Category Archives: Writing Advice

P is for Prologue

I used to be completely, vehemently anti-prologue.

(If only I was so utterly anti-adverb.)

Really? Two lines in and I’m already digressing?

Yeah, I was really down on prologues, because so many of them were one of two things:

  1. An introduction that could well have been chapter one. I mean, start the story where you’re going to start the story, right?
  2. An egregious info dump that leaves no opportunity for subtext to develop over time.

It was that second one that was such a problem for me as both a reader and a writer.

I wrote any number of prologues that tried to make my main character, Giovanni, a more flawed character. I wrote a number of flash fiction stories that were supposed to be part of his backstory, part of who he was so the reader would be more sympathetic to him in the course of the novel.

They didn’t work.

Because I was trying to hook my readers, I made the stories particularly egregious and shocking. Something I’ve learned in this writing odyssey is that life is tragic enough, and I didn’t need to go over the top to make Giovanni feel life’s pain. His story was sad enough; I didn’t need a horrifying prologue to emphasize that. It’ll come through as the story unfolds.

I went to the other extreme. Prologue bad. Prologue info dump. Prologue evil.

Then one day Dan Wells cleared it all up for me. He calls it the Ice Monster Prologue.

There is a prologue in the Game of Thrones series that features magic and adventure and ice monsters called Others.

Except all that comes later in the story. Like most good stories, the beginning of things isn’t terribly exciting. It’s the regular old world of one of the main characters.

In Shadow of the Portico, it’s Giovanni being yelled at by his older sisters for being a bonehead.

But The Journeymen is about a group of superhuman time travelers. We are well into the book before Giovanni discovers that he is one of them. It made a lot of sense to me to start the story–indeed, the series–by getting a little taste of what it’s like to travel back in time 440 years.

Armed with this new paradigm, I went in and wrote my prologue. You can read it here.

Always looking for the larger lesson, I realize that even when you think you know something, whether it’s about writing or anything else, you are never above learning something new.

Prologue good.

By the way, if you’re interested in Dan Wells’s story structure, I put a link to his videos on my Writing Resources page.

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G is for Genre

I worry about genre.

I suppose I enjoy categorizing things. I organize my Magic the Gathering cards and re-shelve library books for fun. I like when things have a place, a definition, clarity.

My books don’t have that, really, and it makes me twitchy.

I write time travel stories. They are set in contemporary time, until they aren’t. They have paranormal humans with special abilities, but I had best not call it paranormal, because vampires. I had best not call it Christian, because they aren’t always clean. Romance? Ugh, I screwed that up, too.

So, late last year when I learned about elemental genres from the writing podcast Writing Excuses, I was a bit weary. Oh no, more categorization I can muck up.

Except no, this is something else. Something revolutionary, at least for me.

Elemental genres are writing with large concepts in mind. Building a sense of wonder, creating ideas, adventures, curiosity through mystery, tension through thrillers, humor, drama, issues, relationships, ensembles. These have given me a different paradigm through which I can view the development of my stories.

I appreciate that. A good story is a bit of a mashup, and that’s fun to imagine and write.

I know I’m not doing it justice here, as I hastily write this up. So instead, I’ll go ahead and add it to that Writing Resources page I set up. If you’re a writer, it’s definitely worth a look.

Saturday is my writing day, so I’ll now go back to my genre-fluid time travel story. See you Monday.

 

 

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C is for Craft

Not crafts, like sewing and such, which I also love. I mean craft, like writing craft.

One of my favorite ways to procrastinate when I should be writing is to go on social media and participate in writing groups. I have a few favorites, among then 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook. That’s a group of time-crunched writers who have to fit in writing spurts between loads of laundry. And procrastination.

Anyway, I’ll frequently see questions in that group about what are the best writing resources, especially for new writers. I keep recommending the same bundle of books, web pages, and podcasts, so I thought perhaps I would put them together in one place and refer friends to it.

Hey, so now my blog will be more than just my usual blitherings… it can actually be a useful resource! Such a nice thought.

So, as part of my Life in All the Words theme for this A to Z blogging challenge, I am adding a tab on my website called Writing Resources and amassing my growing collection of resources that have all become my go-to when I have a question about inciting events and how to add depth to my characters.

I’ll be growing this bit by bit as I have time, but my first entry is going to be this book that I just bought, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius.

Story GeniusSo far, I’m finding it to be, well, genius. (Way to live up to the name!) It describes the way the human mind is hard-wired to give and receive stories, why it is that way, and what kinds of stories will humans most deeply respond to. The part I’m reading now debunks the whole idea of plotters versus planners and why the manner in which we construct a book sort of misses the point. I love it. (FWIW, I’m a plantser, but I suppose I’ll get into that more on the craft page as I build it.)

