Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brain Dead

Sorry—it's going to be a lousy blog this week. One of our pets developed a heart issue and stopped eating, among other things. She was somewhere around seventeen years old as near as we can reckon. At least we got her seventeen years ago from the animal shelter and she was already an adult at that point, so she was at least that old. So, as you may have guessed, she passed away today and I'm wiped out.

And this incident was the culmination of several similar incidents this week that all seem related to attachments, emotional commitments, and why I'm such a crybaby. All I can hope is that this will someday make me a better writer. (Probably not, unfortunately, because being good at whining doesn't necessarily make others want to read your whines.)

It's been a rough couple of weeks for me because of animals. Two weeks ago, some jerk abandoned four puppies in a bean field about two miles from our house—in the middle of nowhere. We found them when we were out walking. The puppies were starved and covered with various parasites. We feed them and managed to get one adopted before we took the rest to the animal shelter. And at the animal shelter, there were already a variety of animals including two dogs some family said they just couldn't take with them because they were moving, and a lab that some woman brought to the shelter because the dog refused to let her in the house. (Now, why would a dog refuse to let its owner into the house? That really made me wonder.)

And yet there I was at the shelter, trying not to weep and feeling like a complete swine and duplicitous-betrayer for taking those puppies to the shelter—even though it was the best thing for them. They weren't even my puppies and I felt like shit. I still feel like shit, even though we did get one adopted and they do have a chance of adoption at the shelter where we took them.

So what I want to know is how those other people could just abandon their pets? Or abandon a litter of puppies in a field, miles from anyone, knowing that they would probably starve to death. What the hell is the matter with them? Don't they have any emotional attachments to anything beyond themselves?

I never thought of myself as the emotional type. I mean, any story described as "heart-warming" is an immediate turnoff. I can't stand weepy chick-flicks and if a book is billed as "makes you cry and laugh" then there is no way I'm going to read it. I'd rather read a good horror story any day. I've got enough problems without searching for more emotional jerking-around. I HATE to cry.

But I get deeply attached to things, like people and pets. I sure can't just abandon them and yet I see other people doing that all the time. I see spouses cheating on each other. I see families just throwing out dogs and cats down country lanes and I can't understand what the hell they are thinking. And yes, I consider the pets to be members of the family so it seems perfectly reasonable to talk about all family relationships, including pets, in this rant.

The only conclusion I can come to is that others either don't care or they are emotionally wired in a different way. They obviously don't form the deep attachments I'm accustomed to. They don't care if they hurt their spouse. They don't care if a pet dies a long and lingering death covered with parasites, diseased and starving. They just don't care.

And I just don't get it.

Maybe, ultimately, that's why I write. And in particular, why I gravitate toward writing mysteries. Because it is a mystery to me how mankind can be so desperately cruel and thoughtless. I'll probably never really understand it, and in answer to that inevitable question: Haven't you ever wanted to kill anyone? No. No, I have not. I've despised certain people, but I've never wanted to do damage to anyone. I don't know why. I'm not a particularly good person. I have the world's worst temper, however, I generally prefer just to curse a lot and write mean things in blogs. I don't like to destroy things. It makes me feel bad.

Writing, though, gives me an opportunity to try to understand these other people with their otherwise incomprehensible motivations and thought processes. I can develop scenarios where I think people who have these other behavior patterns might commit the ultimate crime. It's a way to try to make sense of the world around me and a way to deal with my oft-times uncomfortable emotions, such as grief.

There are no answers, only more questions: therefore, I must write.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Writing and Editing

So here I am slaving away, editing a manuscript and I'm thinking…how do these other authors produce books so quickly? Not that I can't write the initial draft quickly. In fact, I've written a 90,000 book in two months. But that's just the first draft. And I've even edited manuscripts in just a few months and given the results to my agent. Unfortunately, those results are never what you would call a quality product, however.

Because the thing is, it takes my mind time to go back through it and find all the little things that my subconscious planted but did not "elaborate on" when I wrote the manuscript.

