Monday, December 16, 2013

Into Mossfallow Wood, pt. 12 - Absolute Write Blog Chain

This month's Absolute Write's blog chain is actually a blog-O-phone. Everyone writes 250 words of a story and the next person continues it on. We're currently up to part twelve, so you may want to start at the beginning to get the full effect.

Part 01 - orion_mk3 (link to post)
Part 02 - Ralph Pines (link to post)
Part 03 - ishtar'sgate (link to post)
Part 04 - Angyl78 (link to post)
Part 05 - MsLaylaCakes (link to post)
Part 06 - meowzbark (link to post)
Part 07 - orion_mk3 (link to post)
Part 08 - ishtar'sgate (link to post)
Part 09 - Angyl78 (link to post)
Part 10 - MsLaylaCakes (link to post)
Part 11- meowzbark (link to post)

So far, Cal, Beth, and Alan are trying to steal a tree from Old Man Wiggin's property. Claire Wiggins is fighting to stop them.

Into Mossfallow Wood - part 12

Cal's final stomp broke the branch beneath him and Claire, but a searing pain shot through his shin. He howled in pain while Claire shrieked and held on to the bough above for dear life. The falling limb clipped Alan, who made a desperate leap for a new perch, landing wrapped on the branch like an old coat hung up to dry. The broken timber landed on the hound below, pinning it to the ground with a helpless whimper.

"Alan," Claire cried out. "Help me."

Alan twisted to look into Claire's desperate eyes. "What's in it for me, love?"

"My leg," Cal moaned. "I think I broke my freakin' leg."

"Serves you right," Claire said, kicking out at him. She looked down at Alan and batted her eyes. "If you get me out of this tree, Alan, I'll show you where the bigger one is up the hill."

Alan's smile practically glowed in the moonlight. "Maybe you can even help me trim it." He climbed to his feet and used the main trunk to steady himself. He reached an arm towards Claire.

Cal whined in pain. "You can't leave me; I need a doctor."

"Shut up!" Claire yelled. With Alan's help she got a toe onto another branch. "This is all your fault. You-"

The roar of an engine drowned out her rant and all three of the human ornaments watched the snowmobile fly over the drift and sail straight for their perch.

To be continued.. (until the end of the month).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Unicorn Droppings - Absolute Write Blog Chain

The theme for this month's Absolute Write Blog Chain is Unicorn Droppings. Don't know what else to say about that, so on with the writing. Be sure to check out the links to the other posts at the end.

Noble Quest

Trongen hacked at a branch that barred his path. It snapped and fell away. He stepped forward to find a dozen more snags across his route. With a grunt crossed with a growl he attacked them with vigor.

"Have you vanquished the evil philodenron, oh mighty warrior?"

Trongen stopped mid swing and closed his eyes. He very deliberately lowered his sword before turning. The little man before him had a grin that covered half his face, his head cocked at an insulting angle. "If you have a better plan to get us to the plains, Lucian, please elaborate." He turned back and resumed his hacking. "Otherwise shut up and get us dinner."

"It's too dark to hunt. Why don't we go back to the castle?"

Trongen gave up and turned again. "Because the King ordered us here. We are his humble servants and are happy to oblige his every whim." He gritted his teeth for that last part. He hated to be at anyone's whim. He wiped the sweat from his brow, not coincidentally drawing his naked blade across the air between them.

"That's not exactly true, now is it?" Lucian was in his court finery and looked fresh as rain.

Trongen thought the angle of Lucian's head had turned condescending. He didn't know how the man could express so many emotions through his neck, but all of them annoyed him. "Close enough. Family of royalty is still royalty. So we keep going."

Trongen returned to work and a couple more strokes brought them to a small clearing. The late day sun couldn't penetrate the canopy and it was hard to see, but Tongren's senses were honed from years of avoiding ambushes and chasing orcs down dark tunnels. The grass here had been trampled. A deeper shadow across the way might be a trail. A trail for something large.

"See," Trongen gloated with a look over his shoulder. "We're getting close." He took a step forward and felt something squish under his foot.

"A little too close, by the smell of it." Lucian chuckled.

Tongren raised his foot and tried to shake off the sticky brown scat that clung to his good boots. He grunted and held in a scream. "Come on." He took another step and there was another squish. He let out the scream this time, the entire forest stirring at his anger.

"Now it knows we're coming." Lucian still sounded amused.

"I don't care. I'm going to find the beast and you're going to ride it back to the castle. If the little princess wants a unicorn pony for her birthday, then that's damn well what she's going to get."


And here are the other links in the chain. Please check them out:
ishtar'sgate - (link to post)
orion_mk3 - (link to post)
sweetwheat - (link to post)
skunkmelons - (link to post)
julzperri - (link to post)
Sudo_One - (link to post)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Critiquing, part 3: Fact vs. Opinion

In Part 1 on critiquing I talked about how to give a critique. Part 2 was on how to take a critique. Now I want to talk a little more about an important distinction that applies to both sides of the coin: fact vs. opinion. Knowing what they are and how to separate the two is essential for getting the most out of the critiquing process.

So what's a fact? A fact is something that is true regardless of belief. It seems like facts should be easy to spot, but that's not always the case. For instance, 'the sky is blue' is often accepted as a fact. But that depends on what your definition of blue is. In truth, the 'sky' is an atmosphere of mixed gases that refracts sunlight. The color of the sun is the wavelength of its blackbody radiation and the color of the sky is determined by Rayleigh scattering. Those are facts. Blue is a convenient summation that different people interpret differently.