All right, so, if I can figure out how to add another tab on the top of my site — this is not a given — I will soon have an area for all my favorite writing resources. Cheers!

 

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To Indie, or Not to Indie…

To indie or not to indie… that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind… no, wait, I’m not going to do a whole Hamlet metaphor, that would be tiresome.

But this question really is kind of tearing me up.

How do I want to sell my books? Do I want to self-publish using Amazon and be an independent author, or do I want to find an agent and/or a publisher and let them put out my books?

If you’re a writer, I’m willing to bet you have a very strong opinion on one side or the other. But I want to tell everyone my side of the story and let you see it from that angle.

I never believed I had the ability or attention span to write a novel. More to the point, I never believed that cultivating those things and having a go at a novel-length piece would ever pay off. Nobody would ever see it. I knew how hard it was to break into the industry, and while I’m confident that I’m a decent writer, I didn’t have a lot of faith in getting that lucky break.

So, I didn’t write a novel.

And then I discovered Wattpad.

Now this was a few years back. Wattpad was a pretty messy place when I stumbled upon it, but I appreciated the potential. I also appreciated the price. I was poor as dirt and desperate to read stuff on my phone.

So yeah, I waded through some sludge, but I did find some really good stories that were only shy a good editor.

And suddenly, I realized that the gatekeepers in the publishing industry, who made me believe that my contribution to the slush pile wasn’t really worth months or years of my life, didn’t have to keep me from writing. I could write ANYWAY. Despite them.

That’s why I even started Shadow of the Portico. Because I knew I’d have an audience one way or another.

Fast forward to now. I just attended Armadillo Con, a terrific Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention largely geared toward writers. It was GREAT! I learned a lot, confirmed a lot, put out my story ideas and received positive feedback, got a great vibe.

Until I said I was an independent author.

Oh no no no, those traditional publishers and editors said. I should most assuredly query agents and publishers and try to get my work traditionally published. Because once I self-publish, it’s kind of Game Over. And do I want people to actually BUY my work? Do I want to sell more than 100 units? How willing am I do to do all my own marketing work, everything, by myself?

Three years ago I would have shrugged and said I’m just doing this for fun.

But is that still true?

I do take this writing gig very seriously, and I think I have at least a slightly-better-than-lottery-winning chance that someone might notice my books and want to do something with them. I wouldn’t be at all ashamed to query the profession with my stories, and wouldn’t be shattered if they said no thank you.

In that regard, indie publishing is a great safety net.

But wait. Is that all they are? No way. Indie writers are my tribe. They have been the people who have built me up, helped me along, sometimes carried me through. I don’t believe I would have something to query about if it wasn’t for the indie authors who have had my back these last few years.

I honestly feel like I’ve stumbled upon the crucible of my writing career, even before my career is a career.

My brain tells me to query, of course, what do I have to lose. My heart tells me to stick with Plan A and publish on my own.

And I have one more consideration.

Traditional publishing takes a long time. It’s a big boat that doesn’t turn quickly. It takes years to get things going. Now, that’s not really a huge deal. I can write other things while I wait, even indie publish other works outside The Journeymen series.

Except I take four insulin shots a day and I have had eight heart surgeries.

Time may be the one thing I don’t have.

I’m sorry, I don’t want to end this piece on that maudlin note. While I’ve been open about my health issues, it’s not who I am. It’s just the rather colossal elephant in the rather cozy room of my life.

Okay, this isn’t Hamletesque life or death decision making here, I admit it. But it’s something that’s on my mind, and a decision all serious writers face. It’s one of the myriad things that have moved me after a weekend full of writing inspiration. There’s definitely more inspiredness to come, and I promise I’ll do more than exhume Yorick’s skull.

 

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Do More Than Just Write

AKA: Why I’m not done with my novel. Or, my acknowledgement that writing is hard and it’s okay to keep learning.

I started writing Shadow of the Portico during Thanksgiving 2014. I’m still writing that book, though I see light down there somewhere, if I squint…

People write novels in a month, they tell me. Great, I say, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to take my time and learn as much as I could about the craft before I put something out there.

Once again proving that we should be careful what we wish for.

Some years ago, I used to write a lot of flash fiction–short stories of less than 1,000 words that were sort of like vignettes, glimpses, word pictures. I was good at it. I won stuff. It was fun. And in my wildest dreams, I never would have sat down and planned a flash fiction. It was a flash, there and gone, and you catch it or vaporizes into a little cloud and you’ve wasted a Pokeball.

