everything we do with our technical folks and users.

So, back to my story.
So, I call my web hosting service again.  It's now been two days.  There is no notification on their web site that they are having any technical issues.  No notification to their customers.  When I call there is no estimate of when the server I am on will be back up.  Excuse me?  The server I am on?  You guys only have one server, or what?  What is this?  Maw and Paw's Web Hosting Service?  Shoot, I have more computer equipment than that in my home!

So, you guys have never heard of backup and restore?  Where are your backup plans?  Do you HAVE ANY backup plans?

Keep in mind, I'm Joe User Customer here--I shouldn't even KNOW they have servers, or backups, much less be concerned about how many servers they have and/or which server I am on.  They are supposed to be providing me with a service.  I'm PAYING them for a service.  I want that service to be available. So, let's continue.

So, Mr. Web Hoster, you don't know when you can get my server back up?
Yes, Ms. Customer.  However, you can request that we move you to one of our new servers.
Excuse me?  And how would I know you even HAVE new servers?
And if you HAVE NEW SERVERS:  why the freakin' f*&ck*n% h@ll haven't you already moved me to one of them Why would you even IMAGINE that that is the kind of thing I should be forced to request?

Oh, Mr. Web Hoster, can you move me from my broken server to ONE THAT ACTUALLY WORKS?  I need to request this?  And I'm just left DOWN if I DON'T request it?  How is that service?

You see--it is NOT MY JOB to tell them WHICH SERVER TO HOST MY WEB ON.  That is THEIR JOB.  This should be totally transparent to me.  I pay to be hosted.  They host me on ONE OF THEIR SERVERS--and I don't know which server--just one of their (preferably) OPERATIONAL SERVERS. 

I should NOT have to tell them to MOVE MY WEB to an OPERATIONAL server instead of LEAVING IT ON A BROKEN SERVER THEY CAN'T GET BACK UP FOR DAYS.

And I should not have to explain this to them.
What we have here is bad customer service.  We have an organization that wants the customer to tell them how to run their business because they don't know how to run their business.  They apparently don't know what their business IS or what they are being paid to provide. 

Frankly, I don't care how they run their business and don't want to know. 

So, I found another web hosting service.  And guess what - I was back up and operational in 20 minutes.  That's right: 20 minutes.  This, right here, ought to tell you how freakin' simple it would have been for my original company to do the right thing and just move me to one of their operational servers without even telling me.  Properly done (and I've done it) it would have been totally transparent to me--all I would have known was that my web and email were working again, thank you very much. 

And here are the gory details on what I did to get back up when my previous company failed to provide me with the service I was paying for...

1)  I googled web hosting services.  I picked a comparison site that gave the "top ten" web hosting services.  I picked the number one company.  Time required - 2 Minutes.

2)  I went to the number one company and filled out their very brief form online to transfer my old web to their site.  Time required - 2 Minutes.

3)  I called my OLD web hosting company and got the information so I could transfer my domain name to my new web hosting company's name servers.  Time required - 5 Minutes (dealing with PEOPLE is always time consuming.  Yes, I'm a geek.)

4)  I got on and changed my domain name to use my new web hosting company's name servers.  Time required - 2 Minutes.

5)  I checked my Hotmail email for the confirmation and hosting information from my new company and printed it out.  Time required - 1 Minute.

6)  I published my web site to my new web hosting service.  Time required - 5 Minutes.

Total time required to get back up and running:  20 minutes.  I took an additional 1 minute to configure my email account to be the same as my previous one so my mail address would continue to work.  It worked and I started getting emails again from friends and associates immediately.

Now, if I could do that MOVING my entire web from one COMPANY to another, seems like my original company, if they knew what they were doing, could have moved me from one, non-operational server, to another, operational server and updated my host naming records (which they owned), and NOT LEFT ME DOWN FOR 48 HOURS.  Or they could have figured out how to properly use their backup and restore procedures--which apparently they don't know how to use.  (Not trying to run their business for them, of course, but good grief.)

In the Federal government, even when there were just two of us in our team to manage ~500 domain controllers with 250,000 users, we never had people down for that length of time.  I've never left users down that long in over 25 years in the computer field, and I've always notified people when there was even the CHANCE of downtime.

If this new web hosting company messes with me, I'm going to the next one listed by Google.  There are plenty of them out there.  I'm not taking this ANY MORE.  I've had it with poor management and worse customer service.  If I can do a better job with the massive incompetence of the Federal government and Congressional oversight squatting on my shoulders, then by George, some idiot in private industry ought to be able to do at least half as good.

