Thursday, February 23, 2012

Removing the Layer of Distance

Imagine you’re reading what should be a really good book. The settings are detailed, the dialogue is fairly witty, and important, action-packed thing are happening in its plot.
And yet, you still feel unsatisfied.
Your attention lags. You find your inner reading voice drifting into a dull monotone. You catch yourself skimming more than once. At the very least, you find you don’t quite care about the main character, or whatever trials they’re overcoming.
It should be a really good book, and yet you just can’t get into it.
One possibility is that the author has left a level of distance between you and the story’s main character.
I see it all the time when I review short stories and first chapters**, especially among less experienced writers. Exciting things are happening. But we – the readers – are a step removed from the action, like we’re watching the events from across the street. We see the characters moving, but… We’re not really there.
To demonstrate, here’s some very rough, paraphrased lines from a scene in my WIP:
“David flinched as the kickball flew over his head. As Jameson and the other kids laughed, David scowled and went after the ball, vaulting over the fence and landing with a grunt on the other side.”
Not the best sentence in the world, but it’s not the worst, either. A little Tell-y. A little flat. A little more likely to drop our attention. It’s written like an outline, leaving us to fill in most of the details.
Now, let’s step into David’s shoes, and try to see the scene through his eyes.
“He turned his back to Jameson and stalked toward the fence. He vaulted it, moments before realizing that fence-vaulting probably wasn’t something they’d expect from him – the ‘crazy, formerly-kidnapped slacker’. He didn’t look back to gauge their expressions as heat crept up the back of his neck. Orange ball. David blinked as his eyes adjusted to the mottled light under the trees. Just find the stupid orange ball and toss it back to ‘em before somebody breaks out the baseball bats from the storage locker.”
I’d like to think that the scene from my actual draft is an improvement, although it’s still a bit rough. XD
At the very least, David’s more engaged in this scene. He’s moving. We’re hearing his thoughts. Seeing things from his perspective. We can infer more about his personality.
It’s my belief that readers can get more invested in a character – more drawn into the story – once they step into the character’s shoes. Obviously, methods may vary depending on what Point of View you use, but there are few tactics that can really start to connect your character with the scene around them.
  • Show your character’s opinions and perspectives. And not just in the dialogue. “Just find the stupid orange ball…” David doesn’t care about the game they’re playing, and chances are it’s not just because of any screw-ups on his part.
  • Use word choice to show the character’s mood. “David stalked…” As opposed to ‘jogged’, or ‘skipped’, or just plain ‘walked’. Using a tense verb carries David’s tension. If your character is at one of the lowest of low points in their life, the stars may not ‘twinkle’, the birds may not ‘chirp’, and dogs may not ‘yip’. They will – respectively – glimmer, caw, and growl.
  • Keep the focus on your main character. They’re called ‘main’ for a reason. I could’ve added a few sentences about Jameson nudging one of his buddies. Or I could’ve gone into detail about the way he smirks at David’s back. But instead, we get “heat crept up the back of [David’s] neck”. David is our focus.
Don’t make us watch events from across the street. Take away the layer of distance, and place us firmly into the scene. Put us into the main character’s shoes, and let us feel what they feel.
Have you read a book where you just couldn’t connect with the main character? Are your character’s engaged in every scene? Do they cast their own perspectives onto everything they see? And, uh, thanks for putting up with the rough example from my WIP. XD
 **This also could be because I read some early drafts, before the author’s gone back to tweak all the things into their final, polished form. XD

Thursday, February 16, 2012

“Not MY Novel” – On Accepting That We're Not The Exception

                It happens to everyone. You’re reading a blog post or an article about writing when you come across a phrase that you really don’t want to hear. Sometimes even the title is enough to make your heart sink.

                Maybe the post is about that area of the craft where you know you’re weak. Maybe it’s about the harsh realities of the literary world, such as the potential difficulties of finding an agent, getting published, and actually profiting from it.

                For me, the most recent instance of this was when I happened upon two different blog posts that essentially said “You will probably not publish the first book you write. There comes a point when it’s time to move on.” (One of these articles was here, but I can’t find the other. XD)

                Finding posts on that subject not just once, but twice in one day put a tight feeling in my chest. My current WIP is not The First novel I ever wrote. But it is among the first that I ever seriously considered to have publishing potential. It’s been around a few years now, and I’m still excited about it (which is a good sign). I’m [still] working on the first major rewrite. I’m excited

                --but in the space of a few minutes, those blog posts put doubts into my head.

                That’s when They started to creep in. You know the thoughts I’m talking about. They grow like flies from larvae - Those indignant, defiant, and perhaps-a-little-snooty voices, who huff and fume at the very idea that someone would discourage us this way. “This might be good for other people to keep in mind, but I’m sure my novel will never have to--”

                That’s where I usually squash those flies, as I pull my WIP forward for another look.

                I’d like to think I remain very practical in response to things like this – the chest-tightening blog posts, the harsh critiques, or the knowledge that some parts of my writing are still less-than-stellar. Usually, I’m able to put enough space between myself and the writing to bite my lip and admit that “Yes, this area needs work.”

