28 December 2010

How do you write?

Over my Christmas vacation I read John Irving's 2009 novel Last Night in Twisted River. It shows the development of a novelist and the writing process in that it is a story within a story. Interestingly, the career of the novelist in the book is similar to Irving's career. As a writer myself I found Irving's Afterward particularly fascinating. He admits he's gotten some flack over the years, and says of one conversation with a reader,
I was a dinosaur--or worse, a reactionary. ...I had told her a story. But that's what I do. And if you're telling a story --especially to illustrate a point--you'd better know what happens in the story before you start.
This is good advice. :)

Amazingly, Irving starts his works at the end!
Endings not only matter to me; endings are where I begin a novel or a screenplay. If I don't know the ending, I can't begin--and I don't mean that I need to know only what happens. I need to know the tone of voice, and the last sentence (or sentences). I write not only to a moment in time, but to a sound--a feeling. I have to know what that feeeling is, or I won't start.

From the last sentence, I work my way back to where the story begins. This constitutes a kind of road map in reverse. That process--of working my way backward through the plot, from the last sentence to the first--usually takes a year or eighteen months, sometimes longer. But for twelve novels now, the last sentence has always come first. And those last sentences have never changed in the process--not even the punctuation.


How do you write?

26 December 2010


In past posts, we have emphasized that it is important to try to get our attention on the first page of a story, preferably the first paragraph. Sometimes I get the impression that authors are trying too hard to grab a reader's (or editor's) attention. For lack of a better term, I will call this an "over-hook." One example is a story that starts in mid-action. For example, the first few lines of a story are as follows:
Jordan's fingertips clung to the cliff edge. He knew he'd never survive the 1000-foot fall if he let go, and yet his fingers burned with agony. This must be the end . . .

A protagonist in immediate peril--who could ask for more? Well, me, for one. I don't know who Jordan is, so I really don't care that much about whether he falls off the cliff. In fact, I'm not at this point very much concerned about his burning fingers. Other than the fact that this story has "action" I have no clues about plot or genre. I'm left with the impression that the author is trying to sell me a story rather than tell me a story.

A second example of an over-hook is simile overkill. I think authors should be weary of similes in general, but a whopper in the first sentence or two smacks of an over-hook. For example, Bob's head pounded. If felt like a thousand scorpions were tap dancing on his frontal lobe.

An author creative and clever enough to come up with a unique simile--who could ask for more? Me, for one. Sometimes a simile can be an effective tool, but, in this instance, if feel like the author is screaming "LOOK AT ME!" I'm not looking for a clever author, I'm looking for a stunning story. If I get to the end of the story having ben lost in the author's world for a time, then I realize the true talent of the writer.

21 December 2010

Writing on Reading--WWW:WATCH

In November 2009 I blogged about Robert J. Sawyer's novel WWW:WAKE in Spec Fic Tools VI: Plot. I analyzed some aspects of plot and concluded he did an excellent job with the novel.

Recently, I read the 2nd novel in the trilogy, WWW:Watch, (2010) and I have to say it continues to be very good. As faithful Electric Spec readers and writers know, Sawyer was kind enough to let us interview him in 2008. Of course, now he's famous for writing the novel Flashforward--which was the (loose!) basis for the TV series.

WWW:WATCH continues the adventures of Caitlin, the precocious blind 15-year-old, and her emergent A.I. friend Webmind. In WWW:WATCH Webmind has come to the attention of WATCH — the secret government agency that monitors the Internet for any threat to the United States, whether foreign, domestic, or online — and the agents are fully aware of Caitlin's involvement in its awakening. WATCH is convinced that Webmind represents a risk to national security and wants it purged from cyberspace. But Caitlin believes in Webmind's capacity for compassion — and she will do anything and everything necessary to protect her friend.

This is pretty standard SF fare in terms of plotting, but very well executed. Certainly, the ideas, such as the emergent A.I. are very neat and interesting (which is why they've been explored before). I do think Caitlin's feelings, and the emphasis on Webmind's compassion and the relationship between the two characters are a more modern take on SF. In the 'good old days' a SF novel about A.I. would not have a female protatonist, and it certainly wouldn't consider peoples' emotions.

Hurray for modern SF! :)

Notice, too, how well the novel title works here.

