Monday, May 31, 2010

What is literary?

This is more of a poll than a post, so please bear with me.

I've been told by quite a few people lately that I have a literary quality to my writing. Aside from surprising (in the good way), it (as usual) made me think. What exactly about my writing is literary?

I don't know that anyone could answer that in specifics without also asking the next question: what exactly makes ANY writing literary?

I've heard some definitions-- it's more character-driven than plot driven. It's more fanciful and musical than others. It's more stylistic.

Maybe it's all of these things, but the truth is, I don't know exactly what it boils down to. I can't point my finger to any one quality and say, "That book is literary fiction." I do know that I've used the phrase "a literary quality to it" to describe other books, so I must have some idea.

Other genres are so easy to put into words. Advanced technology and/or spacecraft? Okay, that's sci-fi. Fairies and elves? Okay, that's fantasy. Someone dies and the main character has to solve the murder? Okay, that's mystery.

But how do you succinctly and accurately describe literary fiction?

No, seriously, tell me! What makes something literary to you?

Friday, May 28, 2010

GUEST POST: Why I hate Peter F. Hamilton with the Fiery Passion of a Thousand Suns

Bernice Mills is an as yet unpublished (just you wait, people, I am going to rock your world so hard...) author of many many novels, all of which suck. The one she's working on now has zombies, and doesn't suck. It bites.You may find her at where she rants about live, love, the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, and South African politics.

Yes, you heard me, a thousand suns. That’s a whole lot of fiery passion, you know.

And here’s why. I am, once again and against my better judgement, reading the Night’s Dawn trilogy. I am now almost finished with Book 3, and I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in three weeks.

For those of you who don’t know, the ND trilogy is truly massive. And by that I mean every one of the three books is fatter than the entire Lord of the Rings. Many, many words.

So B, you might say unto me, why the hate? If you don’t want to read four thousand plus pages of science fiction with a side of ghosts, DON’T.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Because Peter F. Hamilton is AWESOME. The ND trilogy is so beyond anything I’ve ever read, SF-wise, that I cry when it’s finished, because there’s no more! I only have one real problem with the whole thing, and that is this: PFH is a terribly inconsiderate author. Most books, you see, have a part where they slow down every couple of chapters (personally, I think this is so that their devoted fans will actually have some time to sleep, but that’s just my humble opinion.) Nobody can really write all those words and have them all be equally gripping, right? Right? Wrong. This evil, evil man has gone and written a massive trilogy, of which every single word is totally action-packed and riveting, and every character is fully realised. No cardboard characters here, just real people. Real people with some serious, serious issues. And Al Capone. Al Capone, for crying into my coffee! Who writes books about spaceships and antimatter and bio-engineered space habitats and then puts in Al Capone and ghosts?

Peter F. Hamilton, that’s who.

And I consider it my civic duty to warn you, my dear readers, of this vile personage and his evil fiction. Which I have now done.

Go on, pick up the Night’s Dawn trilogy. I dare you.

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I'm currently reading Traveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor. The book is nonfiction- a mother/daughter account of writing and traveling. The first part of the book takes place before Kidd published Secret Life of Bees. I've only read a few pages, but already this passage jumped out at me:

I felt like my writing had gone to seed. A strange fallowness had set in. I could not seem to write in the same way. I felt I'd come to some conclusion in my creative life and something new wanted to break through. I had crazy intimations about writing a novel, about which I knew more or less nothing. Frankly, the whole thing terrified me.

I think most of us start off our novel writing knowing virtually nothing about the craft. And looking back, beginning the endeavor was terrifying. In fact, staring at the first blank page as I began my second book was also pretty petrifying. I'm sure I'll feel the same way when I start Book #3.

What about you? Was starting your novel terrifying? Or is another stage of the process scarier? Querying? Finally seeing your book on the shelf?

Writing Useful Reviews

Back when I worked as a reporter for a newspaper, one of my jobs was to write the weekly movie review for the entertainment section. I loved this gig, seeing as it meant I got to sit in the local theater for two hours and get paid to watch a movie. Still think that's a cool job, as is writing reviews of books.

However, just because it's easy to write a review of a book or movie now -- most everyone has a blog, writes reviews on Amazon, etc -- doesn't mean that everyone writes useful reviews.

Now, some of you might (or might not) be asking what I mean by calling a review "useful." Take a recent review on Amazon for Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

4 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre; 2.5 stars, January 10, 2010
By R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)
A promising idea - steampunk in the mid-19th century American northwest combined with a zombie theme. The execution, however, is poor. The plot is a mechanical regurgitation of an average zombie movie, the characters aren't particularly well developed, and there simply isn't enough fleshing out of the parallel universe. Priest is not a poor writer, as the quality of prose is more than adequate, and indeed, better than quite a few popular books. The lack of imagination and rigor in working the parallel world, the complete lack of humor, and the jaded subplot concerning the heroine are simply inadequate.
I loved the book, so we're separating my opinions for a second. Deconstructing this review, I can tell you two things: 1) the reviewer expected a lot more than he felt he got and 2) that he praises the author while slamming the work.

Notice the stat above the review though -- only 4 out of 14 respondents found this review helpful in making their decision about the book. Why, perhaps do you think this is?

My own theory is that the review writer offered no specific examples of what he disliked about the book. When composing a review of anything, generalizations are the enemy of usefulness. Here's another review of Boneshaker, taken from the same two-star level:

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars apparently I'm the voice of dissent, January 30, 2010
By NickelDiamer (Philadelphia, PA USA) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)

Compelling setup and central mysteries. Thought the story between the lead protagonists was reasonably well done.

Cons: Author did not care to develop her world.

Example - Head villain has a scary right hand man, as is typical of adventure stories. He strikes fear into the hearts of the locals. Yet in the final battle, he appears briefly and avoids the final confrontation. Why introduce him? The secondary characters are compelling, until they're abandoned. The lead fighter amongst the good guys appears to be dying, yet we're led to believe he might be saved by 19th century medicine?

Additonally, the central threat within the town (the zombies dubbed rotters) are never well developed. Minnericht can send them at his enemies, but loses control of them in the end. Why? They run the streets of the city, forcing the human residents into a subterranean existence, yet they can be repelled by bonfires? Moving a block or two in the city calls up hordes of rotters, yet the leads can linger in a house for nearly an hour? And what of the citadel like fort within the walls? Everyone agrees it's safe from the rotters, yet it's abandoned.

But the biggest problem with the story: it hints early on that living within the city walls is near suicidal (and even life in the outskirts is pretty illogical), yet no compelling reason is ever provided for why the residents stay. It's apparently not too difficult for humans to leave the city. Yet many reasonably upright citizens have spent a decade or more running for their lives from the rotters while being manipulated by a mad professor. Say what? I know the setting is an alternate history where the civil war rages on, but America is a big and open country in the late 19th century. People set out for the plains and southwest on a regular basis. Yet cleaning contaminated water all day or relying on filter masks to step outside is the best existence these people can imagine?

The beauty of sci-fi/fantasy as a genre is the ability of authors to create worlds that operate on their terms. But there need to be terms. The whole project feels adrift.
Nearly all the people who read this review found it helpful. Why? Because of those same specific examples that I mentioned before. This reviewer mentions clear points at where he felt the book fell flat and why he feels that way. He also instinctively performs my second point -- people will not find a completely negative review nearly as useful as they find a review with a grain of positive mixed in.

The illustrious Nathan Bransford uses the following formula for critique -- positive, extremely polite constructive criticism, and positive. He calls it the sandwich method, and I propose that a similar method be followed when writing a useful review:

Positive -- Say what you liked about the book/movie, if anything and why

Negative -- Say where the book/movie didn't work for you and why

Positive -- Say something else you liked about the book/movie and why

The end result of all this is to craft the most useful review you possibly can. Why is this important? Well, in the words of Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr, he writes reviews to turn people on to something they might not have thought of before. And that, dear readers, is what a useful review can do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Blogs Could be Harmful to your Health

Some rules are meant to be followed, others to be bent/ignored, and some are just bullshit. Figuring out which is which, now that's the damn challenge.

Don't use adverbs. Don't swear. Don't head hop. Don't write about vampires anymore. Do write about angels, merman, sprites with kites, or whatever other bullshit faerie creature's hot atm. Do write XX,XXX words for XX genre. Do omit needless words... good luck figuring that out. Do start in media res. Don't start waking up (The Road, The Hunger Games), Don't do prologues...

After awhile, there are enough rules that the box/prison is clearly defined. If you haven't checked out Michelle Argyle's recent post, I'd highly recommend it, because the video she links to captures what's wrong with rules far better than I can.

Doesn't mean we should shun all rules (that 400k novel's not gonna sell for an FTA), but don't let creativity be stymied by others, otherwise the artistic process can become a stressful chore... and then why do it anymore?

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Benefit of Critique

It should be pretty obvious what the downsides to critique are. I think I've mentioned them enough in my personal blog that I don't feel the need to go over them again here. Besides, we're writers, right? We can all imagine what the negatives are.

So for this post I thought I'd go ahead and do the positive spin thing and share what I think are some of the less obvious benefits of critique.

It helps you figure out that you're not crazy.

(Or, as Taryn put it earlier today, it helps you figure out that you are).

There's a definite validation that comes with critique. Either you're right, or you're wrong. As long as you can recognize, accept, and grow from being wrong, they're both good feelings.

It gives you a reason to keep writing.

Having someone to be accountable to for why you don't have pages done may be the only push you need to keep going. Sometimes it's too easy to put writing off until later because someone else might not be waiting to read it (at least, pre-book deal). With a critique group, someone definitely is waiting to read it.

It lifts you up when you're low-- and brings you down to Earth when you're, you know, out there.

A critique group can have a magical effect on your soul. And I don't mean to sound sappy, but it's true. Feeling down about your writing? Let them tell you it's good. Or, if you are truly convinced you have written the next Romeo and Juliet, let them gently tell you it's not so. Either way, you are improved for the experience.

It reminds you why you write.

Someone else will like your writing other than you. That, in and of itself, makes it all worth it. In that moment, who cares about agents and editors and NYT bestseller lists? Well, okay, I'll admit most of us probably still do. But for someone else to see right to the heart of your story and come back with a smile on their face is the best feeling in the world. We write for people, not just the titles of agents and editors and faceless lists. People read our stories, and so it's people that matter.

Write for people.

Go out there and get critiqued!

Friday, May 21, 2010

GUEST POST: The Cutting Table

Ali Cross is an award-winning author of YA and MG sci fi and fantasy. She likes to say that her stories transcend the ordinary because the heart of them are based in reality yet they take you places you’ve never been before. A Canadian maritimer, Ali now lives in arid Utah with her husband and their twin boys. You can find Ali at her blog ( on Facebook ( or on Twitter (

Shortly before I’d finished my first novel, and before I ever dared call myself a writer, I took a local continuing education class on fiction writing. One night we had a guest speaker, Ken Rand (1946-2009), who spoke to us about self-editing, particularly cutting the fat.

So before I’d even acknowledged that my precious collection of words-turned-full-length novel might not actually be perfect, I’d already learned the value of going after your precious words with a hatchet. Cutting is not a pleasant experience. No matter how Lizzie Borden you are, no one likes to remove the words they slaved over laying down. And yet, cut we must.

Recently, a friend asked me to have a look at her manuscript to see what could possibly be deleted as she needed to eliminate about 20% of her words in order to fit more comfortably into her genre. She’d already been through the book and felt she’d cut everything she could.

And that’s where I came in.

Here’s her first two paragraphs, before I pared them down:

“You’ve come a long way, Mouse,” Kira said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. It was sarcasm, of course. It had been six months to the day since her mother left town with her boyfriend, leaving Kira with an empty apartment, no job and nowhere to turn. Her last words were the definition of the nickname she’d had for most of her life. Mouse wasn’t the loving term of endearment she grown up hearing, but referred to Kira’s weakness and the fact that she was always under foot. She’d been crushed by the revelation. And the nickname no longer held any kind of sentiment, but mocked her way of life.

Instead of proving her mother wrong by being strong and independent with visions of success in the real world, she’d become exactly what she swore she’d never be. From her mousy red hair to her worn-out sneakers, she was her mother’s daughter. Kira had turned inward, rarely venturing outside the tiny one-bedroom farmhouse except for school and the necessities. If it hadn’t been for her friend Lydia helping her with a job and a place to live, Kira would be on the streets. (194 words)

And here’s the slimmer version:

“You’ve come a long way, Mouse,” Kira said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. It was sarcasm, of course. It had been six months to the day since her mom left town with her latest boy-toy, leaving Kira with an empty apartment, no job and nowhere to turn.

Kira used to think mouse was a term of endearment—until she’d overheard her mom talking to the boyfriend about her runt-of-a-daughter who was always underfoot. She’d wanted to prove her mother wrong by being strong and independent, but instead she’d become exactly what she swore she’d never be. From her mousy red hair to her worn-out sneakers, she was her mother’s daughter. (112 words)


In the end, the decision of what to keep and what to actually cut is up to the author, but sometimes you just can’t see which of your own words you can part with. But once you practice cutting, it gets remarkably fun and easy—like a game to see how many words you can cut this page/editing session.

We all love our words, that’s why we put them there. But sometimes our words can get in the way of the story. Think of what a gift you’ll be giving your readers (and the ultimate success of your book) if you can strip away all the extraneous stuff to reveal the story within.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I've Heard This Before

There are no new stories.

Bad news for those of us who write novels, right? Sort of. There may not be any new stories, but there are always new ways to spin that story. Boy meets girl. Good triumphs over evil. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Today I started a new book that distinctly reminded me of a book I beta-ed for someone. I've read blog posts written by authors bemoaning the fact that the newest YA release is the exact same plot they just finished. I've written a novel about Hatshepsut- Egypt's coolest Pharaoh- who, it turns out, there are two books already written about.

After millennia of human existence, there's just no new material out there. But that's fine and dandy because humans still want to hear those stories. We want to see the bad guy fall, experience true love's first kiss, and figure out who the murderer is. You just have to torque the plot a bit, toss in the unexpected on occasion, and tell it in a voice that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages.

If we work hard enough, I like to think we can all do that.

What's the story you're telling? What books (or maybe even movies) have the same kind of feel to yours?

Marketing Yourself

On Monday, my fellow Alliterati (Alliteratus?) L.T. spoke about how important author branding is. Now, I agree with all of her points -- particularly in regards to being careful what you say and who you say it to. Eventually it will come back to bite you in the bum if it's offensive to the right people. So take very, very good care about that. If you don't care about negative publicity then by all means go nuts. But if you do, you need to craft a brand and stick to it for one simple reason:


Marketing is a fascinating animal; and especially when you talk about it on the internet. Full Sail University offers an entire online degree program on Internet Marketing, in fact, and it touches on such topics as Keyword Research, Search Engine Optimization, Keyword Density, so on and so forth. It's enough to make your head spin, and I've spent quite a bit of time researching and studying all these concepts for various reasons. Mostly because of the tee-shirt company a friend and I decided to start up recently.

Now, you might be wondering I haven't spoken about said business before. The simple and true fact? Because Matthew Delman, co-owner of Leprechauns Eat Unicorns, is not the same as Matthew Delman, Steampunk writer. My brand as Matthew Delman is as an unpublished writer who is working on a Steampunk novel. My brand under Leprechauns Eat Unicorns is a company focused on irreverent sayings.

My partner in Leprechauns Eat Unicorns asked me, prior to the launch of the company blog, if he could use it for both his writing stuff and news about the company. I told him no, he couldn't, because that would dilute the marketing potential of both brands.

So now you've gotten your brand all set and ready to market -- how do you go about that? It's easy really, to maintain a good marketing presence on the internet, especially if you're marketing yourself and your writing as a product. Be yourself, but be the best possible version of yourself that you can. Participate in the communities that are available to you. Sign up for Twitter and use it; blog regularly; comment on other people's blogs, if only to tell them that you agree with the post.

There's a culture of reciprocity floating around the Internet. It may take a few months (I think Free the Princess was up for two to three months before I got any significant number of followers) but if you are consistent in content generation, and participation in the community, then you will build your brand and become noticed.

*I could go into a heckuva lot more detail about my theories on marketing and how to do it well, but that would be entirely too lengthy for a blog post. Feel free to email me if you want more specific info/advice/etc. I'm always willing to answer any and all questions that come my way, as the folks who know me will tell you.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Airports and ERs

A few weeks ago I hated flying (fatigue cycling -- watch that wing bounce). Now I really hate flying. However, I love airports (and I'm not the only one) because of the type of people you find there. I still remember this one tool salesman from several months ago -- it was 6:00 in the morning and this putz guy was all up in his Blackberry. But his early morning trilling to the east wasn't what made him special. It was his bottle of orange juice. Every other second he'd uncap it, take a swig, and recap it in one red-bull quick move. Fascinatingly inefficient, IMO, and a great idiosyncrasy.

Another interesting place filled with interesting folk, though you wouldn't be there unless injured, visiting someone injured, or just a wee bit morbid, is the ER. Had the misfortune to visit one last week when I was imagining this post. The common thread, methinks, between an airport and an ER, is that they cater to all-comers and, in general, most of those comers are suffering through some degree of misery, which tends to reduce inhibition and other social filters, allowing for great observation opportunity (hey, if you've got to be there, might as well multi-task, right?).

What about you? Do you have a place you go (or wish you could go - injury free, of course) to people watch?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Author Branding

Now, I'm no expert on author branding. But it was requested to see a post on this topic, so here's my take on it:

In the internet day and age, you are who you say you are. Your name is your brand, and your brand is what you make it. BUT YOU HAVE TO STICK TO YOUR BRAND.

If I created a pseudonym online
and made up a profile saying I was a professional elephant jockey, and if I was careful enough to stick to that story no matter what, people would see me as a professional elephant jockey, whether real or satirical.

Likewise, as an author, I am who I say I am. I say I write commercial fiction, and so I do. I say I have two crazy cats and a horse and a bunny, and so I do. I say that wallabies are cute, and so they are. But it could all be far from the truth. Secretly, I could hate wallabies. But as long as I present myself as a wallaby afficionado, I am one.

See, the thing is, people want celebrities to be real. By which I mean, people want to follow Nathan Fillion on Twitter and feel like they're friends with him when he says he's filming the last episode of the season for Castle. People want to feel like Neil Gaiman's buddy when he talks about his flight delays. We want people who are famous and unapproachable to be . . . approachable.

So what, you might be saying, I'm not a celebrity. Who cares if I spend my weekends walking the dogs and creating fabulous Swarovski crystal tiaras?

And the question I ask you in response is, well, what if someday you are? What if your book debuts at number 1 and people talk about you being the next J.K. Rowling? What if you go on to make millions or even billions and change the course of literature forever?

Don't roll your eyes at that. It's possible. :)

So let's say that someday you wake up in your castle/estate/volcanic island lair and your butler hands you a paper with breakfast (or your laptop open to a news site. Whichever). You turn to the gossip pages only to see your name plastered across the front of the section. "Amazing Author Doesn't Actually Like Mayonnaise," it reads. "Authorities not baffled but sandwich shops everywhere heave in disappointment.

"Fred Buchanan, of The Sandwich Cafe in Faketown, WI, was quoted as saying, 'Our Amazing Author sandwich-- two ham steaks grilled in mayonnaise, sandwiched between two slices of mayonnaise sourdough, then egg-battered and fried in mayonnaise-- was our biggest seller until last week when we did a little digging. We found a post on the internet from early 2004, before Amazing Author even started thinking about writing, declaring their abhorrent hatred for mayonnaise. But then three years later, they published The Mayonnaise Chronicles! I don't understand! Why would you do that? I feel betrayed,' he wept into his mayonnaise-drenched Cheerios. Us too, Fred, us too."

Suddenly, people don't quite trust you anymore. And fame, my friends, is all about the public's trust of you.

Granted, the public is (sometimes) forgiving. It's unlikely that the above situation, were it to actually occur, would be at all devastating to anyone, let alone Fred Buchanan of Faketown, WI. But a bigger change/ deviation could be.

Now, names, not so much. In Hollywood, for example, actors tend to keep whatever name they have when they get married, at least for the screen. But re-branding yourself under a different name isn't impossible (as some here have proven). It can be hard though, and I think it gets exponentially harder the more well-known you are.

As usual, there are no hard and fast rules for any of this. There will be exceptions to every rule, and like I said, I am no expert. But my main point comes back around to being professional on the internet: someday, someone somewhere will find something you said when you weren't being careful and call you out on it, if it matters. So be careful, decide what you want your brand to be (whether nice, snarky, or professional elephant jockey), and stick to it.

Now, you may also wonder, what if I don't want/intend to be famous? Well, to that, I say that as writers striving for/ achieving publication it's a gamble we all take (yes, a gamble). And being published alone is enough to bring you somewhat into the public eye. In the end it's completely up to you, but in order to maintain a brand, it can't hurt to pretend every day that you're scrutinized like Brangelina.

Post Coming Forthwith

Sorry folks; today's post is running a wee bit behind. Check back in 2-3 hours and it will up and running.

Friday, May 14, 2010

GUEST POST: What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You

Adam Heine is the author of "Pawn's Gambit," a short story recently published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is the proprietor of Author's Echo, and is hard at work on a steampunk tale that includes air pirates, a vibrant fantasy world, and high adventure.

We all know exposition and infodumps are bad. It's true in most genres, but especially in speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi). Somehow, you have to introduce the reader to a whole world -- cultures, languages, technologies, politics, systems of magic –- all without the dreaded infodump.

One solution is to drop context-based clues without the reader being aware of it (known as incluing). Occasionally, though, I'll run across beta readers unfamiliar with the genre, who let the clues stop them cold.

Take, for example, this opening paragraph:*

The netter’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I’d been in Savajinn a week, looking for a knocker named Tarc. A whole bleeding week. When Tarc finally agreed to meet, at the Sick Savaj, that’s when the netter decided to show up.

Two unusual terms are presented: netter and knocker. Readers unaccustomed to SF sometimes get annoyed at this, thinking the author is a poor communicator or the story is being intentionally abstruse. But an experienced reader knows they aren't expected to understand these terms right away. Orson Scott Card calls this the principle of abeyance, where the reader trusts the author to give them the clues they need, when they need it.

The trick for the author, of course, is knowing when they need it. In the example story, both terms remain unexplained until the characters in question appear. The knocker doesn't appear until a quarter of the
way through, for example. Until he does the reader is given very few clues as to what a knocker really is. And they're expected to be okay with that.

But it's not a good idea to keep the reader guessing too long. Netter is “explained” in the next sentence:
Netters were all over Savajinn –- had to be to catch their bounties -– but only one was gully enough to walk into a Savaj pub alone.
As you can see, there's still no infodump –- everything is implied. The word 'netter' itself (i.e. one who nets), combined with the concept of catching bounties, gives the reader a reasonable idea of what this character is. (If you want to know what a knocker is, I'm afraid you'll just have to read the story**).

Incluing can, of course, apply to any genre. The keys are subtlety and necessity. Be subtle with your clues, and only present them when it's absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Do it
right, and you'll never have to infodump again.

* These excerpts, btw, are from my recently published story, "Pawn's Gambit." You can read it here.**

** And if you're an Air Pirates' fan, and didn't see that bit of self-pimpery coming, maybe you don't know me as well as you thought.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I like lists. I like checking boxes because it makes me feel like I've accomplished something. And I like how lists make everything nice and organized.

Chaos=Bad. Order=Good.

So here's a handy checklist from Jack M. Bickham's Scene and Structure regarding Planning and Revising Scenes for Maximum Effect. This is only part of his full list (there are 12 items in the book), but I thought they were helpful reminders for those of us who like lists.

1. Make sure the stated scene goal is clearly relevant to the story question. Spell it out.

2. Show clearly that the viewpoint character considers the scene as vitally important. Never allow a lead character to enter a scene with a lackadaisical (my all-time favorite word!) attitude.

3. Make sure you have provided enough background for the opposition character- or have him state enough motivation from the outset- to justify his opposition to the lead character in the scene. Don't just have someone be antagonistic on general principles!

And my favorite (which is actually #6 on the list):

In searching for you scene-ending disaster, don't always grab the first idea that comes to your mind. Your reader will be guessing along with you, and you don't want him to outguess you and anticipate the disaster before you give it to him. Chances are that if you made a list of six or eight possible disasters that would work, one of them well down the list from your first idea would be fresher, brighter, worse for the lead character- and not predicable by the reader. You always want the reader guessing!

That last one is my favorite because I recall reading something similar from Sue Monk Kidd (author of Secret Life of Bees). I'm paraphrasing, but she said that people are always told to go with their gut. But when you're writing you'll usually have better luck with your third (or so) idea for just the reason that Bickham pointed out above.

So what about you? Do you go with your first plot idea most of the time or do you go with an idea further down the list?

Pieces of the Puzzle

Have you ever tried to put together a massive jigsaw puzzle without the box cover as a guide?

You know the kind of puzzle I'm talking about -- the 300 to 1,000 piece ones that you find in your grandmother's attic stuffed into a paper (or plastic) bag whose box has long ago disappeared. Or even ones where you've decided "I'm not going to use a guide," which is slightly crazy but I'm going somewhere with this.

It's hard isn't it? You have to try to match pieces together based on edges and the way the colors run in each individual piece. Sometimes you give up for awhile, come back, give up, and if you're really truly tenacious you figure it out after many many different attempts and failures.

Writing a novel is like putting that puzzle together without a guide.

It doesn't matter whether you're a pantser or a plotter. You still have to find the pieces of the puzzle -- in this case the character's history and motivations, setting details, plot lines, background information, research, etc -- and fit them together in enough detail to jimmy the puzzle together. And heaven help you if you try to hammer the pieces together when they don't want to go. All you end up with is a mess of something that doesn't look like anything.

But, if you take the time to match the pieces together into a coherent whole, you get a rush when you start to see the pieces falling into place. You've figured out why the villain is set against the hero; you've got a handle on why the hero needs to go to the Topless Tower of Ilium instead of stay home; the setting is concrete in your mind and becomes a vibrant character of its own. Once all of these "pieces of the puzzle" work together, and your story-puzzle takes shape into the picture it's supposed to be, you soon see that what you've completed is a work worthy of admiration and framing/publishing.

So fit those puzzle pieces together, dear readers, and make your stories into the pictures they're supposed to be. Who knows? Maybe you'll get a bridge, or a farmhouse, or even a castle.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No Post Today

Due to some real life events, Bane of Anubis will not be posting today. We'll return to our regular schedule tomorrow.

Thanks for following!

-- The Alliterati

Monday, May 10, 2010


Yesterday, I planted a garden in my backyard.

We're not doing much with our lawn, so we hoed out a pretty big chunk of it and tilled the dirt to make way for four rows of pumpkins and 18 strawberry plants that I had picked up at the nursery. It turned out, after doing the math on Saturday, that in order for the pumpkins to be ready for our wedding, they needed to be planted like, now.

You have to understand something about me, though, to understand why this is a big deal. Me and plants? Yeah, we don't get along. Which is a shame, because I totally LOVE plants. I mean, they're awesome, and beautiful.

But see, when I was a kid, my mom and my grandparents used to try to teach me how to take care of plants, and I failed. Every. Single. Time. I was the arboreal version of the kid that keeps overfeeding the goldfish it gets at the fair. You know, the one whose mom goes to the pet store every week trying to find a twin before the kid gets home from school.

I once even managed to kill a cactus. That's dedication, right there. It takes a LOT of not-watering to kill a plant that lives in the desert.

One time I planted marigold seeds in the backyard with my mom's help. They sprouted, grew, even flowered-- and then the dog dug them up.

I'm cursed.

So you can imagine how nervous I was to attempt something as bold as a garden. See, we have a yard-- front and back-- but I am extremely lucky in that my future father-in-law is retired, loves his son and me, and enjoys yard work. Extremely lucky. He takes care of the yard for us, so our house is surrounded by lush, green plants and gorgeous flowers. I'm secretly hoping he'll step in and correct any damage I might do by thundering around in there like Godzilla.

And I vow to be more careful, and look at pictures of pumpkin sprouts online so I don't accidentally pull them out as weeds. It's too early to tell if these new lives will make it with me around, but I'm excited nevertheless. It's been a dream of mine for a long time-- and especially ever since we bought the house-- to have a garden. To grow something from the ground and pick it and be able to say, hey, I grew that.

Now is usually the part where I bring it all back around to writing. But you know what? The gardening/ writing metaphor has been done to death. I think I'll just sit here, in my thoughts, thinking about big shady trees and green, green, green all around.

Feel free to use your imagination and give me your best gardening/ writing metaphor in the comments, though.

Friday, May 7, 2010

GUEST POST: When to give it up

Readerly Person is a B.A. candidate in Political Science at U.C. Berkley in California, and blogs at Elephants On Trapezes. She is currently hard at work on an as-yet-unnamed novel (which was originally called "Project Voldemort").

About a week ago I was roughly 12,000 words into my work in progress. Now, 12,000 words isn't bad. It's about a fifth of many YA novels out there (a genre I'm tentatively placing my project in). If indeed I had been one fifth through my novel and happily puttering along, everything would have been fine. However, things weren't fine. Not in the least.

The problem was that I'd been working on this project since January, and was still only at 12,000 words. You think that's bad, try this: only 1,000 of them had been written in the last two months.

I have many problems when it comes to writing, perfectionism and procrastination being chief among them, so even while my progress on this project had slowed to the merest trickle I was still trying to power through. I tried writing by hand, writing in the morning, writing under the light of the midnight moon... Still nothing. I was completely and utterly without words. And even worse, I was completely and utterly without the motivation to continue.

I must be clear: hitting a slump does not mean it's time to throw away your baby. There are many times when a brisk walk around the block, a tweak of character here and a cliffhanger chapter there will get the writing engines rumbling once more. But this slump was not just a slump. It was the loss of all desire to write this story. And after a few nights of (hard) thinking, it came to me: I'd started out with a vision of the story, and its current position was nowhere near what I'd wanted it to be.

A little general background: this project started out as a fairy tale, but to obscure its origins I'd moved some people to an island, thrown in extraneous characters, and killed off original monsters, the end result being that I'd made it into every other generic YA fantasy/adventure in the world. Beside the fact that no one wants their story to be generic, I missed the original tale terribly. I wanted it back, and there was no way to get there from its morphed position.

So I threw it out, all 12,000 words, and started over. And now it's better. Better as in I find myself thinking about the story when I'm not writing it, world-building when I should be studying for my finals, even dreaming about it occasionally. And finally (finally!) I'm getting stuff done.

This is not to say that one should throw away every project once interest is lost. But there are times when a slump is not just a slump, and it's important to recognize that sometimes there are worse things to do than start over.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Presto, Change-O!

Life is fast. Super fast. So fast that no one wants to slow down to read a tome like War and Peace anymore. Poll your average high school student about their take on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Great Gatsby. Their response? Blecch. They'd rather read Twilight and Harry Potter.

There are some obvious reasons for this, but according to Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure, readers today want condensation, speed, and punch. And they want it yesterday.

Bickham states that writers need to pick a late starting point and an early ending point to keep readers interested in the story. Why?

1. Readers are fascinated and threatened by a significant change.
2. Readers want the story to start with a change.
3. Readers want to have a story question to worry about.
4. Readers want the story question answered in the story ending.
5. Readers will quickly lose patience with everything but the material that relates to the story question.

Essentially, there's a change and a question. Humans don't like change. In fact, most of us avoid it like a case of septicemic plague (bad stuff, trust me). That's why it's so intriguing to read about.

And if there's no question, there's no book. The girl's already got the guy? Boring. We already know how the body got in the trunk? Yawn.

What about your MS? Do you have a question? Is there change at the beginning of your story?

It is a truth universally acknowledged ..

... that a writer in posession of a completed novel must be in want of an agent.

The real quote's about a single man being in want of a wife, but my edited version has a purpose. Everyone wants a literary agent, right? Everyone wants to see their novel in print, right? Hence the "it is a truth universally acknowledged" bit.

Maybe, and hear me out, the truth's not as universal as we might think.

Take the grandmother writing her life story for her grandchildren. Does she want to see her memoirs in widespread publication? Probably not, because she's convinced no one outside her family wants to read about growing up in the 1940s, or how her mother coped with having a husband fighting off in Europe (or the Pacific). Now, despite the fact that many people probably would love to read that story, our fictional grandmother has no intention of pursuing publication because that's not why she's writing the story.

There are some people I know that are natural storytellers. They can weave tales so vibrant you can see them happening in your head like a movie. And they have no desire to write them down and attempt to publish them (although let's face it -- spoken word skill isn't the same as written word skill).

Then there are people who write down their stories and get a few copies self-published to sell at their church bazaar. Maybe the churchgoers love it, but no one outside that community would understand why the book is so engaging. This time, the novel really doesn't have a wide audience appeal.

Does the lack of desire to be published make these storytellers less skilled? No, of course not. It just means that they have a different focus than someone like me or my fellow Alliterati. We're willing to put months (and years) of our lives into composing the best, most vibrant, most engaging book we can. And then, if it gets rejected a few times, we move onto another project and keep moving forward until we hit the provebial sweet spot (if it ever happens).

So what's my point here? If you want to write, then write. The road to publication's tough, and I'm sure the published authors among us will quite willingly say it wasn't easy. But, like Bane said yesterday, if you have the will to stick around, then you've got a better chance of hitting that sweet spot.

Stil write though. No matter what your plans. Just take joy in the words.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Most of you who have been at this game for awhile know all too well the sharp sting of rejection, the tempering of hope, the expectation of failure. I still recall my first request for more material about 4 WiPs ago and thinking, 'wow, I'm gonna make it.' Foolish mortal. Now that I'm a bit wiser (read: jaded), requests for more material are met with a self-defensive shrug and rejection with a quick stab to the heart masked by a quick eye-blink or two.

Yet, despite all the failure, we struggle on, not because we have to, but because there's still that seed of hope buried deep within a seemingly barren field. Now, perhaps (hopefully) you aren't as dour as I sometimes wax, but I imagine most of you have fallen prey to the indelible misery of shattered hope.

I salute you for the courage to carry on, to volunteer for rejection, to put yourselves out there. It's a hard row to hoe, and I hope all your labors come to fruition. Regardless, stay happy, stay sane, and keep swimming.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writer's Remorse

My mom bought a car recently.

She was just supposed to be looking, but we all know how that goes. She had never bought a car before, either-- my dad always used to buy them for the family, and she's been driving the same car for thirteen years now. 209,000 miles on it, but it was starting to fall apart.

She found a car she really liked at one place, but then we went to another dealer anyway, (because she was just supposed to be looking), and the first car they showed her wiggled its way from "Hey, that's pretty nice" to "Okay, I'll take it."

When I left to meet my fiance for dinner, she was getting ready to sign the papers.

After we were done with dinner a few hours later, I gave her a call to see how everything went, and at first I was worried something had gone wrong with the deal because she didn't sound happy when she picked up the phone.

"Did you get the car?"

"Yeah, I got it."

"You don't sound very happy."

"I know . . . I'm having a hard time getting excited about it because of the money, and because I hated leaving my old car there."

And this, I completely understand. See, every single time I've bought a car (all three times so far), I have instantly and immediately felt some sort of panic right after. Perhaps it's the money you're spending-- is it worth it? Did you get a good deal?

Or perhaps it's the commitment-- depending on the terms (I always buy), it could be five or six years before it's really yours. Or if you're buying it with someone-- what if something goes wrong?

Or perhaps it's the what-ifs-- what if I found something else I liked more, for cheaper, somewhere else? (To be fair, most of the what-ifs can be tempered by doing your research).

It was the same way when we bought our house a year ago, but that was tempered by the fact that I work in real estate, and I knew it was the best time to buy.

And I, too, have felt bad about getting rid of an old car to make way for a new one.

The remorse always goes away in a week or two, tops. And my mom has never been through it before for a car, so I can understand that it's a powerful feeling for her. I know in the long run though, a new car is the right choice.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Excellent question-- I'm glad you asked. As writers, we don't have the opportunity to feel much remorse. In fact, we have the ultimate situation for certainty-- we get to ponder every word, every minute instance in our work, until we're satisfied. If something doesn't work, it's a matter of selecting and deleting.

Now, I've never been published in the traditional sense. So I'm not certain if there's remorse that comes along with having something of yours in print, with your name on it. But, I do know that the internet is a powerful and mystical place, one that can sometimes be dangerous for writers.

And here, especially if you're trying to get published, here is the MOST IMPORTANT PLACE to have your game face on. It's fine to be on Twitter, and Facebook, and Blogger all day, saying whatever comes to mind, as long as you remember that anything anyone posts on the internet, ever, is there-- forever. Even if you delete your remarks and account, the friendly folks at Google archive the entire internet on a regular basis and have been doing so for quite some time. There's a good chance that if an agent or an editor or even someday a reader googles your name, they can find everything you've ever written online.

Remember that trying to be published-- and being published-- is a business endeavor. It feels personal, because it's artistic. But it really is a business. Don't show up to the interview in your PJ's with Saturday-night bedhead and especially don't forget to brush your teeth. No one likes skanky morning breath in the interview.

And I can certainly understand the temptation to spew vitriol online. Sometimes, we just want to vent. We're human; we feel emotion. Rejection is always frustrating and personal, no matter how professional you are. And I honestly don't think I need to talk anyone reading this down from the ledge, but it merits saying anyway. I won't post a link because I really don't want to start somethin', but there was an incident recently on a blog where an author called out several well-known agents for rejecting her. And by called out, I mean called some very nice people some absolutely horrendous names because they had chosen not to represent her. After the backlash, she deleted the post because she "didn't want the drama." The comments everywhere on her blog were full of supportive, anonymous commenters. I have my suspicions.

Unfortunately, I don't think that writer uses her real name on her blog, so she probably won't see any real life consequences. But I don't know for certain, and I certainly don't have any respect for her blog.

My point today? Everything you say and do here is recorded, somewhere. Treat the internet like it's a private conversation that everyone can hear, and be professional. The consequences-- and remorse-- from here may never go away.