Thursday, June 28, 2012

You Don't Know What Works Until You Try It

When a friend of mine was still single, she started dating a guy whom she liked, but he wasn't her "type.” She didn’t understand why she enjoyed spending time with him so much when he wasn’t the kind of man she thought she’d end up with. Time went by and things got serious enough for them to consider marriage.

I remember discussing this marriage with her and her roommates. She shook her head and said, “I don’t understand. I love him, but he’s not my type.”

Finally, one of her friends said, “I’ve spent my whole life dating “my type,” and I’m still single. I’m starting to think I don’t know what my type is.”

We all realized that when you fall in love, the person you love is your type, whether you thought he would be or not. Falling in love is the only way to find out what works for you.

They've been married three years now.

Since I have a habit of connecting my life to writing, my mind automatically went to the time I had to delete the first two chapters from Sacred Fire. (That may seem random, but bear with me.)

People had been telling me for years to delete those chapters, but being young and less flexible than I am now, I stubbornly refused. I always gave people a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work. In the end, I decided to just try starting my book two chapters later as an experiment. I expected to feel justified afterwards because I was certain the result would be terrible.

It was a million times better. Those two chapters are gone for good!

Stories have a tendency to solidify in our minds. Throughout the many rewrites of Sacred Fire, I often found myself resisting changes because "they're not even worth considering," or "it's too late because I'm too far along," or, "I already know how I want my book to go."

In reality, the sky is the limit. I can change anything I want to at this stage. Anything. And so can you.

Revising takes a lot of courage. You don't always know how things are going to turn out, and sometimes you're positive it will be a disaster, but I encourage you to never shy away from an opportunity to improve your book. After all, you don't know what works until you try it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A List to Focus on While Line Editing

My back is killing me. We need a new computer chair, because apparently ours isn't good for sitting in for five hours like I did today.

On a slightly related topic, I have good news; I'm now line editing Sacred Fire! No more adding, cutting, and rearranging scenes, fact checking, making characters and plot lines consistent. It's time to read it through to see if it all works.

Editing line-by-line is difficult because there are so many issues a writer needs to focus on. It feels like juggling. To help, I made a list of all the things I need to pay attention to as I do my edits. Maybe it could help you too when you get to editing your work.

If you can think of anything I've missed, please let me know!

  1. Vary the first word in each sentence (don’t start each one with “he” or “she”).
  2. Vary the length of each sentence.
  3. Don’t make any sentence so long or wordy that it wouldn’t be comfortable to say out loud.
  4. Do not use the same word twice in one paragraph if you can help it.
  5. Do not end sentences with the same word too close together.
  6. Describe the surroundings and the character’s sensations.
  7. Avoid clich├ęs.
  8. Pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and typos.
  9. Don’t use the word “said” too much in dialogue, but don't let the words you use instead distract from the dialogue.
  10. Instead of using adverbs, use stronger verbs.
  11. Instead of using adjectives, use stronger nouns.
  12. Don’t use the word “that” when you don’t need to.
  13. If you start sentences with “but” or “and,” do so sparingly
  14. Don’t italicize everything (or anything, if you can help it).
  15. Whenever you use “he” or “she,” make sure readers can tell to whom it refers
  16. Mix up your use of “he” or “she” with the character’s name (don’t use either too much).
  17. Don’t describe gestures or feelings the same way twice in one book, if possible.
  18. Don’t use the same metaphor or simile twice in one book.
  19. Watch out for words you use too much (smile, nod, gasp, shrug, stuff like that).
  20. For the love of all that's good, stop using the word "look." If you describe something, we can assume the character saw it without always telling us he looked at it!
It's a tad overwhelming. At least I can line edit more than once.
This has nothing to do with anything, but it made me crack up:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Author's Notes that Ruin a Novel

Most historical fictions end with a few pages of the author discussing the book. He/she will talk about the history, what was accurate and what was changed, how the research was done, what happened to the characters afterwards, things like that. Author's notes can be very interesting.

They can also ruin the entire book.

I've hated author's notes for many reasons. The problem I run into the most is when the author’s notes are more interesting than the novel. I've read multiple books that focus on a silly love story or a miniscule difficulty, have a happy ending, and then in the author’s notes there’s scandal, war, betrayal, struggle, and challenges no human should ever have to face, and yet the characters make it through. Why didn't the author write about that?