I've decided the truly amazing thing about these books is Sawyer does an excellent job with characterization. In particular, he does an awesome job characterizing the 15-year-old girl. There's also a subplot about Hobo, a chimp/bonabo cross; Sawyer does a very good job characterizing this 'character' as well. And the interactions between Webmind and Hobo are fascinating.

How many books have believable empathetic non-homo-sapien characters?

I look forward to the final novel in the trilogy!

Did anyone else read it? What did you think?

Happy Solstice!

19 December 2010

Humble Heros

Authors have invented all kinds of hero-protagonists for their books, but I've noticed the "humble" hero is quite popular, especially in YA. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is often sure in his own mind that he is not quite up to the task before him. Even when he accomplishes a task, he usually attributes his success to a combination of luck and help from friends rather than his own quickness, bravery, or cleverness. In fact, a big part of Harry's growth as the series continues is gaining confidence in his own abilities.

Katniss in the Hunger Games takes the "humble hero" to the next level. Instead of simply downplaying her accomplishments, she sees them as evidence of her character flaws. Deep down, she sees herself as someone interested only in her own (or her family's) survival and therefore incapable (or undeserving) of love. Part of her character growth is learning that she is a person worthy of the love that other give her.

I imagine this kind of character is appealing to children and teens because they, too, are working on some of the same issues. Am I capable? Am I worthy? But, as we know, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games are enjoyed by adults, too. I think the appeal that adults have for these kind of heros is slightly different. We love to see someone who does good because it is the right thing to do--not because they want others to see them doing it. We hope to live up to that ideal ourselves and that others do the same.

17 December 2010

Notes from the Slush Pile

I just wanted to say, those of you who are querying stories, or most of you, that I'm the hold up. Not Dave. Not Lesley. Me. Bets.

Sorry. I'm crashing through the first draft of a book and by the time I can sit down to read, well, let's just say I wouldn't show as much lenience as you'd like out of your slush reader. So I've been waiting for things to quiet a bit.

I know, I know, they never get much quieter, but when I'm through drafting this book (working title: THE LOST PRINCE, a space opera, hopefully released next year) at least I won't be crabby when I sit down to read. :) It's also my excuse for not posting here as much as I should. Lesley's really been holding up her end on that. Thanks, Lesley!

That said, I have been reading some slush this evening, and it seems a few writers got the idea we might like a more literary bent to our stories. Ummm, not so much. We're a genre rag. Oh, and I like my main characters to be sentient beings, as well as warranting a mention somewhere in the first 250 words or so.

That's all. More notes from the slush pile and lots of other fun, coming soon!!

16 December 2010

Genre vs. Literary Fiction

Many of you probably already saw this, but there's been some interesting 'debate' about Genre vs. Literary Fiction this week.

In The Guardian Edward Docx asked Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction? (He doesn't think so.) IMHO, one of the big draws of Larsson and Brown is story--they do a very good job sucking you into the plot.

Laura Miller explained Why we love bad writing at Salon.com.

I have another hypothesis: lots of genre writing is good writing. :)

Anyone else have any thoughts?

14 December 2010

Keeping the Faith

As 2010 draws to a close, one might be tempted to review how well one did on those 'New Years Resolutions'... Did you have any resolutions related to writing? How did you do?

I already mentioned Editor Betsy's nice post there is no punchline to life but I recently came across The Day I Quit Writing by Pikes Peak Writer Mandy Houk. Mandy discovers as hard as writing is, not-writing is even more difficult.

Incidentally, Pikes Peak Writers has decided to make membership free. Check it out to improve your craft, learn about the business of writing, connect with other writers, share successes and failures, and grow as a writer.

Do you have any tips on 'Keeping the Faith'? How do you keep writing (or anything else, for that matter!) when your success isn't quite what you'd like?

Keep sending us those stories!

08 December 2010

So-so Suspense

I've been reading some of the Harry Potter books, and I've noticed that Rowling likes to use a suspense technique at the beginning of her stories that I've never been enamored with. I'll call it the "suspended information" technique. (If there's a formal term for this, please comment!). Here's how Rowling uses it in the Goblet of Fire: The various adults hint and comment that "something big" is coming during the next school year, but they refuse to say what it is. Pretty soon, it sounds like everyone knows what this "something big" is except Harry and his friends. Even his minor nemesis Malfroy knows and taunts Harry for his ignorance. Finally, Dumbuldore lets the cat out of the bag: the upcoming Tri-wizard Tournament. At that point, we get a big info dump about what the tournament is, how it works, etc.

