Archives for category: writing

One of the key literary questions all good writers ask themselves (pay attention: trade secret forthcoming) is “does my book suck?’ It’s good to get an answer to that question early enough as you slog your way through writing a mystery, for example, so that you can decide not only whom to kill off, but whether the book should get buried, too.

We’ve found that a good way to improve our writing is to work with a small group of other aspiring authors to critique each others’ work. These groups, as many authors have discovered, are essential for several reasons. The first, of course, is to have readers for your work, who  can point out the shortcomings in your writing (dialogue stilted, no sense of place, character behavior doesn’t make sense, way-too-convenient-and-utterly-implausible coincidences, boring-as-all-get-out plot) and point out what is working and what they like. These other authors can also help you fix the shortcomings through their suggestions for improving dialogue, descriptions, even little plot twists. A fresh pair of eyes, or two or three, will often hone in on just those things that you were worried about anyway, confirming that the book isn’t quite ready for prime time, but needs more work. (Maybe another dead body. Or more gratuitous sex.) Let’s face it: unless you have multiple personality disorder and have a second psyche lurking within, it’s very hard to be completely objective reading your own work.

Equally valuable is that through their affirmation of your work and tales of their own struggles and successes, other authors can encourage you to keep going. Having deadlines like “submit 10-15 pages for review every other week” also motivates you to stop thinking about writing and just put something on paper. Anything. (And we do mean paper: it’s really tough to critique an entire book on the computer screen.)

Need the others in the group be writing in the same genre? Our experience is no. One of us has been in groups with writers of science fiction, young adult, fictionalized memoirs, self-help, and fantasy. Even those who are not fans of your genre can provide key input. We once had a retirement-age male who admitted to an intense dislike of our main character. Nevertheless, he read our submissions closely, and found several inconsistencies not picked up by the others in the group who were, fortunately for one’s ego, much more outwardly supportive. (Should that be out-wordly supportive?). Mr. “I can’t stand your book” may have been grumpy and just trying to find things wrong, but he did provide a valuable service. (He wasn’t in our target market segment, anyway, which is a literary way of saying, ‘nanny, nanny boo-boo.’)

And that brings up another reason to join a critique group; by carefully reading the work of others, you will become a better writer. We believe this has happened to us. A fantasy writer we critiqued was very talented in describing the world of her story, which contained a number of creatures not found on earth, except perhaps in Hollywood back lots and nightmares. (Or possibly the Marianas Trench, which is still hiding some huge squids.  Oh, and Godzilla goes there on his summer vacation.) This author not only painted a picture, but also imbued it with vivid smells. Reading her story has impressed upon us the important role that smell plays in description.

It is helpful to be part of a group where the authors are at a similar stage of development because being able to share the non-writing aspects of an author’s life are also important. For instance, those authors at the very beginning can trade helpful hints about the process of writing: finding time, setting short term goals, outline versus character driven, number of words, and so forth. Authors further along are in the throes of attending conferences, looking for agents, or deciding whether and how to self-publish. And established authors have their own issues with publishers and agents. One such author recounted a story wherein she was complaining about such issues, and the unpublished authors in her critique group were rather unsympathetic: they were searching desperately for an agent and publisher, and thought anyone who had already published was in nirvana and should have no complaints.  When you are unemployed — and, alas, so many are these days — you want a job so you can complain about work like everyone else. So it is with unpublished authors.

As a pair of writers, we already function as a small group: regular feedback on what we’ve written, encouragement from one when the other frustrated with the writing, and so forth. Although I must admit, we’ve not had the experience where one of us has said “I can’t stand what you’ve written.” Nope, we don’t do that.  Putting rubber roaches in the other’s sugar bowl — absolutely.  Loathing the other’s writing — nope. Mostly, this is because in general we are on the same literary wavelength — common DNA will do that for you. But if one of us were to feel that way, we’d just quietly make changes, turning off the track changes so the other would never know what happened. We both have extensive experience from childhood denying that we, in fact, Did Something. It must have been the dog; after he ate my homework.

