The writing rules

I’ve been going through a reading spurt lately, after I finished the third (and hefty) Eragon book, Brisingr, and I’ve noticed that you can’t judge the validity of the “rules” of writing based on what’s selling in stores.

There are plenty of “rules” that we hear when we’re just starting. I put the word in quotes because really, they’re not rules, but they’re things that as newbies, we might not be able to get away with as much as an established author. They’re things you’ll hear from fellow writers as well as in critiques, both from agents and editors.

What are the “rules”? Here’s a few that I’ve heard and seen broken in books I recently read:

Stick to one point of view: The first draft of my novel switched POV between my protagonist and his father for the first half of the book, then, after the two story lines had come together, focused on the protagonist. In a critique workshop with an agent, I was told children’s books rarely switch POV and I should rework it to just be from my protagonist’s POV. I did, and it worked out fine. But, if you read bestsellers out now, you’ll see that many don’t do this. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon books are a good example.

Avoid ly words: I’ve heard this one a lot, and as guidelines go, it makes sense. The descriptive ly words can slow down prose. Many times, they’re not needed. This is an extreme example, but you don’t need to write “STOP!” the man said loudly. The STOP! tells us he’s saying it loudly. But, I can’t help enjoying ly words at times. I use them probably more than those who tell the “rules” would like, but I like them. To me, used well, they can be delicious and make a sentence that would have been toast and jam, toast and jam with whipped cream and sprinkles. And guess who uses them a lot: J.K. Rowling. She’s pretty successful. 🙂

Never use the word Suddenly: I’ve heard this one a lot too, and actually, I’ve got to say I agree. Never is a bit strong. There’s probably a time and place when suddenly would spark up a paragraph, but not with sentences like: Suddenly, she grabbed him. Using the word suddenly to describe that something, well, suddenly happens, is fine but it’s easy. It’s the quick go to word, but it’s not the most creative way to move the action. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used this word, and in sentences like my example, plenty of times. But when I see them in my revisions, I try to rewrite them. And most of the time, the context of the story, the action, is moving fine and doesn’t need a suddenly thrown in. Recently, I read the first book in the Sisters Grimm Fairy Tale Detectives series by Michael Buckley and was surprised to see that in the climactic scenes near the end of the book, Suddenly was running around lose and fancy free. Now, I really loved this book. The characters were strong, the story fun and many many times Buckley had me laughing out loud. But, to be honest, all the suddenlys stuck out to me, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard the “rule” so much or what, but it actually slowed the pace of the action. They weren’t needed, because the action was doing fine without them.

For newbie writers trying to get a foot in the business, sure, we have to make sure our manuscripts are Mr. Clean clean. They’re going to be scrutinized more than one from an author whose last book sold 100,000 copies. Do we stick to the “rules” or break them? I say, go with your heart. Ultimately, tell a great story in a great way. If it’s a little unconventional, breaking the “rules” so to speak, it might take a little longer to find the right agent and editor, but you will; if you believe in your story, you will. But it’s good to know the “rules” so you can decide whether you want to break them. Some of them are said for a reason.

What “rules” have you heard and seen ignored in the bestsellers?

Write On!

Dealing with doubts, and Community Story

First my update, and it ends with a goodie. Last week, I said my revision was zooming along. By mid-week, I was back to feeling insecure about the story. Doubts were cloudy my mind. Will people get it? Will people other than me think it’s good? Will they be entertained? Will they understand everything that’s going on? Will they think it’s cheesy? For some reason, I had a real fear that people would think my story is cheesy.

I know I’m not alone in these thoughts. When I read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, I was surprised and comforted to find that she has the same doubts every time she writes. Maybe she doesn’t think her work is cheesy, but that’s just how my mind works. All writers have doubts. They have them during the first draft, the second, the tenth. They have them at the beginning of the story, the middle and the end. I’m sure published writers had doubts cross their minds the day before their book was put on shelves. It’s just the nature of who we are and what we do. We create something and send it out into the world. It’s our child. Of course, we’re going to worry about it. The truth is that it’s bound to come back a little bruised, but hopefully, it gets more loving than bruising.

My biggest problem was that no one other than me had read past the middle, and the middle of my novel has a turning point that changes the story quite a bit. My critique group, with only five pages each session, isn’t at that point yet. So here I was, getting to the end of what I wanted to be my final revision/polish round, and I had no feedback on this all important crossing point in the middle of the book. I also didn’t have any idea if the finale worked for anyone other than myself. And I’m too close to the story. I know things that are not written on the page, so it’s easier for me to think it works. I needed someone else’s opinion.

