Pacing, not walking. How to write a novel–part 39

boredHave you ever picked up a book, tuned in to a TV show, or sat down to watch a movie and found yourself bored or disappointed because nothing happened? For a novice writer, or one with a limited number of fiction sales, that’s the last thing you want a reader to think while looking at your stuff.

And yet, it happens. Often. And the reasons are fairly common. In my experience the two most likely causes are a writer who falls in love with his own words, or a writer who doesn’t take the time to match the pace of his writing to the pace of his story. Fortunately, both conditions can be corrected, but the cure requires the writer to set aside ego and surrender to practicality.

No EgoMost writers new to the craft over-write but under-edit. This typically results in work that is either too complex—think: purple prose—or laden with weasel words, saidbooks and unnecessary speech tags. And that only covers a story opening (arguably the most important part of any story).

Pacing also applies to story arc, the rise and fall of tension within the overall work. But we’ll  restrict our study to “local” pacing here and start with a sample story opening, that hasn’t been edited (enough):

Like an army of invisible barbarians, the wind struck the house one gust after another. The repeated attacks against the weakening structure came with the sounds of warfare, too. The groans from the building mimicked those of the dying on a battlefield, and while the ancient, weather-grayed farmhouse shuddered from the assault, it seemed unwilling to surrender, unwilling to give in to the inevitable demands of nature, unable to rest from the ongoing struggle to remain upright.

Inside, another battle raged as Jett Fordham fought to keep a fire going. The hearth was old, the chimney built of fieldstone. On balance it lacked as much mortar between the rocks as it maintained. The updraft remained weak, and smoke from the miserable excuse for a blaze grew thicker within the room. Jett’s options seemed to be limited to death by exposure or death from smoke inhalation.

Dollarphotoclub_50865109 smWhile I readily admit to a lack of credentials when it comes to scene-setting, I feel confident in spotting one that’s overdone. My first editing impulse would be to nuke the entire first paragraph and focus on poor Jett, shivering inside a ramshackle house trying to light a damp log with a pack of old matches.

However, I recognize that a certain amount of scene-setting will help set the tone, too. So I’d settle for putting graf one on a diet (added words are bold) and reducing it to:

Like an army of invisible barbarians, the wind struck the house one gust after another. The groans from the building mimicked those of the dying on a battlefield, and while the ancient, weather-grayed farmhouse shuddered from the assault, it wouldn’t surrender.

That much of it I could live with, although the warfare analogy is still a bit overworked. The second graf is closer to actual story stuff, but some streamlining wouldn’t hurt. To wit:

Inside, Jett Fordham fought to keep a fire going. The hearth was old, the chimney built of badly mortared fieldstone. The updraft remained weak, and smoke grew thick within the room. Jett’s options seemed limited to death by exposure or death from smoke inhalation.

The objective here is not to eliminate luxurious prose; the goal is to improve the pace. If this story were intended for a literary magazine, I’d be tempted to leave some of the darker purple bits in. For a popfic market, however, I’d press the accelerator and leave the flowery stuff in storage.

Let’s look at a less literary attempt.

Jamie knew that Chuck, his best friend since forever–grade school at least, but maybe earlier than that–was in deep, deep trouble. Chuck didn’t exactly have a first-class mind, but he was a pretty decent guy nonetheless. He cared a lot for his friends, his dog, and his family. He was never intentionally mean or dishonest. The problem was, Chuck had a hard time figuring out just who his real friends were. He was simply too loan shark smnice to understand that just because someone smiled at him, that didn’t make them pals. And now one of those not-exactly-a-friend types wanted him to re-pay a loan with way more interest than principal.

This passage has a certain colloquial “voice,” and it’s really not all that bad. But let’s see what happens when the weasel words and backstory are pulled out. Watch the pace speed up as sentences get shorter and more to the point.

