Thursday, March 31, 2011

How I Met One of My Role Models

Okay, I realize that title is a little vague, so let me explain. Tuesday marked the release of I Don't Want to Kill You, the last book in a fantastic psycological thriller series (with just a hint of paranormal to it) by Dan Wells. He did a signing at a local book store on Tuesday and I was able to arrange my schedule so I got off work in time to make it. It was the first time I'd ever been to a book signing and the first time I'd ever met a published fiction author. Suffice it to say, I was SUPER excited and it was all I could do not to gush and be all fanboy-ish (I never understood why people do that until Tuesday when I almost did the same thing).

Now a little about Dan and why he's one of my role models. Last summer, my friend Shallee McArthur (visit her blog, Life, the Universe, and Writing, it's FANTASTIC!) introduced me to a podcast called WritingExcuses. It's hosted by Brandon Sanderson, the author of several fantasy series (Mistborn, Elantris, Warbreaker, etc.) and author of the newer Wheel of Time books; Howard Taylar, author and artist of the SF webcomic Schlock Mercenary; and Dan. The podcast is geared specifically towards new and aspiring writers and discusses all sorts of topics (the basic categories are generally writing improvement, getting published, and writing as a business) and gives all kinds of good advice (the most profitable one for me, thus far, was the episode about "killing your darlings." I'll blog about that later).

From the beginning, I identified with Dan more than the others because 1) when they started the podcast, Brandon was already a big-name author, 2) Howard wrote a web comic (which I love but can't relate to from a writer's standpoint), and 3) Dan had just found a publisher for his first book, I Am Not a Serial Killer (he's since rounded out the series with two more books and now has another standalone novel on the way and contract for a new series. Go Dan!). Having recently finished my first novel and having no idea how to start finding a publisher, I wanted Dan's advice more than the others' (not that I discounted it, they are both great writers).

Anyways, to summarize: I got to meet a role model and he signed my copies of his books. I didn't go all fanboyish (with some coaching from my wife). And my wife and I got to poke around a really cool book store for an hour or so. Life is good!

So, have any of you ever been able to meet one of your writing role models? Who are they? Why do you admire them? If you've met them, what was your experience like?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

How to Pick the Right Tense for Your Novel

Hi everyone!

Over the last few months, I've noticed more and more people making interesting choices about the tense in which they tell their stories. I've always written in past tense myself and, until recently, I thought everyone else did too. However, I've started finding books (both published and otherwise) written in present tense and it's kind of thrown me for a loop.

It was bugging me so much that I did a little research to see what people say about it. There are tons of articles and blogs on the topic, but these two, one by Marcia Meier and the other at The Elegant Variation, explained to me the best.

To be honest, it bugs me when I pick up a book, only to find it's written in present tense. I feel like I'm missing out on something; it's like the past doesn't exist and there's no back story. I also get bogged down in the narrative. For some reason reading that Character X does A, then B, then C makes me feel much more impatient than reading that Character X did A, B, and C. I think present tense actually slows down the story, but that just makes me want to skip ahead to where the action is.

Now to be honest, I can understand why a writer might consider using first person. The in-the-moment feel and the intentional slowing of the narrative can build suspense and tension in the reader. There's also the mystique of being in the moment, of experiencing the story just as it's unfolding. Even so, I can't help but think that present tense just isn't worth the hassle when you can get the same effect for much less trouble if you write in past tense.

So, what's your opinion of present tense voice? Am I right? Am I dead wrong and deserve to be lynched? What do you think?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Choose the Right Point of View

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I've seen a lot of first person PoV these days. I agree that it works best for some stories, but I can't help wondering if people are over using it. I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like writers tend to go straight to first person because they think it's the easiest or the simplest PoV to write. There are some good arguments for it:
  1. Thoughts: It's really easy to show your MC's thoughts (though you have to be careful you don't fall into info-dumping).
  2. Twists & Surprises: It's (arguably) easier to spring plot twists and surprises on your MC because you only have to give the reader one side of events. Just make sure there are enough clues to justify the reveal, otherwise you're just toying with your readers and they won't appreciate it.
  3. Character development: It's easier to get readers to connect with the MC because they're getting every thought and emotion as the character experiences it.
All that being said, I've never been able to write first person myself. I find it too restricting for what I want to do. I prefer a third person limited point of view; it allows me to get into one characters head but doesn't necessarily limit me to what that character sees and hears throughout the whole story. I like to give glimpses of what's going on elsewhere in the story so my readers can get more of a sense of convergence. I think this creates more tension and suspense  in the story.

Anyway, what do you all think? What's your favorite point of view?

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    How to Sell Books in the Age of Social Media

    This morning I read this post on Nathan Bransford's blog (which I love) about how social media can help you sell your book! The funny thing is that just yesterday, I listened to an episode of WritingExcuses that talked about epublishing...and made almost the same point! Here's the scoop:

    With the rise of ebooks, it's becoming a lot easier to publish your books (whether that's a good thing or not depends on your point of view). However, it's also becoming harder to market your work through the traditional methods. However, the guys at WritingExcuses surmise that the way to market your work is through social media—it's all about making contacts and getting to know people.

