Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to NOT Create Tension

In my last post, I talked about ways to drive a story forward so the reader can't put the book down. Today, I'm going to talk about ways authors often try to move a story forward that don't work.

Danger

Putting the main characters at risk will make a story more intense. But it's not enough. Think of all the action movies you’ve seen. Many of them could end in the annihilation of the entire human race, and we couldn't care less.

Let’s go back to The Hunger Games; Katniss is put in an arena with 23 other people where she has to fight to the death until only one survives. If the author just plopped her in the middle of the arena you’d want to know whether or not she makes it, but you can put the book down and find out later. But can she kill someone she’s in love with? I’ll keep turning pages to find out. The story is driven by choice, not danger.

Many novels drive you forward without any danger at all. In Jane Eyre, if Jane and Mr. Rochester never get together, Jane will just marry someone else. There’s no risk and no danger. Again, the story is driven by choice.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane was full of mysteries. Why did Halcyon’s father say her mother died in a fire when she was still alive? When she goes back home, why does everyone treat her badly? Well, rude people won't hurt her. That’s not the point. The author presented a question, and we want an answer.

Character Likability

This is important no matter what kind of book you write. While likable characters make a novel enjoyable, they're not enough to keep a novel going.

Let’s say you’re reading a book about a character you like. The character is happy; he’s not in danger, there are no mysteries in his life, he has no immediate choices to make. You might want to keep reading, but you don’t have to read it right now. You can get back to it in a week, or a month, or a year.

Compelling Language

You can use pretty words or make your story funny, but again, this will only make your novel enjoyable. Language is important, but it’s not enough.

Interestingness

(Is that a word?) This is particularly a problem with historical fiction. An author will chose a point in history that is fascinating and think that because he loves reading about the time period, people will enjoy reading the book whether it has a good story or not. I’ve read fantasy and science fiction books that do this as well. 

If I wanted to read something interesting, I would read non-fiction. Why would someone reach for your novel instead?


Because you have likable characters, compelling language, interestingness, but most importantly, you have questions and choices.

Monday, January 30, 2012

How to Create Tension

Don't forget, the Critique My Blog Blogfest is coming up! You can sign up here.
As I revise Sacred Fire, I’m putting a lot of focus into creating narrative tension. What will make people have to finish it, to stay up late to find out what happens next? A writer should be able to look at any page in a novel and say why a reader will want to keep reading.

Some books make me want to know more so desperately, it’s agonizing. Why? I thought back on some of the books that made me feel an uncontrollable urge to know more, and there are two things they all had in common:

Questions

The best example I can think of was the tv show “Lost.” Every episode presented a new question. Why are there polar bears on a tropical island? Who is the guy living with them that wasn’t in the plane crash? You want to watch the next episode because you have to know. If an episode started out with “Polar bears escaped from a science lab on the island, which is now abandoned,” you would say, “Okay, cool.” You wouldn’t feel compelled to watch more.

Choices

The plots that make me the most eager to continue involve choices. I’ll spend the entire book urging the character to make the right decision. Often it’s for a character to confess her love to a guy who clearly loves her back. I’ll never forget how Jane Eyre almost killed me. Mr. Rochester wouldn’t tell Jane he loved her, and he made her (and me) suffer for a hundred pages! I couldn’t stop reading until I knew whether or not he would chose to be with her.

The Hunger Games is an excellent example of choice. In almost every chapter, Katniss has a choice she has to make, and I can’t stop reading until I know what she’ll decide. Will she volunteer to play the games to save her sister? Will she trust Peeta? Will Peeta protect her, or kill her? When she’s trapped in a tree with five people at the bottom ready to attack her, how will she get out of it?


There are some story elements authors think will drive a novel, but they only contribute to the story. Without questions and choices, the narrative tension will not be compelling enough.

