I Had My Characters Do What?!

A bit of fun today with some friendly writerly advice sprinkled on top.

We writers are sometimes caught up in our stories and gloss over the exact details of what we’ve written for our characters’ actions. If we’re lucky, readers skim over those details without stopping to think about the literal meaning of our words. But more likely, they’ll see them and have an unintended reaction. We don’t want that.

Good agents and editors should highlight these potential gaffs and ensure we fix them. But with so many writers going the indie route, the lack of serious quality control can be glaring. Good writers should identify and correct these problems before querying their manuscripts or directly publishing the books.

Thank heaven I caught these no-nos before I ask anyone to beta read the revised Summer at the Crossroads. Continue reading

Writers—What Do Your Characters Say About You?

This post has its roots in character Madeleine O’Brien’s guest post last Saturday. I mentioned in a reply to 4amWriter’s comment that character insights into an author could be an interesting exercise. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea.

For me, this isn’t difficult. My characters insisted on the chance to write posts for the blog. If I was going to write about them, they were determined to write about me and their views on the books. I didn’t argue. I know better. It’s probably obvious from this paragraph that I’m in the school of thought that the characters really exist “out there,” somewhere. If you’re one of my classmates, you might already have a good idea what your characters think of you. Continue reading

Learning From A Book I Didn’t Enjoy

I read novels for entertainment and escape from everyday life. Since I started writing in 2009, I read them differently. Now, I also look for what works—and what doesn’t—for my tastes. And I’ve made a discovery.

I learn more about writing from books I don’t like than from those I enjoy. And the book I just finished reading taught me a lot about my own drafts. I won’t say which one I read, but it was science fiction about time travel. Yes, I was checking out the competition.

Problem 1

Writers are told to begin with action. I was dropped into the action, all right. People hurriedly preparing for assignments, running into colleagues, but never the ones they sought. Changes in plans were everywhere and everyone was complaining. And me? I was floundering. Hey, author—slow down. Who are these people? Why are they time traveling? Can we meet fewer main characters first? It’s the 21st century. Don’t they have cell phones? Shouldn’t someone ask what’s going on with all these changes? Those are just some of my questions from the first two chapters.

What did my test readers say about my initial drafts of Death Out of Time?Who are these time travelers and what are they up to? You’re jumping around so much at the beginning, I can’t get a handle on the main characters. Hmm.

Writers have to provide enough information for readers to connect with the characters and story. Yes, I’ve revised my opening chapters.

Problem 2

I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters. Using my Kindle’s x-ray feature, I learned there were 120 characters or people mentioned. No wonder I couldn’t keep anyone straight. And some characters popped up in the middle of the book with point of view status. But I don’t think I met them before. I didn’t recognize them as “undercover versions” of the previously identified Main Characters. Then they disappeared. I’m still not sure who they were or what their purpose was.

What else did my test readers say? — You’ve got a lot of characters. I had to keep going back to remind myself who they were. Too many have POV status, including some that don’t appear until late in the book.

I had 61 characters originally. So far, 19 have been cut, leaving 42. Fourteen had POV status. We’re down to six. This is far more manageable. Some minor characters are now unnamed, letting the reader know they aren’t important to the larger story. They’re clearly “potted plants” in the room.

Problem 3

Much of this book is set in a particular historic time. And the author goes into excruciating details. Hey, some detail is needed. And I don’t begrudge an author a chance to showcase his research skills. But don’t overdo it. I was skimming sections in no time to find some action. I’m someone who doesn’t mind more details than the average reader. If you lose me, you’ve lost a lot of readers. If the author had cut half of this information, a “sequel” wouldn’t be needed.

So guess what test readers pointed out in my work — You dump a lot of information in some sections. Some dialogue provides information to the reader, but the speakers already know it. They shouldn’t be talking this way. The story slows down when you present big chunks of history or details.

You bet I’m working on this.

Problem 4

Finally, authors are told to put Main Characters through hell, and then send them back for more. This provides tension to keep the reader engaged. How will the Mains pull through? This is good storytelling. However, I wish I’d see more “expert advice” that warns writers — don’t overdo it.

