Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New Writer's Checklist

It's almost NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month: ) so I'm breathless with anticipation--I can't wait to get started on my paranormal. I plotted it out and have been chomping at the bit, wanting to write and starting tomorrow, I can! Whoopee! I love starting new manuscripts. I love the beginning--the setup--it's so much fun when that hero and heroine first meet!

Anyway, because of NaNoWriMo and my obsessive/compulsive/competitive need to WIN, which means writing 50,000 words before midnight on Nov 30, I probably won't be doing much blogging. So...I thought that tonight, I would put together a checklist of all the tips and things I have learned that you need to review in your manuscript before you send it out to anyone. It's the sort of list you need to use about a month before you put your manuscript in the mail, because after all, you actually need time to fix any weird little things you find on the final run-through.

So, here it is, the Writer's Checklist:
Note: I'm going to assume that you're going to figure out what the right answers are to the questions listed below...
  1. First - print out your manuscript (I know it's a pain--but do it). Things will look differently when it's actually printed out. You will most likely find some really odd mistakes that your eyes had just skipped before. Once it is printed: Read it out loud. Can you read through it without stumbling? Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Do you use horrible names for your characters that no one can pronounce--including you?
  2. Do all the characters' names start with the same first letters or syllables?
  3. Is your writing smooth? Is there anything which throws you out of the story or makes you read a line twice to figure out what you meant?
  4. By the end of page 1, do you show your main character's current, immediate situation and initial motivation, even if that motivation changes later? Does the reader understand your character's emotional state? If you are withholding anything about your main character so you can spring it on your reader as a surprise later, don't. The surprise will be on you because the reader won't get past page 1 if they don't understand your main character and pretty understand the initial setup/starter conflict. The more information your reader has, the more likely they are to bond with your characters. This is not to say you should start with a dump of the character's backstory--no--do not do that. We just want to know the immediate situation and the character's current mood/disposition/personality at this point.
  5. Does the action start immediatly on page 1 or is it just...boring?
  6. Are there too many details that don't mean anything? Are only the most important and relevant details included? To set a scene, you really only need a few-very sparse--details. Anything more is boring. Editors call an excess of details: overwriting.
  7. Do we understand the protagonist (see item 3) and does the protagonist have at least 1 trait we like and/or relate to, be it humor, charm, protectiveness, integrity, honesty, or whatever...Show us. Show us on page 1.
  8. Do you use too many big words and obfuscate your meaning?
  9. Is the total manuscript length right for the genre you wrote it for? (E.g. many Harlequin romances are 50,000 - 70,000 words in length, while a single-title like a romantic suspense may be 100,000 words.)
  10. Did you use the right point of view for the genre? Most genres and editors want limited third person.
  11. Is your point of view clear at all times? Is the point of view in each scene "grounded" with the character who has the most to lose or most involvement with the scene?
  12. Do you have too many subplots giving your manuscript the distinct feeling of having everything except the kitchen sink thrown into it?
  13. Do you have a sagging middle?
  14. Do you have at least 2 plot twists or unexpected developments (this helps avoid number 13)?
  15. Do you have a black moment when everything seems lost for the hero or heroine?
  16. Do you have a satisfying ending? An example of an unsatisfying ending would be if your heroine spent the book investigating a murder, only to have someone else solve it or the murderer die offstage somewhere in a manner unrelated to the investigation. Your hero and heroine actually have to have some part in the ending.
  17. Do your characters grow and learn something?
  18. Are your details and language correct for the time period used for the manuscript? Does your heroine say, "Okay," in 1809, for example? Does the hair and eye color stay the same for your characters--unless they deliberately take some action to change them.
  19. Do the characters each have their own speech pattern so that you can tell who is talking by what they say?
  20. Is the world you built, whether it be Regency England or a colony on Mars, consistent?
  21. Is the grammar and spelling correct?
  22. Have you gone crazy yet?


That's the list. Hope it helps.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

In the Beginning

For the last couple of years at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference in July, there have been sessions modeled on American Idol where three editors and agents listen to the first page--or as much of the first page at they can stand--and comment. While a number of folks think this is cruel bcause it does, usually, have some element of public humiliation in it, I have found it incredibly useful.