In the next post, I'll talk about the ways authors try to add tension but don't succeed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

How Not Outlining Screwed Up My Novel

How I feel right now
I’ve written four articles about the importance of outlining: How to Prep for a Book: OutlineHow to Prep for a Book: Chapter OutlineWhy Outlining is so Awesome, and One More Reason to Outline. I promised I wouldn’t harp on it anymore. I lied. This is why you should never make promises on your blog.

I recently decided to rewrite Sacred Fire, a novel of the Vestal Virgins. As I look through the things I need to fix, I see more and more how making an adequate outline would have prevented many of my problems.

For example, when I started writing the book, I had only a vague idea of how the story would end. You’ve heard authors say, “I’ll know how the novel ends when I get to it,” right? That was my plan.

When I got to the ending, there was only one logical conclusion. I had to get from point A to point B, and because of the way I set things up, there was only one path I could take.

But I didn’t like it. I had to add a random element to Tuccia’s character, which forced me to go back and apply it to the entire story (which I didn't do very well), and it lead to an ending I wasn’t sure about. To this day, I’m not completely happy with how the story ends.

I don’t know how I’m going to fix it, but I do know this; if I had outlined my book better, I would have known the ending before I got to it. I would have had more control over the direction the book was taking, instead of following the inevitable whether I liked it or not.

Writing your second book is a million times easier than the first. That's why so many authors advise you to move on when you're struggling with your first book, instead of rehashing old mistakes.

I wish Sacred Fire was my second; this book is so worth getting right, I can't abandon it. But sometimes I wish I could!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Only Reason to Keep a Blog

Writers harp on this so much that we’ve all heard it: You have to start a blog, every writer has a blog, you can’t sell enough copies of your book if you don’t have a blog. They’re sure putting on the pressure, aren’t they?

I never believed for a second that having a blog will help with book sales.

Look at it this way: I have 245 followers. Let’s assume when my book gets published that I sell one copy to each reader, making around $700, which most likely won’t happen. (Personally, I’m following one author’s blog and I have no intention of buying his book.)

Every little bit helps, of course, but 245 books isn’t very many.

It’s certainly not worth the amount of work it takes to keep a blog. I don’t know how long all of you spend on your posts, but I spend around 30 minutes on each one, and I used to post every day. This doesn’t include the time it takes to design the site, or to advertise it.

If you’re keeping a blog just to sell copies of your book – especially if you’re unpublished like me – I guarantee you’re wasting your time.

So why keep a blog?

Because it’s fun!

I get irritated by people who treat blogging as a responsibility and not an art form. I spoke to someone recently who said her New Year's Resolution was to post one article a week for the rest of the year. I thought to myself, “If you have to force yourself to post an article a week, you don’t love your blog enough to keep it.”

I look at my blog not as an extension of my book, but as a unique and separate project. I post articles because  I want to be a talented blogger, not because I want to be a rich author.

What if you don’t love your blog as much as I do? Should you quit?

My knee-jerk reaction is no, don’t quit. Since my blog matters to me, I’d never presume to encourage people to stop keeping theirs.

However, I do think some soul searching is in order. Maybe you need to reevaluate you reasons for keeping the blog. Maybe you need to write about something else, or at least shift your focus. Maybe you’re so stressed by the pressure and time it takes that you’re not enjoying it, and you need to relax.

There’s a chance you’ll realize you’re not doing this for yourself, but because you feel like you have to. You don’t have to. There are hundreds of successful authors who don’t have blogs. There are even bestsellers whose blogs are, frankly, pathetic. You are free! I hereby release you! Fly away, little bird!

Keep a blog because you love it. No other reason is good enough.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fatal Flaw of My Novel: Structure

I mentioned yesterday that there’s a fatal flaw in Sacred Fire. I’m going to rewrite the novel (again) to fix it. You’re probably wondering what the flaw is.

It’s the structure. Everyone who’s read the novel says it reads like a series of short stories and doesn’t have a central plot.

