Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Five Stages of Writerly Grief

Hope to raise a few grins with this one. ūüôā

Stage 1: Denial
This story is awesome. My hipster ballerina who fights crime with her indestructable¬†tutu and her magic finger is like no other heroine I’ve ever seen. Screw the sparkly vampires. THIS is going to be the next new thing! My crit group just doesn’t get me. And I¬†just know that new chick is going to steal my idea. I’d better copyright this story pronto! I’m only getting rejected¬†because I’m an unknown writer–but how can I become known if no one will give me a chance? The publishing industry is just so unfair. I’m going to play World of Warcraft.

Stage 2: Anger
Writing sucks. No one understands me. Why is he getting published when I can’t¬†even get a decent rejection? My stuff is just as good. So my grammer isn’t always perfect?¬†What the hell are agents and publishers looking for, anyway? A good story? Or good grammer!? My story is f**king amazing! It’s ridiculous that I can’t get anyone to work with me on this.¬†Fine! When I finally do get published, I’m going to make sure all the idiots who rejected me know what they missed out on. They’ll be sorry, just like all those publishers in England are sorry they didn’t take Harry Potter! A couple hours of WoW will make me feel better.

Stage 3: Bargaining
Form rejections suck. If I can have one personalized rejection, I’ll write a new story. Just one. Is that so much to ask? I’ll tell you what I won’t do. I’m not going to write another new word until I sell my hipster ballerina story. Not one word, do you hear me? Why would I¬†waste the time on something new if I can’t sell the old one? It’s just logic. And don’t start the, “why don’t you try revising” crap. This is what I wrote, the way I wrote it. It stays. I’ll be playing¬†WoW until my demands are met.

Stage 4: Depression
I am never going to be published. Why do I even bother trying? The publishing world is against me. I¬†don’t know the right people. Hell, who am I¬†kidding? I suck. My story sucks. Any future story I write is going to suck even worse. I’m an embarrassment to the word writer. I can’t even claim to be a scribbler! Scribbling is too good for me. My toddler has better grammer. My dog barks better dialog than I¬†can write. Why was I even born!? Oh, yeah…to play World of Warcraft.

Stage 5: Acceptance
I’m never going to be published if I don’t improve those things getting me rejected. I have to learn how to spell the word grammer–erm, grammar–before I can even hope to understand the many concepts that make the written language the thing of beauty I aspire to create. I have to write, and rewrite until¬†my work is¬†the best I can make it, and if it’s still not right, I have to do it again. I have to keep my mind and ears open, really listen to those who know¬†more about the craft than I currently do. I have to believe in myself, my talents, my stories. I have to write what’s inside instead of trying to catch a wave, or start a new one.¬†Most of all, I¬†have to sit my ass down in a chair and write. THEN I can play WoW…just for a little while.

*Elisabeth K√ľbler-Ross introduced this model in her book, On Death and Dying, 1969.
Note–I have nothing against World of Warcraft. I’ve never played. In its place, you can insert ANY activity you do instead of using the time to write.

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Cheat-sheet to characterization

Characters, whether the novel itself is character or plot driven, are¬†a book’s¬†best assets. Through them, we see the story, the setting, the conflicts, the¬†tragedies¬†and the triumphs.¬†Toned down to props or larger than life, characterization is crucial to any work of fiction.

There are many ways to draw effective characters. These are simply the most basic points.

1: Dialogue. Internal, external, dialogue is tied for the most important part of creating a character. Giving a character his own voice, a distinct, easily recognizable voice, is crucial. For example, same gist, worded differently:

“I didn’t do nothing! It was Jaybird what did it!”

-vs-

“I did no such thing, for pity’s sake. It must have been your no-account cousin, Jay.‚ÄĚ

You get quite a different image for each, no? Simply by the way they speak.

2: Tied in with dialogue is how your character responds to situations. Is she given to fight? Or flight? Does your character speak out? Or speak when spoken to? Is he a clown in large gatherings, yet quiet in small groups? How a character behaves is as important as how a character speaks.

3: What is your character‚Äôs story? Character needs to grow out of a sense of place. Setting plays a huge role in Oliver Twist’s character. There are plenty of wretched orphans in literature, but where Oliver comes from creates who he is. Where do your characters come from? Rich or poor? Loved or abandoned? City or country? Knowing these things will give you insight to his dreams, her fears, and how they came to be dreams and fears. Your character‚Äôs story will tell you how she will react to the plot you throw at her.

4: Names. What you name your character will set a tone your reader may never be aware is being set. Does the name have a short sound? A hard sound? A long, luxurious sound? Does this sound work to cement your character’s traits, or contradict? For example: Giladriel is lovely, lyrical, cultured. The sound of her name fits her character. Frodo is a Hobbit–sturdy, practical, short and to the point. Yup, fits the name. But what if the character of Giladriel was instead called, Gertrude? And what if Frodo Baggins was Beauregard Gardersmythe? See what I mean? Whether you name your characters appropriately, ironically, purposely contradictive, even invisibly, know why you’ve named your character as you have. You will know more about your character, and be better able to show that to the reader.