Jamie knew that Chuck, his best–if not his brightest–friend, was in deep trouble. Chuck was a decent guy, but he had a hard time figuring out who his real friends were, and now one of those not-a-friend types wanted him to pay off a loan with far more interest than principal.

There’s no shame in writing tight prose. In fact, I’d argue it’s much easier to sell. Yes, there are markets for work which features style over substance, but they’re pretty rare. If you want to sell your work, the best approach for those who haven’t already established themselves, is to be direct, concise and to the point. It helps to have a damned good story, too.

–Josh

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How long should a story be? How to write a novel–part 38

It depends. Although the question isn’t nearly as stupid as, say, “How tall is a battleship. True or False?”

In traditional publishing, manuscript length has some generally agreed upon standards. The most common of these are: short story, novelette, novella and novel. One could also add a couple more categories fore and aft: flash fiction and epic. For convenience sake, here’s a general guide:writer_cartoon

  • Flash fiction: 25-1,000 words
  • Short story: 500-10,000 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-20,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000-120,000 words
  • Epic: over 120,000 words

You’ll notice there’s some overlap. And, to be completely honest, the “limits” are fuzzy and vary by publisher. According to Wikipedia, the longest novel in a single volume (in English) is Samuel Richardson’s ClarissaClarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, first published in 1748. Penguin Classics produced a 1,534-page paperback version in 1986. It has an estimated word length of just under a million. (I haven’t read it, but I suspect Clarissa was a busy girl.)

When it comes to per word rates, flash fiction probably has the highest potential, especially since so-called “Pro” rates for short fiction are still under ten cents a word.

Short stories over 5K in length continue to be a tough sell, and God help you if you’re trying to sell something in the novelette range. They’re generally far too long for most magazines and far too short for traditional book publishers. If you’re lucky enough to have two or three of them handy, you could bundle them. Your best bet for this length is in ebooks. Many readers are looking for something they can zip through during a commute or two. If you self-publish, be sure your work is listed in the proper genre. Commuters can be a finicky lot. But they can also be loyal. Write good stuff, and they’ll come back for more.Harvard MBA

Most writers I know have their sights set on writing novels (hence the title of this series). From my experience, the “desired” length for traditional publishers is in the 90-110K range. These make for great mass market paperbacks. The spines are big enough to see on a shelf, and yet they don’t take up too much space. They also command decent prices–all things which will warm a Harvard MBA’s heart (assuming they still have them; a fact not in evidence).

Full disclosure: my nephew is a Harvard MBA, but as far as I know, he’s not involved in the publishing industry, and I’m fairly certain he doesn’t follow my blog. And kindly don’t ask if he’s read my revolutionary war novel (Treason, Treason!) which should have been on his list of all-time faves. ‘Course, he has to read the damn thing first.

Anyway, there you have it. I’m guessing that unless you’re a world class, bestselling author, you probably oughta stick to lengths under a million words. Way under.

Companion question: how long is a chapter? Or a scene?

As long as it needs to be. I shoot for about 4K words per chapter, which I think is about the right amount to keep someone awake who’s reading in bed. Scene length? For me, the minimum is one sentence, more or less. Max? 4K, give or take, just like a chapter. Doncha just love coincidence?

In the long run, I don’t think chapter and/or scene length is important. Pace, however, is critical. If your scene lacks the proper pace, it won’t matter how long it is. We’ll take a look at that very soon.

–Josh

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Enough dots already! How to write a novel–part 37

Someone asked me recently why I wasn’t on Twitter. I almost said, “because I’m WTF?already on bourbon.” But then I thought that would be a little too snarky, even if it was true. The real reason is more basic. Based on the admittedly limited number of tweets I’ve seen, it’s obvious no one using that medium bothers with grammar, or spelling, or punctuation. Reading tweets is like attending a convention of e e cummings wannabes.

