Writing and Rambling

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Oops, my bad.

Posted by Dave on March 8, 2010

With apologies to previous visitors…after looking over my last entry, I realized that this blog took a wrong turn.  It wasn’t a “how in the world did we get here?” wrong turn, but I still zigged when I should have zagged.  I never meant for this to become Writing 101.  It was, and is, intended to be one man’s journey from the mundane world to (hopefully) the magical land of ink and parchment, the wonderful world of Publication. (cue inspirational music)

I read the last entry and thought to myself, who am I to be telling someone else how to write?  I’m not a published author.  I don’t have a degree in Journalism or English Literature.  I’m not an editor and I’m not a publisher.  My only “credentials” are that I have a decent imagination and a fair command of the English language, traits shared by a large portion of the populace.  I’m just an average shmoe that finally figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up:  a writer.  Or more specifically, a sci-fi/fantasy author.  Then again, they say there are two sides to every story.  Maybe I’ve always been a writer who’s just been masquerading as something else all of my life.  Yeah, that sounds better. 

So, while I will still discuss certain issues pertaining to writing overall, the focus will shift more toward my own personal journey down this strange road, along with some other tidbits here and there.  A little less techie, a little more Dave.  I hope that’s okay.

This past weekend I picked up a few more books to read.  Lately, I’ve been reading different authors’ books, trying to get a feel for their different writing styles.  Recently, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Chronicles of the Cheysuli by Jennifer Roberson, Dragonriders of Pern by Ann McCaffrey, Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by my favorite author, Stephen R. Donaldson, and Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris.  (I’m not a big vampire person.  The last book was a mix-up by the book club I belong to.  But it was an interesting read, just the same.)  I just picked up Anthem by Ayn Rand (I’ll get to Atlas Shrugged later), 1984 by George Orwell, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I picked up Lee’s because I realized that all I’d been reading was sci-fi and fantasy.  I decided I should branch out.  The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are on the horizon. 

So, from here on out, I’ll be keeping you up to date on my quest for publication, the stuff I’m currently working on, and what’s going on in my little neck of the woods.  And if I do reach the shelf, you’ll be the first to know.  Well, okay, maybe not the first to know…but close.

Good reading!

Dave

If driers didn’t have lint traps, would the pockets in blue jeans work just as well?

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He Said, She Said (or was that he interjected, she exclaimed?)

Posted by Dave on March 7, 2010

Well, I mentioned that I was letting Jaben’s Rift sit for two or three weeks before editing it.  Several sources recommend this, not just for a first book, but for any manuscript.  The reason is so that when the author begins the revision process, he or she can see the book through relatively fresh eyes.  What no one seemed to mention was how difficult it would be to just let it lie in the virtual drawer without looking at it.

Although I’m working on another book, I find myself thinking about different passages in the first one, things I need to change, or portions I just want to go back and re-read to see if I still think they work.  The temptation to jump back in is hard to resist.  But, no, I must be strong.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the details are starting to fade.  Oh, I still remember all of the scenes, but at least I don’t remember every comma and italicized word.

Once it’s time to pull it back out and begin the revision and editing process, the first thing I plan to go over is my dialogue.  In particular, the use of the word “said” vs. other alternatives.  Getting ready for this has been a little confusing.  Basically, there are two main schools of thought on this issue:

School A says: 
Avoid overuse of the word “said.”  Vary the text up using other dialogue tags (murmured, cried, shouted, etc…).
There was a thread in one of the writing groups I belong to about this.  One guy said a fellow writer had sent him a list of over two hundred possible substitutions for “said.”  Talk about your variety!

On the other hand, School B says: 
Only use “said” if you must use a dialogue tag at all.  “Said” is an invisible word.  Using other descriptive dialogue tags will interrupt the flow and take the reader out of the story.
This viewpoint prefers the use of action to enhance the dialogue, resorting to “said” (and pretty much nothing but “said”) only when necessary.

So, which is right?  Which one will help me create the most amazing manuscript possible?  As Vinnie Barbarino once said, “I’m sooo confu-u-sed!”

