Saturday, December 20, 2008

Be a Perfectionist: Self Critique Your Writing

If you're like the rest of us fiction writers, then in that moment after finishing a story, you tend to sit back and beam with pride. "It's perfect. Here, world. Take it and love it. I do."

That moment of self-satisfaction lasts maybe a minute...maybe a week. You continue to enjoy the illusion that your writing glistens in gold font on that screen--until you manage to look at your manuscript again, this time with a more objective eye. Hmmm, you think. Maybe it's not so perfect after all. Maybe it needs some work.

Before your manuscript is ready to submit to publishers, you'll need to revise or rewrite portions of your gift unto the world into something the world has a hope of understanding.

Unfortunately, you've stared at your own manuscript for hours on end, day after day, week after week, until you can't see what's wrong with it. So often have you looked at the words you've written that they flow into your brain not from the page, but from memory. You see all your ideas, all the words you thought of saying and might have said--but not your actual execution.

To critique your own writing, first and foremost you need to be able to look at your manuscript not with a writer's eye, but with a reader's eye. You need to be able to see your story not as the one who loves it and was intimately involved with it, but as one who has no stake in it. You need to become objective.

To do that, change the font on your manuscript to something you've never used before. Reformat the piece with justified margins. Change the line spacing. Print it out. Then put it aside for as long as you can bear to. Come back to it in a week, a month, or even longer if you can, this time with the eye of a stranger.

When you've got that critical gaze focused on your manuscript, ask yourself what works and what doesn't. The merest inkling that something isn't working is a red flag to revise.

Notice your characters. Are they as charming as you thought they were, or are they annoying and unlikable? Notice your plot. Does it unfold in a natural, inevitable way, or does it seem forced? Read through your descriptions of settings and characters. Do you see an image in your head, or is the description too vague to elicit anything but confusion?

Look at your prose. Is it slow reading in places? Notice section transitions. Are they smooth and natural, or jagged and sudden? Mark up any awkward spots that make you stop and re-read. Mark up everything. The harsher a critic you are now, the less an editor and your readers will have to be critical about later.

Don't be afraid to throw out words. Don't be afraid to discard paragraphs, chapters. In the end, writing is about falling in love with your words; self-critiquing is about divorcing yourself from them; and rewriting, the next step, is about reconciliation.
Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our Doom is Upon Us: The Baby Took His First Steps

Only that. The baby took his first steps. We're doomed. There's really nothing else to tell.

Except - wait. There is something.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Good Characterization in Writing Fiction: Banishing the On/Off Character

It's been a spell since I posted any fiction writing tips. My writing tips are, incidentally, for beginning writers as well as intermediate and advanced writers. Although I like to blab on about plot, POV (which stands for point of view), characterization, conflict, and all the usual stuff, I don't generally go down the usual, obvious, generic paths of advice. I'm more about going through the side roads and back roads of technique...and coming out at a familiar intersection, where you cry, "Hey, so that's how that's done!"

I'm a big one for character-driven stories, so today's focus is on a common characterization mistake made by both beginning and advanced writers, and recommendations for avoiding the pitfalls.

But first, let's do definitions. Good characterization means many things to many people. Some take it to imply sufficient character development, which is the changing of your characters over the course of the story. Others believe good characterization refers to the process of "fully realizing" the characters' personalities--making the characters come alive on the page.

My take on good characterization is that it's anything in the story that allows your readers to identify with the characters. Anything that makes your readers feel they "know" a character, whether it's a major or minor character, is good characterization.

So one of the biggest problem I see with characterization in stories is the on/off character. The on/off character is one who acts in character one minute, then flips over and becomes Ms. Generic at another time when she SHOULD be acting in character.

A character lives and breathes for your reader not just when she's doing story-driven things--like plotting against another character--but when she's eating lunch, driving in her car, or getting dressed in the morning. Yet writers often miss myriad opportunities to breathe life into their characters.

Show who your characters are all the time. You don't need to go overboard. But never let your reader forget who is doing what. Situate your reader in the room with your characters where they can recognize one by her posture, another by his way of speaking, another by her hairstyle.

Don't be afraid of adverbs. Don't overuse them, but don't fear them. Adverbs are your friends when it comes to quick-and-light characterization.

"Go to bed," Mother said.

just doesn't pack the same punch as

"Go to bed," Mother said tiredly.