You really begin to understand how an agent or editor can make a decision about a manuscript with perhaps the first line. You learn what works and what doesn't, and it can surprise you. This last summer (2006) there were several entries which, as the editors and agents put it, were not that bad, but they just didn't grab anyone. The writing was okay and the characters were okay--but okay won't get you a contract. Many of them spent the first page just describing things, without giving you any sense of the character's situation and immediate problem.

Even more interesting was the amount of redundancy even in the small pile of entries that were read. I mean, with just a selection of about 20 first pages, you had several where the stories started out the same. What are the odds? You would think there would be more variety in such a small sampling. Two had almost identical first lines, i.e Sex sells. Which highlights the first point you need to know: when agents and editors say they are looking for something different, they really mean it, because they get hundreds of manuscripts which are virtually the same, right down to the first line.

Many authors had cute/shocking first lines like Sex sells which turn out to be as common as dandelions. They forget that all the other authors are also trying to find cute/shocking first lines, and apparently, everyone comes up with lines that are pretty much just cliches.

From the entries read, here is a brief a breakdown of some of the similiarities. These are things that will make the editor/agent roll their eyes because they see these all the time.

  • The hero who is being forced to marry for x reason (usually family duty). There were several entries that started out this way.
  • A wounded hero (one story went on for quite some time expounding upon the hero's headache/head wound, which triggered a lot of snarky comments about whiny heroes by the editors/agents)
  • Heroines masquerading as men


  • The woman is about to get married, but looking into the mirror, she reflects that she doesn't know why she wants to marry this particular guy. Two stories started out this way.
  • Two stories (thriller/suspense types) both started out in South America--a real turnoff for agents/editors
  • Two stories started out in the killer's viewpoint, and/or with an actual killing
  • Heros or heroines with excessively cute children, or just children. As they mentioned, children are not sexy and have a tendency to focus the story away from the romance. The agents and editors did not want to see any more heroes or heroines with children, trying to find a babysitter so they could go out on a date.

However, while those particular scenarios caused a lot of eye-rolling and "Stop!" comments, there were other things besides trite or "I thought this was unique--only it isn't" situations. There were actual flaws that even the audience began to recognize within a line or two.

First Line

The first line has to be good. It sets the tone for the book and there are a number of readers (including editors) who will not read the manuscript if the first line is boring or yucky. If you're writing a thriller, don't make the first line so gross that it puts your reader off. Shocking first lines backfire most of the time (and cause a lot of guffaws). Don't start in the killer's POV. In fact, start in the hero or heroine's POV, because that is the person the reader needs to identify with if they are going to read the book. In a mystery, be aware that if you start in the POV of the victim, you'll make the reader wary about sympathizing with any character because they'll be afraid if they like the character, you'll kill the character off.

Study the first lines in your favorite books and see what makes them work. What grabs you? Your first line is the hook--make sure the barb is sharp enough to catch your reader.

  • If your tone is witty and humorous, make the first line witty and humorous. Or wry.

Well, maybe she wasn't all that blonde, but it'd be a crime to call hair like that light brown. Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde.

Winter is very democratic. Marion Chesney's Hasty Death.

  • Make the first line interesting. Pose or imply a question the reader will need to have answered.

The man first started noticing it in 1998. Lisa Gardner's The Killing Hour. Poses a question you want answered: who was the man and what did he notice?

He fled for the border. Susannah Carleton's The Marriage Campaign. Again, she poses a question: why is he fleeing for the border?

First Paragraph/First Page

Avoid too many details. Be very, very sparing of description and details. Excessive details killed several entries because it took too long for the author to get into the book. You want to get into the characters and their situation as quickly as possible. Preferably within the first line/first paragraph. Save details for later in the book, although even then, make sure the detail counts! Don't add detail just because you can, or because you think it sets the mood somehow. Agents and editors call this "over writing" so be very, very wary of it.

Avoid too much mystery. Don't get cute and withhold information. I know you want to surprise your readers, but don't delay telling them who your hero/heroine is and what their situation is, right up front. If you withhold information, your readers will withhold their interest and you'll lose them. You don't have to give us this for BOTH the hero and heroine in the first line, but you need to introduce us to one of these characters in the first line and show what that character's immediate issue is. Do it within the first paragraph, if possible. If you don't give us some information, we won't care enough to get past the first page.