So, hoping to bring a little clarity to the subject, I thought I’d check out some successful writers to see how they handled extended passages of dialogue.  Wanna know what I found?  (Are you sure?)  Okay, here goes.  I won’t mention the novels or authors, but my three examples are very well known in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  I’m not going to write down all of the dialogue, but I will show what the tags were for each piece (said, shouted, no tag, etc…).  Where there aren’t any tags, the author either used action to convey the emotion, or nothing at all.  So here we go…

Example #1:  Two books.  Nebula Award, Hugo Award, nominated for Locus Award

Said – Asked – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – Asked – No tag – Asked – No tag – No tag – Said – Said – No tag  – No tag   – No tag

Okay, that one looks like it’s solidly in School B.  Moving on…

Example #2:  Series has seven novels.  Hugo Award (this author is a giant in sci-fi)

Snapped – No tag – Said quietly – Squeaked – Raced on – Said doggedly – Said curtly – No tag – No tag – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Mumbled hopelessly – Said coldly – No tag – Said slowly and suspiciously – No tag – No tag

Okay, wait a second.  A few other tags slipping in here.  Squeaked?  Mumbled?  And adverbs?  The dreaded –ly modifiers?  (But that’s a topic for another day.).  Okay, okay, let’s try one more.

Example #3:  Well over a dozen novels and novellas in the series.  One Hugo Award, One Nebula Award, and four additional nominations for the Hugo Award. 

This should be a good example, right?  Let’s see…

Suggested – Rejoined – Countered – Said – No tag – Remarked casually – Replied dryly – Said – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Answered sharply – No tag – Demanded – No tag – No tag – Reminded – Assented – Said – Snorted derisively – No tag – No tag

Okay.  Wait.  What?  Where was I?  Oh yes, now I remember.  I’m sooo confu-u-sed!

So, not only does it look like we have divisions between successful authors, but even the people who hand out the awards go both ways.  What’s a writer to do?

Bottom line, you have to do whatever gets the emotion across the most effectively, yet maintains the flow of the story so that your reader doesn’t remember they’re actually reading a book.  Let’s try an example…

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he said angrily. 
Okay, he’s angry.  We know that because of the clunky use of the word “angrily.”  But it doesn’t have a lot of impact, does it?  And that whole “he said angrily” part kind of interrupts the flow.

We could try a different tag.  Shorten it up a bit.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he snarled.   
Better.  Dropping the adverb improves the flow,  but the reader has to hesitate for an instant to define the word “snarled” in his or her head. Using tags like this also indicates the emotion. For example, if I had said,
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” he giggled.
It’s a completely different feel. But again, there is the minute instant in the reader’s mind where they have to make that connection.
A lot of readers won’t notice it. Some will, and if done too often, will get distracted and maybe even stop reading the story.

How about an exclamation mark instead?

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it!”
Well, the emotion still comes through because of the exclamation mark, but we’re not quite sure what the emotion is unless we showed earlier that he’s angry.  One thing to point out here.  Be careful with exclamation marks.  Too many and you will “wear out” your reader.  On this point I agree with what others have said, less is more when using exclamation marks.  Using them only sparingly is much more effective than using them everywhere.

Another possibility is using action to get your point across.

He slammed his fist on the tabletop and glared at her.  “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” 
Here, even without the exclamation mark and dialogue tag, we get a clear sense that he is angry because we can “see” that he’s upset. You’ll sometimes hear people say “show, don’t tell.” That’s what we did here. The action we put into the scene shows the character’s emotion instead of using something like “angrily” to tell the reader how the character feels. 
Using action to get your emotion across also allows the reader to experience more.  In their mind, they hear the fist slamming down, they see the intense glare from the man.  Maybe they imagine the table jumping just a bit from the impact. But whichever action you use (slamming the fist, throwing something against the wall), it gives the story a little more depth.
So, here’s what I’ve decided. I’ll go through, trying to use tags as little as possible, using action or nothing at all when I can. I will not, however, restrict myself to the word “said.” If another tag seems to be to be the best way to get my point across, I’ll use it. Whatever is the least distracting, but still gets the emotion across.
(Of course, if I have someone ready to publish it if I make a few changes, I’ll certainly give it some serious thought.)

Update:
Well, I’m almost to 12,800 words now. I fell off the pace a little through the week. Fortunately, I was able to make up lost ground over the weekend.