Here's an example from one of my current projects. It's a contemporary mystery called Whacked! In one of the first scenes, the heroine's uncle finds a dead body by a stream running through the back of their property. Now, I had a good reason for that and I elucidated on that reason—which was fine. But after a few months, my subconscious has finally tapped my conscious mind on the shoulder and said, "You know that scene where the uncle finds the dead body? Well, here's the real reason why I wanted you to have the uncle find that body, even thought it was hard as heck to set up that scene and have the characters have decent motivation that made sense at the time."

Without time to allow that to percolate up to my conscious mind, the story would have been okay. It would have made sense. But it would be missing an entire range of meaning and depth which I now hope it will have. Assuming that I can work in all the elements I now see need to be in there.

If I was under a deadline, how would that work? I guess it would have to stand as it was originally, without the added depth.

It puzzles me greatly because I see these big long fat books written quickly by authors like Allison Brennan and I'm thinking: how the heck does she write that so quickly? How does she get the depth?

I have to write the first draft—or even just the first half—and then let it rest. Ideas percolate. I work on something else. I edit for sequencing issues, which is my big weakness. Thankfully, though, the process of editing for sequencing and continuity actually clarifies things and makes the entire manuscript improve in mysterious ways. Through this process, my subconscious hands me things I needed in the first draft but either didn't recognize or just failed to include. I also have to add descriptions, emotions and motivations since I have almost none of those things in the first draft. My first drafts tend to be bare bones action and dialog with occasional spurts of description, emotion and motivation when I feel guilty about not including those elements initially.

After following the classes given by Crusie and Mayer, I'm thinking that Crusie (at least) also has a similar method. She writes and then she rewrites. And rewrites. I'm not sure how quickly she can turn something out, but I get the feeling that her turnaround time is not just a couple of months.

If I had the time, I think an interesting task would be to find out how long an author took to do a particular book. Get that information for several authors and several books. Then compare books that took a year or more to write/rewrite versus books that just took a few months (if that). I'm really curious to see if there would be differences in the depth to the books, or it is really just a matter of how fast a particular author can write.

My personal experience as a reader has led me to believe that the faster a book is written, the more facile and shallow the story. Even stories that have seemingly complex/convoluted plots seem to just lack depth when they are produced quickly. But again, this is just my entirely subjective experience. I also base this upon what vague and incomplete information I have about how quickly certain authors churn out books and my reaction to their books. Completely unscientific.

Nonetheless, I do think that the one thing a writer should do is give herself (or himself) time to properly develop a story and edit it. And edit it. Until it achieves the depth and clarity it deserves.

Now I've got to end this for tonight because I really am working on editing and I'm trying to get a manuscript done so I can send it to my editor.

Happy Trails!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Edit the Manuscript; Lose the Voice

As I mentioned in previous blogs, I just suffered from another series of rejections. So I took the first chapters of several manuscripts I've been working on and ran them by an unbiased (and unrelated) third party. Discovered something interesting. Editing is not always a great and wonderful thing. My "least edited" chapters are the best. By far, the best.

The rejected manuscripts had been edited too much. I tried to make stories that ran around 90,000 words fit into 75,000 words and as a result, I removed most of my voice and almost everything that made the characters understandable: like internal dialog and motivation. I also cut out so much that what was left was confusing.

Yes, sometimes it is possible to take a 90,000 word manuscript and cut it down under 75,000, but only if you actually have unnecessary scenes and a lot of extra verbiage. Or a few extra characters and subplots. If you don't and your writing is fairly tight to begin with, when you cut it that drastically, you are probably going to end up with a mess. I certainly did.

Maybe it's just me, though, because Reader's Digest condensed books seem to read "just fine." But…anyway.

Good Editing

Good editing is mostly structural. You get rid of unnecessary scenes that don't support and advance the storyline. You add in those little clues and red herrings the mystery requires. You reorder your sentences so that events and actions occur in the proper sequence. You fix the grammar.

If you're like me, you also add in descriptions, clarify motivations, and make sure the reader can understand what is going on. (My first drafts often only include dialog and terse action. You do need some descriptions, though, and your characters have to have some thoughts, emotions and motivations. Not everyone can psychically pick up on a character's internal emotional life and motivations the way I can. Of course, it helps that I'm the one who created the characters.)