    Nathan Bransford says that it's really about socializing online and not marketing per se. The more you interact with people, the more the get to know you, develop a rapport, and (eventually) want to read your work.

    It would take way too long to rehash everything these guys said, so I'm not going to. However, I do encourage all of you to read what they've written about this.

    I'm really glad I started this blog; like Nathan said, it's a lot of fun! And I hope it will help me sell my books when the time comes, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. For now I'm just enjoying getting to talk to people who also like to write.

    What do you guys think?

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    The Mind-Bending Universe of Short Stories

    I came across this post on one of the many writing blogs I follow and I just had to say something.

    I really admire writers who can do short stories, or at least those that do them well. I certainly can't. I've tried writing short stories fairly regularly (usually for about five days every 4-6 years), and I just can't do it! I always have too many thoughts and ideas to fit into anything less than about 80,000 words. It takes a lot of skill to create good characters and an engaging plot in so few words.

    On the other hand, I often find myself turned off to short stories because they leave me wanting more. I have an appetite for round characters that not only have a history but that I can see growing (and not in the blink of an eye). I like multifaceted plots that I can really invest myself in; I find the plots of short stories are either rushed or trivial compared to long-form literature.

    EXAMPLE: One of my favorite books of all time is Sabriel, first book in the Abhorsen Chronicles, by Garth Nix. So far there are three books in the series, and there are rumors of a fourth in the works. However, Nix has also written a short story based in the same world (the story is called Across the Wall); while I enjoyed reading Across the Wall, I felt like it ended just as things were staring to get going. There was all the potential of a full novel and I was disappointed that I didn't get to see it develop.

    So, what do you all think of short stories? Like them more or less than long-form? Why?

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    How to Get the Creative Juices Flowing

    Hi everyone! I just started a new job yesterday and I've been super busy over the last few days. When I checked Google reader this morning I had 28 (yikes!) unread blog posts to catch up on! So that's what I've been doing all day whenever I need a 5-minute mental break from the brain-scrambling effort of learning a completely new piece of software.

    That's enough about me; now on to the exciting stuff. I know a lot of people who are aspiring writers (I think we tend to gravitate toward each other naturally), most of whom aren't anywhere near finishing a book. I get asked a lot how I managed to write an entire book, how I come up with ideas, etc. and I'm not even published yet. The nice thing is it always gets me thinking about my writing process and I invariably give them one of three responses:
    1. know your characters
    2. know your story
    3. listen to music
    I've talked a little bit about characters already (incidentally, read David Powers King's recent post on evoking emotion; it's really good), and I'll talk about knowing your story when I have more time to dedicate to blogging. What I want to talk about right now is music.

    I find that every time I start outlining and developing a new story idea, I subconsciously start putting together soundtracks for it as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not planning out the future movie based on my idea will sound. What I find myself doing, as I think about what's happening at certain points in the story and in certain scenes, is identifying songs that evoke the character's state of mind/emotion. I generally end up with a fairly eclectic selection of pieces (everything from rock to classical).

    The most amazing thing is that as I begin to actually writing the story, listening to my "soundtrack" actually helps me get into the story more. And that's when writing really starts to be fun!

    So, what do you do to help get your creative juices flowing?

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    How to Multitask in Your Writing

    Hi everyone! Today I thought I'd talk a little bit about something that is a major challenge for me: multitasking.

    The problem withe having such an overactive imagination is that I have trouble focusing on just one idea. I come up with a lot of exciting ideas for stories; but when I decide I'm going to sit down, focus, and actually write one of them, I find myself distracted by four or five new ideas! It got to the point that I was almost despairing of ever finishing another book (or finishing my revisions of my first).

    So far I've found two things that help:

    1. Advice: I wrote a quick email to one of my favorite podcasts (WritingExcuses, with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells). I was surprised and delighted to get a personal email from Dan in return (they're all busy and I kind of expected an assistant or manager or somebody like that to respond). This is what Dan said: "Keep a notebook handy, and whenever you have a new idea write it down, close the notebook, and get back to work on your main project. When you're done and ready for something new, open up the notebook and go crazy. This is HARD, I know, but as Spock says in Civilization IV, 'If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.'"
      This really is hard, but it also helps. I really appreciate Dan's advice.
    2. Accountability and Deadlines: I've had several friends (all either fellow writers or sci-fi enthusiasts) read my book and give me feedback. Every time, I ask if they're willing to reread once I've finished my revisions. They all graciously agreed. Now I have someone to hold me accountable for my progress! I've never given them a hard deadline for when I'll have my revisions finished, but I think I'm going to start because I've recently learned I work better on a deadline.
    So now it's your turn. Do you also struggle to focus on just one idea? What do you do to help yourself stay on track? I'd love to hear from you all!

