Monday, November 29, 2010

Using Coincidence in Your Writing

It's enormously challenging to find ways for the main character to learn new information without the story events seeming too coincidental. My ideal way to write a story would be to avoid using plot devices that are too convenient. And to especially avoid these devices at crucial moments in the plot. The reader expects surprises, but they need to be believable and flow naturally from the story events.

One thing that helps me with this issue is to think about what the minor characters are doing when they aren't "onstage" in the scene. These characters pop in and out of the story, and may play a crucial role at some point, but as a writer, I need to think about what they're doing when they aren't with the main character. Otherwise, dropping them in just when they are needed can seem too coincidental.

How do you avoid coincidence in your story?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going Beyond Lists of Character Traits

From time to time I do more reading about the writing process to work on developing my skills (aside from the great stuff I find on everyone's blogs). Right now I'm reading The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman, since I always seem to have issues with my plots. The first chapter is about characters. It essentially helps you to create a list of traits about your character. I've never done too much of this in the past, because I always thought I'd "discover" more about my character as I write.

But here's the thing I never understood before: once you have that list of descriptions of your character, the way it really helps your story is to think about how each one of these traits could affect the plot. Time consuming? Yes. But, wow, it really helps you get a deeper understanding of your character's world.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Good Books and What is Believable

I just finished reading Yours Truly, Lucy B. Parker: Girl vs. Superstar by Robin Palmer (#93 in my hundred book challenge) and really enjoyed it. What made it so fresh and enjoyable was definitely the main character Lucy, with her so-true to life grade 6 concerns and her personality quirks and anxieties. The novel is a great example of a book with a strong main character voice, which is really what got me hooked on reading it. And it was fun!

It got me thinking a little bit about the issue of believability in middle/tween books though. Some (adult) reviews of the book mentioned the unlikelihood of Lucy (the main character's mom) getting involved with the Dad of a tween superstar [this is a key element of the plot]. But I wondered whether that would matter as much to middle grade readers.

To what extent do middle grade readers accept a premise, without questioning whether it would happen in real life? I don't know the answer to this, but I suspect it has a lot to do with:

a) how engaging the characters and the voice are

b) background knowledge or experiences that relate to the premise (e.g. if you know a lot about it, you're more likely to be irritated when it's not realistic or logical)

c) the way it is presented (My 15-year-old points out that it is unbelievable that there are wizards, but that the Harry Potter books are written in a way that makes them highly believable.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Hardest Thing About Writing

What is the hardest writing-related thing you've ever done?

Coping with the daily ups and downs of writing is one thing, but sometimes there are really big things that are hard. Like having to rewrite an entire novel that you've already revised a few times. Or trying to cut out, say, 20,000 words from something that's too long.

I thnk my second hardest writing challenge was(is) struggling with the premise behind Novel #3, with 2 alternating POVs. Still not resolved, but hopefully I'll come up with a solution one day.

My first and hardest writing-related challenge? Putting my first, completed novel (The Toad's Kiss) in a drawer, after having no glimmer of interest at all to the many queries I sent out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Balancing the Passage of Time

I've discovered that meshing together the passage of time for two different points of view is a huge challenge (another reason NOT to use more than one POV). Some ways I usually show time in my writing include:

1. Directly mentioning the day or time of day, e.g. On Tuesday....

2. Including brief sensory details to help orient the reader, e.g. fire sparking in the night; smell of coffee brewing, etc.

3. Using the weather or seasons, e.g. mentioning different weather from the scene before suggests time has passed.

These tricks might work this time, except that I have a problem. I'm mostly following the main character's timeline--she's in a contest and there's lots of tension about meeting the challenges of the contest. There isn't a lot of flexibility to her timeline. I can't stretch it out too much or it wouldn't be believable. Unfortunately, my second point of view character needs time. He's adjusting to a whole new life. Sigh. It's hard to weave it together.

So far, my strategy is to stick with the timeline for the main character and try to fit the secondary character's POV around it. But it's created a challenge for me I hadn't anticipated. Have you ever encountered an unexpected writing challenge? How did you make it work?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Writer's Insomnia

Do you ever find your writing keeps you from sleeping?

There's so much going on inside my head that sometimes it's hard to turn it off when it comes time to sleep. It's not always writing. A lot of the time, it's every day stuff. Things I have to do. Things I should have done. But once in a while, my writing keeps me up with mental discussions about what I need to change to make it better. If I get up and write about it, I'm exhausted the next morning. If I don't, I'm likely to forget it by morning.

Guess what I usually choose? Sometimes, writing down my ideas is more important than sleep.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Do You Process Your Critiques?

I look forward to getting critiques. Comments from my critique buddies always lead to changes that will make my writing stronger or lead me to think more deeply about my story and characters. Since I only submit a chapter or two to my critique group every three weeks, incorporating their awesome advice can take a while. Some strategies I've tried:

1) I collect critiques on one novel while I'm writing another. I read them, maybe nod my head at things they pointed out that I already kind of knew, then store them until I'm ready to revise the novel.

This approach has its advantages: I see the work with fresh eyes when I come back to it, and the disappointment of hearing about what doesn't work isn't so strong. I can also see if there are some common elements to the critiques across chapters, e.g. The main character doesn't show enough emotion. On the downside, if I have questions, it's difficult to go back to my crit buddy and say, "Hey, remember a few months ago when you wrote..."