Similarly with critique, some things that one person assumes are definite and unarguable, others will debate. But there are some things that are fact and when pointed out they need to be changed. Typos/misspellings are the easy ones. Grammar can be fact (it can also be opinion). If a character is tall in one scene and then described as short in the next - those are things that simply need to be corrected.

'Mistakes' that are opinion can be a little trickier to sort out. Critiques like 'the character is too sarcastic' or 'the pacing is too slow' are opinion. Just because one person believes it doesn't mean that everyone else will. This can also apply to things like sentence structure, use of passive voice, accents written in dialogue. Many things are not black and write in the world of writing, so we must learn to handle all the shades of grey.

So lots of things are opinion. Some things are fact. How do we use this difference? Good question. The first thing as a critiquer is to understand what feedback you are giving. If it truly is fact, the fact will speak for itself. Point out the missing apostrophe and move on. Don't embellish or justify, say what's wrong and leave it at that. It saves everyone a lot of time and makes your life simpler.

But when you know you are giving an opinion you normally come prepared to back it up. Do the same in your criticism. When you say the character is too sarcastic, point out why. When you ask for faster pacing, let the author know what type of pacing you like. You want to defend your opinion - not to argue with the author but so they can understand where you are coming from and weigh it properly. If someone says that the Dodgers are the best baseball team, most people not from L.A. will argue with them. If you say the Dodgers are the best because of the depth of their rotation, their ability to get production out of bottom of their lineup, and their record verses quality opponents, it becomes harder to argue with it.

The reverse applies to receiving opinion based criticism. Don't try to defend your work. Try to listen to their reasoning and understand why they have that opinion. You might still disagree, but you'll probably see a way to improve what you have even if it isn't exactly what they want - compromise can be a beautiful thing.

And always take into account the number of people who are giving you that same opinion. If one person believes something it may not be true. If enough people believe something it passes for truth is this world.

I recently joined a writers group that meets in person to give and receive feedback. This can be much more helpful since discussions often lead to more insight than electronic statements. But it makes distinguishing fact from opinion that much more important - time can be wasted all too easily on debating facts or arguing over opinions. Understanding how to give and take each of them allows the group to be productive and accomplish a lot more. After all, we all just want to get better, right?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My! - Absolute Write Blog Chain

Time for this month's Absolute Write Blog Chain. Please be sure to check out the other great blogs in the chain below and check in on Absolute Write for one of the best writing forums on the web.

This month's prompt is Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My! Normally I would put together something new for the blog, but I'm really busy doing revisions on my current WIP. And while revising away, I came across a passage that fits into the theme rather nicely. So I thought I'd share a little of my current work.


     Now Alexander looks at me. His golden eye glitters in the light of the ceiling lamp. Knowing who he is, he doesn’t look as sinister but definitely more intimidating. “Emily, he is not what he appears. I am not the enemy. Achilles won’t be able to protect you from what’s coming. He is a brute who fights for the pure joy of killing. He fights for the underdog because it’s a challenge. He does not care for you or your mother. I ask you to come with me.” He looks almost human as he says it. “I will reunite you with your mother. We will keep you safe.”
     For a second I don’t understand. He’s asking me to come with him? Why would I do that? But if he’s asking, it suggests he knows he can’t force me.
     “Why on earth would I trust you? You’re the only thing that I need to be kept safe from. If you’re my friend, why don’t you just let my mom go and we can forget all this ever happened. How does that sound?”
     Alexander dismisses my questions by looking back at Achilles. “You are a fool, you Hetairos halfwit. A mistake of the past. This time you will finally lose.” All humanity is gone.
     “You have never beaten me, Alexander." Achilles is no longer smiling. "Not in Babylon, not at Thermopyle, not at Agincourt. You will never defeat me.” His whole persona has transformed. As frightened as I have been of Alexander, I am terrified by Achilles. The look on his face, the entire set of his body, is of a wild animal ready to strike. He radiates power and strength in a way that no one should. Sitting between these two men I feel like a fawn walking between a tiger and a lion. If there is a fight, I will be slaughtered without notice long before a victor is decided.
     Alexander's hand shoots out like lightning and grabs the wine glass. Both Holden and I knock over our chairs jumping back from the table. Achilles doesn’t move an inch. Alexander raises the glass slightly to acknowledge his host. He drinks it in one gulp and gently sets it back on the table.
     “I won’t be the one who beats you,” he says with a smile. He stands and quickly walks back out the front door, closing it behind him with a solid thud. The quiet he leaves behind is deafening.

I have to say that I'm really excited to be finishing up these revisions. My novel is a Young Adult Science Fiction story and I've already had a couple beta readers and done a couple rounds of revisions. I think it's just about ready to go out and I'll be looking for some more beta readers in the next few weeks. So if you like what you read and want to get the full story, shoot me an email or let me know in the comments.

And here are the other links in the chain:
orion_mk3 - (link to post)
Ralph Pines - (link to post)
ishtar'sgate - (link to post)
skunkmelon - (link to post)
pyrosama - (link to post)
julzperri - (link to post)
dclary - (link to post)
Sweetwheat - (link to post)
MsLaylaCakes - (link to post)
Angyl78 - (link to post)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Steampunk - Absolute Write Blog Chain

As I'm just getting back to this blog after a long absence I thought the Absolute Write Blog Chain would be a great way to force me to write something. It's also a nice way to reconnect with the writing community. Anyway, this month's theme is Steampunk, something I'm not very familiar with. I think that makes it a perfect exercise - learn about something new and give it a try. So here goes.

