bookmark_borderStrengths and Weakness of your writing

What are your strengths and weakness as a writer?

You might look at:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Plot

How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10?

How do others see you?

Then, what about:

  • Dialogue
  • Conflict
  • Prose
  • Theme
  • Description

But then there’s also:

  • Variety
  • Flow
  • Balance
  • Structure

And even within the elements there are sub-characteristics, such as for Character:

  • Believablity
  • Interest
  • Consistency
  • Depth

And the same with all the other basics, they can all be broken down to deeper levels.

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I spend a lot of time looking for what I’m missing in my writing: action, description, clarity, flow. I also look in critiques for what others see as weaknesses: consistency, excess commas, murky wording. I’m trying to improve my writing, trying to make it better, stronger.

Like a musician, trying to improve his upper range to even his tone quality through the entire range. Or a pitcher working on his curve ball so that his fastball will be even more effective.

But there’s value in doing the opposite. In determining what you to best and emphasizing it.

  • Writing powerful interactions if you write dialogue well.
  • Building your story around tortured, complex characters if you are good at understanding and presenting them.
  • Offering inspired settings and descriptions of landscapes and peoples if that always reaches your readers.

Playing to your strengths. Like Shaquille O’Neal who never became a decent free throw shooter. Or a trumpet player not worrying about his high notes because his strength is in his improvisation and ingenuity like Miles Davis. In a jazz big band the highest notes are written for the lead trumpet but solos often go to the second or fourth trumpet, where the strongest improviser sits.

So, where do you sit? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

bookmark_borderEffects to Cause

  • Start with an event, a cause. This cause will result in an incident, but don’t decide on the incident yet.
    • the cause may be minor; Joe stops to look in the pet store window.
    • the cause may be major; Joe drives his car through a red light.
  • Determine a cause for that cause.
    • Joe lost his transit pass and has to walk
  • Determine a cause for that cause, perhaps bringing in additional characters

 

  • Consider bland, normal reasons for believably or to heighten realism, or, consider strange, bizarre reasons for comedy, surrealism, generating interest, or, consider themes or parallel tracks or levels or mixing these
  • Consider bringing in additional characters so you can create a new branch of incidents that will still tie into the ultimate incident. Someone close to the original character will make it easier to tie their effect back to the ultimate incident, but, they could also be strangers that fate has thrown together only they didn’t expect it until the incident occurs.

bookmark_borderTo help you edit, reverse your sentence order

Here’s how to make your computer help you find grammar and line editing problems. Awkward phrases, missing words, repeated words in close proximity, and repeated sentence length will be much more obvious and easier to identify to fix.

It requires Word, WordPad and Excel. Plus a bit of computer skills, or, just follow the instructions closely and trust my advice.¬† ūüôā

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In late drafts we need to focus on line editing and on finding oddball errors like extra words or missing words. Reading aloud can help, but when I read aloud I insert words that aren’t there because I know what I meant to say and I know the context and make corrections as I read without noticing. Reading to someone else can help but only if they notice the changes you make, and they may not have your eye for phrase structure or voice or sentence pattern.

Some writers read their prose backward to break the stream and the context. This is very useful for finding line edit issues, but doing so from a regular draft is strenuous, so here is a method to have the computer separate each sentence and to reverse the order for you.

I’ll use square brackets in the instructions to surround specific characters for you to type. Normally I would use quotation marks but that won’t work since we need to replace some quotation marks.

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  1. Copy your entire document and paste into Wordpad (shortcuts: Ctrl + A to select all, Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + V to paste). Or, you can use Word instead of WordPad but you must turn off all AutoCorrect options. Autocorrect will mess with what we’re going to do. I find it easier to copy into Wordpad than to turn all the Word Autocorrect off and then back on.

  2. Replace all [. ] (that’s a period followed by a space) with [.~] (period with a tilde) The “Find and Replace” shortcut is Ctrl + H.

  3. Replace all [? ] (question mark and a space) with [?~]

  4. Replace all [.” ] (period, end quote, and a space) with [.”~] (You may need to copy [.”] from somewhere in your Word document because WordPad doesn’t use Word’s smart quotes.)

  5. Do the same with ! if you used them.

  6. Done in WordPad. We’ve now replaced the space after each sentence with ~ to make it easy to identify. Now, copy all from WordPad and paste into a new Word document.