5: Description (IMO, the least important part of characterization.) We need a few details of what the character looks like–blond,¬†short, stocky, a wonky eye. Unless their physical appearance lends something to the story, keep them as nondescript as possible. Captain Hook’s hook is part of the story, part of his character, but the exact shade of his eyes really isn‚Äôt.

Each one of these simple steps¬†will lead you into another, more subtle aspect of characterization. Just remember–writers, can never know too much about their character; a reader can.¬†As much as you love knowing that your character¬†got her first kiss after rolling down a¬†hill with her best friend,¬†if it doesn’t pertain to the plot, your reader isn’t going to miss it.

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When you’re tempted to do it…DON’T!

Don’t eat caramel apples when you have a loose crown.

I learned this lesson long ago, after biting into a caramel apple knowing,¬†like¬†Snow White and her fateful apple, it would end in disaster. Why? Oh, I don’t know. Why do any of us step onto that pretty path,¬†knowing it’s the wrong one to tread? Is it the exhilaration of tempting the Fates? Thinking maybe, this once, they won’t be looking?

It seems to be a recurring theme in writer-world–one I’ve fallen into time and again. In fact, I did it recently with the novel I’m working on Walk With Dreams. “You’re going too far with this plotpoint, Terri!” I heard my inner-editor murmur. She didn’t speak loudly enough when she should have hit me with a 2 x 4. I ended up delete-delete-deleting.

D’oh! If you suspect that¬†what you’re doing is going to lead you into peril–Don’t do it!

“Oh, look at the shiny plot bunny!” Don’t do it!

“I’m going to switch around the motives of my protag and antag¬†in the middle of the book! What a killer twist that would be! Don’t do it!

“I’m¬†continuing¬†with my story about Lucas Moonwalker,¬†an orphaned boy seeking his destiny, and the half-man, half-machine villain who is really his father. I’ve never seen Star Wars. It’s not copying if¬†I’ve never seen it.” Don’t do it!

“I’m going to nudge that agency I sent my manuscript to last week. They’ve had it long enough.” Don’t do it.

“Ooo, look! A hairpin. Ooo, look! An electrical socket. I wonder what’ll happen if…ZAP!”¬†Don’t do it!

Though I used to do it quite a bit, I’ve learned to recognize it and¬†back away¬†from the¬†electrical socket sooner, rather than later. When I did it with A Time Never Lived, ended up with 30K words of a manuscript in the recycle bin.¬†With this last time, only about¬†2K words¬†ended up wasted time–but it was still a day of writerly-time I’ll never get back.

Many writers hate deleting work so much that they won’t do it at all, and end up going in circles. I betcha dollars to donuts that most stalled work has more to do with a plotline winding out of control and an author unwilling to ditch it than anything else. I am the queen of delete, I have to say. It doesn’t bother me to toss a week’s worth of work into the recycle bin. Ok, that’s a lie–it does bother me, but I do it anyway.

Do you? Can you?

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My “Novella” Rant

My fantasy work is quite long, between 135K and 144K words. That’s pretty standard for epic fantasy. Though there are those who will argue, and attempts have been made to do “epic” on a small scale, I’ve yet to see something that satisfies me. “Epic”¬†requires big ideas, world building, intricate characters and plots and, thus, many words. Epic or not, 135K is¬†most certainly a novel.¬†And yet,¬†Seeking Carolina is only 70K words, but it’s still a novel. As far as romantic women’s fiction goes, I’m well within the word-count boundaries. If it had come in at 135K, I doubt it would have sold; the genre tops out at about 90K.¬†Books tend to be categorized by word count, and I get it–it’s one of the easy markers of what’s inside the covers. But¬†the word count is a result that comes about¬†from something more, something less easily defined, but definitely present.¬†¬†And here is where my rant begins…

By all outward appearances, a novel is a work of fiction¬†of around¬†70K+ words. A novella¬†tops out at around 40K words, and a novelette¬†at about 17K.¬†Shorts can have as few as 2K words, and up to about 12K. Flash-fiction varies, but generally as few as 100 and as many as 1500 words. These numbers vary,¬†I’m aware, but this is where the general consensus lies.¬†But the stories themselves are not about word count. They are art forms, separate and distinct, and the novella is getting the shaft.

A smaller word count will naturally cut down on how many plots one has going, characters involved, points of view used. The longer the word count, the more intricate one can be, the more inventive. Plots and characters have more room to stretch. Those differences between the forms are simple logic that result in certain word counts.

Novelette used to carry¬†the connotation of being something light, fluffy and trite. Now it¬†labels works of¬†fiction that are more than¬†short stories, but less than novellas.¬†If the aim of a short story is to¬†focus on a single narrative¬†with the greatest economy of words (thus tight focus on plot, pov, theme, etc)¬†then a novelette goes that one step further. It can push beyond the necessary boundaries of a short story to bring a larger scope. I must say that, by the day’s standards, I can’t¬†quite figure out what constitutes a novelette.¬†In method and form, it is so close to short story on one end, novella on the other that I’m finding that the only¬†consistent difference is word count.

But the novella…the poor, misunderstood novella. While outwardly seeing a surge in popularity, the novella has essentially lost its true meaning.

