Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Editing

     For the last month or two I've been working on editing my first novel, which I finished in November of 2017, last year. Last week, I got though my first red pen edit of the book. This is where I printed out a copy of the book and read through it with a red pen in hand. If I saw any errors with grammar, spelling or syntax I would mark and correct it with a red pen.
 
   The interesting thing that I found happening as I edited my book is that I was adding in bits of prose to the book. I added in sentences and, in some cases, paragraphs of writing to the book. I still have a ways to go before it will be ready to send off to the publishers, but I've completed an important step in the process of getting a book ready to be published.

     So how does one approach editing a book? Is there a particular method that should be used? Or a method that is better than most?

     As with most things in writing, I've found that there are a thousand ways to get something done. Some writers I've heard of write several drafts, each new draft correcting some kind of mistake. The first might be plot holes, the second might focus on a consistent voice, and so on. Each draft serves a purpose.

     The method I've used when editing my book is more condensed. As I read through it, I've simply marked things that stick out to me - misspellings, missing periods, poorly chosen words, etc. I was fortunate, since I had asked a friend to look at my book, and she caught many of this kind of mistake for me, so that I did not have to spend the time finding them myself, I simply made a mark my copy of the manuscript where she found the mistakes.

     As I went, my focus would change, depending on what the scene needed. If it needed re-writing I found myself crossing out words and writing in the margins. (I printed out my manuscript double-spaced on both sides of the page to save paper.) Once in a while, if there was some sentence that didn't feel right, whether because it was inconsistent with the voice of the rest of the book or because it didn't fit the mood or the theme of the paragraph, I put a few little marks around the sentence so that I could take a closer look later, either to rewrite the sentence or to edit it.

     One of the reasons I've taken such a close look at my book is that, from what I understand, putting your book in good shape will make a potential publisher much more likely to take you up on your book proposal or excerpt, whichever you send to them. Even if your book proposal or excerpt gets their attention, they will ask to see the entire manuscript, at which point your book will have to stand on its own. Thus, the better shape the book is in when they get it, the better chance you have of becoming a published author.

     "Well," you might say "that's all nice, but there are hired Editors for that kind of work. I'm not a professional editor!"

     That is true. But the job of a Editor is to prepare a book for the public. The job of any writer looking to get published is to prepare their work for the publisher. And that means getting their book into the best shape it can be, the best version of itself. I know already that there are scenes that I need to add to my book because there are subplots that need to be finished.

     Now that I've taken a red pen to my manuscript, I'll have to type up the differences into my copy on my computer so that I have a digital version of my edited manuscript.

     Again, editing is not just for the editors. As soon as you say to yourself that the word "encapsulate" is not what you really meant, your inner editor has begun to kick in.

     So if you've got a dusty manuscript that you don't know quite what to do with, pull it out and take a look at it. That complete, but dusty or rusty manuscript could shine with a little work. A little editing might help polish it up.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Fiction Series

     One of the things on my mind recently has been the idea of writing for a series of books as opposed to a novel with no intended sequel. Writing a series of books instead of a single novel changes the game which we writers are playing. The particular kind of series I'm thinking of are not like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, or other long-running, episodic books. I'm thinking of series usually running between three and seven (or more) books with a tightly-woven story line as opposed to a series with a separate plot for each book.

     When approaching the idea of writing a series of books, we have to think about long-term consequences. The scoundrel that our adventurer pestered in the first novel may come back with a band of cutthroats later in the series. The pair of diamond earrings the professional thief took in the first story may be a precious heirloom that the noblemen will stop at nothing to get back. The story arc of the characters will be longer as their relationships develop and become deeper as they are thrust further into each other's lives.

     So far, the novels I've written, am writing or am planning are all single novels, but it occurs to me that I may eventually find myself writing a series. The questions that naturally come from that assessment begin to approach. What does that involve? What kind of planning would I have to do before starting a series like that? Do I have to have the entire cast of characters figured out already or do I just have to have a few substantial ones, the hero, antagonist, love interest, and a friend? (I read about that list of relationships somewhere recently.) Do I focus on the book that I'm writing now, or do I plan out the entire series before I start the whole thing?

