Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 3

 This is the third installment of my take on questions that pop up frequently on online writing sites. The previous two can be found here:


Scene breaks: What are they, and how do I designate them?

These represent breaks in time or place (for instance, when you don't want to include a description of traveling from point A to point B). They're also used when you switch point of view character within a given chapter. In published novels, they're usually indicated by a blank line or a fancy little symbol, but in standard manuscript format, you simply type a # and center it.

Should I outline before writing or "pants it"?

This is really a matter of personal preference. Some people can't write a thing without a solid outline, some are inveterate pantsers, and many are somewhere in between. I tend to need to pants my first draft, but after, I'll outline in order to organize my thinking about what needs to be revised and rewritten. Some people pants some projects and outline others. Whatever works for getting a finished draft on the page. Finished drafts can be rewritten, revised, and polished.

Should I practice with short stories before trying a novel?

There's a lot to be said for this approach. Short stories are less intimidating and faster to write, and they can help you practice your writing chops. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have some writing credits when you're trying to sell your first novel. But if the novel isn't what an agent or editor wants, then all the publications and awards in the world probably won't help. And if you don't enjoy writing short fiction, then trying to force yourself to write it can be like hitting yourself with a hammer.

For a little perspective, there are plenty of successful novelists who never sold any short fiction prior to selling their first novel, and there are successful short fiction writers who have never published a novel. Short fiction and novel length are very different in some ways, and the skill sets don't always overlap perfectly.

Do what works best for you.

Should I try something bold and experimental for my first novel?

Most people will tell you no because you have to crawl before you walk (and there is plenty of disagreement about what actually is bold and experimental anyway). But if this advice means you're not writing that story that's been burning to get out for years and are trying to force something simpler that doesn't grab you, then it's not much good. The question is, how tolerant are you of frustration? How willing are you to rewrite, maybe even re-conceive a project if it doesn't turn out the way you planned or if your critiquers all tell you it gave them whiplash to try and read it?

Another thing to consider is what style of novel have you read the most of. If you have a penchant for literary fiction, then writing a fantasy novel that incorporates techniques that are more common in literary fiction might come very naturally to you.

Should I finish a first novel draft before revising or revise as I go?

Another personal taste thing. There are some revision writers, but consider that a lot of novels never get finished because the writer gets hung up rewriting and polishing the opening chapters. A crappy first draft is revisable, whereas a story that exists only in your head is never going to be perfected.

Showing versus telling. What does it mean?

It's the difference between writing a narrative summary of an event or emotion, and actually immersing your reader in it. And while we're often reminded of the importance of immersion, a novel that shows everything that happens in lavish detail would be excessively long and very slowly paced. There's a place for telling or summarizing, and there's a place for showing.

Example of telling:

I rushed across town but was late to the play. The usher wouldn't let me in until intermission. This made me sad because my date would think I'd stood him up.

Example of showing:

I dashed through the streets, dodging holiday shoppers and ducking though every alley. But when I arrived at the theater, the usher shook his head and pointed to one of the seats in the lobby. "Sorry, ma'am. Play's started. I can't let you in until intermission."

Tears pricked at my eyelids. Tom was probably sitting in there next to an empty seat, wondering why I'd stood him up. "Damn."

Notice that showing and telling exist on a continuum, and if you want to be ultra nit picking, everything we do in writing is really telling (since we are using words and not using a camera). But some word choices will depict a scene or immerse the reader more fully in the emotions and experiences of your character than others will. Telling/summarizing isn't always bad, either. Sometimes we should skim over things that are needed to connect the dots between the important stuff in a story. The thing you should really ask yourself is whether or not you want to present a series of events, words, thoughts, or emotions as if they are happening in the story's here and now, or do you want to summarize them for the reader.

Swear words in secondary-world fantasy. Are they okay? Are they required?

Yes, but they're not mandatory. There's an entire spectrum of approaches that work here, from Tolkien, who used none, to Jordan who made up his own swear words, to Scott Lynch, whose characters drop plenty of F and S

bombs. Many modern fantasy writers have characters with more contemporary, and often profane, voices, but not all do.

This article is an amusing dissection of the topic.

What is a query letter?

This is essentially a professional communication that is intended to convince an agent or editor that you've written a novel that's well-written and interesting enough to be marketable. The point is to get them to want to read the opening chapter and (hopefully) get sucked in.