I had trouble understanding how to apply this concept, so my writing mentor made a list of possible plots to focus the story on. I felt each one would destroy the novel I was trying to write. Finally, I wrote to her, “The story is about Tuccia’s relationship with Pinaria! I can’t make it about anything else!”

She wrote back, “That’s what the story is about? I thought that was just a subplot.”

I was stunned. Then, like the sun breaking through the clouds, everything was clear. The plot of the novel doesn’t run all the way through. It only emerges occasionally.

When I told my husband I was going to stop querying to rewrite my book, he thought I was crazy. I explained to him the problem and he got quiet. Finally, he said, “You’re story is supposed to be about Pinaria? I had no idea. I thought that was just a part of it.”

I first realized this was a problem when I wrote my query letter and found it difficult to summarize the book. Too many things were going on and nothing was more important than anything else. 

I’ve said before how helpful it is to write your query and pitch before you start writing.  It helps you focus on the novel's backbone. If I had done that with Sacred Fire, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now.

My greatest help in fixing this problem was writing two rough drafts in the last year for Hunger and Fierce. The more story lines you develop the better you get at it, and now that I’ve done three, I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. I think.

I wish more than anything I could go back in time and start all over. I wish it so much, it aches. Well, no point in crying over spilled milk. I just need to roll up my sleeves and fix it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I'm Going to Rewrite Sacred Fire. Again.

I had marked a dayon my calendar to start submitting query letters. On that very day, I decided my novel about the Vestal VirginsSacred Fire – needs to be rewritten.

Again.

For those of you new to this blog, here’s a recap: I started writing Sacred Fire June 2007 and didn’t finish it until around June 2010. After an insufficient amount of editing, I foolishly sent it to 112 agents on November 2010. Only one of them requested a partial. Ouch. So I got some very talented betas and revised it twice. I went to a writer’s conference where I got two requests from agents, and one of them said no.

Getting this far has been a long, arduous process. It’s gotten to the point where the word “done” seems like a magical place that’s impossible to reach. I thought I was “done” and ready to get agents and become famous already. But here’s the problem:

No matter how much I've improved my book, it has one fatal flaw. I've been aware of this flaw for years, and all my betas have metioned it, but I didn't know how to fix it. (I'll talk more about this fatal flaw in my next post.)

I poured much thought into the flaw, but eventually I gave it up as a lost cause. I thought my novel was still good, so I should send out the book and hope for the best.

My genius writing mentor (every writer should get one of these) insisted that it wasn’t impossible to fix. She harped on me repeatedly, but I just didn’t see how it was possible. Then, on the day I was going to start querying again… it “clicked.”

I thought I’d be devastated that I have to rewrite my book yet again when I was already revved up to get an agent, but I’m not. I’m actually kind of excited. Like I said, this is a problem I’ve been dealing with for years, and it made me feel helpless. Now I think I might be able to make this book what I wanted it to be all along.

I don’t know how long this process will take. The change could be major. Last time I revised this book, it took a year.

Both last November and this one I sent my novel to my dream agent. I think it would be amusing if I sent it to her for the third time next November. I could say, “Hello, remember me? Happy anniversary.”

There are only a few things about this that disappoint me:

1.      Once again, I have to put my other two books – Hunger and Fierce – on hold. I already miss them!
2.      I spent so much time marketing this book and building a social network, and apparently, it was premature.
3.      I combed through the manuscript for typos, and I have to do it again once I’m done with this revision. I hate copyediting.

Yet looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. All the social networking I did has been for my good, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the wonderful friends I’ve made online. I greatly improved as a writer when I wrote Hunger and Fierce and I wouldn’t be able to fix Sacred Fire without having written those books. Sometimes, you just need a clean slate instead of rehashing old mistakes.

I still can't believe I'm going to do this. It hasn't quite sunk in!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Being Interviewed by Omonaikee

A blogger friend of mine, Omonaikee, asked to interview me on her blog. Of course, I said yes! I love interviews. They make me think of new things in a different light, they make me feel special, and they're easier than writing a blog post.