Rowling uses a similar technique in Order of the Phoenix, keeping Harry ignorant of what Voldemort has been up to until another big info dump happens.

Like I said, I'm not crazy about this technique. It creates somewhat of a false sense of suspense because, in reality, the protagonist could find out the information sooner rather than later. The author has simply manipulated the plot so that information is withheld. The "suspense" is the timing of the author's reveal of information that should be readily available. On the other hand, I confess that Rowling uses this technique to her advantage because (1) she injects some suspense where otherwise there wouldn't be much until the larger plot develops further; (2) it disguises the info dump. In other words, since the protag so desperately wants to know the revealed information, we as readers don't mind a whole much of narrative and dialogue that is really backstory and/or worldbuilding.

This technique should not be confused with another so-so suspense technique, where the author and the protag collaborate to keep the reader in the dark. A crude example of this would be: "Joe had to sit down as he read the letter from his father. He felt like he was going to be sick. He couldn't couldn't imagine finding out anything more horrible." [end chapter]. The next chapter takes place three days later, with Joe going about his normal life. Joe never bothers to inform the reader what was in the letter. We only find out several chapters later. (And, even worse, we find out it's not so horrible and Joe overreacted.)

This technique feels like a cheat. As readers, we feel we have a right to know what's going on in our protag's head, which includes knowing the information our protag knows. In the above example, the chapter-ending cliffhanger would be okay if, in the next chapter we see Joe, we soon find out what horrible information the letter revealed. But withholding this info from the reader for long periods usually only serves to piss off readers. (I can think of a few examples where this technique has worked, but I can't really explain why).

07 December 2010

Notes from the Slushie Pile

I hope everyone is still enjoying the fabulous November 30 issue of Electric Spec. Behind the scenes we've already started working on the February 2011 issue. We've been going through the slushie, er, slush pile. I would really like to give feedback on stories but we've learned the hard way it doesn't work.

So, here are some hopefully-helpful comments from recent reading:
  • First of all, ElectricSpec publishes genre fiction. This means--besides some aspect of F/SF/H--we want to see some kind of character who has some kind of issue/problem and does some kind of action, leading to some kind of resolution. Please see my earlier post on How to write a short story. Please note this means something has to happen in the story. Please note this means there must be a conclusion to the story. I freely admit this is not the only possible kind of story, but this is what we look for. Hence the tip: Authors, be familiar with your target market.
  • Does your first page pass the "WTF?" test? If I read the first page and cannot tell WTF is going on...it's gonna get a pass. How do you avoid this problem? Give you first page to your spouse/child/friend/complete stranger and ask them if they can tell what's happening. When your spouse smiles and nods and says "Of course, honey." follow up and ask "What?" and listen to their response. Does it agree with what you meant?
  • The converse of WTF can also be a problem. Does your story have too much exposition/explanation? Is every character identified by first and last name, complete job history, and extensive family relationships? Is the beginning of the story a history of your world? Ideally, authors should give the reader only what they need to know. Note a lack of dialogue can be an indication of this.
  • Speaking of characters... How do you describe your characters? It is the mark of a beginning author to describe characters with a laundry list of physical characteristics. "Juanita had flowing black hair." Instead, try to show the reader about the character of the character. :)
    What do the authors do in your favorite published fiction? With the exception of romance novels, physical characteristics of characters are rarely given in fiction these days.
  • Speaking of descriptions... Authors are told to write specific--which is good advice. But choose your specific details carefully; focus what's important. Are the buttons on the jacket really what you want to focus on? Authors should also be aware that taking time to describe something draws attention to it. If I describe the ray-gun on page one...
  • Incorrect grammar and spelling is not good. I suspect a lot of what we see is due to certain features of certain software. People mix up the/then/they/there, etc. Autocorrect is not always your friend.

We do appreciate you sending us your stories. Thank you!

Keep 'em coming!