Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Things I Never Knew about My Writing

I’ve returned my attention to my historical romance novel, polishing it up so I can share it with a batch of new readers in my local writing group. One thing I’ve been paying a lot of attention to is Narrative Distance.

I’ve also been combing through my critique partners’ notes on my novel. I read their comments when they were finished with each section but never got around to making all the changes until now.

And it was shocking to find the same things popping up again and again.

For example:
  • I drop words. All the time. Especially pronouns and articles. My husband often catches these for me, but he doesn’t read every single version of everything I write. Maybe he should…

  • I rarely use commas after introductory clauses. Although there are some cases where a comma isn’t needed, for the most part you should include it. The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a great resource on this.

  • I have a problem with near words like where/were and think/thing. There’s probably more of them, but they are tricky for my brain at least to catch.

  • I am wordy. This is partly because I’m writing a historical, and partly because of all the years I wrote academic and technical papers. I’m working on it. Admitting the problem is the first step in getting better. Check out Kim Blank’s Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List  and ensure your work is as lean as possible.

  • I use adverbs as crutches. I’ve blogged about this before, and I've gotten better. But I still use “finally” a lot. I’ve started to train myself to avoid it, with mixed results.

  • I recycle the same reactions over and over again. He sighed. She frowned. He grit his teeth. She cursed. You get the idea. I need to sit down and brainstorm other reactions and sprinkle them throughout the manuscript. The Emotion Thesaurus from The Bookshelf Muse will be indispensable for this process.

  • I still do a lot of telling, especially when it comes to emotions. Often I’m just not delving deep enough as to what my character think/feels and instead rely on shallow markers. Although Show and Tell is a topic worthy of it’s own post, here are some links to some resources: Janice Hardy’s You’re So Emotional,’s What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, and Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s Deciding When to Show and When to Tell.
This past week, I also ran across a great post on Ten Steps to a Clean Submission by editor Theresa Stevens. A must read if you are getting twitchy about querying.

And just this morning, Janice Hardy posted Five Ways to Kick Writing Up a Notch with some great tips anyone can do to polish up their prose.

So, what are your common writing mistakes? What have you had to teach yourself not to do?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nefarious Narrative Distance

My name is Bluestocking and I have a problem with narrative distance.

Or at least that’s one of my problems. As I polish my historical romance novel, I keep finding sentences that just fall flat, DOA. Nothing’s wrong with them grammatically, but they simply aren’t doing enough work for my story. They are missed opportunities for character and voice, and as such, they keep reminding readers that yes, you are reading a story. Hence the narrative distance.

I’ve known for some time that this was an issue with my writing, particularly with this book, since it’s my first novel. I kept getting the agent equivalent of “I’m just not feeling it” and had to work out what that meant. Because I’ve been toiling away on this story over a period of years, it’s been subjected to the full range of my writing abilities -- the good and the bad -- and I’m at the point where I can finally see the bad and get rid of it.

This difficulty with narrative distance, especially in third person, is what led to my resolve to write in first person for any new writing projects (even those that will ultimately be in third person), and I’ve seen a tremendous improvement in my ability to capture my character’s voices and deepen the story’s immediacy. And while all that is great, it doesn’t help me go back and revise stories I wrote before I attained enlightenment on this issue.

So let’s hash out narrative distance.

Dave King (who co-authored Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) says narrative distance is “a more advanced use of point of view” particular to third person and “a continuum that measures how close your narrative voice is to your viewpoint character's voice” (from Decoding Narrative Distance). Essentially, when handled poorly, it’s can be a more subtle, or shall we say nefarious, type of author intrusion (and Roni Loren has a great roundup in her recent post Author Intrusion: 12 Pitfalls To Avoid).

King also says:
When you describe details that aren't appropriate to your character's state of mind or history, you're putting more narrative distance between your character and your readers. Another stylistic technique that controls narrative distance is how you handle your interior monologue. The more intimate your writing, the more the interior monologue starts to blend into the descriptions. The more distant your writing, the more you set your interior monologue apart through separate paragraphs, italics or even thinker attributions ("he wondered," "she thought").” (also from Decoding Narrative Distance)
Some stories will work more naturally with close, medium, or far distance. But as Jennifer R. Hubbard (author of The Secret Year) says in her post on Narrative Distance: “In general, a story with very close narrative distance must stay consistently close, or risk disorienting its reader.” In Character, Emotion, Viewpoint, author Nancy Kress suggests when using close third person, “start chapters with the more distant narrative you want to include, then move in closer to the character’s mind and stay there. This duplicates the movement of a camera in film as it glides from a set-up shot to a close-up” (2005, p. 187)

Like everything else in writing, the level of narrative distance must be balanced with other elements of craft. As Janice Hardy (author of the Healing Wars trilogy) points out in Keeping Your Distance, far narrative distance can make it feel like you are telling instead of showing your story, whereas close narrative distance can drag your story down with too much detail and reaction to every single thing.