Omonaikee asked me some really interesting questions, like how I keep from being melodramatic, how my blog helps with my writing, why I write historical fiction, and my Top Ten Writing Tips.

My last interview was with Reece Hanzon, which was different but equally awesome; he asked questions like how I got started as a writer (I told him about my alien-rabbit whodunnit mystery), how I keep characters original, how I build settings, etc.

I hope you get the chance to visit these wonderful bloggers!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Deciding Who to Query Next


Twenty people have signed up for the Critique My Blog Blogfest! This is more than I expected, so I'm tickled pink about it. The more the merrier, so if you want to join in, sign in here.

One thing that's always frustrated me about querying my book about the Vestal Virgins is trying to find the best agent to submit to. Hundreds of them say they represent historical fiction, and I learned my lesson about not submitting to hundreds of agents.


I've read over and over again that you're supposed to only send your query to five of your favorite agents at a time. Five out of hundreds... how do I make the choice?

The best way (as far as I know) is to query agents who represent books you like and are similar to yours. You can find out who represented a certain book by looking in the acknowledgments.

My other technique is to just keep my eyes and ears open. You should interact with the writing community as much as possible, and when you are involved, you pick things up.

For example, I'm interested in Donald Maass because I read How to Write a Breakout Novel and Career Novelist. I expect to be rejected because he doesn't represent books like mine, but I'm so impressed by his knowledge that he's made the top of my list.

I'll also send queries to all the agents who went to the Historical Novel Society Conference because I know they're passionate about historical fiction, not lukewarm.

There are other agents I'm interested in because clients of theirs have told me good things about them.

I don't think there's any perfect way to go about this, but I do believe just paying attention is the best way to find the right agent for me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Books I Read in December

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

After being raped and publicly humiliated in court, Artemisia marries a stranger and goes on to become one of the only famous post-Renaissance female painters.

I read this book because I enjoyed Forest Lover. Susan Vreeland has a gift; when she describes a painting, you know exactly what it looks like, even before looking at it on the Internet. She has the same gift for her historical settings; I truly feel like I've been to post-Renaissance Italy. I'm in awe of her skill.

The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas

Barbara had heard the rumors about the Duke murdering his first wife before she married him, but she doesn't suspect the rumors might be true.

This book is a page turner with unique characters that drew me in. The way she built the setting was fantastic, but the history doesn't get in the way of a quick pace and a good love story. I was sorry to put it down and can't wait to read her next novel, The Flower Reader.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In a world run by a cruel government, Katniss is forced to join a competition where she and twenty-three others must fight to the death.
This book is a bestseller for a very good reason. I enjoyed every page. It's creative and action-packed, it has great characters, and it has depth and meaning. Andrew and I had to run out and get the second book as soon as we were done with it.

  
To Be Queen by Christy English

Eleanor of Aquitaine is Queen of France until she escapes her unhappy marriage to be with Henry and become Queen of England.

I've heard so much about Eleanor of Aquitaine lately that I was eager to read this book to find out what was so great about her. Now I understand; Christy English did a great job of portraying this strong, powerful, controversial woman. It gave me a hunger to learn even more about Eleanor.


Here are some gorgeous paintings by Artemisia:


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christmas Pranks

Go figure: I can’t think of a single Christmas story to post until weeks after it's over. Oh well, I'll tell it anyway.

My husband and I like to play tricks on one another with our Christmas gifts. I often have more fun with the prank than I do with the gift. This year, for example, he stuffed all the boxes holding my gifts with old t-shirts so I couldn’t make guesses from the size or weight.

My favorite trick happened completely on accident.

I decided to buy my husband some comfy slippers, the kind that almost look like shoes so you can wear them out of the house.

Due to various circumstances, he had to pick me up from the department store after I bought them. As I waited for him outside, I looked at my bag with the shoe box and realized there was no way to hide the gift. He would see the box and know what I bought him. I didn't know what to do.