I still need to do better. I could give all kinds of excuses as to why I didn’t hit my mark each day, but they would be just that…excuses. I’m learning that, while I enjoy writing, to actually be a writer is going to involve self discipline. Deadlines, quotas, and all that rot, don’t you know.  But then again, almost any job is going to involve deadlines and production quotas. Might as well try to make it in one that I would actually enjoy what I do. Right?

Have a good one,
Dave

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How do you do it?

Posted by Dave on February 28, 2010

What is fiction?  How do you write it?  I’ve had people ask me how I come up with ideas for stories.  They tell me they could never do it.  To which I politely reply, “Baloney.” 

Coming up with a story idea is the easiest thing in the world.  Fiction, at it’s most basic definition, is simply asking the question “What if…” and then answering it.  In fact, you probably do it all the time without even knowing it.  When we have indigestion and we wonder, what if I’d had the fish instead of the steak?  When we see someone stopped on the side of the road.  What if that would have been me?  When we see something on the news that happened somewhere else.  What if that had happened here? 

When we go through the hypothetical scenarios in our heads answering that “what if,” that’s fiction.  It may not be the most gripping or epic tale (What if I’d had the fish instead of the steak?  I wouldn’t have indigestion now.  The End.  You can add “And they all lived happily ever after” if you like.), but it’s a story nonetheless.  The author just puts it on paper instead of leaving it bouncing around in his or her head.

That’s all fiction is, the answer to a “what if.”  How many of these “what ifs” do you recognize? 

  • What if a hobbit found a magic ring? 
  • What if the only person who could help catch a serial killer was a cannibal?
  • What if an ordinary boy found out he was actually a wizard? 
  • What if a vampire fell in love with a human? 
  • What if aliens invaded earth? 
  • What if our entire existence was nothing more than a computer program?
  • What if a giant shark went on a rampage?
  • What if an ordinary man found out what the world would have been like if he’d never been born? 

These are all “what if” question and answers.  The fiction writer just takes them to extremes and fills in all of the details, and then asks “what if” again and again.

Even when you say “I wish,” that’s really just a “what if” with a ready made answer.  For example, “I wish I had someone to do this work for me,” is really “what if I had someone to do this work for me?  Then I could go to the beach (or gym, or on a bike ride, etc…).  I would get a raise.  I would get a promotion.  I wouldn’t be so stressed.”  All of the reasons for saying “I wish ‘X’ would happen” are really the answers to the question “What if ‘X’ happened?”  In other words, a story.  A fiction writer just adds more “what ifs”.

So, let’s run with it for a moment.  What if I had someone to do my work for me?  What if that someone happened to be a gnome?  What if I was the only one who could see him?  What if he had a tendency to pass gas at the worst possible moments?  What if one of his greatest joys in life was to play practical jokes on my co-workers?  What if he thought one particular co-worker was the perfect person for me even though I can’t stand them?  What if he really, really hated my boss?  See?

The trick to being successful at writing fiction is twofold.  First, you have to be able to tell the story in a way that makes people interested in reading it.  Creating characters, building plots, describing places and things, all in a way that brings the story to life for your reader and makes them want to read more.  Second, you have to be able to write it down according to the basic rules of grammar (most of the time).  Fortunately, both of these things can be learned.  There are scores of books about writing fiction.  There are workshops and online writing groups that can help you improve your story telling and writing skills.  (And really, you can hire someone to take care of the second one anyway if you really want to and you don’t mind paying them.)

Well, okay, there is one more ingredient to throw into the mix.  (Sorry.  My bad.)  The difference between the successful writer and the frustrated one is the drive, discipline, and passion to master the craft of writing and the art of storytelling, coupled with the refusal to accept defeat. 

Most fiction writers will run into a hundred walls before they find one with a door.  Some will give up.  Some will take criticism of their work personally and decide they can’t do it.  The ones that succeed are the ones that refuse to give up, no matter how many bricks from those walls fall on their heads.  They never stop trying to improve, and they never stop believing that somewhere, someday, they’ll find that door.

Here’s a little something I wrote a couple of years ago about the fiction writer.  I hope you like it.