The thing to remember about the late Mr. Cummings (1894-1962), is that he learned the rules, and used them for years, before he opted to ignore them. He wrote reams and reams of stuff (mostly poetry, but also plays and novels) arranged and punctuated in accordance with the syntax of traditional English. He wasn’t screwing around with the language; that’s a more recent phenomenon.

Twitter, along with its grammatically evil counterpart–the dreaded txt msg–have taken our language into a bad place, one devoid of anything save expediency. And one of the worst of its sins is the substitution of dots for virtually any punctuation mark. I’m not even talking about ellipsis, the three dots which indicate either missing words or a bit of dialog which trails off. I’m talking about a random sprinkling of dots–two, five, forty-one–however many the twit (twiterer?) or text jockey chooses to use.

  • dude…… you goin r notviagra semi colon
  • beer nite.. be ther bro
  • car dead can u gimme ride

Do I fear for the future? Indeed. [sigh]

I used to be content ranting about the misuse of semicolons. The poor things have been wedged into more manuscripts than clowns into cars at the circus. And with about as much usefulness. Listen up: Semi-colons are not commas on steroids; they aren’t typographically aroused, and they certainly don’t provide a magical answer to any and all grammatical conundrums. What they do is connect two sets of words which could otherwise stand alone quite nicely as complete sentences.

Why do that? Well, mostly to show a cause and effect relationship. F’rinstance: “Bob’s stomach grumbled; he went to find food.” There are only two other ways to do this: break ‘em into separate sentences, or connect them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, like and, or, but, so, etc. (“Bob’s stomach grumbled, and he went to find food.”)

TroglodyteOne can also use the noble semi-colon to separate complete clauses in a list: “Wanda had high cheekbones; she had the legs of a dancer; she had the manners of a hyena in heat.” (Actually, I know Wanda, and she’s really a sweet gal. A little crazy at times, but hey, aren’t we all?)

An editor of one of the premier speculative fiction magazines once told me she loved to see the proper use of a semi-colon in the opening of a story because it demonstrated the writer’s knowledge of that much grammar at least. If the same, crummy little punctuation mark was misused, it told her to be wary of the writer’s work. Would you trust a builder who didn’t know how to use his tools?

The point is, like so many elements of the craft, you should learn the rules before breaking them so that when you do break ‘em, you’ll be doing it for a good reason and not because you’re some kind of knuckle-dragging  troglodyte.

Please, don’t let anyone think you’re a troglodyte. Even Wanda.

–Josh

 

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Are We There Yet? How to write a novel–part 36

Revise1Quite a few of the writers I know have a tendency to edit their work beyond death and well into the hereafter. There’s certainly no shame in wanting your work to be as good as you can make it. That’s a tremendously noble goal, and one I wish every writer aimed to achieve. But at some point you have to step away from it, admit you’ve been changing the same sentences over and over again, and let the damn thing crawl outta the nest!

I imagine most of this hesitation to release a fledgling is based on inexperience. This could be a first novel, a cherished short story, or a particularly poignant memoir. It’s obviously important to you or you wouldn’t have labored over it so long and hard. But it’s more than likely among the earliest of your efforts. You Revise2want it perfect. You don’t want anyone to see it until you’ve smoothed out every sentence, agonized over every syllable of dialog, tweaked and twiddled every possible nuance.

The thing is, until you’ve written a couple million words (give or take a few hundred thousand), you likely aren’t skilled enough to recognize what ought to be tweaked and twiddled, and what ought to be left the hell alone! And that’s perfectly okay–you’re a newbie after all. How could you know everything? I’ve been at this stuff for decades, and I sure don’t know all there is to know about it. Far from it. But thankfully, I have picked up a Revise3few things here and there.

Do the best work you’re capable of, and try not to expect more of yourself than any reasonable person would. Then set it aside for awhile–maybe a couple weeks or even longer; a month or two wouldn’t hurt–then coax it from its cage and read it out loud, with feeling. Every. Single. Word. And do it in a dramatic fashion, as if you had an audience of film makers who want to experience each of those nuances over which you labored so diligently. What you’ll discover is that most of it is pretty darned good. It works. It resonates. Yes, there are spots that are a little thin, but if you take the time to highlight ‘em while you’re reading it’ll be a simple matter to go back and address them.