Finally, I no longer think we--the Federal government--are not as smart or as customer-oriented as "private industry".  I think we're better.  I think we're a LOT better.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why A Synopsis is Important

Before I start this business of why a synopsis is important if you want to publish your manuscript, let me just say: I have now, officially, seen it all.

I live out in the country (way out in the country) and I've seen everything from hot air balloons in distress landing in our front yard; jet fighters from Fort Bragg using our house as a "target"; a huge barracuda in the middle of our road (we are 50 miles from the coast--you do the math); to dogs and cats abandoned on our road because people think no one lives there so no one will know (personally, I think good old Guido ought to break both legs and arms of people who "drop off their pets" in the middle of the country--then Guido ought to drive THEM out to the country and "drop them off" in the middle of a Kansas corn field).

Anyway, so today I was going out to buy dog food and got to our mailbox a half a mile from the house and what do I see? A cow. Yes, a cow--complete with udders looking suspiciously like she needed milking. So...someone is dropping off cows now? How exactly does one throw a cow out of a car?

Thankfully, by the time I got back from buying dog food, she was trotting on down the road towards who knows where--although I did have a moment there when I was wondering if I could somehow sneak the idea of adopting a pet cow into the conversation with my husband... "Oh, dear, I found this poor, sweet animal by the mailbox, and can I keep her?" I had an ulterior motive, you see, besides the milk aspect. I grow roses and cow poop is a great fertilizer...

Okay, anyway, this has nothing to do with writing, mostly because I could never work this into a story and have anyone actually believe it. I just had to write it down, though, because I'm having a hard time believing it, myself.

What the heck is a synopsis and do I need one?
A synopsis is a brief 1-5 page description of your story, and yes, you need one. A synopsis is not to be confused with the small "blurb" you insert in your query letter. A blurb is like that paragraph on the back of a book which makes you want to read it. Theoretically, the blurb in your query letter makes the editor or agent ask for your manuscript. Then, when you send your manuscript, you send them the manuscript itself and the synopsis.

The synopsis tells the editor or agent how your story plays out, including the ending. You do not under any circumstances end your synopsis with a stupid question such as: Will Jason and Evelyn finally resolve their differences or will they end their days lonely and unable to bear the sight of each other? No, no, no. The point of the synopsis is to show the editor or agent that you can write a story with a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending. Do not end with a question. A question is the equivalent of eating a salad for dinner. It is not satisfying and doesn't demonstrate anything other than that you are extremely irritating and unfulfilling.

So, you whine, how do I squeeze my beautifully complex 500 page story into five measly pages? It's easy. First off, you don't mention anyone other than the hero, heroine, and possibly the villain (if there is one). No one else--and certainly not by name. They are unimportant for the purposes of the synopsis. Because what you will be including in your synopsis is the emotional journey of your hero and heroine. That's all. No subplots, no extraneous details.

I used to write the bare bones story turning points for my synopsis and although it did condense the story down enough to fit into five double-spaced pages, I had a hard time getting agents and editors to ask for more than a partial. I realized something was wrong. I took a bunch of classes and technically, my synopsis was perfect. Then I realized what the issue was--although I was including the turning points in the story, I wasn't showing the emotional journey and that is what--actually the only thing that--is important.

Here is an example. First, I'll give you my original method of stating the initial plot point for the synopsis.

After the death of his brother, Joe flew to New York, determined to prove who had killed his brother, and why.

Okay, that sets the scene, but it's kind of boring. Now, here is that same plot point, showing the beginning of the emotional journey of the hero.

Enraged by the death of his brother and ineptitude of the police, Joe flew to New York, determined to find the killer of his brother and exact his own brand of justice.

You see the difference? Which one makes you want to find out what happens next?

There are a lot of people who say the synopsis is not important, but I can tell you from personal experience, if you don't show the emotional journey, and just cover the major plot points in your manuscript, editors and agents will be less likely to request it. I have discovered this through years of trial-and-error. It simply isn't true that a new author can afford to have a technically perfect, but "blah" synopsis. Or worse yet, a rambling hard-to-follow synopsis which ends in a question instead of showing how the story plays out.

The secret is to show the emotions of your characters and the major turning points. Forget the subplots, even if they are clever and wonderful. There is no room for them in the synopsis. What you need to do is break down your manuscript. In a 400 page story, there are most likely three turning points. Those are the core items in your synopsis. In addition, if you are writing a romance, you must include: the moment the hero and heroine meet; the first kiss or step toward intimacy; the first love scene or other moment of "closeness"; the black moment when all seems lost; and the conclusion/reconciliation.