 

 

When one of us took her first fiction writing class, the instructor wrote on the board of the very first lesson, “any way’s the right way.” His point was that there is no formula for how to write a story or, more broadly, a novel. It’s whatever works.  Another writer, Annie Lamott, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird that includes a chapter entitled “Sh-tty First Drafts.” (Her point being, just get stuff on paper, because you are going to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite before your story is done. It’s OK to write “sh-tty first drafts.”)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some “helpful hints for self actualization as a novelist” that might include how long a story needs to be to be called a novel (rather than a novelette or short story), the fact that novels usually have one or more subplots, and so forth. But in terms of the actual writing, there are no rules. Or, to quote one of us who as a naval reservist defeated (more correctly, “whupped”) active duty Marines in a field exercise by smuggling in night vision scopes (an action that was, strictly speaking, against the rules of engagement): “Rules? There are no rules. This is war!”

“Any way’s the right way” is an apt description of how we write, especially since we each have different ways of writing. One of us is a plotter and planner, and the other is more a “just start writing” person who writes scenes, then figures out where they go and how they get glued together. Which method works the best? “Yes.”

Take Book 3, which is as yet untitled (though Blue Scream of Death might be a winner). The current construction of Book 3 resembles nothing so much as the Winchester Mystery House (for the uninitiated, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, he of “Winchester rifle” fame, believed that if she stopped building, she would die, which is why her house has rooms with no discernible purpose, halls that lead nowhere, and so forth: they were just stuck there to keep the house going and growing. Eventually, we’d like the Winchester Mystery House of Book 3 to magically morph into something grand like Kedleston (a particularly lovely neoclassic house in Great Britain and a particularly fine example of the work of architect Robert Adam).

As of today:

We know most of the story takes place in Hawai’i.

We know Emma is working on some kind of financial system implementation – and she hates financial system implementations – at a to-be-decided military activity in Hawai’I that has an acronym nobody understands except a few people in the Navy. But the name ends in “PAC” because every Navy activity in the Pacific area ends in PAC. (Like ComNavBaskRobPac, the Baskin Robbins concession at Navy bases in the Pacific. OK, I made that up.) We know that the military has “different” requirements for systems that causes Emma to be more interested in the assignment than would otherwise be the case (e.g., ships deploy, submarines submerge, and you don’t always have wireless or other connectivity when you want it).

We know Emma gets a lot of surfing in and also spends a lot of time in traffic jams on the H1 (doesn’t everybody?)

We know that Hawaiian culture plays a significant part in the story, both “true” Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian language, lua (Hawaiian martial arts), hula, and so on as well as ‘fun stuff about Hawai’I’ – pidgin, tiki drinks, etc. not to mention strange tourist apparel. (And is there ever strange tourist apparel in Hawai’i, starting with the number of people (men included) who really, really should not be wearing a thong. A burkha would be a public service. I’m just sayin.’)

We know Keoni is back on the mainland going to graduate school, and he hates surfing in the cold, sharky waters of northern California (doesn’t everybody?) after the warm, perfect waves of Hawai’i.

We know that Emma’s mom comes to visit and helps her investigate. Oh boy.

Oh, and we know we have a dead body. Or pieces of one, eew (you’ll have to read the book).

As it stands, Book 3 has a lot of sections written where character’s names are XX and YY, we haven’t developed backstory on those characters, and we haven’t quite figured out the timeline (that is, when does chapter 1 take place, chapter 2, and so forth), in short, we have the literary equivalent of Mrs. Winchester’s halls that go nowhere. But we are going through the existing chapters, creating a timeline, fleshing out the plot – including subplots – and making sure that we follow through on character quirks from other books (after all, our characters are getting older, even if slowly). And lastly, while we are not quite to the point of “literary liposuction,” we do practice “flesh out and flush out.” We flesh out dialogues, descriptions, scenes and settings that need “more detail and a sense of place and time.” We “flush out” because, as much as we love turning a clever phrase, no matter how entranced we get with a section – a character, dialogue, a scene, whatever – if it does not work or does not advance the story, it gets flushed. (Sometimes we cut cute sections and stick it in a Word document for possible resurrection in another book, another form, another scene.)

One of us who is particularly gun shy (Winchester shy?) about organization keeps telling herself, “any way is the right way.” And so she – and we – proceed to dream about, and remember, and place ourselves in Hawai’i and in Emma’s shoes, or “slippahs,” brah. And with that, we are off to find inspiration in a Mai Tai.