Then it’s on to your First Readers. I put the title in capsRevise4 because what they do is so important. They’ll find the nits and wrinkles that you–the writer–just can’t see. Provided you have a good rapport with them, the feedback you get will be priceless. They will make it possible for you to walk your baby right out the door into the big, scary world.

The trick is to find good First Readers. In most cases, these are not people you live with or to whom you’re related. They aren’t folks you work with unless you’re of the same rank. Subordinates and superiors should always be left out of the mix. You need people who know at least a little something about writing. And, they need to know you’re more interested in the truth than you are in having them make you feel good. Get that nonsense out of the way NOW!

Then read the feedback, make the changes YOU think are reasonable, and mark the work “done.” Take your significant other or best pal out for dinner or ice cream, or whatever is most appropriate, and celebrate your success. You’re finished! It’s done!

And now it’s time to go back to the other project you started while this one cooled off. Rinse and repeat. Write and succeed.

–Josh

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Gettin’ Unstuck, con’t. How to write a novel–part 35

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 smAssuming your plot works, and you have enough subplots to carry the load when your primary storyline begins to buckle, you might still be roadblocked by character issues. You wouldn’t be the first writer to discover your protagonist isn’t everything you thought she was. There’s a good chance you’ve found and fallen in love with one or more shiny new characters who do nifty things, get involved in deep mysteries, have passionate sex, or otherwise wrestle around in the Do Stuff portion of your hindbrain.

It’s time to trot those rascals out! Turn them into Point Of View players. Very often a different look at the same old problems–especially if skewed by an oddball perspective–will make the old stuff new again. Or at least more palatable.

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 sm2The logical alternative to having your characters do things, is to invent nasty things you can do to them. [Cue: evil laughter] Seriously, readers care more about how characters persevere than they do about how they look, what they say, or where they come from. The more dastardly the tricks you play, the more dear those players become in your reader’s mind.

Let’s reflect a moment on what makes a plot twist diabolical. In a perfect world, you’ll be introducing a threat which operates on two or more levels. Physical threats are the easiest: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your leg off.” Physical threats with an emotional component are a little harder, but just as effective: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off.” Figuring out how to work in a philosophical threat is likely the hardest of all, but it, too, can be devastating: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off and make everyone think you did it.”

There are a host of fairly common ways to launch your character(s) in different directions. None of these is particularly fresh and new, but they’ve all been well received by readers, so you’ll be on fairly safe ground to use them:

  • Introduce someone with a dark and dreadful secret.
  • Arrange for an unexpected sexual tryst between two (three?) main players.
  • Bring in a new character so strange he/she upsets everyone and everything.
  • Kill off a character unexpectedly. Use a level of gruesomeness to fit your story.
  • Have someone betray your protagonist.

640px-Blue-footed_Booby_w textAs an alternative, you can always do the “What If” dance. This involves asking a dozen “what if” questions about your plot(s). Record the answers. Write ‘em all down. Don’t cheat! This is a great time to get crazy. No idea is too wierd or too funky. No character is off-limits; no mayhem is too great, no sin too unthinkable.

This is bold, blue sky stuff–free range, get naked, don’t even think about staying inside the box kinda material. Kill, maim, coerce, rape, strangle, lie, molest, badger, blackmail, bonesaw and/or banish any player who hasn’t been toting their own weight. Be cruel, quick, and decisive. Then step back and see what yumminess you’ve wrought. At this point you’re free to change anything and everything, right? If not you wouldn’t have gotten stuck in the first place! Put it all on the table–everything–every last bit of whatever you’ve got.

Because the alternative means giving up, throwing yet another story into the trunk and never looking at it again.