It wasn’t until I climbed into the car that I had an idea.

“So, what did you get me?” he teased, pretending to look in the bag.

“I bought you shoes,” I said matter-of-factly.

He scoffed. “Yeah, right.”

“Seriously, I bought you shoes.”

“Please. That would be the worst Christmas gift ever.”

“Look at the bag,” I said. “That’s a shoe box.”

“Very funny. You found an empty shoe box in the department store and hid my gift inside it.”

“You’re going to feel awful when you open your gift on Christmas and see I really did buy you shoes.”

He scoffed. “I’m sure I will.”

When I wrapped his gift, I put the slippers in the flattest box I could find. He saw it under the tree and felt triumphant. “I knew you didn’t buy me shoes. You could have at least put them in a box a shoe could fit in.”

“I did buy you shoes! They’re in the box!”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

On Christmas morning, he opened his gift. First his face lit up because he loves those kind of slippers. Then his face fell as he realized I did, in fact, buy him shoes, and he had made it very clear he didn’t want them.

“I am so sorry,” he said.

I couldn’t stop laughing. Best Christmas prank ever.


Don't forget about the Critique My Blog Blogfest coming up this February. Thirteen people have signed up so far, which I think is a great turnout. If you want to be critiqued by more people than that, you can spread the word by posting about it on your blog. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Recovering from Rejection

I might as well admit to doing a significant amount of crying last Friday when an agent rejected my full manuscript for the first time, since I'm sure you already know it. The first rejection always hurts the worst.

I'm sure the second will be easier, as will the third and fourth and fifth. The sixth will probably hurt just as bad. The seventh will probably hurt worse...

I can't help entertaining fantasies of this agent calling me to say the email was a mistake and she's so sorry because she actually loved my book. This is what happens when you put all your emotional eggs in one unreachable basket. Well, one agent response down and one to go; if the other rejects me, I can start querying again.

I would have liked to email her back and ask for feedback, but I've heard this is inappropriate; 1. If she had feedback, she would have given it to me, and 2. agents often have assistants read queries and manuscripts, so it's possible she didn't even read the book.

The thing that bums me out the most is I want to be one of those authors who can tell the story of how agents fought tooth and nail for my book and how I was in instant success with editors and the novel became a bestseller overnight... all that jazz.

I know, I know, it's ridiculous because the chances are against a writer even getting published. But let's be honest; doesn't every writer entertain that dream? I would have loved to say, "I only had to query one agent because I'm just that good."

That happens, you know... to maybe one out of 10,000 people.

I guess I could say, "I only had to query a dozen agents because I'm just that good," which would still be remarkable, but it doesn't have the same ring to it.

Well, I'm going to buy myself chocolate and sushi because I feel I deserve it, and then I'll move on.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Response from an Agent

A friend of mine told me it's okay to send agents reminders if they don't respond to a full within six weeks, and it's been two months. I was pretty nervous about doing this – I don't want to step on any toes – but my friend is experienced in the publishing industry, and I trust her.

The very next day, I got a response.

This agent has been my top choice for over a year. I like her for many reasons, but the biggest one is that she was the only agent to request a partial of my book when I sent out the first round of queries. I didn't resent that rejection. The book wasn't ready. Instead, I was touched that she was interested when no one else was.

Needless to say, when I saw she responded to my email, my heart stopped. I wanted to scold myself for getting overly attached, because what if she said no? I wanted to remind myself there are many fish in the sea. But in the end I squealed with joy and opened the email without hesitating for one second.

Click below to read her response.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Needing a Break from Writing

On my blog, I push the whole write-everyday-no-matter-what thing. I’ve tried doing this, and I was able to (more or less) keep it up for several months. It felt amazing – like I was I professional.

Imagine my surprise when on December 17, I realized I needed a break.