  7. In Word, replace all [~] with [^p].¬†¬†^p is a special character that tells Word to break for a paragraph. You can also do this in WordPad but it’s more difficult because you have to use the code for special characters to identify the paragraph break.

Now each sentence is its own paragraph. Easier to read backward.

To reverse the order, I use Excel. You could also use tables within Word, I think, but I prefer Excel.

  1. Format one entire column as text (otherwise Excel will autoformat the text in Excel-ese). To do so, select the column and right click, select “Format Cells”, in the “Number” tab choose “Text”. Or, select the column, from the menu choose “Home”, then “Cells”, “Format”, “Format Cells”, “Text”

  2. Copy and paste from the broken up Word document into a cell in that column you just formatted in Excel.

  3. In an adjacent column, fill the column with sequential numbers. One way to do this is to type [1] in the highest cell, then [2] in the next, then drag the bottom corner as far down the sheet as your pasted text goes. I do it differently, but I work with Excel a lot and am faster using keystrokes.

  4. Select the two columns that have your text and the numbers

  5. Sort, high to low, on your sequential column. Now your sentences are in reverse order.

From here you can read in Excel format, if that helps you see things new. Or, copy just the text column back into Word.

Now, read from top to bottom. It won’t make a lot of sense (which is part of the point) but each sentence will stand alone.

I edit in the new Word document. Corrections I type in red, text to delete I change to strikeout font, and I highlight both types of changes so they are easy to find. Then save this new document and go back and fix your original.

In theory, it may be possible to write a macro that will use tables and do this entire process within Word, but I’m more of an Excel expert than a Word expert. If someone knows how to do this, please leave a comment below.

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One thing that limits any writer is what they don’t know or can’t see. Reading in reverse order is like shining light from a different direction to find the spots you missed when you were dusting, a way to help you to see some of those pesky little things that you’ve become blind to.

bookmark_borderOpen Your Story at the Start of the Ending

“Begin at the start of the ending” is a writing aphorism. Open your story there and you set yourself up to easily carry through without losing the reader’s attention.

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During a Twitter discussion on the use of literary devices, I said that I use flashback because I tend to start near the end and I need flashback to get at the history of the character and situation. One person assumed that if I’m starting near the end, then I know the ending before I begin writing. She was envious.

But I almost never know the ending when I start writing. I don’t even know what I’m writing about until much later. All I have is a situation and/or a character or just a character trait, or perhaps a technique to try or a restriction I want to play with.

My ability to craft prose has become quite decent and I can improvise off a small vision or idea for a few hundred words without difficulty. I do this by feeling around inside the situation hoping to find where it wants to go. Then I wait to see if the character or voice or situation inspires me to keep going. This I refer to as seeing if the story “has legs”.

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So how am I starting near the end? When I don’t know the end?

I think it happens naturally. If the material has enough tension and cohesion to continue (ie. if the story has legs) then it doesn’t take too many words to write to the resolution of that tension.

These are 1,000 to 5,000 word stories, though in one case it became a 23,000 word novella. That one took 23,000 words because of the complexity of the situation. A lot of backstory and context was required ‚ÄĒ ¬†some flashback, some internal narrative, as well as the POV and narrative and interaction of multiple characters ‚ÄĒ before I could explain how this all came to be, even though the primary story timeline is only six or eight hours long. Still, the story from middle to end is the resolution of those opening tensions. When the story opens the endgame has just begun, only none of the characters realize this (and neither did I, when I was working on early drafts).

This is slightly different for novels. My novels open with tension and situation and voice but the material feels more open-ended. The tension for a novel is a fact of life for the character rather than the one-time event or limited applicability condition of a short story, and it’s gonna take an entire novel to explore the different situations that the tension will affect.

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So in a short story, if you open with tension and work towards its resolution, you will have started near the end. If instead you explain the situation, describe the characters, and then write the history to get to the moment with the tension you might start far from the end. And if that set up lacks interest, you may lose your reader before you get to the important parts.

As a reader for a publication, I see this problem all too often in submissions. Yes, especially for science fiction we need to know the world that you’ve built, in historical fiction we need to know the time and place, but don’t bore the reader by dumping it all at the opening. Describe it in a fascinating way that whets the reader’s appetite, or hold on to parts and tuck in snippets at natural points in the narrative.

bookmark_borderDifferences between reality and fiction

Writing a story is not the same as experiencing reality.