Take advantage of any opportunity to characterize, so long as it comes at the right time, it's appropriate to the story, and it doesn't seem an outright intrusion in the text.

Don't write:

"Darling," said George, "Would you marry--"

"What would you like?" the waitress interrupted them, wearing a whimsical expression, as though she were thinking of a place far different from her humdrum life.

"Fat-free salad with fat-free dressing," Eunice said gaily. "You were saying, George?"

but rather,
"Darling," said George, "Would you marry--"

"What would you like?" the waitress interrupted them with gum-chewing insensitivity.

Eunice glared at her, bit out, "Fat-free salad with fat-free dressing," and looked at George eagerly. "You were saying?"

Finally, it's OK to turn off your character's character if your reader's focus is elsewhere. Just as your reader would only focus on certain people in the room at a certain time, she only needs to focus on certain characters at any given time.

And again, don't go overboard. This post isn't a recommendation to repeat yourself, to use "tiredly" over and over until your reader feels positively accosted by the fact that Mother is tired.

I'm suggesting you round your characters out so well, and color in all your characters' different shades so thoroughly, and outline so many of your characters' subtle quirks, and show how your characters look standing before that background, that your reader can't miss 'em.

Comments? Opinions? Dissent?

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Da-da-da-DAMN. And Mama.

I was hoping to have an update for you on Junior's toddler adventures. So far, the biggest thing that's come out of his new venture in cling-walking is our bemusement over how many things are actually at a level of about twenty-four inches off the ground.

Drawers, laser printers, tabletops and their contents--or, let's be accurate--former contents, having been swept onto the carpet by an experimental hand. But that's all good. Those tabletops needed a good clearing, so I'm taking it as a positive sign of his wanting to help with housework.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack Obama Elected First African-American President - But Wait! There's More!

Last night, when I clicked on Google News (TM) and found myself staring at headlines that screamed out the forecasted election results--that Barack Hussein Obama II had been elected the 44th President of the United states--something odd happened.

I got swept up.

I'm not a black-and-white person--about politics, ethnicity, coffee, or anything else. To me, the world is filled with grays, tints, and shades that defy a simple analysis. I have trouble seeing the black and white that folks like to talk about, when the only black and white I see are outlines.

Already, everybody's talking about how historic this is--to have a man of African American descent entering the White House in January. And I see this. Oh, yes, it is historic. It's unprecedented. Clearly.

But to me the real impact of this election is that the U.S. elected a President born to a native of Kenya and a native of Kansas, a graduate of Harvard and a law professor who's admitted to moral mistakes, a man who could be described as an orphan or privileged, as savvy or idealistic. In other words, our President-to-be has not only demographics, but also a personal background unlike that of anybody else who's sat in the Oval Office. Which means we don't know what will happen.

I'm swept away because, for the first time that I can remember, I don't know what I'm seeing. We have no precedent. And it's a strange feeling.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog.

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 27, 2008

Twilight Monday: Dow May be Down But Baby and Writing Are Up

A content editor at eHow sent me an email today. One of my articles got noticed by The Vancouver Sun. This, in turn, sparked eHow to spot a hot topic and write up a Quick Guide with two of my articles mentioned.

And this is a Monday. Good things never happen on Mondays. Look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average of late. Mondays suck.

So, riding the wave, I brushed up a screwball comedy story for which I sold first worldwide electronic rights years ago, and sent it out. And while I was doing this, my husband pointed to Junior.

He was standing! On his own! For three seconds! Before he fell! Down! On his tush!

And he was so pleased with himself, he's been playing Look-Ma-No-Hands all day. Meanwhile, his father's been walking around muttering, "He's going to be walking soon. Oh, God."

For my part, I refuse to focus on the doom everyone says will come upon us when he's vertically mobile. After all, he already goes wherever he wants on his hands and knees. What possible difference can two feet make...?

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chicco Talking Farm Vs. the Baby: The Day the Toy Crumbled

This is less a review of the Chicco Bilingual Talking Animal Farm toy than it is a true story of one boy's relationship with his "white sheep" toy, as we call it.

"Let's play together with the animals and numbers. Press a button."

I'm working at my desk. Junior's practicing standing against the bars of his gated play area. And the Chicco animal farm toy is trying to get Junior to play with him.

"Let's play together with the animals and numbers. Press a button!"