                Certain facts are relatively set in stone. We will make our manuscripts as perfect as we can before we put them on submission, and editors will still find pages and pages of things to fix. Our manuscripts will be turned down, a lot. We will have to make major, major changes to our stories. These are just some of the facts. As much as we’d like to believe that we’re the exception to the rule, chances are…

                We’re not.

                Case in point: For a long time, blog posts that suggested splicing multiple minor characters into one made my stomach turn.

                I love my characters! No way I could ever mold two characters together willy-nilly. No way I could smush all their traits, and actions, and importance into one body. Not in my novel.

                That’s what I thought…

                Until a few days ago, late at night, when I realized two characters were A) very similar, B) not altogether as developed as I would’ve liked, and C) already headed toward a very similar place in terms of emotions throughout the story and where they end up when it’s all over.

                After about five minutes of contemplation and some minor alterations (such as increasing the age of a love interest), I’d basically decided. Two characters melded into one, and now my only problem is picking which name to retain. On a related note, which name do you like better in a fantasy novel? Pole or Feb?

                For so long, I’d half-told myself “I’ll never need to splice two characters.”

                But now that I’ve done it, I realize my story will be oodles better because of it. Oodles, I tell you!

                Squash the flies that buzz “Not my novel.” Don’t give the larvae the chance to grow.

                Instead, let your story burst into something better, like a butterfly from its cocoon.
Have you ever gotten advice that made you anxious -- until you took it? What major changes have you had to make in your WIPs? And again, which name do you like better? Pole or Feb?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ruts in Revision and How to Get Past Them

                I’ve got a lot of rough drafts, people. Doing NaNoWriMo since I was twelve, plus all my non-NaNo projects… I’ve accumulated a lot of rough drafts. And my hope-of-all-hopes is that more than a few of them – especially the newer novels – will eventually find their way to publication.

                But you know what I don’t have a lot of?

                Completed manuscripts. Polished drafts. Complete re-writes. Second drafts in general. I have a serious problem with sticking to one story, and while it’s generally recommended to give yourself time between your rough draft and the plunge into revision, there comes a time when one must begin.

                And begin I have. A paragraph here, a paragraph there. After dutifully reading through the rough drafts and making notes of what needs to be fixed, I begin with rampant enthusiasm, working in a new document with the old draft up as a reference point.

                I’ve done this innumerable times, and it always ended the same way. With three pages (best case scenario) that are strikingly similar to their predecessors.

                Recently, I’ve come to a realization.

                I cannot do a major rewrite of a book if I have the old version in front of me.

                When exactly did I realize this?

                The day I opened a new word document and began to rewrite my novel straight from my head, without looking at the first draft.

                I know my stories, guys. I suck at remembering real life names, faces, and phone numbers (including my own, on that last front) but years after writing the first draft of my current WIP(s), I can still recite the majority of the characters’ names, backgrounds, relations to other characters, crucial actions in the novel, and more. I can whip a summary of a whole series off the top of my head, even if it’s incoherent to anyone but me. I still spontaneously make connections between song lyrics and stories I haven’t worked on in years.

                So, it wasn’t exactly hard to pick things up, even while ignoring the rough draft and all the dozens of pages of notes I made (*cough* hundreds *cough* It’s a long, detailed series *cough*).

                The process is working for me so far; I’m farther along in the rewrite than any of my other attempts, and what I’m writing is – while still imperfect – different than what I remember from my draft.

                I’ve also begun this tactic with one of my other novels, which currently opens in a very odd way – one of the hazards of writing a novel where the inciting incident takes place four years before the main story. The first chapter has killed me, again and again. It drags, and there are unnecessary paragraphs, and possibly a bit of info-dumping.

                Once again, I haven’t looked at my rough draft or my notes, and I’d like to think the first chapter has really, really improved since.

                Why do I think this approach works?

                It Tosses the Crutches -- When you have your rough draft in front of you, it’s very easy to latch onto your pet phrases, your charming paragraphs, or simply the “This is adequate” stuff you wrote the first time around. Writing from your head, the temptation is mostly gone. I’ll admit there are still a few remembered lines trying to creep their way into things. But without the words there in front of me, it’s infinitely easier to axe them when needed.

                It Dumps the Excess – The rough draft of my current WIP was 120,000 words long. It was padded with so many infodumps, and unnecessary scenes, and pointless inner reflections of my Main Character. Working off of my memory means (hopefully) only the most important things from the old draft are carried through. If I don’t remember those six paragraphs on what food my posse of characters were eating, chances are they won’t be missed in the final book. I’ll go back and read both drafts when I’m done, and if I forgot something absolutely essential, I’ll fix it then.

                It Reclaims Your Blank Canvas – Sometimes a blank page can be intimidating. But it can also be liberating, and promising, and exciting, when you think of all the places that blank page could take you. Compared to that former sense of wonder, constantly referring to an old draft can feel like a lot more work than when you’re just beginning something. To me, it can be discouraging. Starting from almost-scratch (but hopefully with a strong idea of your characters, and where your story is going) can be a way to reclaim that wonder. Starting blank is a chance to discover new things about your story. It’s a chance to let your novel surprise you again.

