Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


A very famous writer once said that if you are a serious writer, you should be paid for your writing. You do not give your work away for free any more than a doctor would offer free surgery to "advertise" or promote his work. Actors don't work for free unless it's a charity benefit or something similar. If you give away your work for free, you are devaluing it.

I can understand all of that, and it makes sense. If you are a writer, that is your career and your profession and you expect to make a living wage at it. At least you'd like to make a living wage. If you give away your work for free, how can you make a living as a writer?

There's the dilemma.

With my first book coming out in May (yay!) I'm looking at things to offer and tempt my readers. One of the things a lot of authors offer is a newsletter, and one of the things they offer in their newsletter and/or through their web site is "free" reading material. A serialized novel, perhaps, or short story. An excerpt, etc. With the expansion of the Internet, there has been a growing feeling of entitlement to free material, particularly the written word, and the offer of free reading material to hook more readers feeds into this.

Which brings me back to my original source that said: if you give away your writing for free, you are devaluing it and making it harder for you and other writers to actually expect to be paid for their efforts. Obviously, extrapolating this into some science fiction future where no one gets paid for writing and all fiction is either subsidized (a la public radio--you could have public fiction, I guess) or simply given away free by people who just like to write, is taking it too far. I don't see us ever really reaching that point--at least I don't think so. But there is some truth to the assertion that giving away your fiction for free devalues your writing. Either you think the material you are giving away is sub-standard and not publishable anyway (so why not give it away) or you have so much time on your hands that you don't mind working for no pay. If the quality of the work you are offering is sub-standard, will it really get you more readers, or will it ultimately drive readers away because they'll think you're the worst writer who ever lived?

I don't have any answers at this point, except I'm not sure that offering any of my fiction for free is a terrific idea. I work two jobs: my day job and my writing job. I put in a lot of hours. I want to be paid for my work and I don't want to offer people sub-standard stuff just to feed their need for Internet freebies.

On the other hand, I want to give readers something. Some incentive to go to my web site, read my newsletter (that doesn't exist yet) and hopefully, buy my books. Excerpts are okay as newsletter teasers, although I have to say, most of the excerpts I've read have had an effect on me that was not intended by the authors. Most excerpts have made me decide not to purchase the book. They are either boring or overwritten in some way that turns me right off. Very few (I actually can't think of any) made me purchase a book. The thing that always makes me purchase a book is the teaser/blurb on the back of it. So I really don't know that offering an excerpt is such a terrific idea.

This really is quite a dilemma. I'm leaning toward including Regency period non-fiction items in a newsletter, like recipes, bits of historical news, and that sort of thing. I want to offer something to my readers. They deserve something particularly if they spent their hard-earned cash to buy my book and slogged through the entire thing and didn't blow chunks or throw it against the wall. It would be nice if the books itself was sufficient, but these days, well, everybody wants more. Or at least I guess they do.

As a reader, I actually don't want more. I'm perfectly content with buying the books I want to buy and leaving it at that. I frankly don't want to know more about the author, although I will search out additional books if I like a particular author. I don't subscribe to newsletters or anything like that, but then, I have time management problems and I'm afraid to base too much on what I as a reader do or don't do.

Anyway, this bears a lot more thought and I'd be interested to know if other readers and writers like newsletters and have any expectations about free fiction. It's a big question mark.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mistakes to avoid in writing

None of the things I'm going to mention will kill your writing career, nor are they spectacularly insightful. In fact, they are things I heard a hundred times when I was still trying to find a publisher. Most are just common sense and will probably make you go...well, duh.

All of them made me go...well, duh, when I heard them, but the problem was, even though I knew them intellectually, I didn't know it right down to the bones. My creative side completely ignored them.

These are so obvious, you're going to laugh until you stroke-out, but here's another secret: you can read all of these and nod your head sagely, but until your creative side absorbs these lessons, you may have a rocky road ahead of you. My road has certainly been rocky and is still strewn with boulders the size of houses.

So...drum roll...ta da! Here is what I wish I had really understood when I started writing.