Write down those points in an outline and then frame them with: the hero/heroine did x which resulted in y. This made him/her feel z and s/he decided to do m.

That is, you are writing about actions the hero/heroine took which resulted in a certain outcome. Then you describe how the hero/heroine felt about that outcome and what decision they made because of it. From that decision, another action is borne, carrying them on to the next plot point.

I can tell you from personal experience that if you need to write a short (1-5) page synopsis, which is what most editors and agents want now, you can't just write it by the seat of your pants because you will end up with a very long synopsis. You need to take a sheet of paper and just write the major turning points/relationship points I've indicated above. Then, flesh them out with the action/outcome/reaction formula. This will enable you to "hit the high points" and hopefully show the emotional arc of your story, without taking twenty or thirty pages to do it.

Remember though, you can't just do a dry recitation of facts: He saw Mr. Green murdered and went to the police. You only have a little room, but you have to squeeze in what is driving your characters to do what they do. It's the emotional journey that will grab the attention of the editor or agent, and that is the point of the synopsis.

Oh, one final point. I've been known to, ah, fudge on my synopsis when the plot really is just too complex for it to really make sense. What you write must make logical sense and you do not want to make the editor or agent ask questions. If this means you have to take some minor liberties with your plot to simplify it so that the conclusion flows naturally, then do so. No one is going to sit down with your synopsis and compare it to your manuscript. They are looking for what is driving your characters and the resolution. They could care less if you say the hero kills the villain when in fact the villain falls out of a twenty-story window.

Anyway, don't panic. It's not as hard as it sounds. It's harder.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Editing Perfection

Strange to say, I'm still alive.  Had a work marathon which is why I've been strangely quiet blog-wise.  Sorry.  I'm trying to catch up on everything now and thought I should post something...

So, I'm falling back on what I'm doing, which is editing.  Mostly I'm going to be repeating things other people have told me and which to my dismay have turned out to be true.

I hate the fact that producing a finished manuscript takes so long and I suspect that as you advance from wannabe to writer to published author, it may get easier.  Or maybe not.

Once upon a time, I produced a manuscript which I edited, edited, edited and sent to an agent.  She signed me but things didn't work out.  So I sent it to another agent and she signed me.  She's a great agent and indicated that it might be time for a rewrite and I agreed.

After printing out another copy of my manuscript to work on it, I started finding...ack!...errors!  How could this be?  Two agents had signed me!  It had finaled in a few contests!  I thought it was perfect!  NOT!  I hadn't looked at it for nearly two years and when I did, I was absolutely appalled!  It wasn't horrible, but it was so totally and obviously not ready that I felt as if I had stood on the NY subway and pulled my drawers down.  I had sent this thing to two agents, they signed me, sent it to EDITORS (EDITORS, for Chris-sakes!).  Totally humiliated, I proceeded to edit it.  I'm trying to polish it now.  Really polish it.

What did I learn?  I learned that it really is true that you can't do a decent job editing until enough time has elapsed to allow you to forget what you wrote, because your mind plays little games with you and makes you see what you think ought to be there if it's fresh stuff you've just written.

I've also learned that if you can afford it, sometimes it might be worthwhile to pay a first reader (or someone) to go through a manuscript before you send it out into the wide world.  I have a great critique partner and believe me, this time around, she's probably regretting being my critique partner because I've used the heck out of her trying to polish this sucker.  If you produce a lot of material, you may find it difficult to find enough people willing to critique for free, which is why you need to keep a first reader and a few dollars in your back pocket.  Unless you are really, really good at editing your own work.  I do know writers who are, and I really envy them.  I'm afraid my mind is too eager to supply what should be there and I miss what is actually there.

The underlying thing here, though, is that those NY editors were, sadly, right to reject me when the manuscript was so far from perfect.  I'm just relieved I now have an agent willing to work with me, although again, there is a difference between an agent and a first reader/critique partner.  Your agent isn't an editor--s/he's got enough on his or her plate, so don't abuse them.

Never assume something is perfect.  Read pages out of order, or read your manuscript back to front if it helps you see the actual words on the page instead of hearing what you know ought to be there.

Hard lessons, but it's one more step closer to publication.
Oh, and thanks to my critique partner, I expect to have my manuscript completely revised (THANK YOU) and sent back to my agent within the next two weeks.  Whew.

Back to the grindstone...