Sorry. Yes. I’m one of those Go people.

Anyway, I wrote that way because I didn’t think I could sit and plan a story. I didn’t credit myself with the attention span.

When I decided to write a novel, I still wasn’t sure I had developed that attention span yet, but I had these two intriguing characters who fall in love. Surely I could do something with that.

And I did! I wrote about 90,000 words–a decent sized novel–about these two characters and about some other characters and some time travel and converging timelines and a murder mystery… and realized the plot was a hot freaking mess. And I still had 40,000 more words to go before I made it into something remotely readable. It was still problematic at best.

Ninety thousand words, pretty good words, but I had no idea where they were headed. Well, I did have an idea. They were headed into the trash heap along with the last of my confidence.

Then I started doing that “learning the craft” thing I talked about. I read KM Weiland, who wrote about the importance of story structure. Then I tried out Randy Ingermason’s Snowflake Method so I could sort out in my mind where my multiple storylines were going. My writing partner, Olivia Folmar Ard, shared her elegantly simple and lifesaving outlining spreadsheet. Then I watched Dan Wells’s Seven Part Story Structure to better understand why my story should progress the way it does. Now I’m learning Ring Composition from KB Hoyle, and I’m excited at the level of sophistication that is possible with my novel series.

Did all this writing advice confuse me? Lord, yes, and I have college degrees in this stuff. Did it slow me down? Glacially. Did I do everything they said? Not remotely. Did I learn anything?…

You guys… I learned everything I now know and the depth of what I could know. And the result: my novel is so much better for it. Or, more modestly, it’s a lot more fun to write with the lights on.

Today, a writing group I am in collectively decided that writers should just write, and not get hung up on structure, advice, writing books, or any of that. Not if it stifles their creativity. Just write.

I get that. Most of my book was written as unconnected scenes, like pearls. My friend Katharine Grubb once made that analogy, and I love it. I write in pearls. Lovely pearls, yes, but for so long they sat there without a string. Not a necklace. Not living up to their potential.

Listen. If you have a pearl in your head, write it. By all means. I still write pearls for my subsequent novels. When that magical scene plays out in my head, I don’t want to lose it. I write it! If it’s that good, we’ll make it fit.

But can I write a whole novel that way? People do, they tell me. But here’s what happened to me when I tried that. I found myself in a painfully long revising and editing process. Much painful. Bad weepy. Pearls cast away without even the benefit of swine enjoying them. A process in which months pass into years and I’m still working how to take my readers from Point A to Point Q without losing them. Or myself.

I’m still there, you guys. It’s hard. Even going back and fixing it, knowing all I know now. It’s very hard to rewrite a novel I thought was done.

I’m glad I didn’t just trust my initial storytelling instincts. They may be pretty good, or they may be awful. Honestly, if I don’t learn the craft, how would I know? Oh, the things I could have published.

I want to send a message to the people in my writing group who say Just Write. I love you guys, but if you had given me that advice a year and a half ago, I would have never been able to make my pearls into a book. My darlings would all be dead. All of them.

If you said Just Write and blow off structuring the plot, I would have trashed it and given up. Just have fun, you say? I was miserable, lost, and convinced that I was a terrible writer and a stupid human because I didn’t really know how to tell a story. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but I knew something was wrong. It hurt. That was so not fun.

If your advice to Just Write was never followed up with But take the time to thoroughly understand structure and know how to tell your story beyond instinct, I’d be spending this summer binge-watching Friends.

Yeah, I know all the things they say about advice. Mine, like everyone else’s, is worth what you pay for it. But if you’re reading this, and you have that manuscript that you know can be better, but you have no idea what’s wrong and you hate it and yourself… maybe, just maybe, you’ve moved past the the Just write it and have fun advice. Click some of those links I put in this post. If they confuse you, find advice that you understand and that speaks to you.

Maybe you’re ready to get cozy with structure. No lie, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s worth it. And once you get it, it liberates your creativity, because maybe you won’t end up like me, sobbing over your manuscript, wondering what you’ve done wrong, or if you should bother going on at all.

There’s a million ways to write, and I don’t want to sound dogmatic. I can only tell you my experience. I hope you’re encouraged (or duly warned) by it. If not, keep seeking. Advice, like writing techniques, is part of a huge smorgasbord. Nobody is forcing you to eat the head cheese or the eel. Take what you like, leave the rest. Just don’t forget to eat, feed, grow. Learn. That’s the fun part.

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