Below are the links to the others participating this month. If you like steampunk, or just a good assortment of blogs, please click on through.


     The dugout canoe swung out into the faster current of the main river and Dr. Bartholomew gripped the edge a little tighter. He looked over at the canoe next to his to make sure the native boy was handling his cargo. The thing under the oilskin was too heavy to allow an adult to pole the boat so the ablest kid in the village was conscripted into service. He had spent the last of the Queen's gold to hire the pair of boats and guides to take him further into the jungle, to a place that no white man had ever seen.
     As they ferried to the other side the doctor could see the large crocodiles sunning themselves on the muddy bank. A closer inspection of the water's surface revealed small protrusions that marked the locations of the ancient reptiles in the water. So when something broke the surface between the two boats the doctor naturally feared an animal attack and shrieked in pure terror. His guides maintained enough composure to balance the canoes as the wake from the disruption sent them sliding apart.
     But the object that emerged from the depths was no living creature. It was long and cylindrical, larger than any Crocodylus Niloticus and covered in steel plate. As the doctor recognized it for a man-made object his fear turned from terror to dread. Only one man could have built such a contraption and followed Bartholomew this far into Africa. A hatch on the very top sprung open and a round-faced man in a faded greatcoat with crossed yellow sashes and red and gold epaulets. A green softcap with red brim shaded his face.
     "Zdrasvstvujte, Dr. Bartholomew," the man said with a thin smile and heavy accent. "You have done well to make this far."
     "Dr. Zhukov," Bartholomew acknowledged. "You'll never find the ruins in that thing."
     "Da," said Zhukov. He smiled and rubbed his hand over the shiny metal. "But will help win war. You will find me ruins."
     "What if I say no?"
     Zhukov pulled a pistol from his pocket and held it at his waist, pointing at Bartholomew. "Pozalujsta, Doctor. We are men of learning. Do not make me use violence."
     The tense stand off between the two men was broken by a cry from the boy in the canoe. They both turned to see a large tail swat the dugout, rocking wildly in the chaotic water churned up by the offending beast. Bartholomew took advantage of the distraction to dive into the water. A muted echo of the report of Zhukov's gun informed him of the raining bullets but he couldn't make out anything in the cloudy water. He swam with his arms in front of him until he ran into the solid metal of Zhukov's underwater dirigible. He followed it down, thanking his days in the natatorium at Cambridge for providing him with capable lungs. He resurfaced on the opposite side as quietly as possible.
     Zhukov cursed at the two dark skinned natives who were poling towards shore. The angry Russian then yelled into his vessel and it started to move towards the canoe with the cargo. Bartholomew tried to grab on but the slick metal provided no purchase. But before the boat had completely passed he spied the fins on the narrow tail that must allow for steerage while under water. He caught hold as it went by and hung on for his life.
     The metal barge came alongside the wooden canoe and Zhukov threw a rope to the boy who had given up his attempted escape. Once the dugout was secure Zhukov walked down the steps placed in the side of his craft and stepped into the canoe. His added weight made the little boat rock precariously and Bartholomew took that moment to spring up from underneath and haul on the side, spilling Zhukov and the boy into the water.
     Bartholomew pulled himself into the boat and unhooked it from captor, using the boy's pole to push off. He noticed Zhukov sputtering in the water, his greatcoat pulling him down, while the kid swam strongly towards shore. Bartholomew was no better off - the canoe had taken on water and was slowly sinking. It went from bad to worse as a soldier popped up through the opening of the metal ship and pointed a pistol in his direction. But Zhukov's screams for help distracted the man and Bartholomew yanked off the oilskin to reveal his cargo, a gleaming metal apparatus with a small seat on the front. He released a series of latches on the top and pulled the lever on the side. The machine started with a loud whoosh and he quickly strapped himself into the seat.
     A pole extended out the top of device and at its end a large balloon began to inflate. At the same time a rotor blade unfolded and began to spin just below the canvas ball. Bartholomew could only wait until he had enough propulsion to lift him from the sinking canoe. He looked up to see Zhukov had reached his boat and was standing on the bottom step. He took the pistol from his soldier and aimed in at Bartholomew. It was too late.
     "Do svidaniya, Doctor." 
     Zhukov aimed the pistol but before he could pull the trigger a gigantic head full of spear-like teeth broke the surface and chomped down on his outstretched hand. Bartholomew could see the bloody stump that was left behind as the crocodile disappeared into the depths. He felt the lift of his aero-rotor and quickly left the screaming Russian below. He turned and looked towards the snow-capped mountain in the distance, hoping his fuel would be sufficient.


Participants and posts:
orion_mk3 - (link to post)
Ralph Pines - (link to post)
Angyl78 - 
ishtar'sgate - 
asnys - 
SJNew - 
pyrosama - 
meowzbark - 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The importance of writing

I've been away from this blog for a while now. Events and circumstances in my life required me to prioritize and make tough choices on what I wanted to spend my time doing. I have been writing (though not as much as I'd like) but I haven't been blogging here. I have missed it and I'm looking forward to getting back to it on a regular basis.

This time off has made me think a lot about the importance of writing. You hear the advice out there: write every day - no matter what!; writing has to be the most important thing in your life if you're going to succeed; writers live and die with their writing. I'm afraid I just don't buy it.

Writing is important to me but it's not everything. I can certainly see how prioritizing writing (or any activity) above everything else can help lead to success. But success doesn't equal happiness. My goal is to be happy, to have a fulfilling life. I think writing will always be a necessary part of that. But my relationships are more important. The people in my life have a greater impact on my happiness, and ultimately my interactions with others have a greater impact on the world than my writing.