When I say I realized it, I’m not saying it was a conscious decision. It was a physical reaction, something I felt deep in my gut. I’ve had days where I just don’t feel like writing and I work through it, but this is different.

It doesn’t make any sense. I’m still in love with the story. I didn’t hit any road blocks. I don’t think I’m fatigued. I’m not any busier that I was before. I certainly don't have writer's block. This knowledge that I needed to stop my rough draft for a while just emerged out of nowhere.

What should a writer do when she doesn’t feel like writing? I’m not sure, but I do know what not to do; don’t use pressure. Ironically I work well with deadlines, but I don’t respond well to force. I don’t think most of us do. 

Even if force did work, writing is supposed to be fun. It’s not like homework where I’m going to get an F and bring shame upon my family. This may sound cynical, but it’s not like it’s my job, either. I just treat it like one – I have a fake-it-‘til-I-make-it attitude.

This is what I’m going to do:

Figure out what caused it. I put some thought into it, and I think I’ve been going at this book so hard that it hasn’t had time to simmer. My guess is I just need some time to think.

Wait it out. I can’t imagine it taking much longer, but if I need time, that’s okay. If this goes on for too long... well, I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Have you ever needed a break from writing? How did you get over it?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Critique My Blog Blogfest


I mentioned earlier that I would like to know what people think of my blog, good as well as bad, so I can improve it. This gave me the idea for starting a blogfest where people critique each others’ blogs. Click here to read more about why I want to do this.

To Get Critiqued:

1.      Include your name in the linky list below.
2.      On February 1, post your request for critiques. The critiques can come from anyone, even people not involved in the blogfest.
3.      If you want, specify what kind of critique you’re looking for.
4.      Specify where you want to receive the critiques: in the comments where everyone can see them, or in your email where it’s more private.
5.      You can delete comments after you’ve read them, or keep them up.

To Critique Others:

1.      Click on a blog from the linky list and read what the writer wants you to critique.
2.      You can make comments on:
a.      Appearance: Does it appeal to you? Is it too busy, or too plain?
b.      Layout: Is it difficult to navigate? Is it cluttered, or sparse?
c.      Frequency: Does the blogger post too often? Not often enough?
d.      Content: Are the posts interesting? Unique? Are they focused, or all over the place?
e.      Quality: Are the individual posts too long, too short, too sloppy, or too generic?
3.      Be sure to check if the blogger wants you to post the critique in the comments or send an email.

Like I said in my last post, even if only a few people do this, I'm excited for the opportunity to improve, and also to help out my fellow writers.

To sign up, enter your name below:


Wanna Swap Blog Critiques?

I had a shock the other day. I went to check the stats on my blog and in one day, I had 3,745 hits.

Since this is 375 times as many hits as I usually get, I was pretty surprised.

Turns out someone posted an article of mine on digg.com. It was “Explorers Discover World’s Largest Cave,” of all things, which I published last February. I was thrilled at first, until I realized I only got one blog follower out of it.

It made me ask some questions. I can see how many hits I get on my blog, but how many of them are genuine? Quite a bit of my traffic comes from random advertising sites and image searches. Of the people who actually read my articles, how many read them all the way through? I know how many people decide to follow my blog, but how many people click on the site and decide not to follow me? Why are they not interested?

The thing is, I get a lot of positive comments, but no one tells me anything negative. I have no way of knowing how this blog really looks to other people. I feel like I’m shooting in the dark sometimes, wondering how far my words are reaching and why they don’t reach further. It makes me feel impotent.

This gave me an idea for a blogfest: you put your name in a linky list, and people go to your blog and critique it. They can comment the design, the content, the frequency, anything that springs to mind. You can specify whether you want to critiques to go in your comments where everyone can see them, or your email where they’re more private. On a specified day, you go to other blogs to critique them.

I don't know how many people will get into this, but it will be helpful to me if even only a few people signed up. If you’d like to participate, enter your name on the linky list below. I'll post more information about the blogfest in about an hour.

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