Write what you love.
(Didn't I warn you about 'well, duh'?)
Now I'll explain this. Back a million years ago a new writers organization formed called Romance Writers of America. They let folks who yearned to be writers join. I yearned to be a writer, so I joined. At the time, I read mostly mysteries and science fiction. And Georgette Heyer. No other historical writers. I just liked Georgette Heyer. Oh, and then I found a used bookstore and got a few nice Harlequin contemporary romances that were written by British writers and mostly set in England.

So sure. I read romance, right? At least in my mind, I did. I liked it. I expanded into gothics, which I really liked because it was like...a mystery with a happy ending (i.e. heroine gets the rich guy who turned out not to be the murderer even though she suspected him for like...the entire book). Cool.

Now, folks who read romance should already be thinking...well, you're not reading any romances written in the 90's or this century. And you're not reading any American authors except a few gothic writers (i.e. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden, Virginia Coffman, and Barbara Michaels--those were it, and I have no idea if in fact they were from North America or the U.K. I actually didn't much care for any other romance authors, although to be honest, I didn't try that many).

But I insisted I could write romance and I tried to write romance. Even though I have never read a romance written in the last 20 years. I went to a RWA conference and had no clue who any of the authors were--even the huge big names. Okay, I admit, I must have, like, lived in a cave or something, but I'd never heard of Julia Quinn or Nora Roberts or any of them. (I'm still fairly clueless about the big names in the industry--quite frankly, I have no idea.)

By now, you're probably thinking: this woman is completely clueless. You would be correct. But then again, years ago I met Isaac Asimov in the formal gardens behind the Governor's mansion in colonial Williamsburg and knew exactly who he was and got to shake his hand! I was so in awe, I completely forgot to take his picture. So anyway, it shows you where my head was at.

So, I tried to write romance. Not only that, I tried to write historical romance, because I absolutely adored Georgette Heyer. I had no freakin' idea that absolutely no one would publish a sweet historical anymore. I didn't even know the difference between traditional Regency (Heyer's genre) and Regency Historical. When I found out that what I wrote was traditional Regency, I also discovered that this genre is no longer being published and that the only historicals being published are Regency Historical, which are another kettle of fish (they are very sensual and the male/female relationship is the prime focus of the book).

Thankfully, a smaller publisher, Cerridwen Press, decided to give traditional Regencies another chance and is publishing me. (My first book comes out in May! Yay!)

But the moral of the story here is that I should have been more aware of current genres, what was being published, and written something that I not only love but that is actually still being published. I was lucky that Cerridwen is giving me a chance, but you really can't depend upon that kind of luck.

I was stubborn, however, because I knew that romance is the biggest category of fiction so I refused to give up the idea that I would write romance.
Anyway, we've beaten that dead horse into a puddle. So what else?

Target your book for a specific market, preferably for a specific publisher.
If you want Avon to publish you, then read Avon books. Your job, should you chose to accept it, is to write a book that "feels like" the other Avon books you have read. Each publisher's books have different things they go for, so you really can't just write a sort of "generic book" and send the same version to all publishers. Of course there are exceptions to this for some big breakout book, but the exceptions are fewer than you might think.

This point was brought home to me when I finally got a publisher. All of a sudden, I knew exactly how to tailor my book to fit the line. This is sort of a catch-22 for writers because you don't know what publisher will eventually buy you, so how do you tailor it?

You can revise your manuscript before you send it out, however, and match it as well as possible to the "feel" for a specific house. This is more difficult if you have an agent because chances are good they will take your MS and submit it to multiple houses and there shall be no tailoring. Oh well.

How did I change my manuscripts once I had a publisher? (I have to add, this was like a weight lifting off my shoulders--I mean all of a sudden, instead of trying to guess how I should frame my story, I knew! Eureka!) The following is only relevant for my publisher, but it gives you an idea of how it affects your manuscript.

