Saturday, 13 August 2011

Eugh! What a slog!

When did writing become such a chore? I used to like hammering away on the keyboard without getting sucked into the rabbit hole of sine qua non. You know, those things which the gods of literature insist spell the difference between "amateur writer" and "author".Worldbuilding, infodump avoidance, word count goals, giving specifics - being a writer was easier before I'd heard of any of these things and the role they play.

I could go on as before, writing blindly first and filling in the gaps later, but my brain keeps whispering to me: "what type of dog?", "how tall was the guy?", "how can I show that she was sad?" It interrupts my flow and I find it difficult to get lost in my character's voice, to truly understand her.


Still, sooner or later it has to become second nature, right?

Delusional optimist, me? I don't know what you're talking about. Oh, look, a pretty rainbow. Hmm, I'd better get my tools and go look for that pot of gold that's bound to be at the end of it...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The difficult “next” book

I have completed my first book (I refer to it as “Ivy”, after the MC, although its official and provisional title is “Taken”) and am currently working on my second. Well, I say “currently working on”, when in fact I’m still tinkering with it.
My first book was afflicted with many problems, mainly because I was still in the learning phase. I didn’t think about plot before I started, resulting in at least fifteen re-writes before it was in fit enough shape to be edited. Half my subplots ended up on the cutting-room floor, some of my favorite scenes got deleted, new characters developed, clues discarded and new ones dreamt up etc.
Then I asked a friend to read it and do a first cautious edit. Now, don’t get me wrong. This friend of mine had a lot to teach me about show, don’t tell, even though she wasn’t actually a writer (not back then, although she’s caught the bug now).  She, too, became incredibly involved in Ivy and started re-writing it, living it as much as I had been. In many places her choice of language was snappier and the descriptions more vivid, but by the time the book was returned to me, I hardly recognized it. So I re-wrote it again, keeping some of the elements my friend had introduced, while applying every technique I’d learnt from her and from the many books I’d read.
Only then did I begin editing for style. When I thought it was good enough (cringe !!!), I sent Ivy out to willing beta readers. Some liked it, some didn’t, but all believed that my world building sucked. [At this point a huge thank-you to Amanda Bonilla, who critiqued my MS (her book’s coming out this December), and Tara Kollas, a fantastic writer who deserves a contract RIGHT NOW. Both gave sage advice about how and where to make changes. A shout of gratitude also to Sarah, Morgan and Kate, who helped me tremendously with plot-related points].
Ironically, whenever my beta readers demanded an explanation, it related to a scene or flashback that I’d cut out earlier. So of course I put them back in – my word count jumped from 86,000 to 93,000 – and did another edit.  It was the beta reading stage when I realized that “good enough” wasn’t a standard a writer should settle for. Any phrase or sentence, where I’d had doubts as to clarity or precision, instantly became the target of my eagle-eyed readers’ attention.
The third round of edits focused on the nitty stuff, like a phrase here, a joke that wasn’t funny, and so on. All the while, I learnt more about writing, world-building, show don’t tell, and all the other tools a good writer make.
Now that I have coarsely plotted my second book, a story I truly believe in, I find myself too afraid to start. Instead I go back to Ivy again and again, changing things here and there, trying to suck the last ounce of wisdom from it. I’m scared, almost paralysed, that I’m going to mess up this fantastic idea with poor technique. Have I learnt enough from Ivy? Should I go back and do one more edit?
I have written around 10,000 words of Angel (the provisional title of my second book, again named after the MC), and I quite like the first half. I’m now going back and forth between playing with my plot and editing what I already have. Anything to prevent me from actually carrying on.
Right, I’ve had my rant now, and a cup of coffee, black as the night (cliché alert), and I’d better go back to work. Another thing I’ve learnt from Ivy: the book won’t write itself.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Why the urban fantasy genre isn’t dead*

 *This is not a comment from an author to an agent but from an avid reader (roughly 3-4 books a week) to the book industry as a whole, even though I won’t deny that the writer in me would agree with the sentiment.

Take a naive but capable young woman, add a sexy, brooding and decidedly mysterious vampire who inevitably falls in love with her, an equally hot baddie, sprinkle on obstacles (such as the world in peril) to overcome, and the result is YA (young adult).

Take a tough-as-nails woman who can hold her own in a fight (with or without guns), add a sexy, brooding and decidedly mysterious vampire who inevitably falls in love with her, an equally hot baddie, sprinkle on obstacles (such as grisly murders) to overcome, and the result is urban fantasy.