Although it is officially known in stores as the Chicco Bilingual Talking Farm, the thing in question is known in our household as simply, "The White Sheep Toy," for reasons you'll see in a minute. A barn inhabited by farm animals, a couple of bears and a cheerful neo-Mr. Rogers voice, the toy boasts a sophisticated functionality that fails to impress our baby.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fiction Writing: You are Getting Very, Very Sleepy

"I like to read because it puts me to sleep."

When a reader says this, she means that she likes to read because it relaxes her. It calms her. So when she's read a few chapters and wound down enough for her eyes to start drooping, she puts down the book and goes to sleep.

As a writer, you have an obligation to combat this book-as-sleeping-pill kind of attitude. It's your job to keep your reader so very close to the edge of her seat that, far from putting her to sleep, you put her at risk of falling out of bed. It's your earnest duty to keep your reader up at night until she's bleary-eyed and useless the next morning.

Yet everywhere you look, writers are failing on the job. True, readers get hypnotized often enough. But it's not the I-can't-put-it-down kind of hypnosis. It's the I-am-getting-very-very-sleepy kind of hypnosis. Do you really want to be writing books that serve your reader only slightly better than One sheep-two sheep-three sheep...?

Think about your own reading experiences. You snatch a book, any old book, for that long commute where there's nothing else to read but your seat-mate's newspaper. But ask yourself: how many times while driving have you stopped traffic because you couldn't put the book down long enough to notice the light change to green?

Not many, I'll wager!

Why this atrocity?

Well, do I put this delicately? Too many books out there are boring. Boring, boring, boring.

I'm easily bored. Most of us are. We've got television, radio, movies, the Internet, crowds, and cities blasting at us on all sides and numbing our senses. We're tough cookies to entertain.

So, the question is, how? How do you keep your reader hooked? How do you compel your reader to ignore that nagging voice urging her to put the book down and turn out the light?

One trick of many is to vary your sentence structure.

Yes. Sometimes flat writing is due solely to something as simple as that. Overly simplistic sentence structure can bore readers to sleep.

Compare these two passages:

I looked out the window one clear, spring day. There was a dog in the garden. He was eating the grass. He'd chew it up and spit it out. Then he'd start all over again.

I ran outside. "Stop!" I cried. He went on chewing.

I saw his tail wagging. My heart melted. I took him inside with me.

I was staring out the window, enjoying the clear spring day, when I saw him. A dog! In my garden! Eating my grass! And he was spitting out every bite, too, the rascal.

I tore down the stairs, dashed out the back door--and stopped short. That dog was standing there, chewing away and gazing at me.

Gazing at me. Wagging its tail. My heart melted. Right then and there, I brought that dog inside, and Scrungy's been with me ever since.

The first passage is, in its own way, easy to read. Short sentences, simple syntax. But who would read it, given the choice?

There's nothing wrong with using "deceptively simple" sentence structure, but "deceptively" is the key term. Do the work of making your prose lively and readable. Don't make your reader force herself to read on.

Because, you know what? Your reader won't bother to force herself to read on. Why should she? If given a choice between trudging through passage after passage of flat monotone or planning the next day's laundry sort piles in her head, your reader will be thinking towels--whites--cold colors as she lies in bed at night.

And if your reader wouldn't finish your book, an editor wouldn't finish the first paragraph. An even more compelling reason not to write boring stuff...

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vagueness: A Technique of Rhetoric--And Journalism?

"There's something wrong with this sentence," a certain person said to me. "Listen."

"'Concerns about falling employment, incomes and wealth have overshadowed relief from lower energy prices'"

He was reading an article in today's Seattle Times online, Fallout from financial crisis hammers housing.

"Aaargh," I said. "I can't stand sentences like that. You know what the problem is?"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fiction Writing: Point of View (POV) Shifts

I was part of numerous critique groups for many years. I would often hear beginning writers cry, "Aha! Point of view shift!" They were usually pointing out what they were taught is the first cardinal sin of fiction writing. I wish I knew who was responsible for spreading "No POV shifts, no way, no how" advice around like it's going out of style - because it is out of style.

There's nothing wrong with shifting your point of view within a story. Now, it is wrong to shift POV without acknowledgment in the text. Use "he thought" and "she considered" and your character's name and such devices to clue your reader in that hey, you're switching point of view on her. That's all your reader asks. She's perfectly willing to look through another character's eyes.

If it's necessary to the story, that is. Building tension is an effective way to use point of view shifts, for example.

Eunice looked at George and made her decision. Yes, that was what she must do. In fact, she'd do it immediately.

