Taking Time Off

Hi all. I just wanted to take a minute to say I will be taking a few days off from blogging. I have some revisions to do to my novel before sending my queries to agents in February so I won’t be posting much, if anything, for the next week or so. I hope all of you understand and I’ll be back soon enough.

In the meantime, please feel free to leave messages here to tell everyone what you are up to and how your writing is going. Do you have any agents targeted for this year? Are you trying to whip that synopsis into shape? Do you think you are ready to query agents? Let us know.

Talk to you soon and keep writing!!! I want to hear success stories when I get back.

How Much Personal ‘Stuff’ Do You Write Into Your Novel?

The experts tell us to write what we know. On one hand, I find this rather humorous as fantasy worlds full of dragons, gnomes and fairies do not exist in reality so how can one write about them? On the other hand, my characters are really no different from us. They all have the same problems. They all fall in love. They all experience deceit, anger, triumph. They know what it means to fight for something they believe in and they know what it means to feel safe and scared.

I think grounding your characters in reality is really important when writing a novel. I like to use certain personality aspects of my family, friends and people I’ve met and put those characteristics onto my characters. There is one character in my novel that is a cross between my dad and an ex-love of mine. There is another who has the humor of my oldest son but the stubbornness of my oldest daughter. There is another who has the artistic attributes of my youngest daughter and the sarcasm of my youngest son. And all around them are others who mimic my husband, people I’ve worked with, friends and strangers I’ve encountered in my life’s journey.

I’ve always been more of a watcher than a participant, if that makes sense. At parties, I tend to listen more than talk. I take mental notes of the way people speak. Their inflections. Their mannerisms. I listen to people’s stories and ask questions when a topic interests me. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve hiked and camped in the woods in the freezing cold and in the miserable heat. I’ve heard the sounds of the forest at night and have had to rough it in the woods when nature called. I’ve experienced the wonderful miracle of natural childbirth with my four children and I’ve experienced the horrors of death: the death of my father who died in a car accident while on active duty in the military when I was 12, my mom just two years ago. A man I loved the way I’ve loved none other. So many times I have had to pull from those recollections to make dialogue work or to strengthen a character’s resolve, establish a setting, or add intrigue to my stories. So, in this respect, I am writing what I know, and as long as I keep writing this way, then my novels will be grounded in reality and hopefully appeal to my readers on a personal level.

So what about you? How much of your own personal experiences and characteristics of those you know do you incorporate into your works of fiction?

The Importance and Value of Critique Partners

So you think your manuscript is ready to go out to agents? Has it been read and critiqued by a few trusted readers/writers who are not afraid of giving you their honest opinion? If not, then you may want to hold off on sending your baby out to the world until it is.

Critique partners are worth more than gold to an author, published or not. A good one will tell you what works and what doesn’t. (S)he will pick out the flaws, the holes in your plot. (S)he’ll tell you whether your dialogue works or if your characters are flat. Sometimes the comments may hurt. They may seem crass but if you set aside your pride for a bit and look at what the person is telling you, you may find what (s)he said is right. Wouldn’t you rather have your critique partner tell you these things than get one rejection after another and not know why?

I used to get really upset when I’d get bad reviews or critiques but each one of them made me strive even harder to find what I did wrong and strengthen what I did right. To each one of you who whipped my MS into shape, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

At present my ms is with two critique partners. They have both been ruthelessly kind and have found minor holes in my story I hadn’t seen before. Without them, my ms would have gone out to agents and probably been rejected. With my two readers helping me, my chances of being accepted by an agent increases ten-fold. I can’t thank them enough for their time and their matter-of-fact style.

So, before you send out that ms of yours to agents, get a few extra eyes to look over it. You’ll be glad you did.

So You’ve Decided To Kill A Character

Now the next hurdle . . . how do you write the death scene?

It really depends on the way your character dies. Let’s face it. The way a person dies from a gunshot wound is not the same way a person dies after years of struggling with cancer. On top of that, the people left behind have different ways of handling death. While the survivors of each of the above characters will more than likely feel sad, the family of a gunshot victim may vow revenge whereas the family of a person who has died of cancer may feel an overwhelming sense of relief. You as the author must establish the conflict. You must decide how to make your readers feel what your character feels. But how?

Next to pulling from your own experiences, I suggest reading books that include death scenes. See how those authors pull you in. Did the death make you cry? Angry? Study the wording, the paragraph and sentence structure, then figure out how to make it work for you and write. It may take several attempts but you’ll eventually get it.