For one thing, fiction is more interesting than 99% of most people’s reality.

Even creative non-fiction and memoir take reality and reshape it for presentation so it’s not boring, doesn’t include irrelevant moments, and has a coherent story or point.

There are some basic differences between good writing and reality, and reasons why those differences exist.

 

Dialogue

Fiction or even creative non-fiction rarely use actual dialogue. Too many ‘um’s and shortcuts and unclear wording.

A fictionalized version carries dialect and character traits and is clear when the character is intending to be clear and obtuse when the author needs the character to be obtuse.

Setting descriptions

When you walk into a coffee shop you carry a plethora of background or assumptions. What country are you in? City? Time of day? Previous times in this location? Previous experiences in this chain? How do you know what you want? Where is the menu? You expect the smell of coffee, display cabinet of snacks, sounds of canned music, or do you? Are they there, or are they missing?

The writer needs to give the reader some of the details that the writer may not think about when they walk into a coffee shop. The reader is not actually there and needs extra description to compensate.

Use of the seven senses

I’m not very Zen. I pay little attention to the feel of my clothes, the sound of my shoes on gravel, the flavor or temperature of my coffee, the smell of my toothpaste, the spin around our spiral staircase, the change in air pressure from 100 meters above sea level at my home to almost zero where my office is, the taste of my food. As long as these experiences are close to my expectations or previous experiences, I barely notice.

If you walk in the snow you sense the softness under your foot, hear the crunch, feel the cold, but if you were in this situation yesterday, why pay attention? The reader does not come into a situation with your expectations and background and previous experience. They need the information that you take for granted to help them understand, to help them to be there with you.

Time

Time is pretty constant unless you are an astronaut traveling at significantly different velocities than the rest of the planet.

In stories, time is presented at different speeds: important moments have lots of words, some internal narratives exist almost outside of time, and large chunks of irrelevant time brushing teeth, opening doors, driving, are skipped entirely. Most writers don’t have too much difficulty with this, though the balance between words allocated to crucial and less important moments is something that we all struggle with.

Detail

Two lines from a draft of a memoir read, “We stopped at Normandy, where my father had fought in the war. It was an emotional experience,” and then goes on to talk about the next stop. This is either an example including material simply because it happened even though it plays no part in the point of the story, or, more likely, an example of the writer failing to understand the difference between what they experience as they read the words to what the reader gets from those words.

As a reader, what do you sense is missing? Description of Normandy, past and present? Backstory about the father? Actual things the author saw, heard, thought? Explanation and description of the emotions so the reader can understand and experience them?

Now, try to get into the author’s head and understand why this writer wrote what they wrote. For them, all the missing context and backstory and memory of sights and emotions are conveyed by the words as given. ‘Normandy’ brings up sights and experiences. ‘Father’ and ‘fought in the war’ have many meanings and stories. ‘Emotional experience’ sums¬†all the feelings their depth and flavors the sentence with it.

It’s all there. For the author.

But for no one else.

 

bookmark_borderGoldberg Variations

Long ago I wrote a paper for a music grad class comparing the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations, written by J. S Bach. Nowadays I listen to the 1981 release once in a while through a sleep app on my phone.

But it wasn’t until last night that I noticed the similarities between the Variations¬†and my fiction writing exercise where I¬†wrote the same scene with the same characters, the same motivation, the same location, and the same sequence of events,¬†changing POV, proximity, attitude of the narrator, voice, and writing style.

 

The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations. All have the same bass line, chord progression and number of bars (like a jazz chart), and 27 are, like the aria, in the key of G major and 3 in G minor.

An artificial structure that one of the greatest composers turned into a work of art.

Each third variation is a canon‚ÄĒa composition technique using imitation and counterpoint. In each canon the second voice imitates at an interval one step higher than the previous canon, beginning at the unison (zero) in variation 3 until the ninth in variation 27. Other variations are in the style of dance forms from the period or familiar musical forms such as toccata and fughetta and French Overture.

The work is a significant accomplishment by one of the greatest composers at the peak of his powers (Bach lived 1685-1750, the variations were published in 1741), and the fourth and last in a series of publications that included the Italian Concerto and the French Overture. A work that has been referred to as “most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven“.

All within a structure as restricted and repetitive as the writing exercise I did.

