You’ve Been Writing That Novel for How Long?

How long?

I expect that some of you will be pissed off at me by the end of this post. I am okay with that. Not because I want you to be pissed off at me, but because I want you to be the best writer you can be. I thought this topic important enough to interrupt our current series on The Anatomy of a Scene. I expect to get back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

Why the interruption?

Last week I had breakfast with the spectacular Susan Span. Susan is a literary attorney (read her #Publaw), and author of the very well-received Shinobi Mystery Series. Over coffee we chatted about various topics, as we always do. We talked about old manuscripts that may or may not be in a box under Susan’s bed, never to see the light of day. And we talked about how long an author should work on any given manuscript.

Here’s why.

I know a good handful of authors who have been working on the same manuscript for five years, ten years, thirty years. Yes. Thirty years. Thirty. 3-0.

The thirty-year author loves the story idea and wants to see it through. They wrote their manuscript a long, long time ago, and since that time, they’ve been reworking it, workshopping it, editing it, revising it, fixing the little problems that come up. Some of the fixing causes problems elsewhere so they end up fixing the new problem which causes newer problems. It’s a mean cycle. This has been going on for thirty years. Thirty. 3-0. For some of you it has been going on for twenty years, or fifteen years, of ten years, or five years.

Yeah. I’m talking to you.

Let’s be clear. Writing is hard work, and to continue writing something after a few years takes grit and determination. To continue writing it for five years, ten years, thirty years, is indescribable.

But here’s the problem. When this author first started writing their story, they were a novice author. They knew very little if anything about craft. They didn’t know much of anything about plot and structure, or genre tropes, or goal and motivation, or tension and conflict, or tone, or any of the other deeply important craft elements that writers of fiction absolutely should learn to become successful authors.

Learning the craft of writing fiction takes time and work. It’s just like learning any other craft and skill. If you want to be good, you practice, your try things by trial and error, you make mistakes, you read how-to books, you take classes, and you study, study, study. You do whatever you can to get better at your craft. You wouldn’t expect to paint like Velazquez your first time out, would you? No. You would paint a very badly rendered tea cup, or tree, and practice your techniques to become the best painter you could be. And it would take years of work.

As the years pass, the author has learned much about craft. They know what should go into a scene, and where the climax should come in the story. They are not the same author they were all those years ago when they started that manuscript. They are better. Significantly better.

But their manuscript is not. Their manuscript is based on their writing skills when they first wrote that story down, and fixing it is nearly impossible. Ultimately, they are wasting their time working on something that will never be publishable.

So, what am I saying? I am saying a few of things.

First off, you are a better author than you were ten years ago. You are a better author than you were five years ago. It doesn’t matter if you are published or pre-published. If you’ve been working to learn your craft, you are a better author. Are you listening?

Secondly, sometimes a story is not meant to be published. Sometimes a story serves the purpose of making you a better author because it teaches you some craft element that you didn’t know before. Sometimes a story should be put in a box and hidden under the bed, never to see the light of day because you are done with it, or maybe it is done with you. Either way. This does not mean that you are a failure as a writer. It just means that you have learned all you can about whatever you needed to learn from that manuscript. Take your new skills and move on.

Thirdly, if you really want to tell the story you’ve been working on for thirty years, or ten years, or five years, and you can’t possibly put it down, then don’t. But try something, okay? Take that five-year old manuscript, or thirty-year old manuscript, and put it in a box under the bed. Save it to a flash drive and put it in a drawer. Do whatever works with your personal writing style. But don’t pick it up again. Then, when it is tucked away safe, start writing that story again. From scratch. Make a new outline. Write new scenes. Create new character sketches. Write your story as if you were writing it for the first time.

Why?

Because you are a better writer now than you were five years ago, and if you start your story off as if you haven’t written it yet, chances are you will not make the same novice writing mistakes that you made five years ago. You are a better author now. Are you listening?

Or maybe you just need to work on something else. Come up with a new story idea, and write that other story first, before you go back and write your last story from scratch. I guarantee that the new story will be better than the other one sitting in a box, hiding under the bed. You are a better writer now.

Yeah. It’s a lot of work. Yeah, it sucks that you haven’t managed to fix that manuscript after a dozen years, or two dozen years. Yeah, that means you have to admit that what you’ve written to date has problems and your manuscript is not publishable.

Yeah. But it’s time.

Do it.

Trust me on this.

Next week we continue with Anatomy of a Scene: Beginnings.

Lock.
Lock.