I write stories for the Cotillion line of Cerridwen Press. They are traditional Regencies, which is a romance, so there does have to be a romance and it needs to be the major plot, but it is not so intensely focused on the male/female relationship. You can explore the society around them and have other elements of adventure/mystery, etc. (You can see why I liked this, due to my fascination with mysteries.) There is no explicit sensuality, which worked for me because as a writer, I'm find I'm not so intensely focused on just the male/female relationship.

So anyway, now I know that: my stories have to stay under the 75,000 word mark (tough, but I can do it with a lot of editing). Knowing that, it becomes very easy to edit out those scenes which make you go...hmmm. Oh, come on. You know know what I mean. You write something and then when you go back, it stops you. You go...hmmm. Then you read it again and the writing doesn't seem that bad to you and you decide after reading it a third time that it really is okay and you leave it.

Honey, I'm here to tell you that anything that makes you pause and anything that makes you even think, hmmm, has got to go. For me, trying to stay under 75,000 words alleviates a lot of the agony of deleting scenes or lines that make me pause, because I'm looking for places to cut anyway.

So, what else? I know the style. I know the heavily sensual won't cut the mustard (whew) so I can cut down on those elements.

If you want this in brief, I know how long my manuscript can be, how to format it for my publisher, what their "house style" is for grammar and punctuation, and I know what elements I can and cannot include. Because what I write fits so well into the Cotillion line, this has been enormously freeing and a huge weight off my shoulders because now I can write what I want, and my manuscripts fit within the "house parameters" for that line. I don't have to try to layer in sensuality, lush descriptions, and other things which just don't seem to fit with how I write and which therefore have an unpleasantly "additive" feel to them when I do try to add them.

Of course, we shall see if this is still working out for me when I get their decision about the second manuscript I've submitted to my editor.

The bottom line for other writers is that houses vary on everything from the length of the manuscript to levels of sensuality. Avon, for example, likes very sensual stories with very lush descriptions. They also like fairly dark stories (at the moment, anyway). My writing is totally inappropriate for Avon--it just doesn't mesh with their current lines.

So bone up on what your target publisher is doing these days and what sort of stories they like to see. Your goal is to send them a manuscript that fits within their line so well that they can't pass up the chance to publish you. But if the publisher you "want" seems to publish things you can't stand to read or stories that are not like the ones you like to write, I would politely suggest that maybe you're looking at the wrong publisher. If you try to shoe-horn your book into a style foreign to you, it will always just not seem right.

Delete anything that makes you go: hmmm
I already sort of explained that above. When you edit your stuff, you'll find those sections or sentences or even just a word that momentarily stops you. When you find them, after reading them a few times, you'll think: it's okay. I can get away with that.
You cannot get away with it. Believe me. Just delete it. Maybe save it out to a file if it is some amazing piece of verbiage, but delete it from your manuscript. If it makes you go hmmm, it will make an editor stop reading and reject your book. Editors are busy, tired people. Occasionally, they are looking for a reason to buy you. More often, they are looking at a reason to stop reading your submission, stamp it with REJECTION, and move on with the futile hope of eventually seeing what the top of their desk looks like again.

My editor found every single place where I thought I can get away with that. I ended up having to delete every blessed one. It would have been much better if I had just deleted them in the first place. I knew better, I just didn't want to admit it.

Your opening line and first page must grab the reader. Once grabbed, you cannot let go.
Yes. Published authors can get away with anything. Published authors often have to edit their book so heavily that the third chapter becomes the actual first chapter when it is published. However, editors know that a published author can probably "pull this off" later in the book so if it is a little slow to start, they know the pace and story will improve and the editor will keep on reading. Although after a certain amount of time, they may stop reading even a published author--it is not all just roses and wine.

This leeway is not granted to unpublished authors. If your first sentence is boring or you think it's a shocker that is bound to make the editor sit up and take notice, well, think again. The editor will read the first line, snicker, and stamp it with REJECTION.

I sat in on a session at a writers conference were they randomly read a handful of manuscripts. Out of this random sampling, several started with the line: Sex sells. Several started with the heroine putting on her wedding gown in front of a mirror and suddenly deciding she can't go through with it and running out of her own wedding. Several started with the hero having a pounding headache.