So I have taken a break and I've accomplished things outside of writing that have transformed my life and brought me to an entirely new position from which to write again. I'm hopeful that I will be a better writer for it and I dive back in with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. I hope you'll accompany me on the journey.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A first-timer's guide to writers conferences

So I'm just back from the San Francisco Writer's Conference, my first one ever. It was quite the experience so I thought I'd share in the hopes it might help out those who've never been to one but have thought of attending. Of course, going to a single conference doesn't make me an expert, and I'm sure that different conferences are different in many ways, but I think I learned enough to extrapolate to general wisdom.

The main question I think most people ask about conferences is: is it worth it? It's a significant investment of time and money. Those two things tend to be precious to most of us. I won't be able to answer that question for you, since everyone values things differently. I will say that in the end I think it was worth it for me, and at the moment both time and money are extremely tight. Here's what I got out of it:

What you'll learn at a writer's conference.

The truth is that I already knew a lot of the things that I was told. Not that I know so much, but I've done quite a bit of researching this writing thing and have paid attention to other people in other places (some good resources are listed in this post on Writing Resources Online). But if you haven't gotten that far and still have basic questions, then a conference will definitely sort you out quickly. Agents tell you how the process of getting an agent works and why you would want to do that. Editors talk about what a book goes through to get published by a traditional press. Self-publishing was also thoroughly covered from the nuts and bolts to the why's and when's.

You also get a lot of info on less clear cut topics. How and why to build a platform (and if you don't know what a platform is, they'll tell you that, too). How to market yourself and your book. What should you look for in a freelance editor. How to structure a critique group. Some folks have strong opinions on these but I don't think there's a single right answer - but you'll get several good answers from various sources.

There were also workshops on the craft itself: how to write a great opening; how to make characters three dimensional; what topics are out of bounds for YA (none, btw). Very concrete things on how to write and what you need to do in order to end up with a book that is readable (and that you can sell). Essential information for every writer.

These are the things I already knew - they can be found elsewhere. But what I learned in a year of online research and various conversations and piecing things together - I could have gotten all if it in one weekend. If I had attended the conference a year earlier it would have saved me a lot of time in the long run. As it was, I still picked up a few useful things here and there.

The feedback you get at a writer's conference

Now the San Francisco conference had three hundred and fifty attendees. Most sessions had from twenty-five to one hundred people in the room. Events and presentations were scheduled non-stop. The agent speed-dating sessions only lasted three minutes apiece. There was a sea of people and everyone was going a mile a minute.

In spite of this, it still felt personal. One of my first sessions was a panel critique of first pages. Everyone in the room had their first page read and the panel gave feedback. Quick feedback, but incredibly useful (I learned that my voice was good and I had a few redundancies that could be tightened up). There was also a ten minute session with an editor. Got more feedback on my first chapter as well as a good developmental summary of the plot and suggestions to improve it. And even the super short agent sessions all gave me specific feedback to improve my story or my pitch (one agent even went long just to give me a little pep talk).

And on top of the formal feedback there are countless opportunities to get more feedback at random times. At the table during the meals everyone talks about their project. In the hallway as you're walking from one conference room to another. There were even dinners arranged by the conference with other attendees and some pros. I probably could have taken advantage of it more, but I tend to shy away from talking about myself and listen to others. That's okay - you can also learn by giving feedback sometimes.

That brings up a good point - this feedback comes from both the professionals and your fellow attendees. You really shouldn't discount what other aspiring writers have to say. One of the most useful suggestions on how to improve my pitch came from someone I can't even remember as we waited in line for lunch. I'm sure it made a difference in the ultimate success of my pitching to the agents the following day.


It's hard to overestimate the importance of networking in this industry and the conference is a chance to do it on a personal level that you just can't manage over the internet. More than one presenter mentioned that it really is who you know that matters. The good news is that you don't need to know them well. Querying an agent with a quick note that you met them at a conference immediately gets your work looked at more seriously. Just being there gives you some street cred.

And the same is true for the as-yet-unpublished. You know that the other attendees have some degree of dedication and savvy in that they are willing to dish out their money and spend four days devoted to their dream. I met lots of great people, and even those who were writing something as unconnected-to-me as possible were people I'm glad I'd met and might prove helpful in the future. If nothing else, they're all potential readers.

Networking is another area that I don't excel in, but I'm quite happy with what I accomplished. If you're a little bit more of a social animal you'll be able to fill a box with the business cards and contact info you'll end up with. Just remember to bring comfortable shoes for long days and late nights (if you so choose).

You'll be inspired

This is actually the biggest takeaway from the weekend for me. We had lots of great inspirational speakers (R.L. Stine is hilarious, Anne Perry was sharp as tack, Guy Kawasaki is on the ball) and we heard lots of great stories from the other presenters. Several published authors there even mentioned that they had attended that same conference years early when they were just starting out.

But what inspired me the most was the overall sense that I belonged. I understood what people were talking about. My ideas were on par with their's. I was treated with respect and my opinions mattered to everyone I spoke with (including the founder of Smashwords, for example). Nothing makes you want to work harder to become an author than getting treated like one.

The other thing that really inspired me is that four out of five agents I pitched to invited me to submit a query to them when I'm ready. That's some serious inspiration right there.