 

I’m not trying to compare myself with Bach but rather to look at what he did within his restrictions and to be inspired to do more with my own.¬†I don’t think it’s possible to turn my collection of exercises into something that has any artistic value (beyond the possibility that, were I a writing master, I could create such a range of presentations that would inspire beginners).

Bach is a master of creativity: only two of the variations are reputed to have musical connection beyond the repeated structure. The variations change melody, meter, style, tempo (though that is performer interpretation; in Bach’s day tempos were not specified), level of keyboard difficulty, and largely mood, though many are rather joyous in tone, perhaps with the goal of helping Count Kaiserling, Goldberg’s employer, relax and sleep.

Each variation is a story unto itself, which would be useful if you drifted off and woke up again. But in my exercise, the restriction of the primary characters with the same motivations and personalities and the same events eliminates substantially different stories.

So is my exercise more the equivalent of different performances of any one piece? Wanda Landowska versus Angela Hewitt? Gould versus Gould? Me versus anyone who can actually play the piano? I think there is more variation than that: it’s not just the interpretation and execution that I was changing, there is POV and voice and tense and style.

The Goldberg Variations is more like a collection of flash fiction pieces, each complete in and of themselves. But if one were to try to construct a fiction/writing equivalent, these flashes would have some structural element that ties them together, and maybe more than one. Location, perhaps, is similar to musical structure; they could all take place at the same bus stop. And perhaps the bus, or maybe the bus is like the mode; present most of the time but not all, like the Goldberg is in G, mostly major, but three in minor.

But I don’t think you can restrict it to multiple renderings of the same incident. That’s what I was writing, and that’s more like trying to create different arrangements of one song: as a bossa nova, a waltz, a rap tune, a fugue, an uptempo jazz chart, an unorthodox version in 5/4 or 7/8, and so on.

You could use the same major characters, but the situation would have to change, it would be a series of events over time like a couple having breakfast. The problem (or advantage) of this would be the tendency to want the flashes to work together for some greater meaning, perhaps a progression reflecting the evolution of the relationship.

But that is not what the Goldberg is. The sequence is pleasing and has a structure of its own (the series of ascending canons in every third variation) but the later canons do not develop the earlier canons. Each variation can stand alone, like Bach’s 20 children. So perhaps the bus stop, with the bus present often, but different characters, different times of day, different weather, different events, each flash complete by itself, so if you fall asleep and miss a few, you won’t be lost when you pick it up again.

 

Because my objective with the exercise was to force myself to find different voices and styles, it does seem to be more like multiple arrangements of the same composition, so maybe it’s not as similar to the Goldberg as I originally thought.

But maybe this can make for a good NaNoWriMo structure; to use the same location and a few other similar structural elements and write 30 short stories, one for each day of November.

bookmark_borderAntihero: The Ambiguous Protagonist?

I’ve long been confused by the definition of “antihero”. My daughter uses the term to describe characters in movies but I’m never quite sure what she means.

Wikipedia says:

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes do the right thing, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.

So,

  • Sometimes does the right thing, but
  • not from idealism, courage, morality
  • often acting primarily out of self-interest

I think Dexter, of the novels as well as the television series, is a good example of an antihero. Dexter is a serial killer, a sociopath with no inherent morals. When Dexter’s cop father discovered his adopted son’s predilections, he told him he can only kill those who deserve to be killed; other killers on the loose. Dexter is doing “good” for society by removing other serial killers but only because he is following his father’s rules while satisfying his own needs; needs which society might find objectionable.

In my mind, a protagonist does not have to be either a hero or an antihero. Or maybe he does, in the traditional definition of the term. Wikipedia seems to think so. Based on their list it looks as if any important character who is morally ambiguous is an antihero, including the Lannister boys from “Game of Thrones” and Snape from Harry Potter (who is not the most, second most, or even third most present character in the series). And I don’t see¬†Micheal Corleone of “The Godfather” or Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” as antiheroes. They’re protagonists, but they never come out the other side of the hero’s journey like Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness”/”Apocalypse Now”. They are anti-hero, as in the opposite of heroes.

Wikipedia also has Frank Drebin from “The Naked Gun” in the list. Does that mean Mr. Magoo is an antihero even though his good deeds are accidents that he stumbles into because of his extremely bad eyesight?