Everything these characters tried to do was derailed. And I mean everything. Yes, Robin, I mean tried. Nothing went as planned. Was the writer making a point that Time will keep you from changing the past? Possibly. But I’d been hit over the head so many times with all these failures that my brain hurt. Cut some of these scenes, too, and two books wouldn’t be needed to tell the tale.

I haven’t overdone the tension in my drafts. In fact, I’ve been told I need to add more. But I refuse to make Job’s life look easy by comparison.

Off My Soapbox

Okay, enough ranting. But this book reinforced the importance of reading to become a better writer. Many writers in the audience already know this, although a refresher doesn’t hurt. And I hope non-writers enjoy a peek into the behind-the-scenes-work that goes into your favorite books. Few good writers spend their days sipping cocktails on a beach with the Muse. Instead, they’re hard at work, writing your new favorite story.

How about you, writers? Has reading a book you like or didn’t like been more helpful?

Readers—what do writers do that make you toss their books aside in boredom or frustration?

A Writer’s Less Than Supportive Subconscious

I was wondering what to post today. Meghan is still recovering from the heatwave and doesn’t feel very poetic. She’ll be back soon. But Sunday night, my subconscious decided to help. Well, I hope it was help. But I can’t rule out taunting. . . .

I thought I’d be dreaming about spiders this weekend thanks to Susaartandfood’s recent post. If you haven’t checked out Susie’s blog yet, you should. She tells great stories and shares fantastic recipes. But no such luck. Honestly, spiders might have been better than the dream I had Sunday night.

In that dream I found myself at one of my undergraduate colleges (there were two—I transferred). I walked past a classroom and saw my old freshman English professor. Of course, he hadn’t aged a day, but I recognized him by the copy of The Little, Brown Reader by his desk. (Yes, strange. Remember, this was a dream.)

I happily walked in and introduced myself as one of his former students. This, after all, was the professor who in the real world told me my writing had a great sense of style. And I was one of only two students to get an A for the course. The dream world students sat there as if this was an ordinary occurrence.

He politely asked what I was doing. Did I tell him I was an archaeologist as I do in real life? No, I told him I was writing two novels. And I started telling him about Summer at the Crossroads. I tried an off-the-cuff elevator pitch.

It was horrible. I kept saying things like, “Oh, I should have mentioned,” or, “I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it works.” I apologized for not having a pitch perfected yet. And my happiness deflated with every word as he shook his head and his interest waned.

He did perk up when I tried to explain Catherine’s idea that vivid dreams and déjà vu, for example, are glimpses of our lives in other universes. But what caught his attention wasn’t those two examples. No. It was “favorite fantasies of an alternate life.” I had to explain I didn’t mean those kinds of fantasies. He was disappointed. (And, guys, I apologize for my subconscious stereotyping your reactions.)

As I lamely finished, he said,” I thought I remembered you, but I was mistaken.”

Mercifully, I woke up.

But you can imagine how I felt Monday morning. If this was my subconscious trying to help with an idea for a blog post, it could have given me something more encouraging.

After all, writers are an insecure lot. Okay, maybe not all. Some have a healthy dose of self-confidences and others could share their overabundance with the rest of us. But most of us question our writing, if not every day, then maybe once a week or a few times a month.

I’m certainly in a questioning state of mind these days. That may be what triggered the dream. I know the Muse gave me two good stories. But even as I work on the revisions, I ask myself—can I turn them into good, well-written books? That’s where my self-doubt comes into play. I know it will pass. At some point I’ll read a section that I like and will think, “This is good.” And my confidence in my writing will return. But that could happen any paragraph now. . . .

Does self-doubt grab you often? How do you subdue it?

What’s Your View On Point Of View?

Point of View? Something else I have to consider? When will I ever finish these books?

Some of my characters are frustrated. Specifically, those from Summer at the Crossroads. They’re tired of waiting for me to finish Death Out of Time, the book I think would find the “biggest” audience for a new writer.