Generally, queries consist of 1-4 short paragraphs, and are 250 words or less (shorter is better). They should be written in third person, present tense, and are not attempts to summarize the entire plot, but they should address a few basic questions.

1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What major obstacle must be overcome to get this?
4. What happens if he or she fails (the stakes)?

Janet Reid's website Query Shark is an invaluable resource for writers who are trying to hash out a query, as is the Absolute Write's Water Cooler's Query Letter Hell subforum (which is pw protected, so I can't link it here directly).

What is a plot synopsis?

This is a longer (usually one page to ten pages, depending on an agent or editor's stipulations) summary of your story's main arc. Like the query letter, it should be written in present tense and third person, but it is supposed to
reveal the main crisis and resolution, and the ending of the story, not just set up the major breaking point.

Here's a decent rundown of what a plot synopsis is.

Why don't my friends/loved ones all want to read or provide feedback on my stories?

This is a common question newer writers have. Think about the strain it might place on a relationship you cherish if someone asked you to provide an unbiased review of something they'd poured their heart into, and you didn't like it. Then there's the fact that reading and critting a story, let alone an entire novel, represents a huge investment in time and energy, and most people who don't write themselves won't know how to give useful feedback anyway. Better to join an online or offline writer's group or critting circle.

There' also simply the chance that your friends and relatives aren't big on reading, or don't care for the kind of story you're writing. Do you really want your fantasy-hating brother to tell you whether or not you've written a good fantasy novel (unless, perhaps, your goal is to write fantasy for people who hate fantasy)?

A great site for people who write fantasy to discuss writing-related issues and to give and receive critiques is Fantasy-Writers.org.

If I dislike reading fiction, can I still write it?

This one puzzles me more than the others, I have to admit. First of all, why would you want to create something you dislike? I want to write, because ever since I've been tiny, written stories have been a source of delight to me. But that's me, and I suppose everyone is different.

To answer the question, though, of course you can write fiction if you don't read it. No one's going to stop you. But I think an enjoyment of reading (and doing a lot of it) is pretty darned important if you want to read fiction that very many other people will want to read.
One of the more puzzling attitudes I've encountered among would-be writers

The basics of storytelling, the rhythm and flow of language, and the fundamentals of grammar are things people have varying knacks for. And of course we can all improve greatly on our basic talents by studying craft and practicing it. But a lot of what feels intuitive to me as a writer, a lot of the things I feel (and have been told) I do fairly well are things I've picked up from reading a ton of fiction and non fiction both.

I suppose there may be a very occasional literary prodigy out there. But I suspect that the overwhelming majority of skilled (let alone successful) writers are also voracious and enthusiastic readers.

So this is it for now. Does anyone have any other questions or thoughts on the answers to such? 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 2

 My last entry addressed some questions that come up with unfailing regularity on the writing sites I frequent. today, I will continue with these questions. Again, these answers are my own opinions, though they're based on the consensus that generally emerges from discussion threads on these topics and from my own research.

Can a book have the same title as another book (or are titles trademarked)?

No, individual book titles are not copyrighted or trademarked. However, titles associated with franchises (like, say, Star Trek), or titles for a series of books (for instance, the famous Harry Potter series) often are. But if you're worried about the title for your individual book duplicating the title of another individual book that does not incorporate the name of a franchise or series, it's most likely not an issue.
An example of two contemporary novels with duplicate titles
In fact, a quick search for a book of a given title on Amazon reveals that it's exceedingly common for books by different authors to have the same titles.

Whether it's a good idea or not is another question. It's probably not great to have the same title as a classic work, or as a well-known work in the same genre. Publishing another fantasy novel called A Game of Thrones (even if the title hadn't been incorporated into that of a successful television franchise) is a bad idea, for instance, and you could get in trouble if it looks like you're actually trying to capitalize on George RR Martin's success by "passing off" your own work as his.

But some names are more generic than others, even so. A search of the title The Stranger, for instance, finds (in addition to the English translation of Camus's classic), a number of more recent novels.

Another thing to be aware of, if you're pursuing trade publishing (the route by which you submit manuscripts to agents and/or publishing houses), there's a very real chance your "working title" will be changed prior to publication. Editors often have a better idea than writers do what is potentially attention grabbing.