Writer's conferences are totally worth it

My first conference is in the books and now I'm excited to get back to the actual writing. I don't know if I'll be going to any other conferences soon - my bank account won't really allow it, anyway. But I am very glad I went to this one and I heartily recommend that everyone out there consider attending at least one conference this year. It might not be for you, and I don't think it's a requirement to make it in the business, but it's a quick and efficient way to learn and accomplish a lot of the things that are needed to become an author. And they're a whole lot of fun!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

I've been awarded a Very Inspiring Blogger by the kind and generous Christina over at The Muse of My Imagination. Thanks so much - you should all check out her blog for some great writing (and pictures of Forks, WA :-) ). So I'm to tell y'all seven things about myself and send you on to a few folks who have inspired me. I don't like talking about myself that much, but here goes:

1.  I grew up in Minnesota. In a small farming town near the Mississippi River. It was a great place to grow up but I got out as soon as I could. The people are nice, the summers are gorgeous, but I really hated the winters. Yes, it really is cold and miserable there.

2.  I now live in California. It's much warmer here (it's 65 degrees and sunny in the middle of February as I write this). I like the fact that I can go visit the cold in the mountains if I want, but I can still do normal things - like walking or breathing - outside in the winter without inhaling ice crystals.

3.  I wrote a screen play twenty years ago when I was living in Los Angeles. I never tried to sell it or anything. I never showed it to anyone. I had no desire to try to get into the movie business which dominated the social landscape. It was just an idea that I had that I really liked and wanted to write down. Since I see stories in my head a screenplay seemed the right format. But I knew even at the time that it was an idea that wouldn't be of interest to the general public and had no money-making potential. Someday I may go back and clean it up, but it sits in a file with poor formatting and clunky dialogue. But the idea's still cool.

4.  I'm a dog person. Don't have my own at the moment, but have a few surrogates around. It's not that I dislike cats, but they can't compare to the warmth and friendliness of a dog.

5.  I'm a big Joss Whedon fan. Started with Buffy, but really hit with Firefly. Though anything he does is magic. He inspires me to create great and diverse characters and to always remember that however grand the story, it's the people that we love.

6.  I spent a year in Scotland. My junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh. I've never been back but it's the one place I really want to get to. But not for a quick visit. I want to go back and spend a few months exploring the places I was too busy to see when I was in school. It's a magical land of hills, lochs, and friendly folks who talk real funny. It was a great time.

7.  I've never been to a writer's conference. But that's about to change as I am headed out the door to one this weekend. Not sure what to expect and a little nervous about sharing and talking about my work. But it's a part of the process and I hope I get a lot out of it. I'll let you know how it goes next time.

So that's more about me than I would normally tell on a first date. I'd rather have people assume whatever they want about me as they read my work. That's what's important to share.

In the spirit of the award, here are some people/blogs that have inspired me. I know that some of them don't do awards and won't be posting about themselves, but they are still worth checking out to get some useful information or inspiration. Thanks again, Christina, for sending this my way.

Tasha Seegmiller
Maybe Genius
Shannon Knight

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Dirty Streets of Heaven

I don't normally do book reviews on my blog because that's not really my thing. And this is only kind of a review - really I just want to talk about some things related to the book I just finished. Reading the book brought up some interesting questions for me as a writer.

Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors. If you're not familiar with him, he generally writes epic fantasy and science fiction. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is my favorite series of all time, often described as Lord of the Rings meets War and Peace. I love his world building - he creates incredibly elaborate yet believable and consistent worlds. They have great detail but it's only presented as it's needed for the story. His themes are deep and interwoven throughout long stories with lots of background.

I also love his characters. He creates unique people who have complexities that make them interesting, whichever side of the battle they are on. Some you want to hang out with, some you hope to never run into, but they are all full of life and so very real. They also change and grow and evolve into new people over the course of events, and that makes them even better.

Tad's latest book is a little different. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is an urban fantasy, and while there is a series planned for the character each book is stand-alone. It's about angels here on earth and their battle with the minions of Hell. It's written as a detective noir-style novel, with the angel in question, Bobby Dollar, a hard drinking, question-the-system, tough as nails kind of guy.

While it has some of the usual Tad things - lots of interesting characters with complex backgrounds, a fantasy world (heaven, actually), and lots of themes running along with the main story - it is quite different in many respects. It's told in the first person through Bobby's eyes, so you don't get as much of the other characters. The world of Heaven is never described in any detail - it's a nebulous place, apparently (same with Hell), and while there are big stakes in the story they don't actually get resolved because the focus is on just the fate of our one lowly angel.

I did enjoy the book, but I didn't love it. And that is what got me to thinking. My favorite author, a new book, writing as good as ever, first person POV (which is what I've been using lately). Sounds perfect. But I'm not real big on urban fantasy. I don't really find heaven/hell all that interesting. Gumshoe detectives aren't that interesting unless the mystery is interesting. So I still love the author, but not this book.

Tad spends on lot of time on building the world of San Judas, a fictional city that's part of the San Francisco Bay Area. I like world-building when it's something fantastical, and I like stories that use real places as settings, but a realistic portrayal of a fake city didn't interest me at all. I like fantasy and mythology, but the standard God/Devil Christian world we live in is too common. Any take on it seems like it's trying too hard to be real, or to say something directly about our world, and it's a topic that frankly bores me.

In the end, what I took away from the experience is that it's the story that matters. Great writers can write well, but if they write about things that are not of interest to me then I'll not be interested. I should have learned that lesson when I read (and disliked) The Brother's Karamazov. But that info helps me as a writer. It reinforces that I need to have a good story - I still need to improve my wordcraft but the story comes first. It means I need to get feedback from people who like that type of story. It means I'm not going to make everyone happy, and even people that like me might not like my books. Some good stuff to keep in mind.