They forced me to look at their manuscript again. They read the beta review comments for the other book, and they’re afraid readers will point out similar problems. Their biggest concern? Point of view (POV). Continue reading

That Search Led You Here?

I thought I’d go with some light, summery fare today. The you-know-what queue is full of “comments” from banana nut muffins and people who want to share scorpions. Who the heck wants to share those? But search terms are another good source of blog fodder. And now that my blog is getting more traffic, I might be rising in the search results. Very slowly, but still, rising. Continue reading

Doing The Story Justice

Some time ago, I realized writers spend more time editing and revising than we do laying out the initial story. That’s no surprise to those of you who have been at this a few years. If you’re just starting out, well, now you know.

Finishing the first draft is an incredible feeling. Wow. I wrote a novel. Woo hoo! Happy dances and high fives all around.

I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble who hasn’t gotten there yet. By all means, celebrate when you do. But now’s when the real work begins.

The REAL work starts now?

That’s right. You’re nowhere near ready to publish. Hey, if you’re Stephen King or another good writer and have somehow stumbled onto this post, one round of rewrites after you get your beta reader comments may be all you need. But most readers, like me, haven’t reached that level yet. We need multiple drafts, multiple reviews, and multiple rewrites.

For me, part of the repeated revision process is the desire to create a well-written book. I don’t want to be embarrassed by critical reviews pointing out all kinds of weaknesses—poorly developed characters, lame plot with multiple holes, passive voice, inconsistent POV, and so on.

But more importantly, I want to do the stories justice. I think the major plot ideas behind both my major WIPs are good ones. The Muse gave me wonderful stories to write about. I know they could be awesome books. In my mind, the main characters are interesting and approachable. I think readers could relate to them. But I have to bring that out in my writing.

Frankly, anyone can have a great idea for a novel. And most people, if they put their minds to it, could write one. But that doesn’t mean the book would be good. Many would-be writers couldn’t handle the work involved in getting the story right. That’s one reason everyone doesn’t write novels.

Can I do it? After several rounds of revisions, will I have a novel that is entertaining and well-written? I refuse to fall into the trap of revising forever and never publishing my books. That’s pointless. But when I decide to publish, will I have done the stories justice? Will I reach the point where I can honestly and accurately answer that question with a yes? I’ll only know the answer when the books are out there and I see if an audience develops. It’s a daunting thought.

How about you, fellow writers? What drives your editing and revision and keeps you sticking with your stories?

Recent Awards

This last week I was graced with three blog awards: Kreativ Blogger, Thanks for Blogging, and Ask Me Anything, by Kate Policani, Wally Tomosky, and KindredSpirit23, respectively. My modest nature is putting up some resistance in accepting these. It doesn’t think every second or third post should be an award acceptance—even though the “Ask Me Anything” award is newly created by KindredSpirit23 and I was one of the first “awardees.” That is an amazing compliment that my mind cannot fully comprehend.

I want to thank the three bloggers who nominated me, and I do graciously accept. But I need some time before I can do another award post. I want to provide some “serious” content for a while. Okay, as serious as I can be. I’m not going to turn the blog into an instructional series on writing or archaeology. But I don’t want my blog getting arrogant, as Sweet Mother would say.

“SMAP”

American Airlines seems to be making a lot of comments these days, be it mail, letters, or scam. Maybe they’ll sue the “smappers” for libel?

And “the mob” may be getting into the “smap” business. “Numbers Wolansky” wanted to comment on my “When the Going Gets Tough” post. Maybe he thought it referred to old-time gangsters?