Is it bad to write in present tense?

Nope. The approach is fairly popular in YA fantasy (Wendig's Under the Empyrean Sky uses a deep, limited third pov in present tense), but there are plenty of examples in adult fiction too. Like with anything else, think about the effect you're trying to produce and strive to do it well.

Juliette Wade has a nice blog piece about writing in present tense.

Italics for a character's internal thoughts: Is it okay to do this?

This is a question that can probably be answered by grabbing some books down from your own shelves. Some writers use this technique, some don't. It's a function of voice and style. Some use it for some character povs and not others. In his First Law trilogy, for instance, Joe Abercrombie made heavy use of italicized thoughts for Glokta's pov, but not for his other pov characters. A few stipulations, of course. They're usually used to show first person and/or present tense thoughts in an otherwise third-person, past-tense narrative. And of course, you wouldn't show the thoughts of a character in this way unless you're writing in omni or limited third (and for the latter, only for the pov character).

Italics for telepathy: also okay?

Some authors do this. Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lacky come to mind. If you're also using italics for directly worded thoughts, be sure your context and tagging make it clear whether something's being thought or said.

How about for flashbacks?

I've seen published novels that do this, but many people claim they dislike reading long passages that are italicized. My personal belief is that if you are writing a long flashback sequence, one that represents a genuine scene break, you should write it as a properly framed scene and not rely on font style to cue the reader. But this is also something that one's editor or publisher will weigh on heavily on.

Novel length: How long is a novel supposed to be?

Technically, for adult fiction, anything longer than novella length (40,000 words) is a novel, but this doesn't mean that a 45,000 word novel is long enough to be terribly marketable in most adult fiction markets. It also doesn't mean your 200,000 word opus will be an easy sell, even if it is epic fantasy.

This site is often sited as a good summary of average word count ranges for different genres, in the US at least. Does this mean something longer or shorter won't sell if it's really good? Of course not, but it means that agents might be more leery, as there will be fewer places for them to submit it.

Another way to get an idea about normal word counts in a given genre or subgenre is look at the submissions guidelines for publishers who take your genre and see what they stipulate for word count. There can be quite a lot of variety, even among Big Five subsidiaries. I blogged about word counts in debut secondary world fantasy novels a while back, and in fact, there are a number of longer ones that have been published in recent years. This is a small number of titles that probably do not resemble a random assortment of what's been published in recent years, and it does not mean that longer novels are easier to sell overall.

What is point of view?

Point of view (or narrative viewpoint) is the "eyes" through which your story is told. A writer has many options, including:

1. First person (narrator is in the story and uses terms "I" or "me" to refer to him or herself).
2.  Second person (narrator uses "you," as if addressing the protagonist, or as if the reader were the protagonist).
3.  Third Person (objective third, omniscient third, limited third). All characters referred to by name or as he/she etc.
There are different approaches, narrative depths and voices within each of these as well.
This site has a good overview of the different points of view.

What is deep point of view?

This is an approach or style that can be used in first person or limited third person where the voice and perceptions of the point of view character are presented in a very intense and immediate way. The purpose is to make the reader feel very close to the action, as if he or she is seeing and feeling the story through the protagonist's eyes as it unfolds, rather than being told it from a greater narrative distance.

Here are a couple links that discuss how to write deep point of view.

What is close third point of view?

I'm not sure. People mention it sometimes in writer's forums, but it's not in any of my craft books, and googling it comes up with nothing. I suspect it's a misnomer for "deep" point of view, or possibly just limited third.

If there's such a thing as "deep" point of view, what is "shallow" pov?

If the world really were arranged into binary pairs, then there would logically need to be a shallow pov to offset deep. Some writers say they resent the implication that anything that isn't "deep pov" must be shallow writing. But few things in life are all-or-nothing, and viewpoint is another example of this. While deep pov proponents can sound a bit like they're preaching about the One True Literary Way sometimes, pov exists of a continuum, and stories written at a greater narrative distance can be just as "deep" or compelling as stories written in deep third or first. In fact, some readers find continuous immersion in deep third to be exhausting and want or expect the narrative camera to be drawn back sometimes. The challenge lies in knowing when and how to do this effectively.