And if none of that works, take a meat cleaver to the last 5 or 10 thousand words you’ve written. Obviously, they’ve led you astray. They’re not working; so nuke ‘em, and good riddance. (Yes, of course I know it’ll hurt like hell, but you’ll be better off without ‘em. And besides, we both know you’re going to copy them to another file just in case you want to get ‘em back. I can almost guarantee you won’t want them later on, but that’s another discussion.)

Finally, we come to the ultimate approach, the last resort, the final directive. Oddly, this works for an astonishing number of writers, especially those who’ve examined all the foregoing alternatives and found them totally unacceptable. Maybe it’s time to just grit your teeth and keep on keepin’ on. Write your way outta the fog. There’s a perfectly palatable answer in there somewhere. You’ve just got to dig it out.

If that doesn’t work, open your wallet, make sure it contains lots and lots of spendable cash, and pay me to figure it out for you. I’ll be more than happy to take a look. My rates are semi-negotiable (“semi'” meaning somewhere between expensive and exorbitant), but I guarantee results. I won’t guarantee you’ll like ‘em. I will promise, however,to point out a way to the finish line. You’ll still have to make the journey.

–Josh

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You’re stuck? Too bad. How to write a novel–part 34

Roll_a_boulder smWhere did it all go wrong? Your story was cooking along nicely right up until– Hm. Somehow, somewhere along the way, something happened–either to the plot or your enthusiasm. Maybe both. Or maybe it was something else, some wrong turn, loose end, or forgotten clue. Now it’s sitting forlorn and half-finished, give or take a few thousand words, with a formerly proud parent in hand-wringing mode trying to decide how best to achieve some kind of consolation. [Hint: bourbon works, but it’s only temporary, and it won’t do anything to get the story back on track.]

Just knowing you aren’t the first to slide into this sad state doesn’t help much. Nor does the knowledge that the universe is awash in unfinished/trunked/junked or klunked manuscripts. Back burners from Beantown to Bora Bora are crowded with stories that started out great then turned into whimpering piles of literary slag, or snot, or worse. But, before you work your way through all the supposed stages of grief–probably somewhere between depression and acceptance (but after denial, anger and bargaining)–understand that there might be hope.

More than likely, the problem lies in one of three areas: there’s a plot problem–be it primary or secondary; there’s a major lack of conflict; or your characters aren’t pulling their weight. Naturally, each of these groupings has a variety of constituent issues. I’ll tackle the first area here, then move on to the others in my next post.

Without reading what you’ve done so far it’s impossible to diagnose specific plot problems. What I can discuss are issues commonly associated with plot problems. The first of these is boredom. Your plot simply doesn’t hold your attention. It probably did when you started, but now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? And more importantly, what to do?

portrait of man thinking1) You could start by dreaming up a subplot. Find something that’ll shake up your characters and give one or more of them something to worry about. Even if your subplot unwinds quickly, it’ll shift attention away from your sagging primary plot. If it’s more involved, it could amplify the main storyline.

Subplots needn’t be complex. They can start with something as simple as an odd turn, an unexpected shift in attitude, or a mystery–something that just doesn’t seem to make sense. Nor are you limited in the number of subplots you concoct. As long as you have a decent stable of characters to link them to, you can dream up as many subplots as you can keep track of.

2) There’s a good chance you have no bloody idea where your story is going. (Listen up, pantsers!) You’ve got at least three options:

A- Find the plot holes now, and fix ‘em. You probably know where they are, or at the very least, you’ve got suspicions about where they are. Take the time now to identify them and figure out how you’re going to plug those holes.

B- Outline your opus, even if you had an outline to begin with, because obviously, it ain’t working. Go back and outline it again–start to finish–based on what you’ve written, not on what you intended to write before you got sidetracked, your car died, or your dear aunt Sue married the abominable snowman/used car salesman. Use whatever outline format works for you, from the most detailed to the least. Just do it!