Nurturing The Dream

Today marks an anniversary for me. Three years ago, I sat down at my computer and began writing a novel. I never planned to do any such thing. But as you can read here, thoughts and events came together. And the Muse conspired with some characters to allow them access to my brain and hands. Until that point, I had never seriously considered writing one novel, let alone two that will have multiple sequels. This isn’t a dream I’ve carried with me since childhood, or even early adulthood. I didn’t start writing novels at 15 or 22 or even 30. But somehow, writing a novel became a dream as I started the physical act of writing one. (That sounds rather circular or mystical. And yet it fits.) Three years ago, writing became fun. I do it all the time in the day job, but the reports have little room for creativity. They have specific formats and information requirements, and they are certainly not meant for entertainment. But novels? I can go wherever my characters want to lead me. Sure we argue at times about the best way to tell the stories, but it’s all good-natured. (And they usually win.) Still, as I continued to write in 2009, the dream took shape. Soon, it wasn’t enough to write a novel (or two) for myself and a few close friends and family. I wanted the books to draw a wider audience. I wanted them to be published. I finished revisions to Summer at the Crossroads in early 2011 and queried a few agents. While I did, I worked on finishing a draft of Death Out of Time. Many of you already know neither book is published yet. Summer wasn’t ready for primetime. I made the same mistake many first-time writers do by querying it too soon. Rejection hurts. We all know that. But what amazed me more than anything was the fact that the dream didn’t die. I kept writing. I didn’t know I had it in me. Somehow, in all these years, I never knew this part of me. I’ve kept it going as I completed a second draft of Death Out of Time and sent it out recently for a beta read. There’s a lot of work ahead before that book is finished. But when it is, I’ll start the query process again. Will I have better luck the second time? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that if I can’t attract an agent’s attention, I’ll e-publish the books. I owe it to my characters to make their stories public—when I’ve done them justice. But until then, the dream needs nurturing. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into being lucky enough to get published and find a reading public for a book. I study writer, agent, and editor advice for writing a good story and querying novels. I learn about  independent publishing and what’s needed to become successful if I go that route. I read books and see things that work (and don’t). I evaluate my own writing to see if I make the same mistakes I find elsewhere (I do). That learning process never ends. And I blog. I recently topped the 100 mark on followers, and my site views just passed 5,000. Some established and popular bloggers might laugh at those numbers; that could be their numbers for a day. But for me, that’s darn good for five months of blogging about me. Most importantly, I’ve found an incredibly supportive network of fellow writers and other wonderful people, and we all encourage each other to keep going. To keep following our dreams, no matter what they are. And I’m thankful to each and every one of you who has taken time to stop by and read some of my posts. So where will the dream be in another three years? Completed by the publication of the first two novels? No, I don’t think that would be the end of the dream. I think it will continue to grow and develop, as long as I keep tending it. Now that it’s been planted, I want to see how it unfolds. How about you? Has a dream surprised you by taking hold of your thoughts? Have you kept at it through the hard times? Did it continue to grow as you reached the original goal?

Good Mystery Recommendations?

On another note, my husband is looking for a good mystery series to dive into. He’s enjoyed writers like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larssen, and Kate Atkinson. Does anyone have any suggestions for him? Thanks for your help!

How I Got Here—Redux

I first started this blog on 31 October 2011—Halloween. I don’t think there’s any hidden significance to that date. I don’t write about horror or ghosts or witches like you might associate with that day. Since then, I’ve been lucky to attract some followers, especially here in 2012. And so I thought I’d revisit a couple of early posts to introduce you to my fiction.

A few of you may have seen the original posts. But since most of us don’t have time to go back and peruse the archives of fellow bloggers, I thought I’d make it easy. So here’s a recap of how I came to write novels.

How Did Get Here? Part 1

So how does an archaeologist come to write fiction? Some of my associates in the other subfields of anthropology might tell you it’s no great leap – they think that’s what archaeologists do all the time. You can imagine how most of us feel about that joke.

Seriously, I never saw it coming. I always got As in English classes, and my teachers and professors said I was a good writer. But once I got to graduate school, all of my writing was academic. And trust me – professional archaeological writing will never appear on a bestseller list. It’s everything good fiction isn’t – wordy, passive, and jargon-filled. Have trouble sleeping? Pick up an archaeological site report. You’ll be out in no time.