Now, this initial issue may not be the main conflict (either internal conflict or external conflict) but it has to be some sort of a conflict to get our interest and hook us, and it should be either related to the major conflict, or lead to it.

If you haven't given your reader a sense of the central character's initial predicament by the end of page one, your reader isn't going to get to page 2. If you are a journalist, you know you have to answer: who, why, where, when. You have exactly the same task for page one of your novel.

Remember: you can hook your reader on your first sentence or you can lose them. It's up to you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Marriage is officially dead

I'm so sad. I saw statistics from the U.S. Census the other day and the average U.S. household now no longer consists of married folks and their kids. Less than 48% of households have married people in them--at least people married to each other. Which makes me very glad that I'm looking at the tail end of my life, rather than the beginning of it. I mean, how depressing.

Very disturbing.
And no, I don't think the minute financial/tax penalty for married people versus single people had anything to do with it. I think people now just lack any incentive to make marriage work. In fact, I see this as one thread in a huge blanket of interconnected things. Like books, for example. What is hot in the book industry? Books that end with marriage? No. Erotica. Marriage is no longer THE happy ending. It's not something to strive for, to work at.

People are starting to lose the concept of marriage as the "happy ending" in favor of immediate gratification. The new happy ending is getting the big "O" with or without a partner, multiple partners, or whatever. I suspect this may be because people have not seen happy endings in their own lives. They've seen marriages (when marriages occur) break up. Their parents went from one relationship to another, blending families, breaking them apart again, and reblending until the kids learned that nothing was permanent. They learned at an early age to look only to themselves because all human relationships appear to be temporary: the man who was your father last year isn't this year, and his son, who was your brother last year, is not related to you this year and maybe doesn't even live nearby anymore.

What can your kid do to protect himself or herself? Learn not to attach too strongly to anyone. They learn that maybe the only happiness anyone can find is to scratch whatever itches them at the moment. A few years ago, Demi Moore was a perfect example of this. She was held up by a lot of women's magazines as being "so brave to follow her own star and break up with Bruce Willis" when in reality, all she was doing was having s*x with anyone who piqued her interest and to heck with what that did to her family, her kids and her husband. She didn't care about anyone or anything except that itch. I don't find that brave. I find that sad. I find it sad that people can't look beyond their immediate gratification to see what they have already. I find it sad that people aren't willing to place any value on their existing relationships and families, or to work through whatever issues they may have.

I guess I can't understand it because for me, the decision is so simple. I don't cheat on my husband because all I have to do is think about his face if he were to find out. The thought disappointing and hurting him appalls me. And through all the arguments and problems, I think about *not* having him around, and no matter how tough any one patch gets, it is always better to have him there, than to *not* have him there. So it makes me sad to think that others see no value in the concept of weathering life's storms with someone who is willing to stick with you through all the rain and gales. They just jump ship and swim to some other port.

Jobs...relationships...everything appears to be so disposable. If you have a problem, don't bother to work it out--it isn't worth the effort. Just move on to someone or something else. Everything is transitory. Ultimately, relationships are meaningless because they're disposable, too. Why really connect with someone when there might be a better someone at the next table? Or just connect temporarily, knowing you'll keep looking until you find that "better person".

However, I suspect that although I find this sad, other folks reading this will just think I'm a jerk, because, really, what's the problem? If everyone is happy and you get to have, like, maybe 2000 partners instead of a handful in your life, why shouldn't you? Stability is boring. Get over it.

How really sad.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


If you really, really want to be a writer, there's one thing to realize: you can't wait for inspiration to strike. Think of it like lightening--a near miss is probably preferable to a direct hit.


Anyway, if you want to be a writer, you really can't wait. You need to start writing, now. And you need to keep on writing. And journals are not writing, so forget that. You can't count journals. You have to write every day on a manuscript or short story or something like that. I, personally, think writing every day may be a little excessive--you do need a day or two off each week. That's why they give you two days off each week from other kinds of work. But, you do need to write at least five days a week, preferably on a schedule, and not just that blog or journal junk.