C- If the thought of outlining is more than you can bear, do at least one thing: figure out how your story ends. Nail it down–who lives, who doesn’t, everything. Write it down, too. Don’t mess around with this, it’s critical.

Next up: a couple other ways to rescue your tome from the toilet.

–Josh

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Bad words in good books? How to write a novel–part 33

No swearing sign.I don’t always use the most genteel words in my writing. But that doesn’t apply to all the writing I do. If, for instance, I’m working on something destined for a family publication, or for the rare (for me) kid-targeted piece, I’ll avoid “bad” words entirely.

Problem is, we don’t all think of the same words as being “bad.” It obviously depends on one’s judgment. I’d like to think I have a pretty normal outlook on what’s acceptable in mixed company and what isn’t. That said, I’ve still used a few 4-letter gems that I later learned were not universally well received. That’s too bad, because chances are, whoever felt distress hearing words like “hell” and “damn” almost certainly missed some of the important parts of what I was saying.

And then there’s the whole issue of what is or isn’t “politically correct.” I’m not up for that topic as it’s only going to trigger a sincerely un-PC rant from me. Somewhere in between the extremes of prissiness and political correctness lies the verbal domain I aim to occupy. That’s enough elbow room for me. For others, maybe not.

F bombTake blogger/writer Chuck Wendig for example (at terribleminds). He’s not only a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but his blogs consistently offer terrific advice and counsel on the writing craft and the publishing industry. There’s no question he knows what he’s talking about. HOWEVER {drum roll} he constantly carpet bombs his blogs with profanity. I suspect he’s doing it for shock value, but when the bomb bay doors are open that wide, the result is more like schlock value. That’s a shame, because he’s got so much great stuff buried in there. Alas, my readership tends to be a tad older and predominantly middle-class, so I don’t often recommend his blog posts because I know the F-bombs, in particular, will prevent many of them from seeing the really valuable information he has to share.

Geez. So now *I’m* part of the PC police? Say it ain’t so!

More important than how I regard naughty words is how you deal with them. Do you know your target audience well enough to determine what sorts of words you can get away with? We’ve all been to enough movies lately where the F-word seems to be the primary adjective and verb. And in some, I swear (pardon the pun), it’s the only adjective. That doesn’t strike me as terribly imaginative. After you’ve heard the word eight hundred times, the autonomic filters go up, and it becomes nothing more than background noise.

FullSizeRenderI’ve used the F-word in several of my books, but I don’t make a habit of it. I save it for shock value. That may sound odd in this day and age, but if my characters don’t talk that way day-to-day, readers will definitely know something’s up when they do start using that sort of language.

What you do with so-called “bad” language is up to you. If you’re going to use it, I suggest you use it for a reason, not because it’s handy. Figure out how to get some mileage from it. If it comes from the mouth of a child, for instance, provide readers with an explanation of how that happened. Little people, big ears. We’ve all seen it happen. In your book, you’ll need to make it real. And hopefully, funny.

I recall reading Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a monster bestseller about the battle of Thermopylae. In it he provides page after page of dialog from the mouths of Spartan heroes. Yet, the dialog seemed to have come straight from a modern US army barracks, complete with drill sergeants whose vocabularies consisted entirely of four-letter words. Profanity Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving : 1880isn’t new, by any means, and I’m sure Pressfield’s intent was to capture the “feel” of men preparing for combat. But from an historical perspective, I’m quite sure there’s no way in hell those guys talked like that.

When Barbara Galler-Smith and I were working on the Druids trilogy, which is set in the 1st century BC–considerably *later* than the Pressfield story–we went out of our way to find out just how warriors of that era swore. What was considered profane? The answer surprised us, but upon reflection, it made sense. Expressions such as “God’s blood” or “Scathach’s abode” might not carry the weight of contemporary curses, but even Anglicized as these are, they were more faithful to the period. We were fine with that, as were our readers.

The upshot? Use good judgment, even if it hurts.

–Josh

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