Still, over the years I’d get some ideas and think they’d make an interesting book. But ideas are easy – writing a book is hard. Then, in late 2007 or early 2008, I watched a documentary about the Smithsonian Museums, and there was a segment about a naturally formed mummy. It grabbed my attention. Researchers couldn’t match the name on the headstone with local records from the time the guy lived and died. And some of his clothing wasn’t quite right.

Now there was an idea for a book. An archaeologist excavates a burial, and something doesn’t fit. When she examines the artifact more closely, she accidentally reactivates it and the adventure begins. I tried to start it then, but the Muse wouldn’t unlock the door to creative writing. And so the idea kicked around in the back of my head with no way out. But the Muse apparently had plans for 2009….

How Did I Get Here? Part 2

In late 2008, a friend told me she had started working on her novel again. And I told her what I said in my last post. I could come up with ideas, but writing them down was another story, so to speak. I envied her talent and perseverance. At the same time, another idea started taking shape in my head from various threads – string theory, the multiverse, alternate selves. Take a character through a slice of her life in a few different universes.

That idea kept going through me, taking more substantial form in my mind, although I still didn’t sit down at the computer. But on Easter Sunday in 2009 I was talking with my mother. And at one point she said, “You’re a good writer. You should write a book.”

Something clicked in my brain. She’s right, I thought – I should try to write this story. And in that conversation, my mother told me a family story I’d never heard before. It became the germ of the last idea I needed to start the book. (Sorry, I can’t tell you what it was – I don’t want to give away too much!) Two days later, I sat down at my computer and started writing a story I would ultimately call Summer at the Crossroads. This time, the words came. And they didn’t stop. I was writing a novel. Looking back, I think that clicking sound was the Muse unlocking the door to creative writing. And that’s how I got here.

If you’re still with me, you might be asking, “But what about the first idea? What happened to it?” Oh, it was still there. But that’s another post for another week.

If you’re interested in following up on that last bit, you can find the posts here and here.

Spamapalooza and Spring Fever

Wow, I’m really glad WordPress does a good job filtering spam. I was socked the last week by “people” in Poland “commenting” on my various posts. Fortunately, none of them got through as real comments.

But it’s funny to read them and compare them to the post they were supposedly commenting on. How would I think they were anything BUT spam?! Here are some of my favorites.

“A lot of thanks for your own work on this website. My aunt enjoys participating in research and it is easy to understand why. Most of us know all about the compelling method you convey effective tips by means of the web blog and even foster response from some other people on this article then our favorite child is now studying a lot of things. Enjoy the rest of the year. You’re the one doing a dazzling job.” — This was posted on my “character clip” for Kathryn Donnellan of Summer at the Crossroads.

“some genuinely interesting details you have written.” — This was posted on a page that basically says the associated pages are opening scenes to several sections.

“I dugg some of you post as I cerebrated they were extremely helpful extremely helpful”—Cerebrated…. There’s a new one!

On a more topical note—writing—it’s hard to concentrate this week. We’re getting several days of beautiful spring weather. My husband and I took a nice walk in the park last weekend, and I snapped a few photos.

The maple trees are beginning to bud out. Tree pollen is really high right now, and I can feel it.

 

 The daffodils are in full bloom, too. They’re some of my favorite spring flowers.

 

Close up of a flowering tree. These are common in our neighborhood, and they’re really beautiful right now. The cherries in DC aren’t far behind. If temperatures stay warmer than expected, the cherries will peak earlier than usual. If you ever decide to visit Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival, you should get here during the first part of the festivities. More often than not, the trees are peaking earlier in the season.

The second draft of Death Out of Time got wrapped up on Friday. So it’s time I set it aside and let some fresh eyes look at it. I’m working on notes for the sequel and listening for the characters to start giving me more details. But they may have their own spring fever right now. And we’re all groggy from the time change to Daylight Savings Time. It takes me at least a week to adjust to it.

Hopefully those of you who went through the time change are dealing with it more easily than I am. And if it’s not yet spring in your part of the world, it is coming. (Unless, of course, you’re in the southern hemisphere. I know you’re heading into Autumn!)