     When I was fourteen I learned how to juggle. I found some tennis balls and with much throwing, some catching, and much more dropping, I eventually got a feel for how to keep the balls in the air. It wasn't like in the cartoons, where they all follow each other in a circular patter (what jugglers call a 'shower' pattern, but a figure-eight 'cascade' pattern. When I learned to juggle, I learned that it's a game of multi-tasking. You've got to focus on the ball in your hand, catching in and throwing it back into the pattern. But you also have to be aware that you have two other balls in the air, and you've got to know where they are so you can know when they're going to land. When you're juggling, you can't follow one ball with your eyes all the time, otherwise you'll drop the other two.

     So what does juggling have to do with writing? Simple. It's about principle - multi-tasking. The ball in your hand is your current project. While the ball is in your hand you focus on that one and work on getting that draft finished or revised or whipped into shape to send to your beta readers or to the publisher that you hope will take the hook.

     At the same time you stay aware of the idea that you still have 2 or more books that you may be writing, and a long-term story to deal with. From what I've heard of some publishers, some will sign an author with a written book and an outline or summary of the series. If you are an author who is looking into getting published or writing a series, do some research, see what's out there; what publishers put out novel series, in what genres? What authors do they sign? Do they take unsolicited manuscripts? (Books publishers haven't asked for. Some publishers will the manuscript back without opening it, so be sure you know what the publishers are looking for and if they take unsolicited manuscripts, or if your manuscript is solicited.)

     The other thing I have read about series is that publishers are eager to pick up a series of books rather than a single novel. This is for a number of reasons. First, a series of books with have natural momentum. When the second book is published, it will be advertised as the second book, drawing attention to the first book. People who know about and like the first book and hear about the second will keep their eyes open for it. This also means that the publisher is, essentially getting a two (or three or four...) -for-the-price-of-one. If the publisher has one author contracted to write multiple novels, they have to work less to find another new author or novel.
    
     After considering a few of the different things involved when writing a series of novels, what is the conclusion that we come to as authors? We know that every novel we write has to be self-contained and have a proper story arc- Beginning, Middle and End. Acts I, II, and III. We know that a story-line and characters will have to be consistent throughout the series. We'll have to keep the long-term goals and consequences in mind.

     My conclusion is that writing a fiction series would be very rewarding. To see a story come together on a large scale as characters' relationships deepen, sever, heal - these will drive your story forward and, if used properly, and send your series soaring forward into the unknown.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Setting


In writing fiction, setting is a tool which I think can be easily undervalued. Setting is any means whereby the author gives indication about the space in which the events in the novel take place, whether this is a single room, across the globe, or in alien galaxies.
          
  As I’ve studied writing over the years, I’ve found that authors have a lot of advice about setting the scene. For example:

·         Don’t interrupt the story to tell the audience where they are
·         Find creative ways to set the scene – straightforward telling gets old after a while
·         Don’t start a novel talking about the weather

           Now as long as you have authors, novels and publishers, you’re going to have writers who break the rules. There will be writers who interrupt themselves to give you a tour. This is a bad idea, since you want the reader turning the pages as they follow your story – not trying to pick up the lost thread when you find it again.

Sometimes describing the scene as it is will be the most efficient way of getting information to the reader. But this is probably not going to be very interesting. If you can show them what it is as your protagonist or antagonist goes about their work – in short, multitask – you can give them the essence of the setting and keep them interested in the story at hand.

Talking about the weather is cliché, and I don’t recommend it unless it is important to the story. If, for instance, that twister Jeb and Earl are talking about is the same twister that Dorothy was sucked up into last week when she claimed to have seen munchkins, and men made of straw and metal – then yes, I’d say this would be a good place to talk about the weather. If, however, you take a good 500 words to tell us that the sun was shining, pare it down and keep the plot moving forward. Remember, conflict drives the plot forward.