Omniscient versus Head Hopping

What's the difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping? Omniscient point of view is telling the story through the eyes of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator who is usually not a character in the story (unless they are a first-person pov narraotr who has supernatural or transcendent prescience for some reason, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos). This narrator can relate the thoughts and perceptions of different characters in the story, and he/she can share things that none of the characters in the story know. But the narrator does this from the outside. This creates more narrative distance than limited third, but it allows the author more narrative freedom.

Head hopping happens when someone dives deeply into the pov of more than one character within a scene. It can result from a misunderstanding of what an omniscient narrator is supposed to be, or is can result from someone trying to write in limited third without properly cued pov changes.

This blog does a good job of explaining what head hopping is and how it differs from the skilled use of omniscient.

Multiple point of view characters. Is there a rule about how many I can have?

No. First-person novels most often have just one, but it's becoming increasingly common for there to be multiple first-person narrators. Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennet use this approach in their fantasy novels, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible does it masterfully. The main thing to consider is how you're going to let the reader know you're in a new pov (named scene or chapter breaks are common) and how you're going to establish very clear and distinct first-person voices for each character.

It's far more common to have multiple limited third person pov characters. Many modern epic fantasy novels are written this way. An example I've read recently is Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. He writes in a fairly deep pov, and the voices of each of his characters are very distinct and permeates the narrative as well as their dialog. Not all authors do this to the same extent as he does, but it can work very well. One thing to consider if you don't want your tale to swell into a 200k or more word epic is whether you need as many characters as George RR Martin uses in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. The ideal number of viewpoint characters is the number needed to tell your story.

Prologues. Are they loved? Are they reviled? Are they ever necessary?

A prologue is an introductory chapter that contains information that's not part of the main story but it is required to set it up. There are different kinds of prologues, and some of these have become more or less fashionable in fantasy over the years. Prologues are something that many readers (and editors and agents) say they hate these days, but they still seem to be pretty common in published novels.

One piece of advice I've seen is to write your novel, starting with chapter 1, and try to weave your back story and essential world building into the main narrative in intriguing little dribbles. If you (and your beta readers) still think something's missing that's vital to the story, go back and add your prologue. What you should probably think long and hard about are those "in the beginning" kinds of history lessons, or a scene that shows your protagonist being born, or something like that. I've heard that these have become somewhat clichéd in fantasy in recent years. This is my personal opinion, but prologues that aren't constructed as scenes, where something is shown in real time, and where a character isn't at the center, are less likely to draw the modern reader in (modern readers have, after all, many things competing for their attention besides your novel).

Here are a couple of pieces on prologues.

This is a good stopping point for now. The next entry will cover a third cluster of common questions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Questions About Writing That Pop Up a Lot on Writing Forums

I'm a moderator over on a fantasy writing site, and we get a steady influx of members. I've also participated in the Cascade Writers Workshop three times now. Over the years, I've seen some of the same questions pop up over and over again. Many of them are questions I myself had not so long ago. So I've compiled some of the more frequent ones and have provided some answers.

Note that these are based on discussions I've had with other writers and on various blogs and craft books I've read as well, but in the end, they're my own opinions.

Active Versus passive voice.

Most of us were told at one time or another not to use passive voice in our writing, but many people are unsure of what passive voice is.

Some people think that any use of a "to be" verb in a sentence is passive, but this is not true. Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is the recipient of its action. So in the above sentence "most of us were told at one time..." is passive voice, because most of us (the sentence's subject) is being acted on by its verb (told). The second part of the sentence "but many people are unsure..." is not passive, because the sentence's subject is performing the action. "Many people" is the subject, and they're performing the action of being unsure.

It's really more accurate to think of clauses within sentences as being active or passive, rather than the sentence itself, because complex sentences can have multiple clauses. Consider the following sentence:

"I went to the fair and was approached by numerous people while I was there."

The first part (I went to the fair) is active, while the second part (was approached by...") is passive.

You can also have a passive clause with no to be verb: "Racked by stomach cramps, I raced to the bathroom."

The first part of this sentence (Racked by nausea) is passive.

While the overuse of passive voice can indeed make writing cumbersome and roundabout, it has a place. For instance, rewording the sentence "Most of us were told at one time or another not to use passive voice..." requires us to actually state who did the telling so we can turn them into the subject of the sentence.

Our teachers told most of us not to use passive voice..."