For my purposes, I take issue with the “may sometimes do the right thing” part of the definition. They don’t have to try to do good all the time, but must always do something hero-like at some point. Heroic, for me, meaning working for the good of others beyond oneself and struggling or sacrificing to achieve it. Otherwise, they’re not heroes, just protagonists or main characters.

Morally ambivalent leads of spaghetti westerns may or may not do something hero-like. And morally ambiguous characters who wander through the world in an existential or alienated funk are fine protagonists but that doesn’t make them antiheroes. At least not in our modern world of Marvel and DC movies.

Struggling internally for ones own peace of mind may benefit those who read and learn from the struggle, but if the results are only internal for that character I don’t know that it fits the same category of heroic action. Perhaps I’m not seeing all the ramifications though: is the struggle to maintain sanity not heroic, and how is that different from a character that is deeply and profoundly moved by societal issues?

But in the 21st century we have a clear definition of hero: Superman, firefighters, good Samaritans. And, I think, antiheroes are the ones who do heroic deeds unwillingly (the Marvel character Jessica Jones, who gets dragged into her fights) or primarily for selfish reasons (Dexter, who kills killers to satisfy his own need to kill, or Dr. Gregory House, whose need to solve puzzles usually results in curing the illness), or freely breaks rules in order to accomplish their journey (Jack Reacher, who doesn’t go looking for battles but once he’s decided he needs to right a wrong never hesitates to break laws or lie or to pulverize a few bad guys).

These antiheroes have dark sides, shadowy pasts, and struggle with themselves and their morals as well as with the villain and evil forces. Most interesting heroes have similar characteristics though: that’s what makes them interesting, human, relatable.

 

Apparently, my definition of a protagonist is not the same as a hero. Rather:

  • hero is a¬†category of protagonist where the protagonist is at some point or on some level is trying to do good, and,
  • antihero is a subcategory of hero, not the opposite, so an antihero could also be a protagonist. Also,
  • the difference between hero and¬†antihero is in the values of the character. Doing good needs to be an explicit priority for the protagonist to be a hero. If he or she ends up doing good primarily for other reasons (selfish, coincidental, forced or blackmailed into it), they are an antihero. They are doing good but not for heroic reasons or due to heroic values.

In some ways this doesn’t make sense. I’ve defined antihero as a type of hero whereas it should refer to the opposite of a hero, but I think this is closer to the current use of the term.

Especially in a world where the heroes are often superheros, or at least humans with super abilities.

bookmark_borderWriting Review: The Host, by Stephenie Meyer, and thoughts on dialog and action tags

I’ve only read a few chapters into The Host by Stephenie Meyer but I think I’m done.

The opening chapters of SF can be a challenge because the reader needs to be acclimated to the world, but an operating room with excited students that seem irrelevant to the rest of the story isn’t the best choice. Following that with a memory from the host whose past the narrator is experiencing rather than the eventual narrator’s own story is disorienting.

By Chapter 3 I can figure out what’s going on but Chapter 4 goes further back in memory and the writing style becomes simplistic and repetitive in rhythm. Since the host is in her teens at this point I assume the writing is supposed to be YA, but it’s not quite John Green. I might have been tempted to open the novel here and maybe present the story in parallel timelines because this scene is less confusing and has action. This is where I stopped reading though, so I don’t know how well my idea would work.
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In Chapter 2 there are sentences that have timing or logic issues which I wanted to look at.

For contrast, I’ve quoted an example that is fine. We’re in first person POV. The narrator is immobile, getting used to her host body. She has not opened the host’s eyes but has been listening to a conversation.¬†(The following three quotes are from Chapter 2 of “The Host”.)

The woman breathed out heavily. A sigh. “But where did she come from?”

The narrator hears a sigh, then the spoken words. This is an action tag to the dialogue that makes sense. (Though it’s repetitive to have her breathe out heavily and then tell the reader it was a sigh.¬† A member of my old writing group would tag this as “reader gets it”)

But compare that with the next quote. After some internal narrative, a new paragraph starts:

The woman was defensive. “We do not choose violence. …”

How does the first person POV-eyes closed narrator know the woman is defensive? She can’t see the woman grimace or tense up because the eyes of the host are closed. We weren’t given any audible clues.

I think the author is trying to color the tone of the words, to imply tension and attitude, but the narrator can’t know this before the first word is spoken. It’s not an audible event that precedes the words like the sigh in the previous example. Maybe she can read it from the woman’s voice, but even that can’t happen until she hears some words. Just because the author knows doesn’t mean the narrator can know.