The argument has been made that the market is flooded with plot concepts which follow these or similar blueprints. While YA still seems to be able to scrape by, mainly due to the voracity of faithful young readers, the urban fantasy genre has come into disrepute lately. Are older readers really that much more discerning and demanding than their younger counterparts? And are agents and publishers right to turn their back on this genre?

I think not. And in support I would like to put forward two thoughts for you to chew on.

First, just because it’s writing-by-numbers doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy it. After all, this is exactly why I follow heroines like Jaz Parks, Mercy Thompson and the many others so fervently from one book in the series to the next. If I like the set-up, enjoy the humor and find the plot at least halfway engaging, I’m satisfied.
I admit I’ve never been one to look to books as a means of making me ponder the greater issues in life. No, I can do that all by myself, without any prodding (speak: pontificating) by authors or film directors, thank you very much. What I need is a few hours of complete escapism.

Second, even if the above outline were right on the money – and let’s be fair, most plots offer ample variation on these themes or are indeed entirely different –, only shallow people would consider it as indicative of the originality of the book as a whole. A good story is more than its most basic ingredients. And for this I would like to reference my own work, or, to put it bluntly, justify my own work. My main character Ivy is a private detective of sorts, and she is helped out by a vampire. There are some grisly murders, too. Still, these items are merely the vehicle I use to drive the plot home.
My “mythology” is different from that of other writers. In addition, I have deliberately used certain stereotypes and turned them on their head. My vampire is neither broody nor mysterious. Neither is he the love interest. And Ivy isn’t your typical shoot-first, ask-later protagonist either. Her journey from A to B and then to C and D is what makes it different. Humor, fallacies and red herrings are only three of the sign posts that litter the way.
Isn’t it true that the real measure of the experience can only be gathered from actually reading the book?

Agents and publishers have to sift through queries and first chapters ad nauseum, and after a while these things can seem kind of samey. But here’s a thought. The key question is not whether the story is original, but whether it's engaging. And this is more to do with the author and her or his writing than with the basic plot ingredients.

Readers certainly haven’t had enough of what’s out there. I’m constantly looking for new serialized adventures (suggestions welcome). So my plea to agents is this: don’t give up on a book simply because the query doesn’t promise a never-before-seen concept. Until you’ve developed a feel for an author, please keep an open mind.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Total Linguistic Failure (TLF)

Sometimes it’s tough to reconcile writing with my day job. I’m a patent translator by trade, specializing in optics and nuclear engineering, and finding the right words is my bread and butter.

The one thing you should know about patents is that they are entirely devoid of style. In fact, I regularly come across, and produce, terms like “control-rod guide tube actuating mechanism arm” and “loop-knittedly” (I kid you not). As with anything, you get used to it, though. In fact, it makes work easier, not having to strain to think of the most aesthetically pleasing phrase.

Back at home, I flick the switch and allow the creative juices to flow once more. Except, now and again, the switch jams, and stringing sentences together becomes a task seemingly beyond my capabilities. Suddenly, incoherent thoughts fumble for a concrete term in the mush of vocabulary, groping for something, anything, I can use to convey my idea. Instead of describing suspense in terms of how my MC experiences it, I resort to stylistically challenged sentences like “she was scared out of her mind”. The patent-way of writing, where direct and simple statements are the ideal.

Those moments are what I call total linguistic failure (TLF). This “fire bad, flower pretty” way of writing destroys all confidence concerning any talent I may possess. Don’t get me wrong. Pulitzer-worthy I’m not by any stretch. But neither am I a complete hack (I hope).

A couple of months ago a weird thing happened. A friend confided in me that she, too, experienced bouts of TLF. I was intrigued. Could this be an affliction that affected more people than I’d thought? Entirely unrelated to my job? If so, what was the government doing about it?

I did some research, called a few more friends, checked out some blogs. The results shocked me. Credible evidence suggested this was indeed a common disorder; as many as seven in ten writers suffer from it at one point or another. And apparently there are no help lines, no charities set up to assist the victims. Would I have to give up writing altogether?

No, I’d come too far to simply coil up and submit.

I’m now seeing a team of psychiatrists once or twice a week. Their names are Ben & Jerry’s, and they taste creamy and sweet, and they are a lot nuttier than I am. Still, their influence on my life has been immeasurable.

Now, each time TLF returns, I clench my fist, set my jaw and work my way through the rough spells. It’s the equivalent to flipping the bird at TLF. Light always follows darkness, and soon enough I’m back on form. My new coping mechanism has done wonders for my word count. What’s more, all lingering signs of TLF can be removed at the editing stage.