This weekend, I got that — and now I feel much better.

My husband, a really good writer in his own right, although he doesn’t do it for a career, had read early drafts of the beginning of the book, but as I was making so many changes, he asked to read it when I was done, when I was happy with it. Last week, I told him I was going to be done by the weekend. So, on Saturday, I printed out the first 200 pages, and he read while I finished editing the last 26 pages, which I had been working on for the last couple days.

In one sitting, which is unusual for my husband for any book, he read the whole thing, then when he got to page 200 and I hadn’t yet delivered the rest of the manuscript, he came running down to my office to see if I was done editing. Honestly, he looked like a kid waiting for his birthday cake. It was cute. But I wasn’t sure if that was a sign of, “I love it,” or “I really want to be done with this so I can do something else.”

Well, all my doubts went away when he was done. He told me he loved it. And then I barraged him with questions, and we had a good discussion about all kinds of aspects of the book.

I feel much better now that I have confirmation from someone else that the story works for them too. (Ordinarily, I would steer people away from using their husband or any family member as a gauge for a work’s validity, but in my case, my husband will tell me when I can do better. He has in the past. It hurt, but he was right. And a friend from my critique group is reading it too, so when she’s done, I’ll have more than one opinion.)

So now, I still have some finishing touches to do, but then I’ll be good with it. After I’ve written a query letter and synopsis — which will probably take me another couple months to fine-tune — I’ll send out the manuscript.

As I lay in bed trying to sleep Saturday night, I was thinking about the fact that I’ll be sending out this book soon. Those doubts crept in all over again — guess they never truly go away — but this time, there were fewer of them.

Do you have doubts? How do you deal with them?

Now onto the next installment of the Community Story. Anyone got a better name, other than Community Story? And let me know if you’re enjoying it.

The last couple sections are first, then I’ve added my next bit at the end. No adds from you guys for last week, so make this your week to join in the fun. Post what you think should come next in the comments section. If you’re new to the Community Story, click here for the full thing so far. Or if time is tight — because you should be writing — just make it up. It’s only for fun.

Bonnie tried to speak, but her throat was dry.

What did this woman want? It had been 13 years since Bonnie had escaped, 13 years since she discovered her so called “cause” wasn’t anything more than an excuse for blood-hungry psycopaths to murder and pillage.

Bonnie gulped. It was so hard to believe she had been part of those horrors. She never regretted leaving. She never regretted telling the police. But then again, she never thought they’d find her again.

Now she had one choice, pretend she wasn’t the whistleblower that broke apart their criminal organization and go along with whatever plans they have in store for her, or resist. She knew her Star Trek well, and although these people weren’t the Borg, Bonnie figured option number 1 was best — for now.

“S’pose you want some water,” the voice said, thrusting a Heinz tomato sauce can in Bonnie’s face. “I rinsed it out first. Don’t have any proper cups.”

Bonnie took it and gulped the water, immediately feeling better. She handed the can back to the woman with a nod for more.

“Good thing we found you,” the woman said. “Gecko’s guys were right on your tail, and they won’t be nearly as forgiving as we will be.”

The woman refilled the can, and Bonnie drank again, feeling her energy returning with every drop.

She looked around. The only door was behind the woman, and the grimy windows were too high and too small for her to crawl through. She wondered where she was. She knew asking would be a waste of time, but she decided to try it anyway.

“Where am I?” she asked, her voice still cracking.

What’s happening next? You decide. Post the next section in the comments and it’ll be added to the story next Monday.

Write On!

Join the Community Story – March 30

I must admit, I feel great. I’m on pace to finish my polish by the end of this week, and I can feel the excitement welling up. That excitement seems to also be helping me wake up early to write. I woke up at 6:45 with no alarm on Sunday and 5:45 this morning. It’s good when the writing is flowing.

Of course, that excitement also has a lot of nervousness mixed in, as once I’m finished with this polish — and a few more changes after I get notes from a couple friends who are reading the whole book — I’ll be sending it out to agents and editors for the first time. Shiver.

How is your writing going?

In the meantime, it’s Monday again, which means time to add to the Community Story. If you’re new to this, the Community Story started after readers voted on a bunch of story starters submitted by myself and more readers. Each Monday, I add a paragraph or two to the story, but in between, you can add your own paragraph or two to continue the story. Each Monday, before I add my bit, I’ll put your addition into the story, then continue based on what you’ve written. It’s a fun collaboration. It’s not for publication any where other than this blog, so you can get as silly and as whacky as you want with your additions. Click here to read the full story so far.