Because the thing is, if you write when the mood hits you, you'll probably do it so sporadically that it will take you ten years to finish one manuscript and editors/agents are going to want to see a little better production out of you.

So set aside a specific time, even if it's just 15 minutes during lunch, 15 minutes before work, and 15 minutes after work. For me, I write between the hours of 8-10pm weekdays and occassionally on weekends. Obviously, I've had to give up prime time television, but hey, that's okay. Everything in life involves tradeoffs. I prefer to be a total ignoramus when it comes to popular culture, than to not write--or write only sporadically. It's either write at night or write in the morning and go to bed early, so either way, I'm not watching television.

Also--get busy. The busier you are, the more you will produce. Set deadlines. Get stressed out. These things are good. You see, the thing is, the more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to bother to write. It seems counter-intuitive, but being busy, knowing you are busy and have to keep to a schedule, will make you actually write more when you do write.

I also have a group which sets weekly, monthly and yearly goals, and we report on whether we've met our goals. The group therefore offers a way to "hold your feet to the fire" as well as offering support and encouragement when you need it. I really, really encourage you to either join a group like this, or create one. Lots of places (e.g. Google, Yahoo, MySpace, etc) offer free group services to let you set up a group, so look into it. It's worth it.

Finally, every year I do NaNoWriMo. That is National Novel Writing Month ( that challenges writers to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Do it. You will amaze yourself and others. :-) You will learn what you really can do when you drink too much coffee, set unrealistic goals, and don't shower for a few days.

You really can write 50,000 words in 30 days. Really. And after a few days, you sort of don't notice the stink anymore.

Now go and do it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More on Creating Sympathetic Characters

Previously, I wrote about creating sympathetic characters, and the focus was on making sure your audience understood your characters' motivations. If your readers know why a character is doing something--even if it is something bad--they are willing to go along for the ride. Mostly.

There's another piece to this puzzle, however. In creating any character, you have to give the reader something they can like about the character. I'm avoiding the word "trait" because that doesn't carry the right connotations for me. The list of these crucial characteristics is not very broad, because the real ones--the ones that will make your readers care about the character no matter what that character does--are just a few in number. They are the ones which make you see some glimmer of the best that humanity has to offer. They are what define us as humans.

Your characters don't have to always display this quality, but they have to display it near the beginning of your book and during the worst moments in the book. They have to display it at the beginning in order to keep your readers reading, and during the darkest moment or moments because this quality shows who they are.

Characters do not need to portray every quality in this list. One is often sufficient. You don't want to end up creating a Sir Galahad who was so perfect that most readers simply couldn't stand reading about him (although I'm just referring to the popular conception of him--not the somewhat tarnished paragon of virtue in the Arthurian legends and Morte de Arthur). Nobody likes perfect people, unless said person is a villain. That's also true for physical perfection, so keep that in mind.

So what is this list of qualities?

1) Integrity. On some level, your character has to show they have some level of integrity. Even a hero who is a crook may have a code--like not ratting on their friends--and it's critical to create a situation in the beginning of the novel that shows the hero or heroine acting according to some internal code.

2) Honesty. Again, the hero/heroine doesn't have to show honesty in all situations, but there must be a line and the reader must realize the hero/heroine has a definite line they will not cross. For example, the hero could lie like a rug to most women--until he meets the heroine. Then, he starts feeling like a cad when he lies to her and gradually, he finds he can't lie at all to her, revealing an innate sense of honesty he never realized he had until he met her, blah, blah. Obviously, this is an angle that works well in romances, but it also works in other situations and other genres.

3) Decency. This one needs little or no explanation. The hero and heroine in most works (other than literary fiction or erotica) must have some sense of decency. No lusting after children, for example--which I had a hard time even writing.

4) A Sense of Duty. This is a great one--it's one of the big reasons military guys/cops/firemen/S.E.A.L.S and so on are so hot. Because they get it. They have a sense of duty. Women readers translate this internally as the type of man she can depend on, and who won't disappear on the way to pick up a loaf of bread when she's 9 months pregnant. This trait is what made Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so sympathetic, and ultimately, what let him destroy the ring and its evil.

5) Protectiveness. If your character sees a wrong being committed against someone, and tries to stop that wrong, you can guarantee that your readers will like your character.