One of the unexpected delights of getting Outsourcing Murder out and publicized is the email we get from total strangers. (Thus far, and disappointingly for the one of us who is single, not one of the emails has contained an offer to sweep either of us off our feet, except for the unsolicited email from the local chimney sweep, which is not really that exciting unless you like getting ash on your shoes.)

On the one hand, we don’t want to conclude that everybody who has read the book loves it, despite our mother’s pride (and despite her shilling the book at her garden club meeting, to her hairdresser, and to total strangers she happens to meet at the shopping center – thanks, Mom!) On the other hand, those who read the book and hated it don’t appear to have disliked it enough to write to us to complain. So, we will, as Johnny Mercer would say, “ac-centuate the positive” and enjoy the unsolicited and favorable emails.

One of our buddettes just wrote to say she had finished the book and loved it, and that she could hear our voices in the character of Emma. She also remembered that at least one character’s name was drawn from grade school (though I don’t believe either of us actually whacked the kid whose name we swiped with a baseball bat. At least, nobody is admitting it). She was also relieved to find that a character she decided she liked wasn’t the murderer. (He was, we regret to say, a serial double parker, which in San Francisco’s narrow and congested streets should warrant the death penalty.) Our friend also asked about other characters – what was going to happen to them? In other words, where were we going in book 2 and book 3? (Book 2, Denial of Service, just got a significant edit from Diane and clocks in at longer than book 1. We are still shooting to get it out this summer.)

It’s a good time to note that we are not JK Rowling (she of the Harry Potter franchise) who, if it is to believed, plotted out her series in a fair amount of detail before embarking upon it. We’re not that organized, but are using the time honored literary technique known as “making it up as we go along.” But, we hope that people get as attached to some of our characters as both of us are to Ms. Rowling’s (Mary Ann is still in mourning that one of the Weasley twins met his demise in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

Now, we aren’t making absolutely everything up as we go along because ours is a series, which generally means the same characters survive from book to book (unless you kill them off, though if you write sci-fi you can bring them back as vampires or zombies or really bad Chinese food). We are, in fact, actively working on continuing various themes and characters throughout the books. For example, we plan on continuing to develop the “critter characters”: Gorgon (Emma’s parents’ dog), Edson (her landlady’s cat) and Chesty Puller (her landlady’s excitable dachshund puppy, introduced in Book 2). There are other themes we want to keep progressing with as well (e.g., Keoni’s musical group gets their CD out, we think, though they are probably not going to be Nā Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian music award) winners just yet).

We are also thinking about how Emma progresses not only as a young professional but in her love life. Does she make partner (does she care)? Does she end up with Huw, Keoni or a rich old coot who doesn’t have long to live but who kicks the bucket after 3 months or 30 pages and leaves Emma a rich widow? (Sorry, one of us confused her retirement plan with the plot of a future book.) We haven’t decided yet. Mary Ann has her preferences as to who Emma surfs happily ever after with. (Keoni, mostly because the surfing conditions in Hawai’i alone are reasons for Emma to end up with a nice Hawai’i boy. The surf in Northern Cal has been crappy for eons, the main reason Mary Ann is leaning towards Keoni, in a nice display of “not observing boundaries between author and character.”)

But we don’t totally control the plot. Once drawn, the characters dictate their own development. As authors, we provide their voices, but we can’t fundamentally change who they are or where they are going, unless we introduce a life-altering event, like seeing the ghost of Elvis, sprouting a third eye or tripping over a dead body. Oh wait, we did that. Never mind.

As we begin plotting out book three in earnest – it takes place in Hawai’i – we will “ponder all these things.” But we are also going to have a lot of fun on the journey, and Emma, Huw, Keoni and Stacey will, too.

By the way, for those in the vicinity of Ketchum, Idaho on March 6, we will be doing a lecture/reading and a book signing at the Ketchum Community Library (on account of one of us in a spectacular act of self promotion emailed the library director to ask if we could do it, to which she agreed: thank you, Colleen). So, y’all come. The combination of excellent skiing in Sun Valley and a “literary event” is hard to beat.

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