Bad Editing

Bad editing is where you piddle around too much with how you are saying things. It is okay to substitute a stronger verb for a weak verb/adverb combo, e.g. "he ambled" instead of "he walked slowly." It is not okay to massage your sentences until you lose the original verve and power. That, my friends, is how you lose your voice.

I'm not a big fan of all this voice stuff—I think everyone has a voice. Your voice consists of your word choices and how you put thoughts together. That's it—no big mystery. However, the editing process is dangerous, because you can take all the freshness and life out of your writing by polishing it to death. Removing words. Substituting words. Nit-picking. Deleting sentences you need or watering other sentences down to make them "more acceptable." The trick is to learn when to stop.

Actually, I think the real trick is to realize how to edit. You don't want to change the words, you just want to ensure they make sense in the order written. Check sequence and mechanics. Check for action.

Then let it go.

(Unless you've already edited the holy heck out of several manuscripts and need to put them back together again. In which case, you have my profoundest sympathy.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Writing Remediation

With the help of another writer, I managed to figure out at least some of the issues keeping me from publishing a second book. A few of my problems are sequencing. There were several variations of this, some easy to fix, others more difficult. The good news is that they are all fixable.

If you've been writing for a while but still getting rejections, you might want to think about what I'm going to say. It's the kind of issue that may make you decide: this isn't my problem. But I urge you to reconsider.

Think about this. You get rejections that say your writing is competent but "not for us". Or, your critique partner marks passages that she says make no sense. But when you explain them to her, the paragraph you have written makes perfect sense to both of you. You think: What the heck was her problem that she didn't understand that? It was clearly written—she's got to be an idiot or had a brain fart or something. And so you move on to correct other things.

These may be symptoms of a sequencing issue.

Sequence issues can be broken down into a few categories. Each category has to be fixed in a different way and that is why you need to be able to separate them.


This is this simplest and you can generally find them pretty easily.


Beth and Joan went into the bar. She ordered a drink.

Beth is your heroine. When you wrote this, the scene was in your heroine's point of view so it seemed okay. In your mind, the "She ordered a drink" part is clearly Beth.

Or, perhaps because Joan was the last name referenced in the preceding sentence, you may think your reader will naturally know Joan ordered the drink.

It doesn't matter if it is clear to you as the author. It's not clear to the reader. You actually need to replace "She" with a name to make it clear which woman ordered the drink. Easy. That's a problem most writers catch on rewrites, although the occasional pronoun confusion still slips through at times.

Sequence and Causal Effect

This is much more difficult and it is one which causes me grief all the time. It is what makes others say my writing is confusing. Here is a simple summary of this issue. When humans read and process information, they make assumptions. In an action sequence, one assumption is that the action in the first sentence caused the action in the second sentence.


There was a loud knock at the front door. Glancing up, Tricia screamed when a mouse scampered across the floor.


The innocent reader or critique partner will read this and say, "Huh? Why did Tricia scream at a knock on the door? Did it startle her or something?"

The author is going to reply, "Huh? I can't see what is so confusing about this. There was a knock at the door. THEN Tricia screamed BECAUSE she saw a mouse running across the floor. I SAID that. I SAID that she screamed when she saw a mouse scamper across the floor. There is nothing wrong with that paragraph."

The critique partner is then going to shrug and say, "Well, okay. I see that you wrote that Tricia screamed WHEN a mouse scampered across the floor. I guess it's okay. Maybe you should just replace 'when' with 'because'."

Author said, "Oh, fine. I'll do that."

But that is NOT OKAY. It does not address the problem.

The human brain is going to read the first sentence, which indicates there was a knock at the door. The innocent reader is now waiting for a reaction. The reaction they read next is that Tricia glanced up and screamed. By the time the reader gets to "when a mouse scampered across the floor" the reader is confused. Or the reader is making the assumption that the loud knock startled Tricia and she's a nervous woman who screams when someone knocks at the door. Then Tricia saw the mouse. Or whatever.

You've now lost both your reader and your potential publishing contract.

So that paragraph needs to be rewritten to reestablish the causal relationship between the sentences and the sequence of events.