Because narrative distance goes hand-in-hand with POV, it is important you understand those conventions, which are covered in any halfway decent book on writing. But if you are looking for a more technical examination of POV, check out Juliette Wade’s article on Point of View.

So what am I actually doing to remove the distance from my manuscript (and tightening POV by extension)?
  1. Making sentences as active and immediate as possible, except when passive is appropriate (ex. when something is being done to my viewpoint character).

  2. Which brings me to mimetic writing, where sentences mimic the action they are describing. This is especially important for action scenes or emotionally charged moments. Be sure to read Mary Kole’s post on this for a great overview of the concept.

  3. Removing filter words and (if necessary) recasting the intent of the sentence – things like “he felt/heard/smelled/tasted” or “she thought/knew/believed.” Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay on “Thought” verbs that is a must read.

  4. Ensuring worldbuilding, backstory, or other “infodumps” are incorporated as seamlessly and naturally as possible from my character’s perspective. This is hard to do in historicals and in speculative works (and I write both), where worldbuilding is so crucial to a convincing narrative. Anytime you stop the story to explain something to the reader, automatic narrative distance. Author Beth Revis recently pointed out the difference between “the door opened” and “the door zipped open” in her post My Best Tips with regards to seamless worldbuilding.
I’m sure there are more ways to improve things, but this is what I’m focused on during this pass through my MS.

What are your tricks?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

YA Speculative Fiction Book Review – Omnibus Edition

So I’m behind in posting reviews for the 2011 Speculative Fiction Challenge – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!

While I was on vacation, I read the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials by Scott Westerfield; Sunshine by Robin McKinley; and Delirium by Lauren Oliver – A one-word-title YA specfic blitz if I ever saw one!

Let’s get started:

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield tackles genetic engineering in a future where people are transformed from “uglies” to “pretties” at age 16. And main character Tally can’t wait. But when her friend Shay escapes to Smoke, a settlement of outcasts where uglies don’t have to get the operation, she is questioned by the formidable Dr. Cable from Special Circumstances who is desperate to find Smoke and stomp it out of existence.

Dr. Cable coerces Tally into finding the location of Smoke. If she succeeds, she’ll get the operation and live happily ever after in New Pretty Town. If she doesn’t she’ll be an ugly forever. Which, for Tally, is not an option.

It’s a tough balance – humanizing Tally and making us care as she risks her life to find Smoke, even though the reader knows she’s going there to destroy what her friend has worked for. But Smoke is nothing like Tally expects, and she starts to question whether she actually wants to become a pretty.

Through permutations of the plot that I won’t go into here, Tally becomes Pretty in Pretties, and later she becomes a Special in -- you guessed it -- Specials. The action never wanes for long in any of the three books, and Westerfield gets credit for his inventive use of language, especially as it pertains to each stage of, well, existence: Ugly (tricky), Pretty (bubbly), Special (icy).

There are no easy answers with respect to the main conceit of “pretty-making” and whether Tally even knows what she wants anymore, being so damaged by the operations and the emotional trauma that comes with them. It’s also unclear at the end of the story to what extent she is capable of appreciating normal (ie, ugly) standards of existence, even as she goes off into the sunset with David, her ugly love interest in Uglies, and opponent in much of Pretties and Specials. (Full disclosure: I have not read Extras, so I do not know if these lingering issues are addressed there.) But nonetheless, I found the books to be an entertaining read.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I haven’t read a book by McKinley since The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword – both of which I read (and loved) in the 7th grade. So when I saw the trade paperback of Sunshine deeply discounted at Borders, I thought why not, since I had fond memories of her work.

But I have to say it took me a while to get into the story. It’s first person – so obvious and idiosyncratic – hey, this is a story! – that I kept fighting with it until finally, I just gave in and let the story be told in the manner it would be told in. That’s when I started enjoying it.

In a world that’s been to the brink and back from wars waged between humans and demons, vampires are the worst group a human like Sunshine wants to be caught up in. But when she is abducted by a crew of vamps and left as a snack for another vampire prisoner, she must either join forces with him to escape and live or, well, you know. An alliance between a human and a vampire is unheard of, and both Sunshine and the vampire Constantine suffer side effects from merging their powers as they work together to bring down Bo’s vampire crew once and for all. Add in magic, wards, Special Other Forces (ie, demon cops), and more than you ever wanted to know about baking.

Constantine and Sunshine have shared so much by the end of the book – trust, despite their opposite natures, and one scene of such delicious tension that I will never think of the word “bruise” the same again. McKinley leaves it wide open for further adventures. But I was sorely disappointed to learn there are no plans for more. I’d say I felt gypped, but once I learned to embrace the voice of the story, it was unputdownable.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I heard good buzz about this book on some of the YA sites I haunt and the premise of Delirium is intriguing: a future society where love is considered to be a disease, and people have an operation at 18 to ensure they do not catch it.