A few things to think about when writing death scenes:

1. It’s not all about death. It’s about reflecting on the life of the person who died. How is that person’s death going to affect the people who are left? How will the protagonist survive without this person? What has the protagonist lost? If you have lost someone in your life, think back to how you felt after you received the news. What were the thoughts in your mind? Did you weep? Sob? Feel numb? Use your own experiences and then thrust them on your protagonist. Understand the feelings, highlight them then exploit them. And always remember, in death people don’t always act the way they do when the world is going right. A very selfish individual may actually show signs of compassion when a death occurs, if only for a brief moment in time. No matter what you do, make the reader care.

2. Avoid the cheese. I can’t tell you how many death scenes I’ve read that turn a tender, emotional moment into a laugh fest. That’s the last thing you want (unless you are writing a comedy). Keep the dying simple. Avoid exaggerated talks about life and death. Try to avoid ‘life flashing before my eyes’ sort of speak. Think of Rue’s death in the Hunger Games. Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings (the movie version, not the book). Olga Treskovna’s death in The Miracle of the Bells or Lennie’s death (and George’s reaction) in Of Mice and Men. Why do these scenes work?

3. Because the reader is invested in your characters. To do this doesn’t require chapters upon chapters of details but you do need to establish each character. You can do this with a few lines or paragraphs. Take for instance the following scenario:

13-year old Danny is being made fun of by the jocks in History class for wearing a pink shirt. After class is over, a new girl at school, Sandy, catches up with him in the hall and tells him how she thought it was wrong for the other classmates to make fun of him. He notices her smile. The way she flips her hair. The softness of her voice. She says good-bye and skips off to her next class with a promise to talk to him later. Danny doesn’t see her anymore the rest of the day but he can’t stop thinking about her and their brief encounter. He feels special. Needed. A pretty girl talked to him and she didn’t care if he wore a pink shirt. While walking to school the next morning he picks a wildflower to give to her. However, when he arrives in History class he discovers she died in a car accident the night before. Danny is crushed.

While there has not been a huge amount of time for the reader to know Sandy, the reader does know how her brief appearance affected Danny. Now the reader wants to know what is he going to do? How is he going to react? They want to help him. Why? Because you’ve given the reader a reason to sympathize with Danny. You’ve shown us his vulnerability. You’ve given him, and in turn, the reader, a reason to care. I don’t know about you, but I want to know if Danny cries in front of his classmates and risks being made fun of again, or does he go against his grain and ‘man-up’? How does his reaction shape his future? The present? Does it dig up past memories? Only you the author knows. Share the details.

4. Give the dying person all the lines. Restrict anyone else to direct responses and words of comfort. Keep the dying one’s sentences as short as possible. It creates a sense of breathlessness in the reader. Don’t write in the gasps and pauses. The dying one’s mind will be wandering, allow it to wander, make it seem fairly random. End it unexpectedly but not in the middle of one of the dying one’s lines. Allow the other characters to hope (and then dash it, of course). Keep the other characters’ response at the end as terse as possible. Allow more extended reaction further on in the story, when it will come in useful.

5. Keep in mind, guilt often accompanies death. The person still alive may feel it’s his fault the person died. He may play out many scenarios: “If I’d only done this.”, or “If I’d only said that.” or “If I’d only gotten here in time.” When you build up guilt, you make the death more believable.

6. And last but not least, don’t let the protagonist forget the person who died. I hate it when I read a book and come across this tear-jerking death scene and then the dead person’s gone for good. There’s no reference, no remembering, no nothing. Keep in mind, when someone close to us dies, there are five stages of grief we as survivors go through: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Have your protagonist go through these stages. You wouldn’t dismiss your best friend so easily in real life. Don’t have your characters do it either.

Hooking Your Reader

Once upon a time writing descriptive passages at the beginning of a novel was the right thing to do. Adverbs (purple prose as we call it nowadays) were a writers friend. Those days are long gone. Now people want to be drawn immediately into the story. Action. Action. Action. While editors may give you the benefit of the doubt and read the first five pages of your ms before tossing it in the slush pile, potential readers will only give you a few seconds. If you don’t capture them in that time, forget it. Odds are they won’t wait to read the first ten pages to get to the ‘good part’. The good part, the hook, must exist from the very beginning.

So what hooks a reader? In my opinion: characters. Don’t bore your reader with how cold it is outside or what the city or town looks like, or if Fred has a mole on his face, unless a worm or alien is crawling out of that mole. Then describe the mole all you want along with your character’s reaction to the alien being. You’ve got to let the reader meet your character, see him, relate to him. Give your reader a reason to attach to the character, find out what he wants. Introduce a conflict because without conflict, you don’t have a story. The two are tightly wound around each other and together they move the story forward.