In other words, out of this random sampling, most were not unique at all, and the ones that tried to be the most unique ended up being the most common (and unfortunately laughable). And the editors totally hated it when the opening line was meant to be a shocker/attention grabber. They had heard all of those "shocking" lines before, ad nauseum.

What to do?
Don't try to be cute or shocking.
Open with the predicament. You know what I mean. Either your hero or your heroine is about to plunge into a problem. Open with your main character (even in a romance, one of the pair is going to face more difficulties than the other and it is really more that character's story, so start with him or her). You want to: open with your main character; show where they are; what they are doing; and why they are doing it. By the end of the first page, your readers should have a pretty good idea of that character's circumstances and what the first problem is that this character is going to face. The faster you identify the problem, the better.

That is what is going to draw the reader into the story, i.e. understanding the character's motivation and sympathizing enough with him/her to hope that the horrors faced by the character will be overcome. That is what keeps the reader reading.

Of course then you have to keep them reading. So you have to delete all the hmmm parts. Tighten it up. Don't drift off into byways and highways, unless it's literary fiction or you just don't give a darn.

Man, I thought I had some other things, but my mind has just gone blank so I'll end here.
Good night and hope for the best.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Eureka! Well, okay--maybe not

Over the past few years, I've been struggling mightily with descriptions in my writing and leisure-time reading. I couldn't figure out why I dropped so many books during the first few pages or at the latest, by the third chapter. Then I had this long, long business trip to San Antonio and read two books back-to-back and figured it out. Okay, I tried to read the first book, couldn't take it and by the third chapter I dropped it, and with a heavy heart and large sigh, I went into a bookstore at the airport and bought a safe bet: a book by a male author.

So sue me.

I know. Who would have thunk it? Me, a U.S. citizen and female author, admitting that there are only two groups of authors I can be almost sure will not make me drop the book by the third chapter: British authors and male authors. Don't get me wrong, there are some U.S. authors who are female that I can be relatively sure will write a story that gets a grip on me and won't let go...but if it's an author unknown to me...I get damp palms when I pick up a book--particularly a suspense--by a female author. I know very few that I will be able to finish.

However, this is purely subjective. What I am going to so reflects my personal taste, if not reflective of my own personal problems. However, I did get some insight into descriptive styles which is interesting, at least to me. I recommend that authors and readers pay attention since it will enable them to determine which books they will like or what style they prefer to pursue. I should also say that the descriptive style I don't care for is the most popular style in fiction today so that is something to think about, too. Particularly if you are an author with any sort of ambition to be on the NY Times Bestsellers list.

Basically, it boils down to point of view (POV) issues and poetic descriptions. For me, if I'm reading something in the hero's POV and he's just met the heroine who is fabulously good-looking, he is more likely to wonder: hmmm, I wonder if I can get into her pants and if she's good in bed. He is not likely to think: hmmm, what a lovely maiden with teeth like pearls and eyes that shimmer like the night over the ocean.

I don't know of any men, even poets, who are going to think something like the latter statement unless they are actually sitting down to write poetry (gag). (Sorry, I'm not much into poetic poetry--I'm more into smartass, clever, snarky poetry.)

Didn't I warn you that this was my own personal opinion? There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with you if you prefer the more poetic version (well, perhaps not my poetic version--which is admittedly bad). That is the vastly more popular style in fiction.

So let me give you some actual, concrete examples (and please forgive me, authors, if you recognize your work--I'm sorry and groveling at your feet).

Poetic Style
(This example isn't too, too poetic, but is shows two of the issues that made me stop reading the book. I'll point them out.)

Carly's eyes widened as she looked at the ancient door. The holes between the slats were big enough for her to step right through. Dan might not be the most outgoing man she'd ever met, but he'd kept her from a nasty fall.

"Used to be the town icehouse," he said, opening the cellar door. "During Prohibition it was the local speakeasy. Now it's the archive for the paper. They cut another entrance to the first floor around the corner, but this way is easier to get to the basement."

She looked up at him with hazel eyes that flashed gold in the unshielded overhead light. "Thank you."