                Obviously, this method won’t work for later drafts. We can’t rewrite our books from scratch every time and hope that at some point we pump out a finished manuscript. But at this point, I believe this is exactly the strategy I need to get beyond my rough drafts and work to polish something, and really improve it instead of spitting out the same old junk I started with.

                How do you handle revision? Is moving beyond your first draft as tough for you as it’s been for me? Got any tips for writers who find themselves caught in the rut of ‘revising’ a draft that looks exactly like the first one?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Imperfections of Perfect

                Writing the following example nearly killed me.

                Francesca swooned inwardly, sneaking quick glances at the unfamiliar boy who’d just entered the room. He was the most gorgeous guy she’d ever seen. Tall, the way she liked, with light tangles of hair and a gentle smile. He was perfect.


                I’ll be honest. When I come across descriptions like this in books, my immediate reaction is to dislike the guy in question whole-heartedly, with much snorting and eye-rolling. It’s a rebellious impulse, brought forth by a couple of basic words.

                Perfect. Gorgeous. Beautiful.

                It feels like someone’s trying to set their friend up with a guy. “He’s GREAT, I swear, just GREAT. He’s SO hot, I promise, you’ll love him.” He’ll never live up to the expectation. Even if he is hot, there’s gotta be something wrong with him. Prison records, psychotic tendencies, or maybe even despicable table manners. The blind date’s instigator just tries to cover up those little details by putting the emphasis on how ‘Hot’ he is.

                You’ll have a hard time getting me to like your MC’s love interest if you use those phrases the first time you describe them -- especially if it’s the first time your MC even meets their love interest (unless of course your MC is the kind of person who would immediately notice and/or comment on things like this, regardless of whether they want to date the guy).

                Why am I so opposed to Perfect?

                Too Unrelatable – How many Perfect people do you know? How many really and truly Perfect people do you think there are in the world? Speaking for myself, I am far from perfect. Chances are, so is the character in question. Calling them Perfect is just setting up for disappointment from the reader, or even irritation toward the MC if the main character fails to notice the love interest’s imperfections, and goes on falsely believing that they truly are Perfect. Having the love interest deny their Perfection doesn’t help; false modesty can be really, really annoying.

                Too Vague – You call a guy character perfect. Great. But what is he like? Everyone has a slightly different view of what Perfect is, and when the author/character’s viewpoint clashes with the reader’s, it could make for a conflicting first impression. For example, if a reader likes her male characters wiry or a little lanky with short hair, that might be the first image in their head when they read ‘Perfect’, even though the author was talking about a big, macho muscle-man with hair down to his shoulders. And if you add a few clarifying details in the same general paragraph, then… Why do you need to use the word Perfect in the first place? Which brings us to the third point:

                Too Easy – Show versus Tell is one of the most common issues that pops up in conversations between writers, and those flat adjectives (Perfect, Gorgeous, etc.) are Telling. They are overused to the point where Perfect is not perfect, at least in terms of description. Let the reader infer the character’s attractiveness, please! I would much rather decide (and see the MC decide) that a character’s hot based on his specific physical attributes than on an empty word like ‘Perfect’. Better yet, make the cute nose and the toned muscles an afterthought, and let us fall in love with the things he does. The way he treats his girly-friend. The way he treats people in authority, and people in opposition to him. The way he faces challenges. All of his actions and reactions, blending together into a guy that is pretty darn attractive. Doesn’t developing an impression that way sound deeper and more satisfying than a simple “He’s hot”?

                Like I said, my first impulse is to despise Perfect characters on sight. The author will have a steep slope ahead to win my affections after pouring on some over-flattering descriptions.

                That said, it is not impossible. Augustus Waters, from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars is a fabulous example. A few paragraphs after meeting this character, Hazel blatantly calls him hot. I’ll confess, there were about three milliseconds where I thought “I am not going to like this character.” I was wrong. I loved him by the end of the book. I think the turn-around was partially because A) it was not the first little bit of description I had about him, and B) His hotness did not greatly affect how Hazel treated him. Although she had a “Crap, I forgot to brush my hair” moment, that did not stop her from turning an awkward situation into a staring contest, or from spouting a philosophical monologue about Oblivion. His hotness was a thing, but it was not the only thing.

                However, I think Augustus is an exception to my general rule. It’s not something I can help; it is automatic. After seeing these basic words used over and over again, they have become shorthand for “Another of these characters. Roll your eyes here. Watch out for possible shallow character interactions to come.”

                I do not have an aversion to hot characters. I’ve had my fair share of fictional-character crushes.

                But let me decide for myself why to like a character.

                A bit of subtlety is perfectly reasonable, I assure you.

                What pet peeves like this do you have? Do you share my rebellious anti-“Perfect” reaction? What characters have you crushed on over the years, and why?