Sometimes I spend the entire book getting invested in the characters, only to find out in the author’s note they all met with tragedy. It breaks my heart. A book might be based on a love story and the author's notes reveal the couple broke up. I read one book that ended happily, then said in the author’s note all the characters died horrible, gruesome deaths.

Sometimes authors think their books are more accurate than they are, and you can tell by their notes. I read one novel where I happened to be familiar with the topic, for instance. In the notes, the author listed a few very minor discrepancies. I chuckled because I knew darn well those were not the only issues.

I've read more notes than I care to mention that say, “Everything in this book is true.” Bull. First off, even if it is all true you sound like a snob when you say it, and second off, just because you think your book is all true doesn’t mean you’re right. We are authors, not historians. Few of us know everything there is to know about our topic.

This might sound like a catch 22, but I also don’t like novels that have no author’s notes at all. They make me suspicious.

Don’t get me wrong; I've read author’s notes I've really liked.

For me, the best notes are the ones that shock me because I had no idea so much in the novel was true. The author will say in an off-hand way, “So after the character did this…” and I’ll think, “That really happened?! Seriously?”

Other good ones enrich the text by giving you more information the author couldn’t put in the novel. In Pope Joan, Donna Cross discussed the evidence supporting the idea that there was once a woman pope and the motivation the Catholic church might have had for keeping the story quiet, as well as their methods for doing so. It was fascinating.

Others explain the author’s experience with the material. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See described her Chinese upbringing and how her family taught her the same ideas her characters were taught (example: “Obey your husband, your mother-in-law, and your son.”) She talked about going to China and meeting an old woman with bound feet – one of the last. I longed to go on the same journeys.

Some notes explain the author’s emotional connection to the text. Going back to Snow Flower, Lisa See had an injury while writing that book and couldn't leave the house, so she felt the same isolation her character went through.

Do you ever get bugged by author's notes? Which novels have notes you've really liked?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Creating the Book I Originally Wanted

I heard an interesting quote the other day: “Money doesn’t make people bad; it reveals who they really are.” That’s so true, isn’t it? It occurred to me that revision works the same way.

I've done a lot of comparing my most recent draft with my first. I originally thought, “It’s a completely different book now,” but it’s not. It’s the same story, the same characters, the same themes. The difference is this new version is more like the one in my head when I started. You could say this draft is more similar to my story than the old novel.

In the first draft, I was constrained by my flaws. My betas’ comments would often frustrate me. “Why don’t they understand what I’m trying to say?” I would think, or, “How can they not see what I’m trying to show them?” I had a great novel planned out, but I wasn't capable of bringing it to fruition.

It’s a lot like painting. Everyone can come up with a beautiful image in their minds, but few of us can stand in front of a canvas and bring the image to life.

I have skills now I never had before, and those skills have freed me. Revision, in a sense, has freed me.

This reminds me of one of my favorite writing quotes: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you.  And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”  ~Arthur Polotnik

Revision takes courage. There’s always the fear we’ll just waste our time, or make the book worse. Be brave! Learn all you have to so you can create the book you always wanted. I've spent a lot of time in revision, but I don't regret a second of it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Fact vs. Fiction War... oh, for heaven's sake

Here's a topic I hear again and again: how much fact and how much fiction should you put in your historical fiction? I've seen it in forums, on blogs, in groups, at the HNS conference, everywhere.

We're never going to solve this dilemma because it's not a black-and-white issue. It depends on the type of book your writing, and it depends on what facts you twist and what fiction you insert. 

While all of that makes a difference, this is the one question I think determines how much fact and fiction is appropriate for you:

What is your book trying to accomplish?

That's what it all boils down to, really. If you're trying to write an accurate, true-to-life book that includes a works cited list, you darn well better get your facts right. If you want to write a romance or a mystery about people who never really lived, the story comes first.

This is why we can't find a solution to this question: the answer is different for every author.

I think every hist-fic author should write their own Mission Statement. We should individually take a stance on how we think our novels should be, and we should stick by it. Readers only get frustrated when an author wavers from his stance.

Here's my Mission Statement: There are three elements in writing a historical fiction, and I've ranked them according to what's most important to me.
  1. The Purpose
  2. The History
  3. The Story
Yes, I put history before story. The facts are what makes historical fiction fun. Putting all the clues together to figure out how things really happened is like solving a great puzzle. If I thought the story was more important than the history, I'd pick an easier genre.

At the end of the day, though, the purpose of my story is more important to me than anything. My books always have a message, and that message is what truly matters.