Main character Lena is only a few weeks away from her operation, and she is initially thrilled to get fixed. She is still plagued by the shame of her mother’s suicide when she was younger, since her mother had the disease. Now she lives with her strict aunt and cousins in a place that’s a bizarre cross between the movie Pleasantville and the book The Handmaid’s Tale, with segregation of sexes among the uncured, spouse assignments which dictate your place in society, and brutal raids to ensure compliance with all the rules.

But then she meets a boy, and not just any boy, but one who gives her the disease Delirium. She hides her symptoms while falling deeper into love with Alex, who shows her the dark side of the society she’s been raised into.

Oliver’s sentence-level writing is amazing, especially her descriptions of Lena’s emotional state as she falls in love. Each chapter starts with a brief excerpt from manuals, textbooks, and laws to aid in worldbuilding and show how this society has gotten to this point – a very effective device.

I found the ending to be a bit predictable given the prominent references to a certain Shakespeare play that I won’t mention here for those of you who haven’t read the book. I was also surprised to learn that there are two more books slated to follow Delirium. But given the quality of the writing, I’m interested to see where Oliver takes this story.

Be sure to check out other July reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

CP Meet ‘n Greet

While I was traveling last month, I had the unique opportunity to meet one of my critique partners in person.

I was already planning to visit the city where my CP lives to see my friends from grad school between weddings. When I floated the idea of meeting to Anonymeet (after assuring her that I was not some crazy internet stalker, and no, she shouldn’t feel obligated to meet in person if she felt at all uncomfortable), she was happy to make it happen.

Anonymeet approached me way back in October 2010 as a potential critique partner. Since then, we’ve worked through each other’s novels – sharing marked-up drafts, writing tips, and reading recommendations. With the exception of one phone call, all of our communication has been through email and the occasional blog comment.

It’s been a successful partnership. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But I thought if I didn’t at least try to meet her in person, there might not be another chance right away, since I’m not often in that part of the country.

As the day approached, excitement and the will-she-like-me doubts swamped me in turns. We had a good back-and-forth rapport online. What if I ruined it all in person with a poorly thought-out comment or some other social blunder? I was overthinking it, I know. But that’s what we writers do, right?

I needn’t have worried. Anonymeet picked a wonderful gourmet café near her neighborhood for our meeting. As I swooned over handcrafted desserts and the artisan cheese selection, she told me how she escapes her family each weekend to write at that very café for a few hours. The coffee shops I usually haunt don’t hold a candle to that place. (And I am still jealous.)

As we snacked, we talked about how we got started writing and about our lives offline. It was a happy coincidence that we’re both roughly the same age with similar life experiences – we even started writing seriously later in life (ie, after school and working for a few years although we both had the bug well before then). We talked about our current projects and the upcoming ones that have us excited. I also got a number of good reading recommendations from her since she’s extremely well-read and current with all the latest YA releases. (Be sure you check out the reviews she posts on her blog.)

Intellectually, I know I’m not alone in the struggles we all face writing, but talking with Anonymeet in person made things feel less lonely. She’s a writer too, a peer, someone who has actually read my writing. I know she gets it. And as much as I have come to love and respect the online writing community, there are some things about interpersonal communication that the internet can’t replace. It’s one thing to write something and share it online. It’s another to look into someone’s eyes and say it out loud.

Two-and-a-half hours later, it was all over. Anonymeet had to go back to her family and I had more plans with my friends. But I know I’ll jump at the next chance to spend time with her in person, whenever that may be.

Have you had the opportunity to meet with one of your online writing buddies?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Seriously Cute Blogger Award

Thanks to Heather Hellmann for awarding me the Seriously Cute Blogger Award! Be sure to check out her blog Pen, Paper, Lots of Coffee.

In order accept the award, I must list five books/films/tv programs I’ve watched recently, so here we go:

Book – Delirium by Lauren Oliver – I read this on vacation and enjoyed it. Look for a more comprehensive review soon as I’m woefully behind in my reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge!

Film – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 – Yep. I was one of those who went to the midnight showing. And I’m planning to do it again in two weeks. We already have our tickets for the Thursday night double feature with parts 1 & 2. Won’t dress up or anything – that’s a bit much for my tastes.

TVBurn Notice – I originally started watching this because of Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead and Brisco County Jr fame) and stayed for the spy tricks and explosions. Also my husband’s favorite.

Book – Linger by Maggie Stiefvater – Bought the paperback version just last week. After reading it, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to wait for the paperback release of Forever. Grr.

TVBleach – The anime bug bit me a few years ago and there’s no going back. Sorry manga purists, but I only watch the show – too much of a time commitment if I started that up…

After looking over my choices I realize they read more like the interests of a high schooler. Must work on that :)

Thanks again, Heather, for the award!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...