Creator of worlds…

The fiction writer is a creator of worlds and a purveyor of dreams.
In his mind he sees things that no one has ever seen before, experiences events never before witnessed, for until he has dreamed them, they have not yet begun to exist.
With her words she brings her visions into our world, into the hearts and minds of those souls who pore over every sentence and every paragraph of her creation.  Each letter is an atom in that newly born world, each word a molecule, each sentence an object to be touched and examined and remembered.
With every person who reads, no–experiences–the creation of the writer, the vision expands.  Each reader sees this new world in a different way, no way in error, but each different, as if an alternate universe were being created for that world every time someone new reads the writer’s words for the first time.
And whether the reader approves or disapproves of what they have read, they too are changed forever by it. Perhaps a great deal, or perhaps minutely, but changed nonetheless, for the writer’s words have now become part of the reader’s being. They have been tucked away among the cells and neurons of the reader, giving birth to new thoughts and ideas that are sometimes discarded as meaningless daydreams…
…and yet sometimes change the world of the reader forever.

Become a fiction writer and change people’s worlds. 

Update: 
Well, the next book is now over 8,300 words, which means so far I’ve been able to maintain the pace I’ve set for myself.  Two more weeks and I’ll pull the first one back out of the virtual mothballs and start editing.

I’ve also added a couple of pages to the blog. 

“Ahead of the curve” will introduce new authors that you may not hear about for a while.  I’ll be adding them as I find them.

“For prospective authors (of any genre)” will discuss and review books on writing and creating fiction.

 Catch ya later.  Write on!

Dave

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In the beginning…

Posted by Dave on February 24, 2010

Well, I finished my first fantasy novel, Jaben’s Rift this week (or From a Far Land if JR turns into a two parter).  Just over 125,000 words B.E. (Before Editing).  I’ve been working on it for seven years.  It took me six years to write the first half, and a year to write the second.  Right now it’s sitting in virtual limbo as I let it simmer for two or three weeks before pulling it back out to take the editing clippers (scissors, axe, chainsaw, jackhammer, whatever it takes) to it. 

It’s a rather odd feeling, knowing that it’s finally done.  (Well, at least the first draft.)  There’s a definite sense of satisfaction in the fact that I actually made it to the end.  On the other hand, there is also an undercurrent of trepidation.  Now I have to show it to someone else.  What if no one likes it?  At this point it’s hard for me to be objective.  I’ve read, re-read, changed, poked, and prodded it so much that I’m almost tired of looking at it.  But, like they say, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.  A feeling I didn’t expect was a sense of loss.  If I don’t write a sequel to it, I have to say goodbye to these characters that I’ve come to know so well.  Weird.

When I started it, our kids were seven and three, and for a couple of years in there I was working two jobs.  I didn’t have a lot of time (and sometimes not a lot of energy or drive) for writing.  Well the kids are a little older now, I’m working one job, and we just bought our first laptop so that I’m not restricted on where I work (i.e. I can go in the bedroom and close the door).  I’m hoping the next one won’t take quite so long.  I have numerous thoughts for future novels, both in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, as well as others, so there’s no lack of ideas.

I thought I would go ahead and start this blog so other hopeful authors might be able to observe my journey, and maybe even learn from my mistakes.  I’m hoping I don’t make any mistakes, of course, but I am a realist.  The intention is to update the blog at least once a week.  (More if anything significant happens…or if I’m just feeling lonely, hehe)   I’ll be letting you know what I’m doing regarding my first book, and where I’m at with the next one.   Over the years I’ve also read a number of books on the art of writing.  I’ll give you my take on some of those as well.  Plus, if I just feel the need to rant a little, or share something with you that I found interesting, I’ll do that too.

My target goal for the next book will be to average (*deep breath*) at least 500 words per day.  There.  I said it.  Now it’s out there for the world to see.  (What have I done??)  Right now I’m sitting at a little over 5,500 words.  That output would have me finishing the first draft sometime this fall, depending on how long it ends up being.

So, now that novel #1 is waiting for editing, my next step for Jaben’s Rift is to start putting together a query letter for agents and/or publishers.  I won’t be sending it out until the book (and the query) is as good as I can make it, though.  If and when I get a positive reply, I’ll post the query here in case anyone wants to see what worked for me.

Okay, that’s enough for one day.  Take care and write on.

Dave

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