One question buzzing around your head may be whether setting the scene is necessary. In answer, I’d like you to take a look at the passage below.

“Tara glanced over her shoulder down the dirt path. There was nothing there.  Turning her attention forward, she strode onward. Tara knew that she had to find some shelter before the night was out. The woods could be dangerous at night.”

            Not necessarily very exciting. We have a woman wandering through the woods alone at night. This passage is simple reporting, the author is letting us know what happened. But the intention is that the scene is supposed to be tense, if not foreboding or frightening. Let’s see if some details can’t give some life to this piece of prose.

“Tara glanced over her shoulder down the dirt path. The moon shone from the heavens, dousing the earth in a weird, otherworldly light. There was nothing there. Turning her attention forward, she strode onward, feeing the gravel bite into the bottom of her soft-soled sneakers. She couldn’t see far into the trees on either side of the path, and they pressed in towards her, stifling her breath. A piercing howl sounded and she stifled a scream. The echo sounded all around her, refusing to settle in one spot. She didn’t know what a wolf sounded like, but this sounded otherworldly. Tara knew that she had to find some shelter before the night was out. The woods could be dangerous at night.”

            Hopefully this second example proves my point. While the first paragraph reported what happened, this second paragraph drew the reader in. What any author is striving for, when they write, is to get the reader involved with their book. How do we do that? We aren’t reporters or we would be looking to write for local columns. Writing fiction is something different. The key to engaging readers is that whether they like the protagonist (Hero) or not, they must feel some kind of sympathy for him.
           
 Giving the reader tangible details is always a great way to draw them in, if used in moderation. In the first paragraph, the woman looks over her shoulder. But if we don’t know what she sees, the usefulness of this information is limited. We might think she’s a little nervous, that’s all. But in paragraph 2, we start seeing talk about “Weird, other-worldly light”. Even though they can’t see anything dangerous yet, the reader’s internal radar begins to ping with danger signs. Something isn’t right. What’s worse, the reader doesn’t know what isn’t right yet, leaving him in suspense.
           
 The other important thing setting does for a novel is that it gives the reader emotional context for the story. To be clear, the setting is more than the physical surroundings. It’s the description of the physical surroundings as well. I could mention that the protagonist is standing in an empty room and move on with the story. But that isn’t specific enough for the reader, unless I want them to be unsure about what to feel.

If I mention light filtering in through old glazed windows and thick dust on the floor, I could give the reader a sense of forsakenness that the room might have. If, however, the windows are boarded over, large holes in the floor, and one door which is now locked by an unseen enemy, you may well guess that this is supposed to be a place where the characters are going to feel terrorized.
           
 It’s important enough that I’ll say it again: specific, tangible details will draw the readers into the story, if they are used in moderation. Drawing attention to specific elements will provoke reactions by the characters and the reader.

Conflict drives a story forward. Characters are the agents whereby the plot is enacted. But without a setting on which to act out this story, the characters are standing on a blank canvas, acting out their scene in pantomime – though they speak and move their actions may not have much depth without a space to perform in.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Classics

One of the ideas I've held onto for a while is the idea that to become a great writer I should be reading great literature, the Classics. And this isn't untrue. Reading well-written books will certainly benefit me, giving me inspiration for how to write my own stuff as well as letting me pick up little gems and stylistic traits that writers of the have.

I have recently challenged this convention for myself and made a decision. If a book is known for being great, and is great for the talent of the author, the time it took to put the book together, the skill with which it was written, and the deft hand by which it was edited, I have no reason to disagree. But because a book is great in the eyes of those who know and study literature, does this mean I should necessarily read and study this book because it is great?

With these thoughts in mind, I was at a bookstore about a month ago, and I saw a copy of a classic, well-loved by many and well-known by more - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Now I've seen film adaptions of this before, and I enjoy the story and the characters. The fiery clash of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is entertaining.

As I dove into this book, however, I realized more fully that Pride and Prejudice is a historical novel. I have a bad track record with historical novels. I read bits of the book on and off for about a week, a week and a half.