This works well enough if we want the focus of the sentence to be on teachers, but if we want the recipient of the action to be the focus of the sentence, then keeping it passive is appropriate.

Like anything else, use it mindfully and for a reason.

Chapter Length

How long should my chapters be, and should they all be the same length? This one comes up a lot on writer's groups. The best way to answer this is to grab some novels down from your overflowing bookshelves (if you're interested in writing fiction, I'm assuming you're also a bookworm) and see for yourself.

The answer, of course, is that answers can vary in length from a single sentence to tens of thousands of words. The average length of chapters in a book will depend on the pacing, the structure of the story, and personal preference. Some writers (Pratchett is one) don't use standard chapter breaks at all. And many writers vary chapter length quite a lot within a given novel. Typical adult novel chapters are between 2000-5000 words long, but some are longer, and some are shorter. Use the approach that works best for your story.

Describing a character when you're writing in limited third or first person.

This one comes up a lot. Obviously, you can't randomly zoom the camera out when writing in character pov, and mirror scenes tend to be clichéd. So how do you show the reader how your character looks if you don't want him or her to come off as incredibly vain or self conscious?

The first question to ask yourself is how much detail does the reader need? Is the precise color of your protagonist's eyes or the precise shape of his or her nose important? Most readers are pretty good at drawing a decent mental picture from a few generalities. There are some details of appearance that can be important, however. Maybe your character has some feature that makes him or her stand out or that makes other people react to him or her in a certain way. Say your character has a hideous scar, or is of a different race than most of the people around him or her (sadly, most readers will assume a character is white, unless shown otherwise).

In these cases, it might be plausible to show other people reacting to the character's appearance and possibly to have the person thinking about his or her appearance. For instance, someone calls your protag "Ginger," or asks him how the weather is up there, or stares at the scar on her face. Another technique is to have the character responding to the appearance of another person. In the beginning of Jay Lake's novel Green, the protagonist is seeing a white man for the first time, and her reaction to his appearance leaves little doubt that darker skin, hair and eyes are normal to her.

Inciting/initiating event versus plot catalyst

This is one of those pesky terminology questions, because different writers and editors will use different terminology for the same concepts. Typical stories have something that gets the ball rolling at the very beginning of (usually by the end of the first chapter). It is sometimes called the inciting event or initiating event or first plot point. This represents a break in business as usual that nudges the story along. In character-driven stories, it's most often something that happens to the character directly, but sometimes it can be something that happens off camera, or in a prologue. Regardless, it will disrupt the life of the main character or characters.

Stories that feel like they have ridiculously slow starts often are so because the inciting event happens too late.

The plot catalyst typically happens later on in the story (10-15% in usually), but still in what can be considered the first "act." It can be an event, another character, conflict etc. that forces the protagonist to make a choice about whether to act in some way. It's sometimes called the point of no return, because once it happens, there's no way out for the main character(s) but through.

Stories where it feels like the protagonist is wandering aimlessly for too long are often missing this element.

Is it all right to write characters who are a different gender, race, sexual orientation or culture than myself?

Yes. If it weren't, then many classic works of literature would never have been written. If you're writing something about or from the point of view of a culture or life experience you're not very familiar with, however, it's probably a good idea to do your homework, and to spend some time learning about stereotypes and potential pitfalls. Research what cultural (mis)appropriation is and how to write about other cultures, or create new ones that integrate aspects of existing cultures, without doing this. And run it by a reader or two who can tell you if you've made any gaffes.

And most of all, be aware that everyone is first and foremost an individual. No character can be a generic representation of his or her gender, orientation or culture, anymore than you yourself are.

But aren't you supposed to write what you know?

Write what you know is probably the most mis-cited, misunderstood piece of writing advice in existence. If writers could only use settings, experiences and characters that they have lived directly, or about which they are experts, most novels would never be written.

Write what you know means you are supposed to bring your own lived experiences to the table in your writing on order to create believable and emotionally authentic responses, but it doesn't mean that every character must be (or should be) you, or that you must have personally done everything your characters have. Use your capacity for imagination and empathy, not to mention your experiences with different people and situations, to create realistic, three dimensional characters.

And be willing to research things too. Never been in a battle? Don't just study historical records of real battles (though this is a good start). Read first person accounts of people who have.

This is a good breaking point for this week, but I've got plenty more FAQs that come up on writing forums and in workshops.