Anatomy of a Scene

Introduction

Scenes are the visual building blocks of the novel in which your characters live (very much like theater productions and movies). Scenes placed one after another make chapters. Multiple chapters tied together make novels. You might consider writing your novel using the scene and sequel technique (see Scene and Sequel posted September 2, 2015) but some writers include the information of the sequel within the scene. There is no set number of scenes that should be in each chapter, but I tend to write three scenes per chapter, and I find that many authors write in this similar way. But as in writing everything else, each writer has their own process.

The purpose of the scene is to move the story forward and each scene should be there for that reason. If the scene does not move the story forward, cut it. If the scene doesn’t move the story forward then it is dragging your story down with useless fluff, or backstory, or some other thing. Seriously. Just cut it. Your story will be better off.

Each scene should build upon the last scene, but also be strong enough to stand on its own, with a beginning, and middle, and an ending.

Successful scenes include a POV character, action that advances the story, revealing dialogue, conflict and tension, a rich setting, and minimal narrative (see Show V Tell posted November 11, 2015).

The end of a scene allows your reader to take a break but you may want to write a hook at the end of each (most) scenes so your reader can’t put your book down. Blockbuster novels use that technique.

How long are scenes?

Long scenes run 15 pages or more (very long scenes), and I recommend that you use long scenes sparingly. Too many long scenes in a row will drag down the pace of your story, and that makes for boring reading. Don’t be boring.

Short scenes are usually ten or fewer pages. Vary your scene length for variety and to adjust the pacing of your story. Be careful not to use too many very short scenes (a few pages or less) because they upset the flow of the novel, and if your reader is upset by the flow they might put your book down, and that is a bad thing.

Next week we begin discussing the craft of writing great scenes.

Video Still.

 

Setting

I volunteer for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers because they are a non-profit educational organization who teaches the craft of writing mass market fiction for writers of all skill levels. Their annual conference in September is like attending four years of craft classes crammed into three days. Yeah. It’s gratuitous product placement for anyone wanting to learn writing craft, but it is important to learn craft if you want to be successful. One of the things I do for RMFW currently is I co-chair the Colorado Gold Writing Contest. I am an organizer, not a judge this year, but I do read all the judges critiques as they come back in from scoring. One of the consistent comments from the judges has been about setting or lack of setting, to be more specific.

What is setting? Setting is the world, (city, home, environment, etc. ) where your story takes place. It also includes time (modern, historical, future), and setting is one of the craft elements to writing fiction that is imperative for readers to know when and where your story is taking place. Setting also includes weather, politics, time of day, culture, geography, climate, mood etc. Without setting, your readers will be confused. You, the author, may know where your story is taking place, but your readers will not.

To create setting, be sure to include information important to the location and time of your story in your opening chapter. Setting is something you also layer in your chapters over the progress of your plot. Use details and provide clues to your reader so they can visualize when and where your character exists. Mix these details in with the action. Describe the inside of the room where the action takes place. Not in a loaded paragraph of description, but bit by bit, as your character discovers the room. Use your characters five senses to help the reader experience the room. What does the place smell like? What does it sound like? How does the culture of your world effect your character? Weave together all these elements of imagery, and let your reader know, see, feel, taste, smell your character’s world.

You can also use figures of speech (metaphors and similes) to help your reader interpret the story world. Personification (the attribution of human nature to something nonhuman) can sometimes work well to embody some quality into your setting. Some writers use onomatopoeia. Some writers use repetition to emphasize something that is important (be careful not to overuse repetition).

Keep in mind that setting is description, but it’s not paragraphs of description. Too much description slows your story’s pace, is boring, and feels very info dumpy (yes, that’s a technical term). But, I’d rather read something with too much setting and set-up than none at all. It is easier for your reader to skip words than to have to add them from their imagination. If it is too much work for your reader to figure out where or when your story is taking place then probability says they will put your book down and pick up something else. So, make it easy for your reader to interpret your story world. They will keep turning pages, and that is a very good thing.

Copyright: <a href='http://www.stockunlimited.com'>Image by StockUnlimited</a>

Writing Process

I’ve written several stories over the years, but my most recent work in progress is an urban fantasy novel. It’s actually the first thing that I think is not crap. Now, I realize that I am overly critical of myself, so for me to think it’s not complete crap is a good sign. I’ve decided to publish it next year. This is both horrifically terrifying, and about freaking time exciting.