Here's an example of how I craft my stories:

My next novel is going to be about Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I could write a dark, mysterious story about an evil witchy woman, but that's not who she really was. It would make for an interesting story, but history is more important. Marie was devoutly Catholic, she was a successful business woman, and she was a philanthropist. I'm going to depict her as a woman I look up to, because I do.

On the other hand, Marie Laveau had a daughter who replaced her as the Voodoo Queen after her mother's death. She looked so much like her mother that people on the street freaked out because they thought Marie Laveau was still alive and young. This inspired me to use my book to express my ideas about family, specifically the mother-daughter relationship and how to keep family ties strong.

Big problem:

There's substantial evidence that Marie's daughter died long before she did. If it's true, she couldn't have taken her place as the voodoo queen. What do I do? If I lose the mother-daughter theme, all the family-based ideas I planned for this book are gone. 

Having this theme in my novel is more important than whether Marie's daughter lived or died. I will not keep her daughter alive to make my story more interesting, but I will keep her alive to get across what I want to say. That's my mission statement.

What about you? What's your Mission Statement?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Importance of Listening

In college, I took an African American literature class taught by a white woman from New Zealand. Her wisdom and insight had a life-changing impact on me.

One of her stories really stuck with me. She was at a party with other professors when a drunk African American teacher backed her into a corner and starting shouting at her. She made accusations against her about all the injustices she suffered from “you white people” as a kid.

My professor was understandably defensive. Not only had she done nothing to deserve this drunken tantrum, but she wasn't even an American!

But she decided to listen. Behind the hostility, it was an opportunity to learn. The woman told her about a field trip she went on as a kid when she was the only black child in her school. Her class made her go to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street so they wouldn’t be seen with her. When they went to their destination, they made her wait until they were done before she could go inside. My professor was shocked by the things this woman shared and grew to sympathize with her.

Later when the woman was sober she apologized profusely and my professor assured her that it was okay; she understood. The two of them talked more about her experiences and became good friends.

Writers often think of their job as simply communicating their ideas to others. I like to think of a writer's job as being two-fold: we need to speak, but we also need to find things to say. Our own life experiences are so limited that if an author doesn't know how to listen to other ideas, issues, and life-styles, the author won't leave much of an impact.

An author I spoke to (whose name evades me) said listening to other people's stories and retelling them the exact same way you heard them is a greater art than writing your own or retelling it in your own words.

He also mentioned that when he hears about young men dying in war, it's not the deaths that are tragic. Death is natural. It's the lost stories we should cry for. As writers, we have the precious gift of being able to tell stories before they're gone.

I used to be more of a talker than a listener, but then I had an eye-opening moment when I realized I always said the same things. I always shared the same stories, the same jokes, the same opinions. I already know what's in my own head. Now I want to know what's in others'.

If you want to learn how to be a good writer, here's some advice: learn to be a good listener.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Books I Read in May

Molokai by Alan Brennert

When red spots appear on six-year-old Rachel's skin, she is banished to Hawaii's official leper colony.

In a book like this you would expect to read only of death, but on the island of Molokai, there was a surprising amount of life. Lepers can live relatively painlessly for decades, and the characters in this book build homes, start businesses, get married, and have babies. It was beautiful, unique, and inspirational.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

After being abandoned on a ship at the age of four, adult Nell goes on a quest to find out who she is and why someone left her.

This magical story has colorful characters and intriguing mysteries. It's a good novel to get lost in.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My Week as a Stay-at-Home Writer

As of today, I have officially been a stay-at-home writer for a full week (yoga pants and fuzzy socks included).

Life in the "real world" couldn't be better. I love my new apartment, I think I'm really going to like my church congregation, and my husband and I are finally going to replace our four-year-old phones. We bought dishes yesterday, the thick fancy kind with dark colors that only come in square shape and I'm terrified of breaking. I feel like an adult.

As for my artistic endeavors,  I'm not writing more than I did before because that was always a priority. Now I just have time to do other things too, like clean my house. I'm getting a real kick out of having dinner ready before my husband comes home. I'm like a Stepford wife, except I'm also awesome.

It still doesn't feel like I'm free living out my dreams; it just feels like a really long weekend. Part of me still thinks I'm going back to work tomorrow. It's weird how your whole life can change but you're still the same person.

I'm still trying to figure out how to schedule my days... ten hours is a looooong time to spend at home alone. We need to get a dog or something so that 5:30 pm doesn't find me with my nose pressed against the window waiting for my husband's car to pull up.