So I still love Tad Williams. I'll still read anything he puts out. And I'll enjoy it for whatever it is. But if he ever returns to the land of Osten Ard, I'll be happier than an angel getting his wings.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Story Notes: Character Arc

In my first story notes I talked about the arc of a story. Now I want to talk about the arc of a character. This is primarily for the main character(s), but other characters can have arcs as well, they just don't need to have them.

Again, an arc is a change, a progression from one state to another. The story progresses and our character needs to progress along with it. The character arc is an emotional transition. It's not just a physical difference in their world or setting. Our lead ends up knowing/experiencing more than they did at the start and along with that they are a different person. They can grow wiser, more compassionate, more at peace with the world or just generally happier. Or they could be worse off, sadder and lonely, but that's not how most of us want our stories to go.

Just like a good story arc, a character arc needs to have a logical progression. I mentioned before that most people don't change a lot in real life, but we expect more out of our fictional role models. So people should change, but that change needs to happen over time for it to be believable.  Radical epiphanies are not rewarding to readers.

You may be saying: 'But people love realizations! Look at A Christmas Carol.' Yes, let's look at it. While there is moment where Scrooge finally admits that he wants to be good, the story has been leading us there on a nice even path. Scrooge starts by being miserly (a scrooge, if you will). He rejects the first ghosts visit. Then he's argumentative, trying to justify his position. Then he's afraid, not wanting to see more. Then he finally admits the change after it has already occurred. There is a path, a series of smaller transitions, that lead up to the final outpouring of emotions. Even if the character doesn't recognize or admit it to themselves, we need to see that change happening so when it finally bursts forth into daylight it makes sense. It's the same way you leave breadcrumbs that hint who the murderer is in a mystery - after the reveal it has to make sense and the reader wants to know that the clues were there all along.

So how do we make this transition? What crumbs do we place? I think there's two general ways to do this. With a story I like to start at the end so I know where I'm heading. With characters you can do that as well - this works well with a happy ending. I know the boy gets the girl at the end. Or that she comes to peace with her dead mother. Or we find the lost puppy and the kid vows to love it and appreciate it more. Knowing where we want to end up we can build in emotional points as we go along.

But I think it often works better with a character arc to know the beginning and let the arc happen on its own. For that to happen, we generally have to start with a flaw - something that we want to get fixed (or at least changed). Maybe your character has trust issues. Then you can have your character react naturally to the events that you put in their path (that's the story arc). As you place challenges in their path, be mindful of what their flaw is so you can highlight it. Little challenges will bring it up and allow little changes as you progress. It's also perfectly acceptable to have a lack of change that brings up little failures - setbacks that make for more conflict and delay the resolution.

Ultimately they need to achieve a final goal and an easy (and good) recipe for conflict/resolution is to require a character to consciously overcome that flaw to do it. They must trust the person who hurt them in order to get out of the burning building alive. It doesn't work if they've been mistrustful the whole way and suddenly are forced to change. But if they've had to trust others, maybe in less important situations, then their big realization that they are now putting their life into another's hands is satisfying. They are changed and we get to experience that change vicariously, something that's very gratifying for the reader.

Now in talking about the story arc I mentioned that it could be circular. People end up back where they started (often appropriate in a series). This can be true for characters in a general sense, but they shouldn't be exactly the same. They should be different even if their situation is not. They should have overcome some internal conflict, should have learned and grown in some capacity. Maybe they just know more about the world they live in. But they can still have other flaws, still be incomplete and need more work. That's what the next book in the series is for and as long as they are progressing the readers will be okay with the slower pace of change.

If you know your characters, think of them as full people, then change comes quite naturally through repeated conflict. The thing that you have to keep track of is that it needs to be a path that leads somewhere (though sidepaths and occasional dead ends are allowed). Make sure it moves in a logical way through a series of changes instead of broad jumps. Once again, readers like to go along for the ride and each incremental change is a landmark on the road that makes us appreciate the destination when we arrive.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

I've been tagged by Alan over at the Quill Pen in the Next Big Thing blog hop. It's a chance for authors to share a little info about what were working on write now - hopefully what will become a big thing in the future. Thanks for passing things along, Alan. Please check out his site for some background on what sounds like a great mystery set in Washington, D.C. And check the end of this post for a few more authors who will hopefully be continuing the hop.

Here are ten questions (and answers) about my Work in Progress. I'm in the middle of revisions and getting more excited and happy about it all the time.

1. What is the working title of your current/next book?

The working title is SYNTHESIS. It works for the technical details of the story, it works for the themes, and also has the proper etymology. It took forever to come up with it but it feels right.

2. Where did you get the idea for that book?

I have to admit that I kind of started with Twilight. I was thinking about what made it so popular and wanted to do something science fiction related. So I started with an idea of a teenage adventure with a romance and some sort of powerful creature that wasn't a vampire or werewolf. I didn't want something fantastical and I didn't want a love triangle. When I came up with the idea of an alien race living here on earth it all came together.

3. What's the genre of the book?

It's Young Adult, though that's not really a genre. It's science fiction by definition - it has aliens - but it's set in a contemporary time and doesn't have anything too fantastical or depend upon the science aspect. As I wrote it I was thinking of it in terms of a thriller because of the action and the suspense. But a character driven thriller.