The novella is¬†not¬†the just another step between short fiction and long. Word count is a¬†necessary result of the form itself, not the definition of it. So forget about word counts and how they’ve come to define the¬†form. While novelette is etymologically small novel, the word novella comes from the Italian word for new. It was, at the time of its conception,¬†a¬†new art form, the first inklings of which appeared in serial form around the 10th century (Arabian Nights, Decameron), but not being given¬†established rules of structure¬†until the late 18th century.

It is this structure that defines a novella, not word count. There are no designated chapters in a novella, rather they are presented as a whole divided by white space to designate a significant shift. Plotwise, it ends quite close to where it begins. In fact, little can and usually does change if at all. The form concerns itself more with the character development, the evolution (or devolution) of that character, than it does on plot conflict. The internal vs. the external. Novellas usually end on the moment of climax, on the brink of change.

It’s not just about word count, and that’s what bothers me, because what passes for “novella” these days bears little resemblance to the art form it is. A scene from a longer work is not flash-fiction. A chapter from a novel does not make a short story. And something between short story and novel does not make a novella. It’s no more about word count than Haiku is. If that is all you make it about, you lose¬†the essence of what it is at its core and thus, you lose it entirely.

I know, I know–novella sounds so much more literary than novelette (the “ette” putting it on par with luncheonette, launderette, toilette, cigarette–all being “small” and trite.) It is a losing battle, one I’ve been steadfastly arguing for many years. It’s just a shame to lose this art form for word-count marketing and disdain for “ette.”

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That and Which

Let’s get something straight at the very beginning–when I write about grammar, I’m talking about the written word, not the spoken. Spoken language and written language are, whether the most prescriptive of us alive can stand it or not, two different things. It is my opinion that the written word needs to follow grammar rules the spoken word can let slide. Let us also get straight that American English and British English are also two different beasts. I am fully aware that the Brits use that and which pretty much interchangeably, even though their basic grammar on the matter is the same, and they prefer which, while Americans overuse that (before a verb, ie: She knew THAT she had to go home, rather than, She knew she had to go home.)¬†The Brits also love the past imperfect at the moment–a huge no-no for American writers–but that’s a horse of a different color, and changes with the tide.

Disclaimer noted!

I’ve written on this subject before, and I admit to gakking past posts to write this one, but that and which apparently¬†and continously remain a¬†challenge to writers everywhere–and I don’t mean those of us who write professionally. The internet reminds me of this on a daily basis. It is one of my pet peeves, and something I am a stickler about seeking out and destroying.

The rule:
THAT is used with a restrictive clause, part of a sentence you can’t get rid of without changing the meaning, because it restricts some other part of the sentence. For example:

Mice that don’t like cheese will never fit in with mouse society.

It doesn’t matter whether or not this statement is true; what does matter is the that don’t like cheese cannot be taken out of the sentence without losing¬†the meaning. It’s a restrictive clause. Without that clause, the sentence says that no mice will ever fit into mouse society.¬†With the clause, it’s only those unfavorably disposed to cheese that won’t.

WHICH is used within a non-restrictive clause, part of a sentence that can be left out–not which can be left out–without changing the meaning. Non-restrictive clauses require a comma, or commas. It’s an easy indicator. Restrictive clauses don’t usually require commas.

The building, which stood on the corner of 1st and Grandview, was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion.

Which stood on the corner of 1st and Grandview is the non-restrictive clause. It is an added bit of information that can be removed without actually changing the meaning of the sentence. The building is demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion. The clause is an aside, a bit of information that, while clarifying, isn’t necessary. And there is your biggest clue–if you can take out the clause without changing the general meaning of the sentence, use which.

The above is an example of a non-restrictive clause plonked down in the middle of a sentence. The ones tagged on to the end get a little trickier.

The building was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion, which was an unhappy event for anyone.

vs

The building was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion that was an unhappy event for anyone.

Can you see the subtle–and some will say, totally irrelevant–difference? With the comma + which, the above sentence says that the¬†destruction of the building¬†was the unhappy event, while the second–taking out the comma and replacing¬†which with¬†that–it says that the Great Mouse Rebellion was the unhappy event.*

Does it matter? To some it won’t. To some, it will. There nevertheless is a difference in meaning. And that brings me to my last and, for me, most important point–that¬†tends to be a¬†filler word, a word we lean on when connecting thought to image, image to thought.¬†I don’t like filler words, even though I overuse that like a champion. It is invisible to me while writing first draft, and the first search I do when starting revisions.¬†Which is almost always an aside, and thus, telly. Not only is it telly, it’s author intrusion. You’re waving a flag for your reader, pulling them out of the action to give them information better given another way.

Like adverbs,¬†that and which are¬†necessary. They’re beneficial. They can do the job when called for; just be aware of how often you do the calling.

(*And before you argue that the first sentence could say both, in fact, it can’t. The building¬†being destroyed is the event–during the Great Mouse Rebellion is a prep-phrase¬†modifier. The clause goes to the former, not the latter. It’s like knowing 5 + 5 x 5 + 5 = 35. You have to know what goes with what–and that is what commas and such are for!)

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