“But I have tension throughout my story to keep it moving forward,” you say. Good. You need tension to move up and down in a story, but in order to grip your reader, you need to have tension within the first 20 seconds or you could very well lose a potential reader. Remember, just like in real life, your fictional characters will experience a rollercoaster of highs and lows. A good writer will know how to balance the two, giving the characters moments to breathe before adding another conflict, whether internal or external. It is the way you make your audience care about what happens to them during and in between the conflicts that hooks a reader.

The Hunger Games

Just to let everyone know, I am a HUGE fan of the Hunger Games series. I liked Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Underlander series but the Hunger Games just blew me away. The story has stayed with me since I first read it and each time I re-read it, it touches me on an even deeper level. The concept is just crazy: kids forced to fight to the death in glorified games. And the stories are graphic, touching, moving and they play with every emotion that runs through us as human beings. I salute Suzanne Collins for her determination in writing this series and seeing it to its conclusion.

There is talk of Lionsgate doing the movie. I haven’t seen anymore news out there whether it’s in production or who the cast is. If anyone has info, please post here. I’m sure it will be one of those movies that the critics deem too violent for kids. Someone, somewhere, will probably go off on the moral implications on our children, and, if done properly, will probably secure an ‘R’ rating. But, it is a story that needs to be told. There are a lot of folks out there that don’t read (pity), and it is for those people I think this film should be made. I believe everyone should experience The Hunger Games.

With that said, I found this film on You Tube. I tip my hat to the actors, cinematographers, etc. who put this together. The scene between Katniss and Rue in the novel was one of a few rare moments of compassion and love we experience in the novels, and I feel the folks who did this film portrayed it very well.

I do warn you that there is extreme violence. Viewer discretion advised.

Synopsis of book: A dystopic Capitol requires its twelve subjugated districts to pay tribute in the form of a teenage boy and girl who are forced to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. When Katniss Everdeen’s little sister is chosen in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Although persevering through hardship is commonplace for Katniss, she must start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love in order to win the games and return home.

How often do you edit your manuscript?

There was a time not so long ago when it seemed I was editing my manuscript every five minutes. I mean, I was so relentless in my pursuit to write the ‘perfect’ novel, (whatever that is), that the novel wasn’t getting written. And then I read Stephen King’s On Writing. Amazing book, by the way, and if it’s not in your library, get it.

In the book, King makes some valid points, one of which was to allow yourself time to write. Write your book or whatever you’re writing all the way through before you edit. Get it all out there. Write like you’ve never written before. Write with passion and worry about the rest later.

I said to myself, What do I have to lose?, so I followed his advice. 3 months later I put those incredible words – The End – to my manuscript. Wow! What an amazing feeling to say, My novel is done!

I am on my ‘final’ edits right now and they are moving along well. I have found a critique partner who will, hopefully, point out the remaining few things still left unattended, and then off it goes to 3 targeted agents. After all, we must polish, polish, polish before sending the manuscript out into the universe. I’ll talk about that in another post.

So, with all that said, how often do you edit your manuscript? Every chapter? 10,000 words? Or do you hold off until you have the first draft?

Do you ever . . . ?

Do you ever act out what your characters are doing or saying just so you can get the scene right on paper?

I have had arguments out loud with myself so I can hear the inflections and get the wording right between feuding characters. I’ve stripped bark and watched the sap flow. I’ve run my hands over buildings, leather bindings, etc. with my eyes closed so I could describe the textures. I’ve fenced. I’ve shot both recurve and compound bows to understand the differences and the way they handle. I talk out whole scenes of dialogue in the shower. I watch my boys rough-house so I can understand fighting in its most simplistic forms, all the while taking note of the way a foot moves, the way a body rolls, the sound a fist makes when it finds its target.

Do you ever research sensations and other details by doing silly things just to find out if your characters ‘got it right?”

What is the method to your madness?

I was just talking to a friend of mine on Facebook about different writing styles. She’s more streamlined and can’t write out of sequence. I, on the other hand, am chaotic in my writing. I write scenes as they come to me and incorporate them later when I get to them in my books. The last line of the second novel in my Chronicles of Fallhollow series was written before the first word of the 1st novel in the series. Crazy, huh.

So what is your method to your writing madness?

Contest!! Looking for YA and New Adult Fantasy Readers!

Are you between the ages of 15 and 24? Are you an avid reader of young adult and new adult fantasy? If so, then I would love for you to read the first chapter of my book, In the Shadow of the Dragon King, and give me your honest opinion and feedback. You can find it for free on this site. Look under the tab above, In the Shadow of the Dragon King, and click on Chapter 1.

The person with the best in-depth review and comments will receive an autographed copy of the International Association of Aspiring Author’s anthology, Glimpses. (I’ll sign it on my short story that appears in the book).

The deadline for comments is January 31, 2011.