The fact that this is real didn't start to sink in until yesterday. I was at the laundromat waiting for my clothes to be done and went to the computer lab. Usually whenever I'm at the computer I zip through everything I need to do quickly because I don't have time to waste browsing. 

This time, I let myself read blogs for an hour. I haven't allowed myself the luxury of just reading blogs for fun in ages, and I forgot how much I loved it. This is a hobby I can put back into my life now.

It's such a little thing, but it made me really happy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why it's Good to Jump on Bandwagons

I used to think that if everyone liked something, I should avoid it. I'm not sure what my logic was behind that. I had a hipster mindset that told me if everyone liked it, something was wrong with it and I shouldn't become a drone who mindlessly follows trends.

This attitude applied to books. 

I can only think of two reasons why anyone would hesitate to jump on bandwagons: 1. because he/she thinks most people aren't intelligent, ergo the more people liked a book, the lower its quality must be, and 2. falling in with trends makes people lose their individualities.

Guess what I discovered:

If everyone likes a book, it's because the book is good.

I realized this after reading the first Hunger Games book. Holy crap, it was awesome. When I asked a friend of mine if she had read the series, she said, "Naw, I didn't jump on that bandwagon."

I thought, "Are you kidding me?! Jump on it! Do it now!"
There have been many times when I resisted an overwhelming trend, only to eventually give in and regret not being a part of it with everyone else. Take Lost, for example. My feelings toward the ending of that show notwithstanding, I loved the series. I wish I had watched it when the rest of the world did. Instead I watched downloaded episodes a year after it was over when no one was talking about it anymore.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, was a bandwagon I jumped on right away. I read the first book when I was the same age as Harry (eleven), and I spent my childhood standing in line in stores at 12:01 am on release day, buying every-flavored jelly beans, making "butter beer" with my mom, watching the movies multiple times and griping about their stupidity each time. When the last movie came out and Harry Potter was over, I was 25 and my childhood was over too. 

If I avoided all that just to stand out from the crowd, I would have lost many precious experiences.

Ironically, I believe when I do jump on a bandwagon as soon as it starts, I end up retaining my individuality. Take Twilight, for example. By the time a friend gave me her copy and I broke down and read it because nothing else was in the house, I was determined not to like it. What if I had read it before being told to hate it? How would I have felt then? When a reputation proceeds a book, our ability to form our own opinions is compromised.

I've decided to actively participate in bandwagons for two reasons:

1. To Help My Writing.

If a book takes the world by storm there must be some reason behind it, even if the book seems stupid to me. As a novelist, its my job to find out why so I can replicate it.

2. To Be a Part of History

I want to be a part of my own culture. My history is happening around me, and I'm not going to miss it. 

In middle school when all the girls were swooning over Titanic, I was right in there with them. I watched Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in the theater with my hair in Princess Leia buns and played with light sabers while my family waited in line, and I had fun doing it. When Lord of the Rings came out, I quoted lines along with everyone else. People are going to talk about Will and Kate's wedding for years; I like being able to say I saw it. 

Whenever you hear others rave about a book, movie, event, etc., I encourage you to check it out and see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Books I Read in April

The Work and the Glory by Gerald N. Lund

When the Steed family meets the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - Joseph Smith - they have to decide for themselves whether his words are true.

The early days of the church was an interesting time. In the early 19th century a fourteen-year-old boy claimed to recieve visions from God and said he was asked to translate ancient records from Native America, and against all odds, people believed him. Converts to the church suffered intense persecution, but held strong so the Mormon church could grow to the 14 million members we have now. After hearing these stories all while growing up, I loved reading them from a convert's point of view.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Griet is a maid for the famous painter Vermeer who becomes the annonymous model of his most renowned painting.

No one knows who really posed for the painting featured on the cover; this novel gives a name to the nameless. It creates a beautiful setting with a fascinating character whose life is very different from the artistic world she becomes involved in.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Today is the Inspiration Collage Blogfest

It's time for the Inspiration Collage Blogfest! For this fest, participants are posting images, videos, songs, links, lists, and anything else that inspires their novel in either a Facebook page or a Pinterest board.

Click here to see my Facebook page for Sacred Fire.
Click here to see my Pinterest board for Fierce.

I'm actually glad not too many people signed up for this fest because it'll give me time to enjoy everyone's work. When fifty people sign up for a fest, it can be overwhelming. 

Still, if you want to create a collage of things that inspire you, it's not too late to sign up in the linky list below. I'll be thrilled to see what you create!

Click on the names below to see other people's collages:

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