If your hero and heroine display any one of these qualities, you will create a character the reader can trust on some level. A character the reader can sympathize with. Even if the character is otherwise a pretty bad person.

Here is a beautiful example.
In the movie Payback starring Mel Gibson, he plays Porter, and he's really not a nice guy. In fact, he's pretty much a psycho-criminal-dirtbag. He and another criminal steal $140,000, but Porter's wife conspires with his partner to steal the money and leave Porter for dead. There is a lot of violence. Porter acts pretty badly. That's basically the movie.

But you know two things about Porter: you know his wife and partner betrayed him so you feel sympathy for him at the beginning; and throughout the movie, Porter only wants his $70,000--his share. He's not greedy. He's actually got this weird streak of integrity.

This is not my favorite movie, and I don't particularly like Porter, but because of this stubborn streak of integrity that makes him actually decline to take the entire $140,000 when offered it, he gets your attention.

The script writers gave him three things to make the audience care:

  • Porter is betrayed at the beginning and left for dead by his wife and partner. That helps, but you can't rely on the "I'm a victim" sympathy-vote for long. I don't recommend this for heroines unless she proves herself to be strong later because it pushes her too close to the wussy-baby heroine. However, a lot of movies use this as the initial audience grabber (think: The Punisher and a lot of Steven Segal's movies.) So once they have your attention, the writers go on to give Porter...
  • Integrity. Throughout the movie, Porter constantly reiterates--he only wants his share, not the entire $140,000. He's not greedy.
  • Protectiveness. Toward the end we meet a new love interest for Porter. And he gets to protect her from his...yes...his ex-partner.

So even though Porter is a dirtbag, the audience can at least root for him because he displays some of these essential qualities that we idealize. He shows some glimmers of the best we humans have to offer.

And that's how you create a sympathetic character, even out of someone who you actually don't want to meet. Particularly in a dark alley.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Put off until tomorrow...

Sorry - I know a lot of you have figured out that I post new stuff on Tuesdays, but I have to put this one off until tomorrow. But I promise there will be a short thing on developing characters tomorrow. It'll be worth it, believe me.

I had to write the newsletter for my rose society this evening, so I'm running a little behind schedule. At least I'm writing, and I've almost finished my final edits for the paranormal I'm getting ready to send to my agent. I've even renamed the darn thing, since I've thought of a second manuscript in the series and a different title seemed more appropriate. It's got vampires in it--I know--everyone is doing vampires these days, but I do have some different twists, so I hope to see this one in print sometime in 2007 or 2008.

It might have a chance, particularly since I actually won first place with it in the paranormal category of the Dixie First Chapter contest. That was pretty exciting, and the contest coordinator even sent me a lovely crystal box as my prize. (Note to self: write the coordinator a thank you note!) Of course, I'm hoping for the BIG PRIZE--which would be to get the darn thing published with a traditional publishing house. If not, there are always the smaller houses, and one way or another, I'm going to get this baby published.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know the blog will be a day late. But it is coming.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Organization 101 for Writers

One of my writers groups recently had a discussion about ways to keep track of all the stray, creative ideas we get, and how to organize our work. There were some amazing ideas on how to make sure you don't lose anything that might spark a new novel, and how to organize your work once you begin writing.

As always, I have my own opinions and my own way of doing things. I also have one major piece of advice: no matter what you do, make sure you have a strategy using multiple layers. What one layer doesn't catch, the next layer might. It's the same reason a parachutist has a backup chute. Never depend upon just one method.

No matter what you do, you will need to pick and chose a few methods that work for you, and you will need some paper-based methods as well as computer-based. There will be times when you will not be at your computer and you will get the most brilliant idea...

So what do I and other writers do?