And with reading history in general.

So, after a visit to my library, I picked up a copy of the first book of the Michael Vey Series by Richard Paul Evans. I consumed the book in less than 48 hours. Just today I finished reading it a second time.

So what makes the difference? Is it 'wrong' that I read a YA sci-fi novel and not a Great Work of
Literature?

No.

Books of fiction are written for our enjoyment and our entertainment. I've been studying writing for a while now, and as I've read articles and book about writing, there are lots of people who like to give lists of the most important rules for writers. Many of these arguments approach writing from different directions.
"Stick to the three act form."
"Don't use the passive voice."
"Show, don't tell."

But beyond these, there is something even more basic that must be met. A book could be well-written, but if it breaks this rule it will have failed in its basic purpose. I've boiled this idea down to four words.

Don't Bore The Reader.

As I said, people come to books to be entertained, to escape from their world that they're living in. The primary purpose of books is to provide an escape. A synonym of 'Entertain' that we use sometimes is the word 'Amuse', as is "Go amuse yourself." The word has two parts to it - "A-" which is a prefix to suggest the opposite or contradiction of something, and "-muse", which means "to think." If we put the two together, 'Amuse' might mean, in a sense, to stop thinking.

And that's exactly what we look to do sometimes. We're tired of decision-making and problem-solving. We want to see how someone else - the underdog that we're rooting for- solves the next problem that is set against them as they try to accomplish things that we dream about.

This is why, I'm sure, I struggled to get through "Pride and Prejudice" and soared through "Michael Vey". When we read a book we look to escape, but it's easier if it's escaping to something we know. I don't connect nearly enough with 19th century British culture to find the plights of Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy as engaging as Michael Vey.

So while you're consuming media, whether the latest novel, blog post, youtube videos, or entertainment in other forms, don't get caught up in the game of the "Next Greatest...". After all, "Classic" isn't a title that will stick if quickly bestowed on something. It's earned with the test of time. So let's leave that naming process to the literary scholars.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Archetypes

If I say 'Archetypes' I'm sure you know that I'm not talking about architecture. An archetype is something that is used to characterize, well, characters. Archetypes are typical examples of things, in this case characters. They help us to understand how characters function in their world, and how they relate to each other. They are a kind of quick reference guide.

Character archetypes go almost as far back as storytelling - the damsel in distress, "all brawn and no brains", the sneaky, conniving one - these and others make up a roster of characters found in all kinds of stories. Despite negative connotations, some put with these 'stereotypes' and 'label'. But the first step in understanding anything is knowing what it is, so names are the game.

These archetypes appear in an old kind of Italian theater, Commedia dell'arte, translated "Comedy of the profession". Commedia is an old kind of improvised theater from the 16th-18th centuries. Besides the use of stock characters, masks were used to differentiate characters from each other. Each character had his or her own characteristics, such as a large brow, a long nose, or other distinct traits that each possessed.

For example, one of the characters is Pantalone, a miserly, self-serving merchant whose love of money is his motivation. Others are the Zanni (from whose name we get our word "zany"); Arlecchino is one of these, the servant with an enormous appetite. These are a few of the charactes that make up the cast of these Commedia productions.

While the material from show to show may change, the characters will be consistent in their behavior. Arlecchino will always choose food first, to feed his insatiable appetite, as Pantalone chooses money.
But how do these archetypes apply to writing? Can they be used to any benefit for writers? Archetypes can be a great place to start for building a story from the ground up. as the story develops ad the characters become entrenched in the plot, they will certainly deviate from the typical examples of their archetype. Every character is different and each one will be shaped by their circumstances.

A good example is the rich philathropist, perhaps. While two of a kind may be similar, their circumstances may change them drastically. Remember, it's only when something goes wrong that the story begins. Readers don't read about a walk in the park. Let's take, for example, Tony Stark from the Marvel films. From the first time we're introduced to him, we don't see much of his past life. Again, the story hasn't started yet. But whatever relative bliss he was living in is interrupted when he is confronted with the violence that his company's weapons are used for. As his story progresses, it becomes clear that he is haunted by this knowledge and he sets out to seek peace, fueled by regret.