So, if you, too, are familiar with TLF, you no longer have to suffer in silence. If caught early, I believe it is entirely treatable. Feel free to share any tips for dealing with this problem in the comments section.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Editing, Part I


I hit “send” and woosh, the MS is on its way to my beta reader. This is when the nerves get to me and I cocoon myself in self-doubt and comfort food for the next few days. Is the romantic scene I wrote evocative enough or just plain embarrassing? Did I strike the right level of suspense in my abduction scene or does it suck as much as I fear?

In the meantime I thought this would be a good time to list a few of the things I’ve learned over the past year.
  • DO NOT begin every sentence with I (or “he” or “his” etc.). “I exhaled sharply” could just as easily be “my breath came fast and hard”. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. How about, “With his eyes following me around the room, I exhaled sharply”. Well, it’s better than the first option (I'm not going to debate whether eyes can in fact "follow" somebody), but since when do we settle for “better”? Pick the verb (“exhale”) and turn it into the subject (“breath”) of the sentence.
  • DO NOT use filters. “I looked up and saw him coming at me...” How about “He came at me...”? “I thought about his betrayal and why I’d ever let him get so close to me” -> “Why did I let him get so close to me?”. “The best option for you is to pick a magazine and then go home.” -> “Pick a magazine and go home.”
  • Get rid of fill words such as “very”, “just”, “almost”, “approximately”, “really”, “that” etc. At worst, they weaken the expression you were trying to strengthen. “I’m very excited for you” is no improvement on “I’m excited for you”. Compile your own list of fill words and then cut them from your script by using the FIND facility on your computer.
  • DO NOT generalize. Use specifics where you can. “like a dog” => “like a bulldog/schnauzer/etc.”
  • Delete the repeats. “He could no longer tell me what to do. No, I was done letting him control my life.”  - Pick one.
  • Find your “weak words”, the words you fall back on time and again. In my case these are “grabbed”, “pulled” and “smiled”. Time for the thesaurus. How about “pick up”, “fish out”, “dig out”, “gathered” etc.? Take a day off from writing and come up with your own list. Without pointing a finger at any one thesaurus as better than any other, I love “Word Web”. Well worth the money I paid for it. It displays synonyms, types, antonyms etc., but it also lets me edit the entries, so whenever I come across a nice turn of phrase I can add it.

There is of course more to writing, and I could easily expand on this, and maybe I will in future. But for now, these pointers should help you tighten your prose, which will in turn boost your confidence.

PS: If you’re interested in beta reading for me, let me know. I’m happy to reciprocate. E-mail me at

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Synopsis: not just a tool for agents

My book’s finally done. Finished. Complete. Or is it?

I’ve read and re-read it, swapped things around, deleted characters and confusing subplots and polished up the language. Sure, some issues were left unresolved, and occasionally the plot seemed to drift, but on the whole it was the best it could be. Right?

Those were my thoughts three months ago. My hands were raw from all the gleeful rubbing when it occurred to me I still needed to write the synopsis. Many authors dread this stage, but having just finished an entire book I thought ‘how hard can it be’?

As you have no doubt guessed, the answer is ‘very’. In fact, I still haven’t done it, because on the way I uncovered several potential problems in my plot.

The men who waylaid my MC on her way to an antiques store were appropriately nasty, my MC and her sidekick ultimately triumphant, and the fight scene was painstakingly choreographed. But: how did their attackers know where to find them? As it turned out, I’d binned a scene in which the antiques dealer was in cahoots with said attackers.

Another tricky issue was one of overall balance. According to my synopsis, the story kicks off with a bang, followed by a couple of chapters which introduce three new characters in rapid succession. While the scenes involved a decent amount of humor, some tension and enough dialogue to prevent boredom, the emphasis was all wrong. After all, meeting three people doesn’t sound terribly interesting and not even a chase scene can change this. However, a chase scene where the MC just happens to encounter one of those three characters breaks up the monotony of content very nicely indeed. As we know, characters drive the plot just as much as the plot drives character development.

Eureka. The synopsis had provided me with an overview, a map of all the p(l)ot holes and culs-de-sac. So instead of feeling disheartened by my mess of a story, I felt energized. If I could use this new information to improve the novel, surely I owed myself at least one more edit. So I did, and I was thrilled by the results.

It’s safe to say this won’t be my last revision, of course. But for now I’m back to gleefully rubbing my hands...