Okay. Eyes that flashed gold? Whatever. But just whose POV is this, anyway? It started out in Carly's POV. Is she seeing her eyes flashing gold or did we just jump POV to good old Dan? And does that sound like something a man would be thinking? Maybe--I don't know, but...well, okay, I don't know but it doesn't feel right to me and it irritates me. That sort of thing will make me stop reading. It did make me stop reading.

So this had two flaws for me. First, when you are in a character's POV, she is not going to be thinking things like: She glanced up at him with melting, deep blue eyes. If the heroine is thinking that way, then I really don't want to read anything more about that character unless it is that she is hacked to pieces in the next scene.

Second, is the man--specifically this character Dan--really going to be thinking those thoughts? Not if he's the guy I think he is. I mean, look at that bit of dialog: short, choppy and to the point. So that description of her that follows just doesn't sound like him. And that is the biggest flaw for me with so many writers. Authors write descriptions that are supposedly in a character's POV, but it is not how that character would really be reacting or thinking. At least, to me.

Plain Style
I don't know what to call the "other" style. I associate it with male writers, a few women writers, and British writers (who seem to avoid inflicting poetic descriptions on their readers--or at least when they do--the character is thinking in a way that sounds like they might actually, really, think that way). You know, that previous sentence sort of sounds bad and U.S.-centric, so I apologize.

Here is another passage, by a male author. You'll see what I mean.

The photograph was a black-and-white glossy, eight-by-ten, framed and glassed. It was a Hollywood-style glamour shot that I associate with film stars from the 1930's and '40s. Full length, professional lighting.

Marlissa Dorn wore a black gown that accentuated how she would look if a man were lucky enough to see her naked: long legs, sensual symmetry of hips, breasts full and firm enough to resume their natural curvature once free of the garment's constraints.

The gown was black but glittered with sequins. She stood with hip canted to one side, her opposite hand held at eye level, a cigarette between her fingers. The woman was leaning against a black grand piano as if taking a break from performing.

I glanced at Chestra and studied her face for a moment as she sat at the piano and continued to play. I returned my attention to the photo.

Marlissa's cigarette was freshly lit. The smoke formed a lucent arc with the same curvilinear contour as her hips and breasts. She was staring through cigarette smoke at the camera, her hair combed full and glossy to her shoulder, head tilted in a way that emphasized the intensity of her gaze and the dimensions of her perfect face.

Her eyes were shadowed, I noticed. It added an exotic, smoldering effect.

Note that this is written in first person and it is entirely within keeping with the character's (the hero's) POV, attitude and style of talking. This was an interesting book for me because the author managed to pull off writing parts of it in third person POV when other characters, notably the bad guy, were the POV character, and first person POV when the hero was the POV character in the chapter. It was smooth and the characters always stayed in character. When they described something, it was described as that character really would think or describe it.

You can be poetic if your character is poetic, but the problem for me, particularly with popular suspense novels, is that the descriptions "thought" by characters do not seem to be "in character". It's like the author is putting words into their mouth (or head). And the words are always so...smarmy--at least to me.

Like I said, this is all purely subjective. If you like the first example--I think that's great and you are in very good company. It is currently the most popular style and is heavily used by top authors including luminaries like Allison Brennan, Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb) and James Patterson. Now, who wouldn't like to have their success and write like them? That's why I've made a point of saying this is purely subjective.

On the other hand, there are solid writers who use the plain style, including oddly enough, Georgette Heyer. She has fantastic descriptions but if you read them, they actually use very plain language and are always in the "voice" of the character doing the describing. Other authors? The writing team of Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer. Randy Wayne White. Charles Todd. Lindsay Davis. Sue Grafton. Lauren Henderson in MY LURID PAST has one of the most amazingly erotic almost-have-sex scenes I've read in a long time and although I didn't particularly care for the ending (is it really a happy ending when the heroine drags the hero down to the level of taking drugs so they can do so together really a happy ending?) the writing is superb.