There are a few things I am doing to make sure that I have the best possible manuscript before I send it out to my editor. Yes, I am an editor, but even editors need editors. Here’s the thing. I know the story. I know what is happening at any given time with my characters. I know what things look like. But there is always the possibility that what is in my head is not actually made it to the page or just doesn’t work as I’ve written it. And this is why I need an editor. It’s also why YOU need an editor. This is why I need a writing partner, and a critique group, and a beta reader, too. I want my novel to be the best it can be, and I need other people to make that happen.

I have a writing partner. We work out plot issues over dinners and pots of coffee, and we review each other’s outlines, pages, and chapters with utter bluntness and honesty. I trust my writing partner’s opinion. When my writing partner says something is shit, I believe him, and I work on revising my story. My writing partner often sees motivational issues I hadn’t thought of and ultimately after revision I end up with a better story. I need my writing partner.

I have a critique group. After I work out any story issues from earlier meetings with my writing partner, I submit chapters of my novel to my critique group. My critique group reads my pages (and I read theirs), and notes what works for them and what doesn’t, and then they write up their critique of my work. We talk about what they thought, and I have their notes to refer back to later when I am doing revisions. My critique group is made up of fiction writers of varying craft levels, but who all are in the process of learning the craft of writing fiction and are willing to do the work to become the best writers they can be. Each has a different skillset and specialty. My critique group is spectacular and they help me with the spit and polish issues. I need my critique group.

I have a beta reader. My beta reader is not a writer, but they are a voracious reader of fiction. My beta reader will read my pages as a reader, not a writer, which is a completely different perspective, and then let me know what doesn’t work for them. And I trust them to tell me the truth. If they see repetitive words, or if they are not able to visualize a scene, they let me know. If they don’t like something, the let me know. I trust my beta reader to give me their honest opinion of my work. I also trust my beta reader to let me know if the work if viable. I need my beta reader.

I have an editor. My editor is a professional and has been working in the publishing industry for a long time. They know what works for what genre. They see the pages as an editor sees them, which is different than a writer sees them, or a reader sees them. I need my editor.

But, before I send my pages to my editor, I read my entire novel to myself, out loud.

Yes, out loud.

When you read something out loud, you hear things with your physical ears that you don’t hear when you read something to yourself in your mind.

  • You hear the awkward sentences, and unnecessary words, and repetitive words which you can then edit. The end result is better sentences, and tighter writing.
  • You hear continuity issues like your character had shoes on and then was barefoot. The end result is you don’t look like a dumbass later when a reader points it out.
  • You hear what the dialogue actually sounds like when spoken. The end result is dialogue that actually sounds like people rather than cheese.
  • You find typos and misplaced words which you then revise and end up with a cleaner manuscript.
  • You hear how longwinded some of your sentences are especially when you run out of air in the middle which you can then edit into something more intelligible.
  • You get a clear sense of pace and tone so you can adjust if needed.

The end result is a better book (and a happier editor). Yes, it’s a pain in the ass. Yes, it takes a long time. But if you want to produce the best possible book, it’s a necessary step that I am willing to take. So should you.

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Conflict

I am in hardcore editor mode this month. Deadlines are looming. Contracts are pending. Submissions are stacking up. Layouts, covers, audio books, and revisions are in process. And I am ecstatic about all of it. Needless to say, I digress from my genre specific theme of recent weeks, partly because I have other things on my mind, and partly because I just don’t want to do the data research right now. We can come back to that topic later.

This week, the topic of conflict keeps coming up on the pages I read.

Or more specifically, the lack of conflict keeps coming up.

Let’s be clear.

No conflict on the page  = boring.

Here’s the thing. Readers read books for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons is for entertainment. Readers immerse themselves in novels because the story plays with their emotions. Readers want to be swept away. They want to feel the joy, terror, pain, and triumph of your characters. Readers want to be entertained.

Readers don’t want to be bored. I don’t want to be bored.

So let’s talk about conflict for a minute.

Conflict is the struggle your character has which makes your readers cry, or squirm, or hold their breath. Conflict is what makes your readers turn the page, and the next page, and the next page. Either the page has some amount of conflict, or the page is boring.

There are two kinds of conflict that you should consider as you write:

  • External conflict: Those things that keep your protagonist from reaching the story goal.
  • Internal conflict: Those thoughts and emotions that cause your protagonist to have self-doubts over the ability to achieve the story goal.

External conflict consists of things that happen to your character. Internal conflict is things that happen in your characters.

Here is an ultra-simplified breakdown of how to create conflict:

  • Your character wants something.
  • Your character acts to obtain said thing.
  • Something else gets in the way so your character can’t have said thing
  • Your character reacts to failure and then tries again.

If nothing happens on the page, and nothing happens inside your character, then you run the risk of reader boredom.