Corrected Example

There was a loud knock at the front door. The sudden noise scared a mouse out of hiding and it scampered over the carpet just as Tricia glanced toward the door. Tricia screamed at the sight of the rodent running toward her…

You see the difference?

The loud knock scared the mouse. The mouse scared Tricia. That is the sequence and causal relationships. If you change the order around it will be confusing no matter how clearly you write the second sentence.

Too Much Action in One Sentence

This one is also difficult. I have a tendency to try to write economically and densely. When I was a programmer, I'd do anything to save one byte and made the code more efficient. I have a habit of wanting cut out all "unnecessary" words and transitions. I want to pack everything I can into once sentence. Unfortunately, what works with computers does not work with people. We need time to process information. We need to see what is going on. Most importantly, we need transitions if characters are going to move from one place to another.


The carriage came to an abrupt halt. Before Chilton could react, the footmen opened the carriage door and escorted him into the library.


The innocent reader or critique partner will read this and say, "Huh? How did he suddenly get into the library? I thought he was sitting motionless in the carriage."

The defensive author is going to say, "What? I said, the footmen opened the carriage door and escorted him into the library. Obviously, if they escorted him into the library, he wasn't still sitting in the carriage. He's now in the library. Sheesh."

The critique partner is going to say, "Oh, okay. Fine. Whatever. So now he's in the library."

There was just way too much action packed into that sentence without any transitions. The reader couldn't follow along properly. One minute Chilton was in the carriage, the next he's in the library, with no transition or sense of movement in between except that one, paltry word "escorted."

Corrected Example

The carriage came to an abrupt halt. Before Chilton could react, the footmen opened the carriage door. They yanked him out and escorted him up the front steps and through the front door. Then, before he could summon up a protest, they marched him straight down the hall and into the library.

You see the difference?

Now I'm not saying this is deathless prose in the corrected examples. In fact, the writing is still pretty bad, but at least it doesn't leave you with the feeling of having missed something. Or maybe it does.

But at least it's a start and I feel like I've learned something.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Open Door

Wow, it's already Wednesday. I usually update my blog on Tuesday, but I got sidetracked. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I stumbled onto the train tracks on four separate occasions and got hit. I'm still reeling a little. Mostly because I don't seem to learn. My inability to learn can summed up with a certain bitter poignancy as:

  1. I've yet to learn that I'm a pathetic excuse for a writer.
  2. I've yet to learn how to write real, as opposed to caricature, characters.
  3. I've yet to learn how to plot.
  4. And I've yet to learn how to actually write. As in, create understandable prose.

As you might already have guessed, I got my first review for my first book this week. It was pretty bad. Oh, not the review—that was very well written. My book is apparently pretty bad. To quote:

It is a shame that Michael and Margaret couldn't have their story told in a more organized and better thought out way. I had trouble following the action, and couldn't quite picture what was supposed to be happening and by whom. The narrative was just too jumpy. The storyline isn't awful, but the author's style needs improvement for me to want to read her again.

So you can see how that relates to numbers 3 and 4, above.

And then, to reinforce this learning experience, I got three rejections which pretty much puts paid to everything I have completed at this point. The rejections covered items 2, 3, and 4, as in:

The writing was occasionally stilted and forced and many of the secondary characters came across as caricatures. …[And] the story felt a bit uneven…

However, as a whole the manuscript lacked the strength and life to continue on in our process.

One issue that I repeatedly found is that you have a tendency to throw multiple thoughts into one sentence making it difficult for the reader to follow.

…however, several of them come across as caricatures rather than fully realized people. This is especially true for Helen and Archer. I didn't connect with the hero or heroine very strongly—especially the heroine. The repetition of ideas got to be a little frustrating and several of the jokes and threads of suspicion fell flat. I didn't buy into the romance and found the writing on the whole to not be as strong…

Okay. I think that about covers it. Looking at those, item number 1 above should be fairly obvious.

Now why on earth would I share this information with anyone? Because of number 1.

Obviously, I have room for improvement. Vast expanses of green field just waiting for me. Lots of ways to make hay. For example, I could fix my prose. Or, I could fix my characters. Or I could correct my prose, my plots, and my characters. I could learn how to write.