George looked at Eunice. What was she thinking? He didn't like the expression on her face at all...

On the other hand, beware of a POV shift detracting from the tension. There is such a thing as momentum in fiction, after all...

George's head was spinning. Eunice's beauty was making him dizzy. He wanted to grab her and hug her and squeeze her and just kiss her all over her flawless body. He wanted to praise her eyes to her and all that other mushy stuff. He adored her.

"Eunice, will you marry me?"

Eunice's mother glared at George. How dare he whisper in her daughter's ear like that? George was a no-good loser who still lived at home with his mother. She remarked as much to her friend as she sipped her punch.

"Wow, George," Eunice said, to George's delight. "Like, I'm so flattered!"

And remember, your reader needs transition. Clumsy, gratuitous POV shifts are just, well, clumsy and gratuitous.

Eunice wondered what George's problem was. "Are you, like, totally on crack?"

"Only figuratively, as I crack for love for you," George said with deliberate sarcasm. Above all, he must not let her know of his very real adoration.

Eunice could only snort. George was an idiot.

But point of view shifts are fabulous for lending irony to a scene. Check out this glimpse into Horrendous Horace's mind...

Eunice sighed. Horace was such a bore. If he would only say something interesting, anything, maybe she'd fire him as her accountant and ask him out.

Horace smiled and went on talking, thinking that Eunice was beautiful, and after he robbed her, knocked her on the head, and left her prone body under the sofa he'd have to go home and check out her profile on Facebook. Maybe after this was all over, he'd ask her out.

Just be consistent. If you've told your entire novel from Eunice's point of view, and in Chapter 58 you suddenly decide on a whim to shift at the last moment to George's POV 'cause wouldn't that be neat--maybe rethink that.

Then again, if this is it, the Climactic Moment, and you've taken the polls, done the market studies, and established with finality that switching to George's point of view in paragraph 6 of Chapter 58 is the best, the only, the primo way to beat your reader's emotions to a pulp, then go for it. And do it well; otherwise your venture out on that limb is fated for a fall.

And really, that's it--the only cardinal rule of writing there is. If you're going to use an exceptional technique in fiction, then do it well.

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Suffering from Writer's Blech

Sleep Safari, my nonsense-rhyme picture book, has been rejected by four publishers. That may not seem like a lot. But given that there are only about ten publishers left in the universe willing to look at unagented submissions, Sleep Safari's future prospects don't look all that pretty.

Sleep Safari is my bittersweet love, my fractious darling that, like the veriest Generation X'er, I fear will never leave home, which must be why I stubbornly keep sending it out into the world.

So here I am, contemplating rejection, when I find something that cheers me right up. It's a quote in an old cover letter from Kelly Link, who once gave a children's fantasy short story I wrote the honor of an "Editor's Choice" in the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror.

My story was, she said, a “wildly inventive, enjoyable, light-hearted confection of a story...much in the style of Lemony Snicket, or Lynne Reid Banks, or Joan Aiken's Arabella and Mortimer books.”

I will not think about how the piece is still unfinished and unavailable to market to editor Sharyn November at Penguin, as she later recommended. Or how I don't even know if Sharyn November is even still with Penguin. Sigh.

I feel so much better now...hmmm. Let's go write some content.

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Writing Till I Drop: Tales of an Exhausted Content Writer

I've been writing tons of how-to articles at eHow.  And since it feels like the recession is already here, I'm writing articles on celebrating Christmas during a recession. Doesn't the economic crisis feel like a replay of Hurricane Katrina? You can see it coming, you know it presages disaster, but not enough people are taking it seriously....Maybe I'm just feeling negative today.

And then there's the articles at Constant-Content. They all follow this format I like. Catchy Title: Long and Informative Subtitle. I'm really getting into titling my articles. I think I may just try to market the titles alone. Anyone know where...? Oh, boy, now I am getting cynical...

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 6, 2008

I'm Starting to Sell My Writing Content Online

Yippee! After being off of work to take care of my baby, I'm now starting to work again from home. And I get to do what I love best, write.

I've already started to sell articles at Constant-Content. I've even started an account at eHow.

This is not exactly scholarly stuff and it's not the fiction that is my first love, but it's bringing in - gasp - money!

I'm just tickled that I can actually earn money from home this way.

Oh, and I'm also writing for Textbroker and Demand Studios. So we'll see how it goes. Once more...yippee!

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved