Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dishing on Non-Fiction

It's time for an informal poll.

We talk about fiction a lot, but rarely discuss non-fiction. So I want to know- how much non-fiction do you read? Memoir, self-help, history, current events, whatever.

Here's my non-fiction list so far this year:

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (Loved this- read it in two days!)
2. Judgement of the Pharaoh: Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley (Read this in two days as well- needed it for both WIP's.)
3. John Adams by David McCullough (Hefty, but well-worth it! And yes, this is the book HBO based their series on.)
4. Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley (Been at this one a while now- it's good, but 1000+ pages.)

So you tell me: how often do you crack open non-fiction? Any you'd recommend?

Learning to Write

Recently, I signed up on a website to serve as a tutor in English and History in my area. Doing this got me to thinking about teaching methods and how I'd teach someone to write or remember historical dates and some such. Since this is a writing blog, however, I'm figured I'd tell a story about my own education in how to write (since, you know, this is my post and all -- if you want proper analysis of a good book on craft then wait for the Supreme Dictator's post tomorrow).

I grew up in Upstate New York, and there weren't a whole lot of kids my age around during my formative years. Sure I had preschool and kindergarten, but a lot of those kids had already been neighbors with each other or their respective parents had been friends or whatnot. My folks had moved to the area I lived in from Pennsylvania (by way of Oklahoma, but that's another story), so suffice it to say I was pretty much an outsider as a kid. My parents weren't that social (no fault of theirs, they just weren't), and the people they were social with didn't tend to come over to our house and bring their kids.

Being the youngest of three (sister is 5 years older and brother is 9 years older), I was left to entertain myself. This first took the form of making up stories with my action figures, and then quickly turned to reading all sorts of interesting books. I had a fascination with the Goosebumps stories when I was in third grade, and became convinced that I could write one myself. That story wasn't the best in the world (it sucked honestly), but it has the marquee of being first.

Fast-forward a few years to my discovery of The Hobbit during seventh-grade English class. And yes, folks, that one book set me off and running. I read Lord of the Rings, and tried to write an epic fantasy not long after. All through high school I worked on several versions of that story and a series of shorts based around another character; meanwhile my appetite for novels just wouldn't stop. So while I was learning how to write research papers for my classes (something I found crazy easy), I was also learning the facets of good writing by reading copious amounts.

I'm convinced, by my experience and what I've heard from others, that this is the only proper way to learn how to write. Read a lot, practice writing, and repeat. The "grammar rules" that I'm supposed to know as an editor are more or less lost to me. Hell, the only reason I know what a compound modifier is is because someone explained it to me while I was working at the job I had before my current one. I edit on instinct, and I learned to write on the same. Granted, I lucked out that my instincts are darn good (this is gleaned from what other people have told me -- I tend to not think highly of my own skills, but what writer does?) because of the wordsmithy in my family history, but still.

I've taken precisely one creative writing course in my life, and I'm more or less convinced that I can learn whatever courses like that purport to teach me from reading books like Bickham's Scene and Structure or Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel or King's On Writing.

I suppose I'd better answer the question I started with: How would I teach someone how to write? By teaching them how to read with the eyes of a writer.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Harder: Short Story or Novel?

As someone who's written many of both and had some success with shorts, I'd lean toward the novel. I've seen it written that shorts are harder because that adage about omitting needless words holds more true because you've got to build character, plot, interest in a shorter span. The path for a short might be more clearly defined (i.e., restrictive), but the decorations our left to our imagination (here's where I'm imagining Mel Gibson shouting "Freedom").

In a novel, though the path may be a bit more ambiguous or multi-forked (i.e., open for exploration), we've got to deal with a fairly grumpy HOA. That is, the publishing industry is fully tuned to producing the most perfect (in terms of saleability) novel. Rules, rules, rules (or at least stern recommendations). These can be helpful for finding a path (mundane?), but sometimes it can lead to the artistic gallows.

What do you think?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hang The Rules

Normally, I have a healthy respect for rules and laws. They are what keeps our society together. I also have a fear of being arrested and/ or accidentally hurting someone else, so that keeps me in check, too.

This particular trait of mine has gotten me into trouble in the past, though-- when I wouldn't break the rules, not even a little. Trouble socially, you understand, not legally. In the end, I didn't really care what those people thought of me because they shouldn't have tried to pressure me into something I wasn't comfortable with in the first place.

But the thing is, those are real-life rules that I stick to. There's a place where I go to escape from real life and all its rules, and that's my writing.

But writing is full of "rules," too. Except that with language, it's a choice to follow the rules (just like in real life, except that no one is going to be hurt by breaking the writing laws unless you use your words as a weapon of hate).

We all know the rules of writing by heart. Don't use adverbs. Show, don't tell. Be snappy. Be grammatically correct. Don't write passively. And the list goes on.

But you know what? Hang the rules. Hang them all, because language is a free-flowing, ever-changing beast, and for every rule out there, there is an example of a writer who broke it and STILL managed to get published.

This is why I don't talk about writing rules in my blog posts (anymore). I have come to see them as snake oil-- if only you could weed out every adverb from your manuscript, you would be published. If only you showed every little detail instead of telling about it, you would be published. There is no magic cure, folks-- and that includes these rules. I see them as more of suggestions (or guidelines, for those Pirates of the Caribbean fans out there) anyway.

I am guilty of using copious adverbs and adjectives, writing in first person present tense (gasp!), and pretty much anything else you can think of. But I still like my writing, and frankly? That's all that matters to me. Someone else will like it, too, it's inevitable. But if I strangle myself with the rules, suddenly I don't like my writing or the act of writing it very much anymore.

I see it kind of like music composition. There are some composers who write music almost (and occasionally literally) mathematically. Music to them is an equation. And the results are technically perfect-- but something is just missing.

Then there are the composers who write with passion-- letting their fingers pick the notes and connect with their heart instead of their brain-- and their music may be looser, more sloppy, but it moves people.

Which writer do you want to be?

So hang the rules-- hang them right up, string them high for all to see-- and then cut yourself free of them. Write like you are free from them, because you are. No one, least of all me, is going to string YOU up for using adverbs, and they might even thank you for it.

What rules do you break?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Guest Post: Davin Malasarn

Davin is a writer (and a scientist!) joining us from his usual blogging at both The Literary Lab and The Triplicate.

Several years ago I started the story that would become my first novel. Among the debris of the first draft were fragments of writing on a common theme: my father. The emotions involved in my relationship with my father ran deep, and it seemed like as good a subject as any for me to investigate through storytelling.

I wrote.

My protagonist—if one could call him that—was verbally abusive, an alcoholic, a womanizer. In other words, he was my father. Or at least what I thought of my father at the time.

When I gave this early draft to readers, they praised my book because of how real my character seemed to be. But, with the exception of one reader, my character was universally disliked, making the resulting story a difficult read to say the least.

I revised my fictional character some, but I couldn’t completely let go of my current view of who my father was. What I could do was adjust his past, the part of his life I had never been introduced to. I created a dark history for him, giving him his own abusive parents, along with a cruel older brother. I broke his heart. I confused him. I forced him to push all of his hurt down into a hard and sharp rock lodged into his abdomen.

This time when I gave the story to my readers they understood him more. My father was now sympathetic. Did they like him? Still no.

So often, our writing lives shape our actual lives. As I was working on my book, a wonderful thing was happening to me personally. My own relationship with my father was improving. Although I knew none of it was true, the history I gave my character became a possible history for my father. And, if this history was possible, then it explained…possibly…why my father was the man he was. My fiction helped me sympathize with my father, and I’ve often said if nothing else were to come from this book, the effort of writing it has been worthwhile. But, there was more to come.

I was still stuck on the fact that no one liked my character. Repeatedly, I had to convince myself that a sympathetic character was good enough. Time passed, and the relationship between me and my father grew stronger. Eventually, I reached a point where I wasn’t holding onto my protagonist’s reality so tightly. I replaced some of his bad traits with some good ones, and soon enough I got a comment from a reader that had seemed so elusive to me in the past. Someone was actually rooting for him.

I revised some more. I made my character even more likeable. I made him charming. I made him funny. I gave him the ability to dance. Only much later did I realize that I wasn’t plucking these new details out of nowhere. Just as my earlier character had been shaped by my earlier view of my father, this revised character emerged from my revised view of my father. The revelation came to me on a Father’s Day a couple of years ago, when I was able to write the simple word “Love” on a card I got for him, something I hadn’t managed to do for several years.

So often we as writers tell ourselves that we are writing fiction. What I’ve come to realize is that the fiction we create is almost always limited by the realities that we have also created. My father didn’t change much over these past few years. What changed was the way I saw him. And, until that changed, I couldn’t fake my opinion of him. For me to create a character that other people cheered for, I had to be able to cheer for him myself. My heart had to evolve, and that is perhaps the greatest gift a writer can get from writing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Revising Scenes or Attack of the Alpacas

Today's lesson from Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure is on revising scenes for maximum effect. Essentially, everything you do when you revise must keep the story on track and serve to move the story forward.

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the story question in some way. (I must see the relevance of introducing these angry, spitting alpacas.)

2. The conflict must be about the goal. (That's right, we were trying to trek to Machu Picchu when we realized these alpacas weren't the friendly variety.)

3. The conflict must be with another person or persons, not internally, with oneself. (If I spend ten pages inside the guide's head worrying about whether he'll get fired for not securing cute, fuzzy llamas ahead of time my reader will end up snoring.)

4. Once a viewpoint has been established and that viewpoint character's problem and goal have been stated, it's wise to remain with that same single viewpoint through the disaster. (In other words, don't switch from the guide's POV to the alpaca's. That would just be silly.)

5. Disaster works (moves the story forward) by seeming to move the central figure further back from his goal, leaving him in worse trouble than he was before the scene started. (Yes, the alpacas allowed everyone to mount, but then took off running in the wrong direction after leaving the supplies behind.)

6. Readers will put up with a lot if your scenes only keep making things worse! (First the alpacas spit in the adventurers' faces, but then they dropped one of the men down a ravine. Then bandits appeared and demanded everyone's money. And bananas.)

7. You can seldom, if ever plan, write, or revise a scene in isolation of your other plans for the story, because the end of each scene dictates a lot about what can happen later. (If the conflict is whether the expedition will reach Machu Picchu and then there's a scene about saving a local village from an attack of killer clowns, you've lost your audience.)

Yeah, you know I had to put the clowns in there somewhere.

Are there any of these rules that you break? I'll admit that I've allowed my protagonists some down time to enjoy life, but that only serves to heighten the tension when I yank it all away from them. I've also jumped to another person's POV to finish a scene to show it from a different angle, but now I'm rethinking that one.

What about you?

Reading Aloud: Does It Benefit Anything?

I've edited a variety of works for different people over the years. From high school through college into today, when it went from friends and friends of friends asking me to edit term papers and fiction, into today when I've spent my professional life editing newspaper articles and press releases, I've held onto one single practice that has always served me well.

Reading aloud.

Now, some people might say reading aloud is a crutch, that we shouldn't rely on it as a be-all, end-all editing tool to craft proper sentences. I agree with them for the most part; there's no real substitute for knowing the rules of grammar -- what a compound modifier is and how to use it, the proper method of comma placement, how to craft a sentence so your meaning is clearly understood, etc. All these things can be accomplished without reading a single line aloud.

However, and other people have said something similar, I can hear grammar mistakes quicker when a sentence is read aloud than when it's read silently. Good writing means nothing if you trip over the words; any speechwriter worth their salt will tell you that. Good fiction is the same way. If the rhythms of the words are off as we read them, then the story suffers. A technically correct sentence may be an example of good writing in the academic world, but if the cadence of the words doesn't flow naturally when someone reads it aloud then that sentence wouldn't work in a novel.

Since I love me some examples, I'd like you to read the following two sentences aloud:

John went down to the corner store. 

John done gone down to the corner store.

Now, the second one is clearly incorrect grammar. If you were reading merely for proper grammar, you'd change "John done gone down" quicker than anything. However, if you read both sentences aloud, you'll see that they both communicate the main idea in a clear cadence. The second sentence is merely written in a dialect, while the first sentence is not.

Someone reading the second sentence without reading it aloud would probably change the sentence. I know I would, unless the context the sentence occurred it merited leaving it in dialect like that. Reading aloud has the added benefit of allowing you to see if the proper emotions are evoked within a certain section. However, and this is the key part, do not put any inflection on the words. If you have to add inflection to a sentence in order to make it evoke sadness, or anger, or anything like that, then you've written the section wrong. The words need to speak for themselves in all cases. Because let's face it: most people who are reading your book/short story/whatever aren't going to be listening to it as an audiobook.

Do you read your work aloud, dear readers? How has it helped you?

Round 2 PvP Results

It gives me great pleasure to say that most of you got this one wrong. Entry #2 was the Pubble - 
 The Tales of Tanglewood: The Lon Dubh Whistle by Scott Michael Kessman, a 4.5/5 star book. Of course, both short snippets, but I think it's evident our volunteer this week's quite competent.

If anybody's interested in participating, please email us at

And, once again, many thanks to our test subject for submitting his/her piece for comparison.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pubbles vs Plebes: Round 2 (YA Urban Fantasy)

For our second PvP match, we've got Chapter 1 (non-beginning) sections from two YAUF books. Can you spot the pubble(s)?

Entry 1:

Apinya reached toward the cold pile of deadwood and asked the fire to
come, her breath misting in the mountain air. Warmth spread from her
heart to her shoulder, her arm, her wrist… until Aunt Nit viciously
slapped her hand.

“I’m cold,” said Apinya, rubbing her reddened skin.

Nit frowned. “Use matches. Or better yet, pound some rice.”

Apinya had hoped to avoid that, but she knew better than to disobey
Aunt Nit directly. Picking up her schoolbag, she walked the dirt road
between homes of woven bamboo. At least Aunt Nit didn’t lecture her
on the importance of staying hidden or pretending she was someone she

Pounding rice was hard, but it wasn’t the work that bothered her, nor
the occasional mocking she received from the other students. It was
the isolation, the reminder that in a village of hundreds – even
working alongside each other – she was different. And there was
nothing she could do about it.

The rhythmic pounding of the rice pestles could be heard over a kilo
away. It took days to husk the rice from a single field, so the whole
village helped in turns. Children who were old enough worked before
school, pushing the pestles up and down with their feet for over an
hour sometimes, then again in the evening when their homework was

Entry 2:

Mark traced his fingertips over the strange runes, and a twinge of excitement rippled through his body. Eager to continue the adventure, he stepped through the trees.

Upon emerging from the archway, he heard the noises. He was unable to make out distinctive voices, but there were many of them, and it sounded like hearty, joyous singing.

Creeping as silently as he could, he approached the chorus of voices, moving deeper into the undergrowth, pressing aside outreaching tree limbs that sought to block his path and protect the denizens of the forest.

Deeper into the woods he traveled, his way lit by a mass of fireflies signaling their mates. Trying desperately to be silent, twigs cracked and leaves crunched under his weight. Perhaps the creatures of the forest would teach him to move silently as they did.

His house far away now, little more than a memory, he began to feel as if he had been birthed here, living his young life among the trees and the earth, cradled within the leafy arms of the forest. How he longed to make this dream real, to banish his true life to some nether-region, replace it with one free of school and homework and all the complications grown-ups seemed to accumulate as they grew older. None of that would be found here, he knew.

We will be back tomorrow to reveal the Pubble(s), whilst the brave and willing plebe shall remain anonymous. Feel free to make comments about our experiment or the two pieces, but, as always, be respectful and courteous of your fellow writers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wait; You're Not Real!

Sorry for the late post today folks-- been having some internet troubles.

Something very interesting happened to me yesterday. I met one of my characters.

You know that record-scratch sound they use in movies when the main character realizes something that makes them stop in their tracks? Yeah, that was me.

The guy was a costume character at a local theme park. He was dressed in a turn-of-the-century safari outfit and had an impeccable upper-class British accent. When he interacted with me (in the persona to match his outfit, of course), it was like I was meeting someone famous. I was stunned. Words left me.

Here, in front of me, was someone who shouldn't exist-- but he did. Sort of. Even though he was an actor playing another character, he was flawlessly playing MY character. The quirks, the voice, the look-- it was all there.

He must have thought I was the weird one. There I was, star-struck by a dude in a safari outfit. Complete with silly hat. Oooookay, crazy lady.

It was hugely strange, but also really neat, in a way. It was like someone decided to make the movie in my head and I was watching them film it.

And now, I have more material, too!

I know some writers base characters off of real people, but have you ever met one you've made up in real life?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Guest Post: Cheryl Angst

Cheryl Angst is a middle school teacher and writer. Her first novel, The Firestorm Conspiracy, is due to be published by Lyrical Press Inc., sometime in 2011. She is currently working on a suspense novel, Job Hunted, about a young woman who becomes a target for assassination when she turns down the job of a lifetime.

You can find her musings on writing, querying, and other aspects of publishing on her blog. She can also be reached at cherylangst(at)gmail(dot)com.

Let me begin by thanking the Alliterati for the opportunity to write a guest post for their blog. I am thrilled to be here and, truth be told, a little scared. I’ve been puttering in my corner of the internet in total obscurity, and I’ve discovered there’s very little pressure to entertain when your only follower is your mother’s cat.

That being said, I’ve come to the realization that writing for an audience is an awful lot like being Homer Simpson. I’m not talking about saying, “D’oh!” every time I find a grossly overused adverb or heinous adjective in my manuscript (I tend to use more colourful language while hunting those beasties). Rather, I’m likening writing to Homer’s adventures down a cliff-face, river, gondola, or street: every time you think the worst is over, something else springs out and smashes you in the groin.

Before you start thinking this post is going to be all doom-and-gloom, I invite you to remember that regardless of how many objects get embedded in that man’s body, or how many times he’s been hit in the head or crotch, he ALWAYS COMES OUT ALIVE (and sometimes better for it). And this is how I view the process of writing for publication.

Do you remember the butterflies and adrenaline surges when you first decided you were going to write? I remember mine. I thought, “I’m going to do this, I’m really going to do this!” Now picture Homer sailing through the air, shouting, “I’m king of the world!” He felt pretty good too.

Then I sat down in front of an empty page. Dude, what the hell was I thinking? Here’s where we cue Homer’s first ‘uh oh’ moment – missing the landing by *that* much. I stared at the screen wondering what had possessed me to think I could write. I rested my fingers on the keyboard, hoping the warmth from the laptop’s internal fan would inspire my hands into producing magic.

I began to write. Hesitant at first, I stuttered along until I had a routine and could actually produce stories and chapters worthy of more than lining the litter box. Here’s where Homer grabs a branch (usually with his groin) and breaks his fall. I felt good. Relieved. I did it. I wrote something – something I believe in enough to share with others! Hooray for me! Hooray for Homer! He’s escaped certain death!

What was that? Did you hear the sound of the branch ripping away from the cliff-side? D’oh! It’s time to write a query letter... or two... or three... or sixty. Again the adrenaline surged as my confidence took another free-fall. Querying is tough. Sure, I could spout nearly 80,000 words about aliens, but how was I going to summarize my novel in a page? And how could I possibly face the rejection I knew would follow?

I did it. I did it the same way Homer got down the cliff; one bump at a time. Yes, the first rejection hurt. So did the second and twenty-second. It’s hard not to take rejection personally. Just like it’s nearly impossible not to fall madly in love with the email requesting more pages. “She likes me! She really likes me!”

Cue Homer whooping and spinning in circles on the floor.

Finding a publisher can be equally daunting. D’oh! As is signing your first contract. D’oh! Don’t forget about the first round of edits from your agent or editor. D’oh, d’oh! Waiting for the release date? D’oh! Worrying about sales, options, and marketing? D’oh!

Let’s face it, writing for publication isn’t easy, but it can be entertaining. For over twenty years Homer has thrown his yellow, jiggling body into situations no one in their right mind would consider, gotten himself beaten up for it, and emerged battered but alive. As I writer I continually throw my creative efforts into the world, knowing that no sane person seeks out rejection the way a writer does, and I’ve survived.

Writing, like the land of chocolate, is fun. However, unless you plan on keeping your poetry or prose locked in a box under your bed, there’s always going to be that moment when the brakes fail, the cable snaps, or the skateboard falls short. And here’s where writing is really like Homer Simpson: no matter what happens, he gets up and seeks out a new adventure the following week.

I hope I’m still taking those crazy leaps off cliffs twenty years from now. And, I hope even more, I’m still laughing on the way down.



Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conflict & Doughnuts

There are a million things writers need to worry about when revising a manuscript. Scratch that. There are a GAZILLION things we have to stress about.

1. Plot
2. Characterization
3. Typos
4. Dialogue
5. Setting
6. Blah, blah, blah

So you've got what you think is a great novel. But maybe you only think it's great. Maybe it's a long slog that puts people to sleep and makes them wish they were reading a trigonometry textbook instead.

That's a problem.

Today I was reading Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. (Yes, again.) One of the very first chapters talks about conflict. We all know we need conflict in our stories, but have you ever gone back to each scene to see if you're increasing conflict?

You should.

Bickham says each scene must have the following:

1. A goal. Stephanie needs to go to Egypt to research Hatshepsut's temple.
2. Introduction or development of conflict. Stephanie is a starving college student (thank goodness I'm not anymore) and can't afford to pay for the trip.
3. A tactical DISASTER, a failure to reach the goal. Stephanie starts panhandling on the street, but people only give her doughnuts and EgyptAir won't accept doughnuts as currency, no matter how much chocolate they have slathered on them.


Your protagonist should end each scene worse off than where he/she started. Otherwise, you've decreased conflict and now your reader doesn't care about the story anymore.

Now, Bickham cautions against making the goals too small or too large, but that's a post for another time. If you're revising, have you checked to make sure each of your scenes contains the necessary ingredients?

The Benefits of Writing Non-Fiction

If you happen to be reading my daily musings over at Free the Princess, you'll recall that on Friday I announced I'd be writing a work of non-fiction that's tentatively titled The Steampunk Research Primer, with the aim of collecting enough research on the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries to give my fellow Steampunks a base point to start their own research from. I came to this decision because of three things: Gail Gray suggested it, L.T. Host coerced me into it, and I realized that it's taken me roughly a year to get to my current amount of knowledge about the Victorian period.

Why is that time frame important? Well, Harry Harrison said at one point that it took him five years of part-time research to get to the level of know-how he needed to write A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Remembering that got me to thinking: How much faster would I have been able to draft CALLARION AT NIGHT if I had a primer like the one I intend to write at my fingertips? Probably a heckuva lot quicker, that's for sure. And then this has a double benefit for me, at least, in that my knowledge of the period will become even greater through putting together this primer.

There's a secondary benefit to writing the SRP as well. That, of course, happens to be platform-building. Let use another example: I'm going to be part of two panels at Upstate Steampunk in Greenville, South Carolina this fall. While on these panels, I'm going to discuss the roots of Steampunk literature, which as you may or may not recall, I spent the entire month of April on over at FtP.

The resulting academic paper, which I will hand in at that conference, will then be included as a writing credit in any query letter/non-fiction proposal I write. Why? Because it means I got published. If/when the SRP gets picked up, I fully intend to also mention that in any query letter I write.

Beyond the fact that it means I will be able to say I wrote the book on basic Steampunk research (which is kind of cool by itself), it will prove that I have the writing chops to put a coherent, salable book together. Will it translate directly into being able to craft a compelling novel? Probably not directly, but it does mean that someone enjoyed my writing style enough to take a chance on it. It also means that I know the type of people who'd buy my novel if I've already written a non-fiction book directly targeted to them.

The point of rather rambling post is this: We hear time and again that platform is an important part of being a writer. Non-fiction is dependent on platform and marketing plans and so forth. What better practice can you get than putting together a non-fiction proposal and trying to get it sold? Particularly if you know your topic well.

It's a thought at least.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Round 1 PvP Results

So, a little more than half chose the correct answer from yesterday's match, which was The Lark and the Wren (Bardic Voices: Book 1) by Mercedes Lackey.... and was Entry #2.

Now, as Anita Saxena commented last week, we can't really draw full-bodied conclusions by comparing two short snippets, but hopefully we can at least see that the difference in writing quality between pubbles and plebes might not be as discrepant as some might believe (or at least in this case). Let's go picket Random House just for fun :).

Now, since this is an experiment and our first run at it, we'd like to get feedback to improve our process. Any suggestions for improvement (e.g., expanding to 500 words, which would be roughly 2 pages worth) are greatly appreciated. Or, if you think this totally sux, we'd like to know that, too.

Also, we've got a couple more volunteers lined up, but the more the merrier. If you're interested, please email us at

And, finally, many thanks to our first test subject for submitting his/her piece for comparison.

Small Print PS: regarding punctuation, please keep in mind that some transcription errors may occur (which we, of course, will try to spot, but once we go to post, we'll leave a piece as is) and, as a couple of people mentioned, punctuation usage varies among authors (heaven knows I wanted to put several more commas in The Hunger Games).

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's in a title?

I'm asking myself this question right now. I have a work in progress that has no name, aside from a descriptor that I've shortened to three initials I use when naming the file and even when referring to it in emails and chats.

I know a title is important, and frankly, I feel a little lost that I haven't thought of one yet. A title draws your reader in; it makes them curious enough to read the copy, which hopefully makes them curious enough to read the book. It's your first impression as a writer, and I don't know why I can't think of one for this particular book.

The rest of my books-- even some unwritten ones-- have just seemed to populate fully-formed in my head, complete with titles. Usually snappy one- or two-word ones. Which might be why I'm having trouble-- this title has to be at least a few words. Something cute and clever and with a hint of the quirkiness within-- oh, and it has to have something to do with death.

Perhaps it's because this is my first try at a good old fashioned mystery (despite having teethed myself on Agatha Christie and the stories of Sherlock Holmes), but I just can't seem to find what to call this one.

I know that the title will probably change anyway, but I don't want to use my placeholder because that just screams, "I'm lazy and couldn't think of anything good." Which I'm not. I just . . . can't think of anything good.


I have faith it will come, but maybe the book needs to be finished first.

Have you ever struggled to name a project? Is there some underlying psychosis at work here?

P.S.-- don't forget to go vote in our little experiment!

Pubbles vs Plebes: Round 1 (Fantasy)

For our very first match, we've got the opening paragraphs from two fantasy books. One or both are published. Can you spot the pubble(s)?

Entry 1:

Yan Faren dropped his silver pieces, one coin at a time, onto the decaying wooden table in front of Ol’ Bran Taber the Lodge Master. The small dusty shack he stood in was no different than any of the other piles of wood and sod that cluttered the city streets except that inside was where the Lodge conducted their business with the outside world. Yan did not like debts to settle any more than he liked dealing with unlawful men but some things could not be helped. He had needed the money when the taxes were levied and now it had to be repaid. It had taken him over three weeks in the market to sell enough barley.

The moneylender’s long gnarled fingers counted the silver with surprising speed for a man with such creaky bones. When he had sorted the last piece of silver into neat little stacks in front of him he looked up and his mouth spread into a grin, showing the yellow of his teeth. “You’re eight pieces short.”

“Come now.” Yan said “I don’t owe ye but twenty.” He may have been no master with numbers, but he was no fool either. “Count again. You’ll find it’s all there.”

“There’s twenty here. You owe me twenty-eight.” Ol’ Bran’s eyes gleamed the same grey color as the grease in his hair, daring Yan to disagree.

Entry 2:

The attic cubicle was dark and stuffy, two conditions the tiny window under the eaves did little to alleviate. Luna reached up to the shelf over her pallet for her fiddle case, and froze with her hand less than an inch away. Her mother's nasal whine echoed up the stairs from the tavern sleeping rooms below.

"Luna? Luna!"

Luna sighed, and her hand dropped to her side. "Yes, Mother?" she called over her shoulder. She'd hoped to get a little practice in before the evening customers began to file in.

"Have you swept the tavern and scrubbed the tables?" When Shara said "the tavern," she meant the common room. The kitchen was not in Luna's purview. The cook, Camille, who was also the stableman's wife, reigned supreme there, and permitted no one within her little kingdom but herself and her aged helper, known only as Granny.

"No, Mother," Luna called down, resignedly, "I thought Bev—"

"Bev's doing the rooms. Get your behind down there. The sooner you can get it over with, the sooner you can get on with that foolish scraping of yours." Then, as an afterthought, as Luna reached the top step, "And don't call me 'Mother.'"

"Yes M—Shara." Stifling another sigh, Luna plodded down the steep, dark attic stairs, hardly more than a ladder down the back wall.

We will be back tomorrow to reveal the Pubble(s), whilst the brave and willing plebe shall remain anonymous. Feel free to make comments about our experiment or the two pieces, but, as always, be respectful and courteous of your fellow writers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

GUEST POST: It's a Good Time to be a Writer … and a Gamer

Ricardo Bare is a video game developer and a writer. He maintains a personal web site at that is about writing, and he posts a “Writing Level Up” feature that is sort of like a “lessons learned” along his writer’s journey. Occasionally it crosses over into game design, because the kind of game development he does makes heavy use of story-telling and gameplay.
His  first professional short story sale comes out in the next issue of Shock Totem Magazine, and he is currently editing a Young Adult fantasy novel.

If you asked a bunch of people, "What do writers write?" you’d get a lot of answers like: novels, short stories, poems, articles or movie scripts. We're familiar with novelists, journalists, and scriptwriters. But, it's probably not common knowledge that writers also write for video games. Maybe the last time you saw a video game was in a mall arcade in the 80's. If so, you might be wondering what the hell storytelling has to do with Frogger, but if you've played a modern game on your Xbox 360 or PS3--something like Infinity Ward's Call of Duty or Irrational's Bioshock--then you know games deliver sophisticated and compelling narrative experiences. 

Like the movies industry, games employ people with a wide variety of professional skills: designers, programmers, sound engineers, musicians, concept artists, animators, 3-d artists, producers, voice actors and writers just to name a few. The games industry is gigantic, growing larger every year, and generates content for a wide variety of audiences. A lot of that content makes heavy use of storytelling, and wherever there's a need for story, there's a need for storytellers.

So, what does a writer do in all this? Let me describe a few examples of the kind of work a writer can contribute to a game's development:

1. Story Treatment: At the beginning of a project especially, a lot of effort goes into fleshing out the central story arc of a game. Who is the player character? What's his goal? Who are the main antagonists? What are the key locations and major plot twists that occur as the player progresses through the game? The end result is a document that reads somewhat like a long-form synopsis of a novel or a movie treatment. This is typically an effort between the game’s lead designers and an external professional writer. Occasionally it’s an in-house writer, depending on the studio. (It just so happens that where I currently work, Arkane Studios, we have at least three developers who fancy themselves writers--one of which is Anthony Huso, author of The Last Page. Did I mention you should pre-order his book? Because you should. It will rock your socks off.)

2. Dialog & Cut-Scenes: Many games use “cinematic” scenes between action segments in which the player is a passive observer, such as Halo 3. A few allow the player some measure of freedom. Games like Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 let the player choose from thousands of lines of dialog to say to the world’s inhabitants. Either way, writers craft the dialog and block out the action (working hand in hand with designers and animators). Those kick-ass scenes in Half-Life 2? Written by the excellent Marc Laidlaw. 

3. Character development: I posted a little bit about writing character bios on my site here. If a game is character-driven and has a significant plot, then you’re going to spend time developing character bios: what everyone looks like, their background, how they talk, and anything else that might be relevant to the game and story. 

4. World Building/Lore: Remember all those apocryphal encyclopedia-like tomes that detail the world of Lord of the Rings--the stuff that wasn't part of the main trilogy, but described things like the creation of the world, side-legends, the history of a particular nation, or the ecology of a bizarre creature? Creating content like that is the bread and butter of Massively Multiplayer Online Games such as World of Warcraft, which tend to have humongous, richly detailed settings for players to explore. 

So, how do you get into writing for games? I asked my game writer friend, Susan O’Connor, to share her thoughts and she made two suggestions. First, many cities have local associations such as the IGDA which provide great volunteering and networking opportunities. I’d add that you should also find out about trade shows or conferences like GDC (some cities have local versions) where you can attend informative panels and meet other industry folks. Second, if kid’s games are your cup of tea, Susan commends it as a great place to start since the development cycles are shorter, allowing you to quickly experience several projects to completion. 

One last word of advice from my coworker, game designer and writer, Harvey Smith: if you’re thinking about dipping your toe into the world of games, turn back now unless you love the dynamics of play as much as you love predefined drama. In a novel, you are the author. But in a game you have to abdicate that authority, more or less, depending on the game. That might sound scary, but I’ll tell you right now, that’s where the magic is.
Much more can be said about this subject, but that’s probably enough for an introduction. I’ll stick around for questions, so fire away!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Oh My Gosh! My Scene Is RUINED!

So I'm loving Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure. I'm not reading it cover to cover, but instead using the open-a-random-page-and-learn-something-new method. Today I opened to Chapter 10: Common Errors in Scenes & How to Fix Them.

Here's Bickham's list of all the things that could potentially go wrong in your scenes. (Note: It kind of reminds me of all the things that can happen to humans to kill or maim us. It's really surprising any of us make it to adulthood. Or that any novels are error-free.)

1. Too many people in the scene. (Mary, Margaret, Madge, Marge, Bob, Bill, Will, and Lakwanjala the Killer Clown all went into the costume store.)
2. Cicularity of argument. (Did not! Did so! Did not! Did so! Yawn.)
3. Unwanted interruptions. (The phone rang. So? It makes it more like real life, but I'm reading a book. I don't want real life.)
4. Getting off the track. (Oops. I just wrote four pages that has nothing to do with the conflict of the killer clowns. But I know you wanted to know the exact layout of the costume store.)
5. Inadvertent summary. (And then Jeff thought to himself, "This really sucks that the clown costume isn't at the store. Poor Billy will be so sad. In fact, the tantrum he's throwing now shows how sad he is.")
6. Loss of viewpoint. (Whose head am I in now?)
7. Forgotten scene goal. (Why am I here again?)
8. Unmotivated opposition. (The killer clown is being nasty just to be nasty. It's easier this way.)
9. Illogical disagreement. (You don't want Billy to be a clown for Halloween because you don't like cucumbers?)
10. Unfair odds. (The killer clowns have knifes, revolvers, exploding nose grenades AND will tickle me to death? ACK!)
11. Overblown internalizations. (I am going to think to myself just how awful these clowns are until the reader can't take it anymore.)
12. Not enough at stake. (Tell me why I care. I don't.)
13. Inadvertent red herrings. (It wasn't the clowns- it was the butler! Follow the butler with the bloody knife!)
14. Phony, contrived disasters. (Ack! Killer clowns attacked just as an earthquake hit and a place crashed too!)

Whew! Okay, so Bickham says we rarely make more than one of these mistakes per scene. Have you ever made any of these mistakes? (Maybe not with killer clowns.) Or read a book with one that made you groan out loud?

Brevity is the Soul of Wit ... and Good Writing

In an March 20, 1880 letter to D.W. Bowser, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) wrote:
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."
One of the more common failings in most writing is the use of a much bigger word than you need. Case in point: in my day job I see a lot of press releases with the word "utilize" in place of the word "use," among many other instances of similar overwrought wording. My sole theory about this is that we've been conditioned as a culture to believe that using a big word means you're smarter than the average person. A bigger vocabulary = a smarter person, in other words.

Now, we writers know that's not necessarily true. The best writing sometimes uses the simplest words, rather than the biggest, and is the better for it. An object lesson:

"He walked down the street." vs. "He perambulated down the avenue."

Both sentences say exactly the same thing. The second one, however, uses words that are more complicated than they might need to be. Granted, "perambulate" could refer to a specific kind of walk, but if all you want to say is that the man walked down the street then the first sentence is all you need to use.

In writing, it's always better to say what you need to say without using overblown words. Today on Twitter, RantyEditor referenced someone saying "We need to dialogue about this" instead of "We need to talk." That's another classic example of someone trying to sound smarter. All it does is make said person seem pompous. Of course, if you want your character to seem pompous, then by all means go that direction.

My point is this: don't use big words when you don't have to. Sending your readers scurrying to the dictionary every page or two is not a way to gain their loyalty. It's a way to alienate them. For the most part, at least.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An Experiment

Matt, Stephanie, LT, and I are interested in running a bit of a social writing experiment. On occasion, we see agents discussing the difference between pubbed and unpubbed authors. And while our experiment may or may not fuel this debate, we'd like to do an anonymous comparison between the pubbles and the wannabes. But we need volunteers. This is what we'd like:

250 words from one of your pieces (preferably a chapter/section beginning, though not necessarily the first). Give us the genre (e.g., YA, Fantasy, etc.) and location within your manuscript (e.g., -- opening page, chapter 2, etc.)

This is what we plan on doing (on a weekly, biweekly basis - will depend on interest):

Paste a page of a published piece versus a page of an unpubbed - both anonymously and of similar genre - and see who can tell the difference. Obviously this won't take into account (too much) pacing, character and plot development, but it will allow for writing Xs and Os to come through to an extent.

If interested, please email me at Also, feel free to include another 250 words from a pubbed piece if you'd like us to compare yours to that (if you do this, give us the title of the pubble's book). We will change character/location names in both pieces to reduce chances of ID.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Well, I must be doing something right . . .

Remember my post about gardening? And how I didn't bring it all back around to writing at the end?

I wish I could say this one, a follow-up post, would be the same way. But the images-- they are aplenty in my head.

To catch everyone up, I am currently querying a commercial fiction novel. Well, mostly. I'm technically on query hiatus as of right now, only because I have so much else going on until my wedding in October. Once that's over with though, I intend to dive back in head first-- though that doesn't mean I won't cheat and send a few out in the meantime.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the pumpkins I'm attempting to grow in my backyard for said wedding, and my fears that previous planticides were indicative of my inability to take care of anything botanical. (Wow, did I used enough big words in that sentence?)

And I have to admit that I treat querying the same way. It frankly scares me to do it at times because I've failed before. What if this time isn't different? What if this time, they not only say no, but call me a silly hack who never has a hope of a writing career please stop now before you hurt someone?

Well, to all of that, I say this:

Cling to the small successes.

For my first concern, the pumpkin vines in my yard, I give you the following evidence. What was bare dirt and hard work a mere four weeks ago has turned into this:

For queries, I see the small successes as requests for partials and fulls. Sure, that in and of itself hasn't landed me an agent yet, but it means that something I'm doing is headed in the right direction. I can only hope that if I keep growing and learning, I will do more right and make it to my goal.

My plants are oddly demonstrative of this point right now. If you notice in the picture above, I have lots of little sprouts and that one random HUGE cluster. Here's a not-blurry close up of those guys for you:

Those leaves up there? They are as big as my HEAD. Yeah.

So not all of my pumpkin vines (all 38 that sprouted!) are growing into giant mutants (SEEEEEY-MOUR!), but they're there, and they're growing slowly but steadily. Once I figure out what I've done so correctly with this particular group, I can apply it to the rest (I have a feeling it's really mostly just sunshine, but that's a whole other metaphor/analogy). And you know what? I'm fine with the others not being so large and beautiful just yet. They'll get there, or, maybe they won't. Everyone has a weakness and a flaw.

I'm just happy that I have something I can point to and say, "Hey! Look! I did that, and I did it right." The rest will come with time and practice.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Valerie Geary writes mainstream literary fiction and has published several short stories in various online journals. You can find links to those stories as well as regular book and writing related posts on her blog Something to Write About. ( She is currently so focused on her most recent novel-in-progress, a tale filled with dark secrets and strange magic, she almost forgot to write this guest post.  

Each morning, when I wake up, I ask myself: “Self, will you write today? Or will you waste hours surfing blogs under the pretense that you’re doing research?”

I’ve discovered my most productive writing days are the ones in which I actually write. Those are the days my chest swells and I feel like flying. Those are the days I can stand up and say: “I am writer; hear me roar.” I try as often as possible to have days like that. Sometimes I succeed, other times… not so much. But always I like to give myself a solid push in the right direction.

I first heard of Timed Writing at a writer’s conference a few years ago, but didn’t try it until just recently. Mostly, because I don’t own a stopwatch. After I found this online version (, though, I really didn’t have much of an excuse.

The concept of Timed Writing is pretty simple:

1. Decide on a length of time you want to spend writing: 20 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours.  
2. Open up whatever piece you’re working on.
3. Close all distractions… Solitaire. Email. Facebook. Twitter.
4. Start your time and start writing.

Simple as that. While the stop watch is running, don’t get up from your desk. Don’t check your email. Don’t sneak a peek at your Twitter updates. Sit. Think. Write. Think. Write some more. Focus on your story. Your fingers don’t necessarily have to be moving the entire time, but I can pretty much guarantee they will be… because they’ll have nothing else to do.

When the set time is over, feel free to get up, stretch your legs, use the bathroom, grab a snack, check your email, tweet your word count, whatever you want. Think of this in-between time as your mini-reward for getting in some quality writing. Then, if your family isn’t beating down your door and begging for dinner, if your dog isn’t tugging on your pant leg to go for a walk, set the timer and go again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

If you feel antsy about trying this method or worry you won't have enough self-control, start off with short sets, then add time slowly until you’re writing in longer and longer stretches.

Writing for more than 2 hours straight without any kind of break can actually be somewhat anti-productive, at least for me. So if I have a long day set aside just for writing, I also set the timer during my breaks (usually 10-15 minutes). Then I can dive right back into things without too much time wasted.

I have found writing with a stop watch to be most effective during the first draft stage. It pushes me to write fast, effectively cutting off the voice of the Dreaded Inner Editor. I use it less during revision, but will fall back on it if I’m finding it difficult to keep my butt in the chair and my eyes on the page.

Timed Writing is not a magic wand. It's simply another great tool for your Writer's Box! 

Have you ever tried Timed Writing? If so, did you find it effective? Why or why not?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summer, How I Love Thee

Today I sat outside, enjoying a BBQ in the sunshine. I love summer. There's nothing better than lazy days in my garden or fresh tomatoes from the greenhouse.

I also love summer because I'm out of school. That translates to more writing time. The rest of the year I'm typically exhausted and in the long, dark days of winter I really just want to hibernate and eat cookies. I have to force myself to write and keep my daily writing goals low: 250-500 words a day. I envy those of you who NaNoWriMo. I just don't have it in me that time of year.

But summer means I can stay up until midnight and it's still light out (I'm in Alaska). I don't get tired until it gets dark and have oodles of extra time to think about plots and research the nitty-gritty stuff I need to weave into my WIP. Suffice to say, I can get a lot done.

So I'm curious. Is this just a weird Alaska phenomenon? Or perhaps it's a teacher thing? You tell me: do you feel more productive in the summer? Or is there another time of year you get more writing done?

Soundtracks to Scenes

There are a lot of writers who need mood music to write a particular type of scene, or a particular story in the case of a short. I'm not one of them, unfortunately, seeing as my words tend to flow better when I'm in an oddly meditative state. I could into more detail, but a lot of it has to do with my mass amounts of independent reading into Buddhist/Christian spirituality and let's be honest that's not why you're reading this.

Anyway, one of the interesting things I've discovered about my process is that when I'm plotting out a scene in my head, I can sometimes imagine it set to a particular type of music or even a particular song. Sometimes I'll hear a song and imagine a scene not necessarily related to the story itself, but indicative of the characters.

An example: A previous version of CALLARION AT NIGHT opens with a bar fight. Those of you who've read the tale of my spunky superheroine Moriah Rowani, will of course believe that she in no way, shape, or form had anything to do with starting said fight. *pauses for snickering to stop*

Anyway, in writing this bar fight I imagined the song Black Betty (the Ram Jam version, not the Spiderbait one) playing over the scene. I've always been convinced that Black Betty is an absolutely perfect fight scene song for a number of reasons -- mostly because the rhythm is just right to mesh with the martial-arts-based fighting styles my characters almost always have.

A scene I don't have in any of my stories is set to Free Ride by the Edgar Winter Group. This one involves starting up a top-end sports car and zooming away on the highway. I always envision a man and a woman and the woman asking where they're headed. The guy responds with "I don't know yet." And then there's engine revving sounds and the song kicks up.

There's a whole bunch of other songs I've set imaginary scenes to -- a car chase to Fuel by Metallica, proposal scene to the Heaven remix by DJ Sammy, etc. There's a scene in my head for practically every song I hear. Some of them are sheer ridiculousness, and have no place in my writing, but are extremely funny to imagine anyway. The song I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can is the archetypal relationship song for the romantic pairing of Moriah with her ex-fiance Nicolai. A very interesting relationship, that.

What about you? Do you imagine scenes set to music?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Random Musings from the Dogpound

Happy Post Memorial Day Post.

- With this whole Twilight Saga and learning that a relatively unknown author got a 7 figure advance for Matched, I once again found myself wondering how soon it'll be before Mormons rule the world (assuming everything doesn't go all apocalypse on us). They've got exemplary missionary efforts, a strong breeding program, and are super nice (except when playing basketball). And due to their old-school family values, many LDS women tend to stay home to raise the brood, which allows for more writing time that more 'progressive' women might not be afforded... what's that phrase about the pen and the sword?

- This whole BP spill thing is terrible. I hope nobody disagrees with that. Two things that kind of confuse me:
    1.) why isn't the government intervening more (politics, legal issue?)?
    2.) whenever there's a disaster with multiple companies involved, some reporter digs up links between the companies (e.g., Exec at company B used to work at company A) and proceeds to chastise company A for hiring company B (for pseudo-nepotism, I guess). What's up with that? If I have cake, I sure as hell am gonna give it to the cubemate I know, not the one I don't. Kind of the inverse of that whole taking stranger candy point.

Sidepoint -- this isn't an easy fix. Know everyone's upset, and BP could have done more (more can always be done, just ask a perfectionist), but that's the danger w/ advanced technology... when shit goes wrong, worse shit happens (like that 'the taller they are...' line... this is one big chopped down beanstalk). Conspiracy theory #1: econuts destroyed the rig to engender further anger toward the big bad Oil Man. Conspiracy theory #2: Dolphins. Tired of getting caught up in fishnets, attacked en masse, bottle-noses at the ready.

- My wife got an iTouch recently and started farming (not farmville, but farmstory). I read that more than 1% of the world's population "farms." Like 80,000,000 people. Know I'm a bit late to the WTF crowd on this, but could someone explain the appeal?