    Friday, March 4, 2011

    How to make readers care about your characters

    Hi everyone! Over the last few weeks I've been working my way through the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I absolutely loved it! And, as so many writers do, I started thinking 'I wish I could write like that!' And then I had to kick myself and the internal conversation in my head took a turn in this direction (oddly taking on a bit of my dad's voice): 'You idiot! (that's all my, not my dad) You can write like that! Just figure out what made you love it so much and work it into your own writing!'

    So, over the last few days, I've been doing a lot of thinking (and blog searching). I've finally figured out why I love Avatar so much: I genuinely sympathized with the characters. After a little more reflection, I realized that the scenes I was most invested in and remembered the most (thank you David Powers King for putting me on the right track here) are the ones where characters show genuine emotion. When the characters showed strong emotion for a good reason, I was right there with them.

    Now, I need to clarify the difference between emotion and sentimentality. Emotion is a natural human feeling or reaction to circumstance. It's something that everyone experiences and deals with in some way (even those who profess to be unemotional; they're just dealing with the emotions by shoving them aside and ignoring them). Sentimentality, on the other hand, is affected by the author; it's forced, false and often excessive. An old professor of mine put it this way: emotion arises naturally from circumstances that are critical to the story and help show or mold a character's personality; sentimentality is there for no other reason than to make the reader feel a certain way (i.e. it doesn't advance the story or develop the character.

    Here's my take on writing real emotion (or a precis of it):

    1. Genuine emotion arises when you put a nice guy through the ringer. Guilt, broken hearts, conflicting desires and the like might sound formulaic, but they are some of the most common sources of strong emotion in real life.
    2. An emotional response MUST be consistent with the character. If a character reacts in an uncharacteristic way, readers will notice and they will not approve.
      1. Caveat: a character may struggle with an emotional reaction that conflicts with his/her morals. For example, a person who is normally compassionate and forgiving may struggle with a desire for revenge. This sets up an excruciating conflict for the character that most people can relate to.
    3. Emotional situations are amplified when the character has something to lose (or possibly gain). Make the decision/reaction a critical one.
    Now the big question: how do you create real emotion in your stories? What do you find works the best? If you need some help, you might visit writewithhonor or plottopunctuation. These two blogs have really helped me understand emotion in literature.

    Urban Fantasy

    Hi everyone! Before I get on to today's real post, I wanted to ask a favor. I haven't read much urban fantasy and would like to read more, but there's a catch. I tend to judge new genres (or sub-genre in this case) by the cover, so to speak. Unfortunately I've only been able to find one series that I felt I could stomach (the Dresden books by Jim Butcher) because everything else looks like some horrible cross between Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (i.e. paranormal romance thinly disguised by a vernier of action or mystery). I found a wonderful blog post while I was trying to find some worthwhile titles (seriously, it describes my perception of 98% of urban fantasy that I know of).

    So, my request is this: will someone out there please recommend a few urban fantasy books sans paranormal romance? I'd really appreciate it!

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    Projects Page

    Hi everyone! I've decided to add another feature to my blog. I've been noticing a common element on a lot of my colleagues' blogs: the projects page (or "books" or "writing" or something else). Whatever they call it, lots of other authors have a page just to showcase their current projects and ideas. I've decided I'm going to do the same; it might provide some good feedback. You'll notice the page is already posted, but there's nothing on it yet. There are a few little doodads I want to include and I have to figure out how to incorporate them. I'll get something up soon though.

    Now, on to more useful things! I really liked Nathan Bransford's post about sharing ideas. It's really short and mostly for the sake of generating discussion, but it got me thinking about my own writing process. I actually realized something about myself that I hadn't ever noticed before: I think bouncing ideas off a colleague is really good. (I have a good friend who helps me flesh out and develop ideas by asking me all sorts of questions and trying to punch wholes in my explanations; it's rather like defending my dissertation once or twice a month!) However, I've developed a rule for myself over the past few years: only discuss my ideas with someone who understands the genre I'm writing in. I've discovered that others tend to give me one of two reactions: the stony-faced, lifeless stare or the crooked eyebrow and scathing denunciation. Either way, I die a little every time I get those reactions (which is why I hope my family will understand if I never talk to them about my writing).

    I also think you should all visit Kate Coursay's blog. Her recent post on first pages was really fun. In fact, I liked her first page so much I had to go to her projects page and read a little more about her book. First pages really are one of the most important parts of your book. For example, the way my wife picks a book is to select five or six from her endless list based on their blurbs and reviews. Then, once she's selected her short list, she reads the first few pages to see if each interests her and if she can stomach the author's writing style. So those first couple of pages are pretty darn important!

    On a side note: from what little I've seen, Kate looks like an up and coming star. Her first book is currently being edited by Scholastic Press and it sounds really good! Definitely keep your eye on her!