4. If you could pick actors to play the lead characters in your story, who would you pick?

That's tough because I tend to form my own picture of the characters and I try to come up with it from scratch. The Female Main Character (Emily) is petite and blonde (though changes throughout the story). I guess a young Kristen Bell (from Veronica Mars) would fit the role. For the Male Main Character (Holden) it's a little harder: he's tall and athletic. Maybe Alex Pettyfer (from I am Number Four, coincidentally). The best friend is a short Hispanic girl who's a little overweight - not the type you find in Hollywood. A younger America Ferrera?

The adults are a little easier. Emily's mom definitely reminds me a bit of Julie Bowen from Modern Family - though not as comedic. There's a kindly older gentleman, Hesiod, who would have been perfect for Charles Durning - RIP. And there's Achilles. Yes, the actual Achilles. Unfortunately since the movie Troy I always picture him as Brad Pitt, even though that doesn't seem authentic to me. But they'd have to use a little movie magic to make him taller and bigger.

5. How would you describe your book in one sentence (10 words or less)?

10 words is a ridiculously short sentence, but here it goes: Teenage girl discovers she's an alien and saves her mother.
Doesn't do it justice. The full 140 character Twitter pitch would read: Teenage girl discovers she's half alien, on the run with one of them and trying to rescue her captive mother.

6. How will your book be published, submitted through the traditional route to a traditional publisher or will you be handling it yourself through Indie Publishing methods?

I intend to go the trade route. I believe it's a very commercial concept and I hope to get an agent to help me sell it to a publisher. It's  not quite ready to start querying, but I've been doing my research and hope to start sending things out in a few months.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of this book?

I wrote the first draft over five months, but I had some family issues that really took up a couple of months in the middle. And when I finished the first draft I realized that it didn't really stand on it's own enough. I conceived of the book as part of a three book series, but I decided to merge books one and two since I think it makes a stronger stand alone book. That sent me back to the drawing board but it only took a month to add the new stuff and make the changes. It flowed really well once I decided to do that.

8. What other books within your genre are similar to yours?

I think my book merges a few different ideas. I tried to use some of the big ideas from Twilight in terms of a young adults trying to find their way in a world of powerful beings hidden among us, but I took out the fantasy aspect. The SciFi elements and action make it a little more like I Am Number Four - definitely not a dystopian future book. Through it all I really wanted to focus on the character and relationship development as the themes that hold everything together. I think of all my books as character studies because that's what interests me, but they tend to read as fast paced action novels because that's how characters develop.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

To be honest, I had a lot of different ideas that I wanted to write. I chose the one that I thought would have the most commercial appeal. I want to be able to keep writing; I want to explore many different ideas and genres. But I need to sell a book to get it all started and I think this is my best shot.

10. What about your book will pique the reader's interest?

Ultimately I hope that readers will like the main character and her development. That's what it's all about. But I think the SciFi twist creates a cool world within our world that will entertain people and raise a lot of interesting thoughts. I also think the action/thriller elements will keep people reading and be simple fun at the same time. I want to create something that can be enjoyed on different levels and let the reader take what they want out of it.

So that's it, a little about my current Work in Progress. I hope it sounds interesting. It sure has been fun to write. I'm passing the torch to a couple of blogs that I always enjoy. They should have their 'Next Big Thing' posts up shortly, so check them out to see what other great stories are coming down the pipe:

From the Desk of Laura Stephenson
The Emotional Process of Writing a Novel

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Story Notes: Arc

Thanks to a thoughtful post on one of my favorite blogs about the reasons for blogging (check out MaybeGenius if you haven't before), I've decided to start a series of posts about something that I really enjoy talking about: story making.

I love stories. Books, movies, folk tales, song lyrics. It's all good as long as it's good. While my ability to create a story is still evolving, and my writing skill is a matter of opinion, I feel my position as a life long lover of stories is all I need to be able to say what makes a good story (for me). So I'll be writing this series from a perspective of what I like in stories and what I think most people look for in stories.

You'll find others out there who have studied the art of storycraft and can break things down on an academic level. That's useful, but it's not my goal. I plan to keep this simple and write from my own perspective, without research or references. The hope is not so much to create a prescription for creating a good story but to provide a bag full of ideas to pull from.

I'm going to start with arc. Good stories should have an arc. Interesting characters have an arc. But what is an arc? It's simply the transition from one state to another. A change and development, normally a progression. If things just happen without any change, it's hard to go along for the ride - we all know (or believe) that we are changed by the major events in our lives and we want to see that in our stories.

The truth is that people change less than they think. But we all want to believe we can change and hopefully improve. Stories are a way to live vicariously, to see things happen that we either don't want to happen to us or that we wish could one day happen to us (but probably won't). When bad things happen, we want to see what the result is and how it can be overcome - it's good to know we could overcome it as well without having to actually suffer through it. When good things happen, we like to imagine we could experience that happiness ourselves - though we know we won't actually get super powers or a second chance at life. In either case, it would change us and we want to be shown exactly how it could change us. We want to see the possibilities.

There are some stories where it's acceptable to end up back where you start. These are circular arcs. Think The Simpsons. Twenty years later and the family is still the same: Homer works at a nuclear power plant, Bart still gets into trouble in school. But every week they change, there is something that disrupts the normalcy and then crazy adventures ensue. Often one character learns and grows. Sometimes they merely get into a mess and have to work themselves out of it. At the end of the day they are back to normal and ready for next week's story. There is an arc, it just wraps back around to reset. That works because we expect another story next week. Circular arcs work for series, but there still needs to be movement and development within the circle. We need to travel along with the characters.