Later in the scene:

“Why should she have to?” the man muttered, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer.

The woman answered anyway. “If we’re to get the information we need -“

Again, we are told the woman is answering before she speaks. How does the narrator know it is an answer until the end of the sentence? And, by then it’s obvious that she’s answering so whether the reader needs to have it highlighted as “anyway” is questionable, though it does show some insistence on the woman’s part.

One could also wonder how, without eyes and in first person POV, the narrator understands that the man didn’t seem to expect an answer. Maybe he whispers or tails off. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing; telling rather than showing (or hearing). And inexperience with first person POV.


Dialogue tagging before the dialogue is more acceptable in non-fiction writing because the narrator is supposed to know everything in advance. We can dialogue tag in advance comfortably when we are instructing:

It was Lincoln who said, ‚ÄúWe can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.‚ÄĚ

Or even action tag in advance:

Just before he fell off the stage and broke his arm, the actor delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

This only works if reported after the event, like a news story. It could even be done in first person POV as long as it’s delivered¬†after the diagnosis of a broken arm.

When I fell off the stage and broke my arm I had just delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

But, though “The Host” is in past tense, I’ve seen no indication that the narrator is writing to us from the future.

Dialog or action tagging before the dialog can also be more acceptable in third person POV because the narrator can be varying degrees of omniscient and, like the non-fiction author, can know someone is going to speak or what tone of voice they will use. An omniscient narrator might know the woman feels defensive or that the man does not expect an answer.

But a first person (and blind) POV narrator can only know tone of voice after words are spoken, or that someone is answering after hearing their voice and determining what that person intends to communicate.

To me it feels like careless editing of a writer who thinks in third person rather than first person.

Was “Twilight” written in third? I don’t remember. But the prose and plot confusions in “The Host” are enough to convince me not to finish reading this one.

 

bookmark_borderThe Writing Process

I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize my writing process. This is based on the two most recent stories but the process has been similar for many years.

  • Envision a setting, situation, or character.
  • Write a sentence.
  • Write a second sentence
  • Read what I’ve written
  • Change a phrase
  • Write a third sentence, extending the flow and increasing the breadth.
  • Read.
  • Correct a typo. Fix a shift in tense.
  • Get up and walk away, do something like get a drink while thinking about what I’ve written. Or if I’m in a formal writing prompt situation, stare at the wall for a minute.
  • Come back and start the second paragraph with a new sentence that I’ve thought of while away.
  • Read.
  • Remove an unnecessary comma. Realize I’ve used a word such as “clear” or “recent” twice, think about alternatives, go to an online thesaurus. Decide none are perfect but select one anyway just so I have an alternative. Change one usage.
  • Read to see how it fits and flows now.
  • Add a fifth sentence.
  • Read.
  • Consider whether I’ve covered the opening material sufficiently and if it is time to start expanding the range by widening the vision or adding an action or another character. Ponder character goals and motivation, the back story of the situation, possible threats. Is there a theme emerging? Cut the second half of the second sentence and paste into the first sentence. Delete the second half of the first sentence.
  • Get up and fill the pets water bowl. Put some papers into my bag so I’ll remember to take them to work tomorrow. Take some dry pans from the dish rack and put them away, and other things.
  • Read.
  • Notice an awkward phrase and rewrite it. Add a missing article. Change the character’s name. Spit the fifth sentence into two and extend the second one. Delete the second and third sentence and reorganise and rewrite into one new sentence.
  • Read to feel the new flow.
  • Write another sentence.
  • Read. Wonder if I’m writing too many long sentences or too many short sentences. Read the long ones for missing breaks, read the short ones for unintended emphasis. Look for overused words or descriptions but also to see if they hint at a theme.
  • Change a word that is too intellectual for the scene. Consider whether the voice I’m using is consistent, and if it is appropriate. Make additional revisions to hype the voice or make the style more consistent.

At this point I have 150 to 300 words.

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If you’re wondering why I keep stopping, why I keep reading and correcting it’s because I rarely plot any more. I only plot when I’ve already got a story going and then I might sit and write 200 or 500 words in one go but before I do that I have to know what and who I’m writing about. Even in time pressured situations like NaNoWriMo or the 3DayNovel competition I go through this same process. I have to correct and edit when I see the little errors and weaknesses because they snag my attention. They must be polished away so I’m not distracted.