This could be a very different story-line than many others considering the character's backstory and position in society. Tony Stark could have about anything he wanted out of life, but his experiences drive him to make choices that threaten his life and put him in situations facing over-powered villains looking to abuse or misuse the kind of technology that he is using to try to promote peace.

And now, in two paragraphs, we've gone far from the rich philanthropist whittling away his days with parties and charities. Archetypes are useful for understanding character. They can give us a good grounding as either readers or writers to understand stories. But as far as being used to write with, they can only go so far. So the writer must work to flesh them out as they enact the story he sets forth.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

How we write

     I've been doing some work recently, and picked up a few books on writing. Almost anyone who has set out to write a novel is familiar with the argument - to outline, or not to outline? The slang I've heard for this is "Plotters and Pantsers".
   
     On one side you have the 'Plotters' (those who set out to outline the entire novel before they begin) on the other, the 'Pantsers' (those who start with only a vague idea of where they want the novel to go.) The Plotters would say "I couldn't 'pants' it! How could I write a book if I don't know what's going to happen?" The Pantsters retort with "I don't wanna outline my book! That just ties me down."

     In almost any discussion or book about how to write a book, with plotters or pantsers, I've heard the same arguments -

"A novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end.",
"A book is written with three acts."
"A book has an introduction, rising action, a climax, and a denoument."

- and so on and so forth. While all of these are true, I'm here to disagree.

    This is not how to write a book.

     Now before all of you writing students and literature buffs get yourselves upset, keep reading. As I said, these previous statements are true. But they are NOT how to write a book.

     These arguments are how you Analyze a book. Let me explain.

     When someone talks about the structure of a book, they're talking about a book that has already been written. When a book is finished, if it follows some of the basic structures of storytelling, it will naturally have a setup, a development, and a finale.
    
     But writing a novel is a lot messier than that. At least for some people.
    
     Some writers (like myself) have little to no idea what's going to happen in their book, except for a few key plot points. But they know that things will have to be set up, that things will have to get harder for the protagonist, and that they will have to wrap up the book in a satisfactory fashion. When starting a story no one says "Hm, what kind of structures of classical struggles in literature can I use as a basis for the next scene in my novel?"
    
     At least not many of us.
    
     ... at least not me.
    
     What happens is a writer says something like "OK, my hero is trapped at the bottom of an old well that's filling up with dirt, and he can't escape. His girl's gone, so he's distracted, but he has to find a way to stop the mad scientist from throwing the country into a panic with a mutated virus." (Cooties are a thing, apparently.) "How do I get him out of this mess?"
    
     When a writer follows the natural progression of their story, they're not thinking about the structures of successful novels, they're working to tell a good story.

     So if you're trying to figure out how to tell a story, studying books on writing can be helpful. Learning about the structures of fiction, how it's put together and how successful fiction works, is great. But don't let the analysis of fiction become a recipe. Let it be something that helps you understand how fiction works so that you can be free to write the way you do.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Beta Readers

Hey Guys,

     I know that my posts here can be a bit sporadic, but I have an exciting update. I know I posted a while ago that I finished the first draft of my first novel. This a huge step forward for me. Most of my experience in writing has been for fun. I wrote for the local youth fair, short stories, or for fun.
     Late last year, as I said, I completed my first book. Now I'm going to be in the process of revising it. I've reached a critical stage, however, and I'm going to need some help. 🙂
     Now I'm looking for beta readers. I've already had some sign up to help me, and I appreciate those who have. If this is something you are interested in, find me on Facebook and comment. You can search with "Jackson Kerr fiction" and it will be a page with the same pictures as on this blog. There you can message me or comment, letting me know that you're interested in being a beta reader.
     If you haven't been a beta reader before, or don't know much about it, being a beta reader involves reading through the book and giving feedback about the story and characters, as opposed to editing. If you have other ideas or thoughts about this, feel free to share.

Thank You!