But all of those things require that I actually continue writing and don't actually accept item number 1. Maybe that's wrong. Maybe I should say that I accept that I may be the world's most pathetic and awful writer at the moment and I may never be a brilliant writer (because one could argue I have no talent if I can't do a single thing well) but I can be a better writer than I am at this moment.

The only way to become a better writer is to continue writing. Yes, I agree that some people are gifted. Some folks are brilliant with characterization. Some have astounding plots that leave you gasping at each twisting turn. Other writers have such gorgeous prose that you can't help but read them just to hear the melody of their words. So maybe I'm not one of those writers. Maybe I have to sweat and slave over each small improvement. Maybe nothing comes easily. Maybe I have no strengths as a writer, only weaknesses.

Maybe my published book was a fluke. (Perhaps it is a bad fluke, but it was published so it must be at least marginally better than anything else I've written in the last five years.)

But no one said writing is easy and there is always something new to learn. When you stop learning, you're either dead or a quitter. Of the two, I have no control over the dead part, but I don't intend to be a quitter. (I know—I could always kill myself—but again, I'm not a quitter.)

In the end, all the rejections and reviews are doors. You can open them, look inside, and perhaps learn something. Or you can lock yourself out of that opportunity.

So for other writers out there: if you're talented, great! I don't know why you're reading this or how much you'll get out of it, but whatever. For those who are suffocating under a few pounds of rejections, just keep going. That's all. Keep learning and keep going. You can't possibly be any worse than I am. J

That's it for my motivational speech. Now get back to work.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I almost posted an email on the Crusie & Mayer blog to apologize to them for my incessant arguing when they are spending a great deal of time sharing their writing knowledge, but I refrained because I wasn't sure how that would come across, either. So I'm posting it here, instead.

You see, I argue to understand. The process of arguing lets me think through a new idea, poke at it, come up with exceptions, and then in the long run, understand how to implement or adopt it.

Unfortunately, that is not how that process comes across to other people. This point was vividly brought home to me by a brief conversation with my mother, a few months prior to her death.

"I wish you wouldn't argue about everything," my mom said.
"But I'm not really arguing," I replied.
Mom sighed. "You always argue--you always have. Why can't you just do what we ask for once without arguing?"
"I usually do end up doing what you suggested--I do listen to what you say."
"But not without arguing about it first and by the time you're convinced or do something, I'm already tearing my hair out because you're so stubborn."

That's the problem. I know I seem stubborn because I argue about everything, but I'm helpless to stop that behavior. It seems to be essential for me to process new information and understand how to deal with it. How to make it fit.

To other people, I just seem argumentative and by the time I actually DO do what they say, they already feel like they've lost the argument and any sense of satisfaction is gone (when I do end up doing what they asked). And I'm sorry for this, because I--on the other hand--feel like "things went really well" and that we're all in sync with one another when I do work it out.

Mostly because to me it's not an argument, it's a debate. And I can get all fired up but five minutes later, I'm smiling again and don't have that lingering aftertaste you get with a real argument. That's really the difference between a debate and an argument. You get just as emotional and fired up with both of them, but when a debate is over there are no hard feelings. At least on my part. I can't remember five minutes later what it was about and an hour later, I've worked the suggestion into my mental processes to the point where I'm perfectly comfortable with it.

I mean, like this whole "you can't have characters hiss, sigh, moan, groan, or whatever in dialog when you write." I argued about this on the Crusie/Mayer workshop. In point of fact, during recent years, I actually haven't had any characters hiss/sigh/moan/groan dialog. I use said and reply most of the time. But I still needed to work through that argument because it's the way my mind works and I wanted to work out if there were any exceptions or things to "watch out for".

If I'm not arguing about something, it's because I either don't care about it, and/or I am NOT going to do it (so there's no point in discussing it). A lot of people I work or associate with have never actually realized this, but if I don't argue the point, THAT'S when the other person has a problem with me. Because I'm most likely not going to concede their point or do what they want and I don't care enough about it to talk about it. Silence is not golden nor is it accorde. It is the absence of sound and therefore, an absence of agreement.

So, apologies to Jen and Bob for my incessant arguments, but realize that this means I am taking what you say to heart and trying to work it into my writing.