And to write I need to experience the flow, as focussed and uninterrupted as possible. Much like when I compose, where I listen in my head to the music and then try to hear what might come next, the flow must tell me what the logical next sentence is. I need to hear what the story is telling me.

Since I’ve fallen into using this process my prose has improved. Or perhaps the reverse; because my prose and editing has improved I’ve developed this procedure which requires more editing and results in better prose.

But these pieces often fail to gain traction and to get to completion. I don’t think it’s because of the editing or stopping and starting, I think it’s because my standards have increased and I drop more ideas than I used to because they don’t seem to be leading somewhere interesting or to be worth my time.

I also get stuck, unable to find a satisfactory understanding of the story that will allow me to continue. In more than one case this block has come right at the end where I know what the essence of the story is but I can’t find an acceptable solution for presenting it. Other times the block comes near the beginning because I don’t know where the story is going. And even when I write to the end usually the story feels imperfect because I didn’t understand all levels of the story well enough to give it its full value.

bookmark_borderReading Across Genres

I like to read across genres.

Some years back I discovered Google’s list of best books of 2012 and I read them without paying attention to what the title might hint, reserving judgement as long as I could. The 2013 list wasn’t as good and that was the last I saw. Since then I haven’t found a reliable way of finding material across genres worth looking at.

Recently I realized that, just as I’ve used Pulitzer, Giller, and Booker prize long lists to give me literary novels to read (often by authors I’m unfamiliar with, which is the other bonus) I can use awards from other genres to help me find titles.

So I started with the Edgar nominees for mystery, then the Hugo awards, the Rita, and now the Thriller awards.

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) was better written and was more entertaining than I expected. At the start I was hesitant because I’ve read enough Nazi Germany fiction for my needs but this Marlow-like detective just happens to live during that period. The Goblin Emperor was also well written but I lost interest in the detailed description of ceremonies and procedures. When I read unfamiliar authors I usually research afterwards and one reviewer pointed to the focus on court intrigue rather than on events; that’s where I lost interest too. I stopped reading about a third of the way through.

I tried two Rita nominees, but the first was written at a 12 year old reading level and the other at a 15 year old level. The characters were real enough, but boring because the internal narrative focused exclusively on how hot their intended looked. Not exactly Jane Austen. I won’t mention the titles because they’re not well written and I’d rather forget about them, and hope others do the same.

There were also two YA novels that I read and I’ve forgotten where I found their titles, perhaps in the library suggestions themselves. The first was Uninvited,which fell miles short of Divergent or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and I didn’t finish it, and the other was Revolution, which was an interesting creation of parallel life stories in modern times and during the French revolution. Because of the history lesson included within I can see why school libraries like it but I felt shorted in the modern character’s resolution and evolution.

Now I’m into Fever: A Novel which is pretty well written though heavy on interjected backstory snippets and it constantly jumps POV from the girl to her father to her brother. I’m to the point where the fever is just making its presence felt but it’s not been a smooth read to this point. The POV jumps and backstory interjections make me fell as if I’m winding up a string of Christmas lights when I’m used to rolling up a plain electrical cord or a garden hose. Snaggly. Hoping it will smooth out as we get further into the story.

So I haven’t found a good award to suggest romance or YA titles yet. I think there probably are some, as well as ones for other genres I haven’t tried yet (Western; meh, Memoir? Humour? Woman’s Lit? Horror?).¬† There are sub-genres too but I’m hoping the larger ones will include those, like the Hugo included “The Goblin Emperor” which is more fantasy than science fiction.

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I realize that if I’m abandoning so many novels unfinished, one might ask why I bother looking for award lists for recommendations?

It’s because in order to find something to read I need the title to be presented to me. It used to be that I’d find a book that I liked and then I’d read everything that author had written (like all 51 Hardy boy novels when I was in the sixth grade; it wasn’t until recently I learned that they were written by different people) but these days I want to go across genres and read different things all the time. I want some authority to give me the ‘best’ available to increase my chances of discovering something I like and I’m not interested in what the readers like or I’d try Goodreads or Amazon. I want some evaluation of the quality of the writing. Then, asked Phaedrus (or was it Lila?), what is quality? Apparently that’s up to me, the reader, with a little qualification from the internet.