Below are the last couple additions to the story, plus my addition for this week.

Bonnie tried to speak, but her throat was dry.

What did this woman want? It had been 13 years since Bonnie had escaped, 13 years since she discovered her so called “cause” wasn’t anything more than an excuse for blood-hungry psycopaths to murder and pillage.

Bonnie gulped. It was so hard to believe she had been part of those horrors. She never regretted leaving. She never regretted telling the police. But then again, she never thought they’d find her again.

Now she had one choice, pretend she wasn’t the whistleblower that broke apart their criminal organization and go along with whatever plans they have in store for her, or resist. She knew her Star Trek well, and although these people weren’t the Borg, Bonnie figured option number 1 was best — for now.

“S’pose you want some water,” the voice said, thrusting a Heinz tomato sauce can in Bonnie’s face. “I rinsed it out first. Don’t have any proper cups.”

Bonnie took it and gulped the water, immediately feeling better. She handed the can back to the woman with a nod for more.

“Good thing we found you,” the woman said. “Gecko’s guys were right on your tail, and they won’t be nearly as forgiving as we will be.”

Da da da daaaaaaaaaaaaaaa… What will happen next? Add the next part as a comment.

Write On!

Editing out loud

I had often heard the advice of reading your writing out loud to truly hear the rhythms. I totally understood this for picture books and dialog for screenplays, but I’ve never felt the need in anything else I’ve written (unless I was trying to focus in the middle of lots of noise). But revising my novel, I decided to try it, mostly because I write so early in the morning and I often feel half asleep.

But reading my writing out loud has become an invaluable tool in my editing. I find that I catch grammatical errors I glossed over before, duplicate uses of words that I hadn’t noticed and sentences that run on with unnecessary words.

Reading out loud isn’t the first step in my editing. It’s my last, and for me, that works the best. As I go through each chapter now, I have a plan: First, I go through each sentence and paragraph doing my usual edits, changing anything I see that could be better. Sometimes I go through the chapter a couple times until I’m happy with it. This is all my head.

Then I go through the chapter again but this time reading it out loud. I’m always amazed at the things I missed the first few go arounds. Mouthing out the words seems to make my brain focus more on the words, and I can more easily pick up sections that don’t read well. I’ve even found spelling errors while reading aloud that I missed when reading in my head.

Have you tried editing out loud?

What’s your favorite way to edit?

Write On!

P.S. Don’t forget to add to the Community Story. Mand gave a great addition in the comments of Monday’s post. It will be added to the main story next Monday. But you can still continue from where Mand left off by leaving it in the comments here.

Check in, goals and community story

Christmas is looming and has been keeping me busy, although I’m pleased to report that all my Christmas shopping is done. Just need to the make the mince pies today (a British tradition).

I have been keeping up with my writing goals, though. Managed to do two scenes every day except Thursday — an extra busy day. This morning I did five scenes, and my goal of completing the revision by the end of the year is looking very doable. Phew! To be honest, a few times, when I got stuck over what to do with the messed up structural parts, I wasn’t sure I’d make the goal.

I’m realizing now, however, that because I had to fix so many structural problems with the story in this revision, many scenes are first drafts. So, after I’m done with this revision, I’m going to take a quick break and then start again from the beginning, this time making sure the writing is as good as it can be.

I’ve also been slow on adding my own starter paragraph to the community story. Others have posted their offerings in the comments here. Mine is below. But there’s still plenty of time to add a new one. After the holidays are behind us, I’ll list them all and we can vote on the start of our community story.

Ok, here goes. An starter paragraph from me:

Sarah knew all about ice. She knew it happened when the air got really cold and your breath turned into smoke. She knew it was hardened water and would melt in the spring. She knew it could make icicles that were as sharp as needles. What she didn’t know, until now, was that a face could be buried in it.

Add your starter paragraphs or sentences in the comments on this post or the original, and they’ll be added to the vote in the new year.

And let me know, are you achieving your end of year goals? Congrats, if you are. But don’t worry if you’re not. The important thing is to keep writing.

Write On!

It's all about plot

Just a quick post tonight. In my check in, I did the revision for chapter 18 and started chapter 19. Tomorrow’s goal: finish chapter 19.

I’m still hoping to have this revision by the end of the year, but that deadline’s coming up fast, so my goals are going to have to start getting tougher next week.