2) I make revisions as I get my critiques.

Thinking about the critiques right away helps me focus on each chapter and how it fits into the story. Since changes early in the story affect what comes later, I don't waste too much time working on later chapters that will undoubtedly change after they are critiqued.

But there are some disadvantages, too. It's hard to work on another novel when I'm intensely involved in revisions. Also, I worry that this approach can be hard on my critique group. I can't stop myself from revising sections that they haven't read yet to go with the changes in the earlier sections. Then I need explanatory notes with each chapter submission to explain how I've changed the beginning so that they aren't lost when they read the next chapter.

What do you do with your critiques? Do you read and make changes immediately, or do you wait?

Monday, November 8, 2010

How Important is Length for a MG Novel?

I was hoping revising would shorten my novel, but so far, all I seem to be doing is making it longer. Some ways to shorten a novel:

1. Check to make sure every scene counts. Each scene should have a purpose in the story, maybe more than one purpose.

2. Cut lengthy descriptions. How many words are really needed to give the reader a picture of what's happening? Maybe a place or object can be described more concisely.

3. Read the story out loud, especially the dialogue. I find that dialogue can get wordy. Sometimes it ends up with words that don't do anything for the story, not even create a mood or establish a character's state of mind.

The problem is, even though I'm working on these things, I'm also adding scenes to fill in gaps or to create tension. So far, the adding is outweighing the cutting. At 57,000 words, this book is way longer than I want it to be for an upper MG novel. I know everyone says to write the novel and not worry about the length (and I didn't think about it when I was writing my first draft). But this is by far the longest book I've ever written and I'm not usually a wordy writer. Should I be worried? I'm hoping that when I get farther on in my revisions (now around Chapter 12) that there will be a lot more to cut.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Lists is Part of Writing a Novel, Isn’t It?

I am constantly making lists. I have a list of things I need to do for my job. A list of things I need to do around the house. Several shopping lists (groceries, things for the house, gifts, my own wish list). Lists of books I’ve read and books I want to read. Even my blog posts turn into lists! Since I’m so good at making lists, I figure there must be some way I use this skill to help my writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. When I’m stuck on a section during writing, I make a list of what the reader knows about my characters and/or story from reading the section. It helps me focus on what I’m trying to do with a scene. If I can’t make a list, it’s time to cut.

2. During the first draft, a list of character names can help keep the momentum going (if you’re like me, and can’t bear to use a % or random something for a person’s name). Instead of stopping and checking on the name of that girl I wrote about in the last chapter, I check my handy, right-beside-the-computer list.

3. As I read my draft, I make a list of all the questions I have during reading. This helps a lot during revisions (though I can tell you, the more questions you have, the longer the revision process).

4. I often get stalled during revisions, debating over what to include. Last time, I got stuck (um...I think that was yesterday), I wrote a list of the key elements I wanted in my story. It got me thinking about what parts needed more emphasis and what parts were just becoming too complicated.

Do you have any ideas for using lists to help with your writing?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

When the Computer Breaks Down...Make a New Goal

Aack! Yesterday evening I turned on my main computer and the screen went black. Totally black. An eerie voice came through the speaker with something about the system failing a test. Remember to keep your work backed up, people!

I should be freaking out, but I'm not. My latest couple of novels are on my memory stick. Plus I have most of the stuff backed up (though probably the backups are a few months old). My daughters are a bit stressed that they might lose some of the music they've downloaded from iTunes. The most annoying thing is that I have to take time away from writing to take it somewhere to get it fixed (and pay for it). Time is always something I crave more of. It seems like I have less and less of it lately.

In the meantime, I'm back to working on my laptop. I had to do this earlier in the year for some reason (oh yeah, because the dog had surgery and couldn't go upstairs) and I actually got a lot done. I learned that a change of scene can perk up my writing, especially if it's a little harder to check my e-mail.

A computer breakdown may seem like an odd reason for setting goals, but nevertheless, here are my goals for the rest of November:

1. Finish first set of revisions of Novel #4.

2. Write a summary and one-sentence pitch for Novel #4.

3. Think of a title for Novel #4.

I could add "get the computer problems fixed", but that's not a goal. It's a necessary fact of life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Using Multiple Viewpoints

I usually try to stick with one point of view in my writing, because having more than one seems to get me all tangled up (my evidence for this is Novel #3, sitting abandoned in my file drawer). So why, in Novel #4, did I add another POV? Am I crazy???

In Novel #4, there is a bit of a conspiracy against the main character. I wanted the reader to know about it, without my main character knowing about it. (See how I'm already starting to get tangled up?) So, the second point of view sort of emerged from that idea. It's challenging, but it has strengthened some parts of my novel. Some of the benefits:

1. Bringing in another point of view has forced me to see the events in the story from a different character's perspective. In the past, I've found that focusing too much on the main character's perspective can lead to weaker secondary characters. By taking another character's perspective, it has made me think more deeply about character reactions and emotions.

2. Deciding where to bring in another point of view has made me think more about the timeline for my book and how the reader will experience the story events. Do I want events to happen sequentially? Simultaneously? How does that come across to the reader? I have to think about what each character has experienced and when, then mesh them together so that it doesn't produce a jarring effect when the novel is read. This is more difficult than I thought it would be.

Have you ever worked with multiple points of view? Any suggestions?