So how do you create this arc? Creating a story is a complicated thing that is best done simply. I like to start with a basic premise and let it play out in my head. What would it be like if your loved one was kidnapped and you had to get them back? That will lead to an arc. What would you do if it turned out you were a werewolf? Big time arc there. What does it feel like to fall in love with someone who is dying? Sad arc, but definitely an arc.

Once I have a premise, I normally start by thinking about where I want to end. It doesn't have to be a definite place, but I need to have a target. Maybe I want to examine how a person can come to grips with great tragedy. I don't need to know how they do it - that will come with the writing - but I need to know that eventually they do do it. That's where my arc finishes. I want to know my resolution exists even if I'm not sure exactly what it will be.

Then I go to the beginning. What is the current state of affairs and how can I contrast that with where I will end up. If it's tragedy, it's good to start in a place of happiness. If it's fantasy, I like to start with reality. Picking something far from your goal forces you to travel along the arc. You may find that the finished book should start somewhere closer to your ending and that you've just been creating backstory, but that's okay. That backstory will help give you depth and make the portion of the arc that you share with the reader more believable. You can often cut out the bits along the path that are less interesting, but by knowing they exist they keep you from jumping randomly along.

Because it's important for an arc to flow smoothly. There needs to be signs early on of how the arc will progress and the progressing needs to be in stages. It's a path, not teleportation. You can throw in some random story elements that shift everything sideways, but the reader needs to be able to make the turn. That means they need preparation or they need to have time to adjust to the new path. The more you know your arc the more you can gently hint at where it's going; the more your character makes incremental changes the more the reader can follow their footsteps.

(While I'm on it, characters themselves also arc. As I said, we want to see people changed because we want to be changed. We want to see people learn so we can learn from them. We want to see people ride an emotional roller coaster without having to risk the crash ourselves. I'll go into more detail on what I think makes for a good character arc and how to create it in a future post.)

Ultimately arc IS the story. Otherwise we have a series of random events that might each be interesting but the reader will never get invested. If you keep your arc in your mind while you craft the story, you will build a path that the reader to follow to the place where you want them to end up. That place is a happy place (even if the ending is not).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Critiquing, part 2: Taking it

Last time I talked about how to give a critique (read the post HERE). This time I'll talk about how to receive one. For not all critiques are created equal, and you need to get as much as you can out of each and every one. [Part 3 covers fact vs. opinion]

To start with, be clear with what you want to receive. The more guidance you can give your critiquers the more likely you are to get what you want. What you want is going to depend on where in the process you are. If someone is critiquing my first draft, I generally want the big picture stuff. Is the plot consistent, the character's voice authentic, the story interesting? I'm not worried about a lot of the little things because they are likely to change when the big things get adjusted. There's no point in fixing grammar in a chapter that will get cut because it slows down the story.

On the other hand, if you're confident you have the story you want to tell, then you may want more feedback on the little things. And a double-check to make sure you don't have a random character pop up in chapter 23 because you cut the earlier chapter where he was originally introduced. Don't waste your reviewer's time by asking them to comment on things that you don't plan to change.

You also want to let them know how thick your skin is. Whatever the answer, it's okay. The thicker your skin the more you'll be able to get out of the feedback, but it does take time to develop. Let them know if you're looking for encouragement or feeling vulnerable about your writing. We all are nervous when getting critiqued and most people try to take that into account. It will be easier to get feedback that you can handle if you are clear at the beginning and ultimately it's only the stuff you can handle that will improve your work (which is why the thicker your skin the more you can improve).

That being said, it's natural to always focus on the negative. We go right to the spot that they criticize and wallow in the pain. So I always try to start by focusing on the positive. Make sure I take in what they liked and what I did well. Without that I'd just be lost in a sea of things that need fixing with no idea how to fix them.

When you do start looking at the criticism you need to consider the source. Critiquing is a skill, just like, but separate from, writing. Just because someone can write well doesn't mean their feedback is all good. Likewise, some people can offer great insight into your writing even if they can't create something themselves. I always consider who is saying something in addition to what they're saying. (just don't use that as an easy excuse to ignore something you didn't want to hear)

For instance, I try to get some people to read my books who are not writers. They're simply readers, ideally ones who read the type of stuff I write. Their overall impressions are great, but often they don't know the details. They also tend to have personal biases. If they say something was hard to follow, then I know I have to look at my structure, perhaps my point of view. If they say a character is weak, I have to consider not just the actions of the character but look out for passive verb construction. I translate their general impressions into specific writing techniques that relate to them and try to see what caused their feeling. If they say there weren't enough pirates, I might just blow that off as irrelevant. Not every book needs pirates, even if some readers like them a lot.

The other side of the coin is feedback from writers (a common situation since we often exchange work). Since we may have a copy of their work to critique ourselves, it's easy to dismiss their criticisms by mentally pointing out the errors we find in their writing. That's neither fair nor helpful. While I do think that writers will sometimes critique things that wouldn't bother a reader, don't base that on their writing but on their words. I pay close attention to how they say something. If they point out an error by referring to a generic concept - 'never have a character look at their reflection in a mirror' - I may disregard it as someone getting lost in the 'rules' and not paying attention to the story. If they point out something specific - 'she didn't seem like the kind of person to worry so much about her looks' - then I give it a lot more credence.

In the end, no one critiquer is going to be completely correct, just like not every reader will enjoy the same things. You will often get completely contradictory feedback from different people - I loved the scrappy sidekick/I hated the annoying tag along. It's when you receive consistent feedback you know you cannot ignore it. Your job is to weigh each and every comment with an eye on where it came from and try to use it to improve your work. The more open you are, the more you can look at the information objectively, the more you will get out of it.