So you can see, the actual styles cut across gender lines to some extent, but I would say that for the most part, romantic suspense written by women will use more poetic language, particularly in describing the heroine. Mysteries tend not to use the poetic style. Suspense and crime fiction written by men tend not to use the poetic style.

If you are writing, I strongly urge you to consider which style you prefer and hone your skills. If you're a reader, it pays to know what irritates you so you can avoid buying books you will never finish. There is no right or wrong. There is only subjective taste.

And of course there is the fact that the plain style is obviously the only correct choice because it is the one I prefer. ;-)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Editing is Scary...

There's nothing like getting your first batch of edits to make you feel like a complete fraud. I mean, you tell everyone you can write and have the nerve to send out your manuscript(s) to everyone on that assumption. But then you get your first edits from your editor and suddenly, you realize how much you don't know. Or perhaps it's that you discover other people now realize what you don't know. It's really scary.

My editor sent my first batch of edits to me and she was really nice. She marked passages she loved so that I would know she didn't think the entire thing was utter drivel. And I remember that she liked it enough to recommend the publisher buy it, and the rest of the staff at my publisher liked it enough to agree.

But now I'm looking at all my errors and places where my story time line got way out of whack and I'm thinking: What was I thinking? How could I have missed this stuff?

First, there are all the comma errors. Granted, the grammar book I'm using has a copyright date of 1948 because my dad used it to teach English at his first job, but gosh. It's pretty bad when every sentence has a correction to remove extraneous commas. Obviously, I'm comma-challenged, or maybe that's comma-obsessed since I have too many commas instead of not enough commas.

What really makes me feel completely unworthy, however, is my editor's blithe statement to "do what you need to do to make the chapter end here and begin a new chapter". This gives me pause. A great deal of pause. Because I don't know the formula for creating a chapter ending and chapter beginning. This lack makes me feel completely incompetent as a writer. Wouldn't a real writer know how to make a chapter ending and chapter beginning?

I sort of never think about it when I'm writing. I end chapters where there seems to be a break of some sort or when I'm just plain finished with a scene. In other words, when I write, I don't specifically think that I'm writing the end of a chapter and I don't specifically think about it when I'm writing the beginning of the next chapter. I begin at the scene beginning and I end at the end of the scene.

The good news is that after I got over the shock of realizing that yet again I had gotten uppity and over-confident when I thought I could write...I studied a few chapter endings. Then I looked at the place where my editor wanted a chapter break, and the break was pretty much already there. I just had to formalize it (if you want to put it that way). At least I hope I've done it properly and that she will agree.

Then, I moved on to the tougher stuff where I basically lost track of the time line and character locations. This turned out to be due largely to my own insecurity and need to please. You see, a lot of agents and editors were interested in this manuscript, but they all wanted various things changed--mostly to make it darker and sexier. Unfortunately, instead of telling them that what they wanted would not improve the manuscript and in fact messed it up, I tried to do the changes. With each change, it went more and more into the toilet.

Luckily, my editor recognized there was still gold in the manuscript. She asked for changes before she bought it, but the irony is that the changes she wanted brought it back to the original form. If I had had more confidence as a writer, I could have avoided making changes that did not help in the first place.

The scenes that are messed up are messed up because of trying to insert stuff that really didn't belong in the book (i.e. steamy sexual encounters) or wasn't true to the characters. When I tried to bring the book back to a more consistent state, I ran into some temporal difficulties that I'm still trying to straighten out. I think I'll get most of it done this week, however.

Isn't it odd that during this single phase of editing, I'm realizing how much I don't know and how much I instinctively know as a writer? That's actually presents a difficult dilemma. How do you know when something really is wrong because you don't have enough experience in your craft, and how do you know when you should stand your ground and Just Say No?

For me in this particular case, I should have held firm on making the characters do things they really would never do; things that simply were not in the characters' characters. :-) But I do need to work on comma-control and writing shorter chapters. Which is funny because as a reader, I love shorter chapters. As a writer, I have a tendency toward run-on sentences and run-on chapters.

Well, you never stop learning, and thank goodness.
And thank goodness for smart--and patient--editors.