Also, after I was having all those plot problems in my novel’s middle for the last month, I saw a post on author J.A. Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing blog that reminded me why the work was so important. Konrath lists four points to remember when dealing with plot, and one all encompassing point to remember when we’re telling stories: “Here’s a mess, clean it up.” I’d change that to “Make a mess, clean it up” as the duty for us writers. Check out the post. Good advice for all of us.

Write On!

Day 30 and end of unofficial NaNoWriMo

I finally made it to the end of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month — four days late. I started on Nov. 3 and vowed to work on my rewrite every day for 30 days. As I’m ending on Dec. 7, I must have missed four days in the past 30. Can I do every day in December? With Christmas in there, I doubt it. But I’m going to do my best.

My rewrite is still coming along nicely. My outline/timeline is still making things much easier, and I even changed something in the outline today. But all the changes are making the novel better, so that’s exciting. Today, I blended some more scenes to fit their new place in the outline, and tomorrow my plan is to change the location of one scene to a location I set up in a new early scene that I wrote a couple of days ago.

How’s your writing coming? What are you working on?

Write On!

Day 29 and getting over writer's block

Whoopee! It feels good to be moving along in my revision. For day 29 in my unofficial participation of National Novel Writing Month, I finished the new early chapter I had planned in my outline/timeline and moved around some other scenes to fit the better flow I figured out. I feel energized about the story and characters again.

Interestingly, after coming off a couple weeks of on and off writer’s block, mainly because I didn’t know how I was going to fix the middle of the novel, I was reading Sandi Kahn Shelton‘s blog last night and came across a link she had posted to a great post about conquering writer’s block that Caryn Caldwell (a.k.a. The Book Lady) had posted on her blog. Caryn listed 41 ways to get passed writer’s block and back to your story, including everything from No. 11’s “Brainstorm with someone,” to No. 24’s “Take a shower. Do the dishes … Do something that keeps your hands and body occupied and your mind free.”

In getting over my writer’s block, I tried Nos. 5, 10, 11, 21 (minus a few days, but I try to do this anyway, it just gets harder when I’m blocked), 22 (on this blog), 24 (the shower and dishes one), 28, 35, 37 (but I always do this one too, it’s not just a blocked thing for me, I save everything), 38 (but again, that’s something I always do with my writing), 39 (I started a whole new story), 40 and 41. Phew! In the end, for me, the outline/timeline was the perfect exercise for what I needed at the time. It helped me enormously.

Which of these have you used? Got any others to share?

Write On!

Day 25 and 26 and Authors Read

Forgot to check in for my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month yesterday, so this is a double post.

I wrote both days, but yesterday, after still going back and forth about the plot line of my novel, I decided to try a new tack. I needed something that could better help me see the whole story in one go, so I could better see the ebb and flow of the events and thus how the story played out without all the detail. So, I tried something I read about a while ago in an author’s interview. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the author (thank you, whoever you were), but this is something I know many authors do and I would now recommend — and something I think I will always do.

The author had said she (I do remember it was a she, but again, I’m sure plenty of other authors do this in one form or another) took out a calendar and wrote down which days events in her story happened so she could see the timeline and make sure the days all made sense. Good reason. But for me, I suspected doing a timeline — the really brief kind you see in National Geographic about global warming or something — would help me see the whole story better. So, I opened a new Word document, split the page into two columns and on one side I wrote Day 1, Day 2, etc., and on the other side I wrote the corresponding events. I also drew a seven-day grid on a piece of paper and noted the days that activity happened so I could see at a glace if it made sense that such and such an event happened three days before another related event.

This has been the most useful exercise I have done in a while on this novel. I’ve already come up with fixes to smooth out the story, and the best part is, I can easy move around events to see what works best before I edit the chapters. I haven’t completely finished the exercise yet and plan to tomorrow, then it’s back to revising the plot — but this time, I’ll have a plan.

Got any other plot revision tips?

Write On!

P.S. I heard about a very interesting site the other day and wanted to pass it on: Authors Read, on Blog Talk Radio. It’s basically what the name says, a series of audio files of authors reading their own works. I haven’t had a chance to look around it much, but it seems like a great place to try out new books as a reader and, as an author, to promote your work to the public. Check out the site, and if you like it, support the authors on there by getting the word out.

Day 24

Quick check in for day 24 of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month to say that I wrote for a bit this morning, but I’m already behind on my new goal of two sections revised each week. Everytime I get to a new section, I second guess myself based on what I had originally plotted in my outline. Lesson: Write closer to the outline in the first draft; trust your first instincts. Or maybe it’s ok the way it is. Here I go second-guessing myself again.

How do you stop yourself from second guessing?

Write On!