Don’t be boring.

Make sure something happens on the page, on each page. It can be something big, or something small, or something internal, or something external, but make the effort to add conflict to your pages. You will have happy readers (and editors) if you do that.

Chess.
Chess.

Western Fiction

One category of novel that has been generally out of vogue because of low sales is western fiction. Sales increased by 7% in 2014 but are still low overall. If you write westerns, you write for a niche market, but readers of westerns are die hard for the genre, and if they like you, they really like you.

There are several categories of western novels, but the general definition is fiction set in the 19th century frontier or Old West America, west of the Mississippi. The characters are strong and self-reliant, and the stories usually involve cowboys, calvarymen, lawmen, and outlaws. Generally, western novels focus on themes of individualism and adventure. Westerns generally feature a lone hero (usually male) who reluctantly answers the call to adventure, rescues damsels in distress, and brings the bad guy(s) to justice. The hero is idealistic and driven.

Tropes etc.

Anti-hero: The anti-hero has opposite attributes to the standard hero character and may be an outsider to the standard setting.

Bounty Hunter: The bounty hunter makes a living bringing the bad guys in for reward money. The character is usually cynical, and is often perceived by society as little better than the bad guys he arrests.

The Drifter: The drifter wanders into a troubled town, and is hired by locals to the law.

The Gunslinger:  The gunslinger is often tied to the drifter, who is out to do good. Sometimes the gunslinger is a dead shot, quick draw kind of (usually) guy.

There are westerns with female protagonists, but these seem to be few and far between.

Many western tropes are blended with other genres (think Firefly which is a western story set in space), but the three tropes listed above seems to be the most common. Blended subgenres of course include: cattle punk (western scifi), weird west (supernatural), and samurai cowboy (feudal japan) to name a few. These are usually marketed under speculative fiction, or romance, etc rather than marketed as western fiction.

Just because western fiction sales are slim, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write western fiction. If you have a story inside you, take the time to figure out the trope you want, create intriguing characters, great action, and a great plot, and write it. Readers of western fiction are looking for more novels. And maybe your book will trigger a revival of the genre.

Cowboy.
Cowboy.

Urban Fantasy Notes

We’ve been roaming around the speculative fiction category for some stretch of time, and this week we are focusing on a subgenre of fantasy called urban fantasy.

Fantasy and urban fantasy can be quite similar. Fantasy as a genre usually includes some magical or supernatural elements, and so does urban fantasy, and so does paranormal romance, but we should be careful not to confuse these genres because the readers of each of these genres have different expectations.

So what’s the difference?

Fantasy, usually, is set in an imaginary world, not a real world. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in the real world, usually a city, but not always, and more often than not the story is set in the present day, but can also be set in the past or future. Paranormal romance runs very similar to urban fantasy, except that the primary focus of the story is the relationship between two characters.

Fantasy doesn’t typically have a strong romantic element, though there are fantasy romance novels categorized as romance rather than fantasy because the primary focus of the book is the relationship between characters.

Urban fantasy, however, can contain a strong romantic element in the story, but the romance is always secondary to the plot.

Do not confuse urban fantasy with paranormal romance. These genres have a different focus so you run the risk of alienate readers if you mix them up. This is one example of why it is important to know your genre. If you market your paranormal romance to urban fantasy readers, you are likely to irritate them, and visa versa. Romance readers want romance with steamy relationships and sexy covers.

Urban fantasy readers want action and adventure.

Urban fantasy has several tropes that are standard for the genre and include (but are not limited to):

  • All Myths Are True – all myths, legends, and folk tales are accurate descriptions of past events, or accurate predictions of the future.
  • Alternate History – One or more historical events unfolded differently than in the real world, or a fictional character is placed in the center of the historical event that actually occurred.
  • The Kitchen Sink – All Myths Are True and then some. In this trope, everything is true even if the idea comes from another genre, including time travel,  super heroes,  and aliens.

As a writer of urban fantasy, your job is to take some element of the expected (trope) and twist it with something unexpected so that the story is fresh and new. The unexpected can come from a character, or setting, or a plot twist, or something else, but it should be there. The story should still follow the general category of real world plus something fantasy, but the world should be dynamic, the plot should be intelligent, and the characters should be engaging.

How do you come up with ideas? Spend some time researching folklore, archetypes, actual events, science facts, mythology, or something else that piques your interest. Readers of urban fantasy are smart and well-read, so if your main character is Achilles (Greek mythological figure) and he was never in the Trojan War according to you, chances are you have a problem with your character.

Most importantly, have fun with it.

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