Paper-based Strategies
  • Almost everyone who talked about their strategies mentioned that they always have a pad of paper handy, wherever they go. This ranged from small, spiral notebooks to yellow sticky pads, to index cards.
  • Some writers prefer to have a small recorder (iPod, tape recorder, digital recorder, smart phone, whatever) they can dictate to when they get a brilliant idea.
  • Some people (me included) email things to themselves.
  • When a new concept for a novel strikes, some writers use a file folder to hold all their notes, articles clipped from various sources, pictures, and whatever else inspires them. Several authors I know write a big "W" inside the file folder and plot out the novel right there on the folder using the "W" method. (Think: highs-lows of the plot or building to the black moment and then resolution and you'll understand how the "W" relates visually to the traditional 3-Act story.)
  • Some buy those composition notebooks to hold their ideas or begin a new novel.
  • A couple of us use a 3-ring binder. I go one step further and try to buy colored 3-ring binders because my books often seem to associate themselves with a particular color as the story evolves. One author even went further than I did and said she also buys color-coordinated neon paper to match the binder, and she writes notes on the paper of the appropriate color, as ideas occur to her.
  • Binder users also have the advantage of being able to purchase plastic sleeves in which to insert articles, pictures, notes, and what-have-you, to hold things securely together in the binder.
  • When I've finished the 2nd draft of a n0vel, I also print it out on pre-punched paper, printing it double-sided (to use less paper) and put that into the binder so I can read it in a form similar to a book. You'd be amazed at what mistakes you can catch when you see it "down on paper."
  • Some authors prefer those plastic accordian files with lots of pockets to hold material for their novels.
  • I also use a FAX paper scroll as I write, as my continuity sheet. I write down what is going on in each scene, what people are wearing, where/when the action is taking place, etc, so I can visualize it and see it "all at once" on one, long sheet. It has the advantage that I CAN see it, all rolled out, if I want to, versus a spreadsheet which limits you to what your screen can display at any one time. It is also more portable than my desktop computer and it's more fun to scribble on. :-)

Computer-based Methods

  • I use OneNote to keep track of some ideas, blurbs, and things I need to do such as contacting my agent.
  • I use the Access database to track submissions.
  • I recently purchased Writer's Cafe which has two components: Writer's Cafe for keeping track of ideas, web sites, etc, and StoryLine for actually plotting out your story. I think the programmer made a bit of a mistake in creating the product, since you can't link the ideas you've developed in Writer's Cafe with the story you plot in StoryLine, so I don't use Writer's Cafe. I refuse to enter the same information twice. However, it is one way to do things, and might be good for you.
  • There are always word processing documents and spreadsheets. Bob Mayer uses a lot of spreadsheets, particularly when plotting out a novel, since you can use the rows for your multiple plotlines, and the cells to contain your plot points and other critical information such as dates/times, etc.
  • I use a spreadsheet to track how many pages I write each day.
  • I also have the following folder structure for each manuscript I write. The top folder is the main folder, named after the working title of the manuscript. Then I have the various sub-folders as show below:

Manuscript Title (as the main folder title)
Manuscript.doc (the manuscript itself is in this folder)
Contract Information
Assimilated Critiques
Old Drafts

  • I have this "framework" of folders set up, along with a "blank" manuscript.doc file that has the formatting styles I use for manuscripts defined, so when I start a new manuscript, I just copy the entire structure and paste it under My Documents. Then I rename the top folder to be the working title of my new manuscript, I rename the manuscript.doc file to use the real title, and I'm ready to go! I also tend to save a shortcut to my current manuscript on my "desktop" so I can just double-click on it whenever I want to write.
  • The Manuscript.doc file, in addition to have the styles I use defined, also has the title page set up with my agent's information, and a header defined. In addition, I have "pre-done" chapter titles and section breaks between the chapters, so I just have to write. It has twenty chapters already set up, although I frequently end up adding more chapters. The point is to make it as easy as possible to write and stop focusing on the silly formatting details which only contests really care about, anyway.
  • One final trick: in my Manuscript.doc file, I change the header to be "different" on page one (the title page) so that it does not show up on the title page, and then I tell it to start at page 0. That way, the title page is page 0 (with no header printed), and page 1 starts where it should start, with Chapter One, page 1.
  • I also use an AlphaSmart when I'm in writing mode, since it is great for writing, but keeps you from wasting your time futzing around and editing when you should really be writing.

That's a fairly comprehensive list of all the tricks I've heard other writers say they use, and that I use, myself. None are perfect, which is why a layered approach is so necessary. You will probably need both computer and paper methods to make sure nothing slips through your fingers.

Good luck and let me know if you find some other method that works well for you!