National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it’s known to writers and abbreviators alike came to a close last week and with it dreams of completed manuscripts were finally realized or dashed in one fell December day. Truthfully though, there can be no failures in National Novel Writing Month if you signed up and participated in any manner. Any attempt, however brief, demonstrates a will to put something on paper, and that in itself is an important victory in the writing process. I hope to see many debuts in 2016 that were written or at least cultivated during the month. I worked on a few things during this NaNoWriMo and it was productive, but November is always a little scattershot for me. I will probably never finish a whole book in the month’s span, at least not one that makes any sense or isn’t just a brief unintentional novelization of TheEmpire Strikes Back, but I still like using the window as a springboard to get a chunk of work done on some end of the year projects.
With NaNoWriMo officially at a close though, a new important and terrifying month falls upon writers. December. December is not only the magical month where you relearn that your eyelashes can freeze together if you fall asleep at a bus stop, but it’s also the month when the permafrost forces you back inside to sift through the 90,000 word fever dream you scribbled out in November. This is the month that will find you swaddled in blankets at your desk, sarcastically muttering, “Winter is coming” to your dog, like it’s his fault that you’re doing revisions with mittens on and nothing in your story makes sense. But even before you enter into the frigid muttering at your dog stage of the month, you should really throw the manuscript in a drawer for a week or so before attempting any revisions. Maybe spend a few days reading some other books and that time and distance away from your work will be invaluable when you choose to return to it, armed with a more objective eye and less muttering. And if you find yourself incapable of shutting your mind off from the story during that week, that’s still a positive sign, but maybe just confine your output to writing down some thoughts in a notebook and keep your manuscript locked away like it’s that creepy kid’s book from the Babadook.
Also, for those who did participate in NaNoWriMo and are in the midst of revisions, especially in regards to tinkering with their characters and their motivations, this Hayao Miyazaki video essay is quite a good watch. It does an excellent job touching on why Miyazaki’s films and characters are compelling beyond the gorgeous hand drawn visuals.
Fresh off climbing a volcano and watching an inspiring US Women’s World Cup win, I thought I would get back into the swing of things on the blog. I’ve been working tirelessly on the book writing side of things this year, but have been neglectful on the blogging side, which admittedly, if I had to choose between the duties of a contemporary writer, is how I would prefer it. But now that I’ve finished manuscript duties for the time being, I suppose it’s time to return to contributing to the overall betterment of culture and society by posting Nicholas Cage mashups and soccer videos on my blog.
I’ve also had some people email me asking about when the Exiles of the New World is going to be back in print. That’s something I’m hoping to have an answer to in the next few months. I have to wait and see what happens with this WIP before going ahead with Exiles. Even if this manuscript gets pushed back, Exiles should be back on the market at some point this year. Until then, please do not attempt to buy any of the gouged used copies being sold on amazon. Email me for more reasonable alternatives before buying a $60 copy online.
I’d like to quickly swing back to Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King and talk a little bit more about that novel. I have read some of Abercrombie’s stuff in the past and liked it, but have admittedly preferred the style of his fantasy contemporaries like Rothfuss, Martin and Lynch just a bit more. However, having recently read some of Half a King, I must say it is quite good. The first chapter is a masterclass on writing a very tight, involving opening that grips the reader from page one without plaguing them with exposition or resorting to the more popular crutches of YA fiction like a burst of immediate contextless action or using a prologue or zombies or zombie prologues. Either way, if you were struggling with your opening, regardless of what genre or age group you’re writing for, try to track down that first chapter. It’s a good one.
Speaking of Nicholas Cage mashups (just let this abrupt transition happen), did everyone see the Nicholas Cage as Game of Thrones character mashup? It’s amazing and I love almost everything about it, but my only problem with it is that I honestly thought this post would represent the literal end of the internet. Like I always imagined that if Jeff Bridges’ character in Tron kept driving his blue light bike out of the mainframe and eventually found the end of the internet many years later, it would just be this picture of Nicholas Cage as Bran Stark floating in the nothingness of space, kinda like when they found the edge of the universe in Dark City. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case, as this mashup exists and more internet content continues to be produced. Disappointing to say the least, but we must be strong and forge on.
Anyway, check out some other good writing links below and feel free to share your own.
PS. I have a new release date for Doors of Stone. It’s never.
Just kidding. I’m sure it will come out at some point, but not in 2015 as Rothfuss stated in a tweet, so Doors of Stone watch has officially been pushed back to at least 2016. I’m sure it will be worth the wait though. Can’t wait to check it out.
This Week’s Writing Links:
– Best in Print of 2015 so far (avclub)
– 10 Must Read Books for July (flavorwire)
– Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona (amazon)
– Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world (theguardian)
– Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Advice for Struggling Artists (fastcompany)
– Nicholas Cage as Every Game of Thrones Character (io9)
– Cool Maps of Fictional Places (joehill)
– Review of the Paper Towns Film Adaptation (thewrap)
– 7 Books to Read Before Seeing the Movie (kirkusreview)
– Every Time Travel Movie Ever Ranked (io9)
– Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness Avaliable as an ebook (sfsignal)
– How I Got My Literary Agent: Rebecca Phillips (writersdigest)
– How To Tell If Your Manuscript is YA (katebrauning)
– Hank and John Green’s new podcast (hankandjohn)
Although there are an endless number of topics that can be addressed in regards to what goes into writing a compelling story, today I would like to focus on the often overlooked topic of pacing. Admittedly, I may not place pacing above character, dialogue, prose, point of view or style (although I think pacing can greatly influence all of them) on the totem pole of story importance, but when used effectively, it can really enhance your story.
One of the reasons I think pacing’s importance is often marginalized is due to the fact that people often mistake it for as the occurrence of action or the arrival of plot to usher a character along on a somewhat contrived journey. People interpret “your pacing is a bit off” as “there aren’t enough cars blowing up.” Somehow pacing is assigned this odd stigma as being a sort of gimmicky element of genre used to string readers along and keep them turning the pages. Those in this mindset unfairly confuse it as a means to bookend your chapters with cliffhangers and wedge action into every narrative lull.
Pacing is much more than action though. It is the ebb and flow of your story. It is the pulse of your narrative. Even within literary fiction where there are generally few occurrences of car chases, dystopian zombie landscapes or alien invasions, effective pacing can be the key to great emotional payoffs. Do you have a laconic, somewhat internalized protagonist headed toward an impending meltdown? What would be more shocking? A pg 15 outburst or a simmering rage that cataclysmically erupts on pg 210?
Truthfully, you can make either work, but if you are really looking for those big emotional payoffs in your stories, you are going to have to build up to such moments to earn them and when you arrive there, make sure the impact isn’t dulled by a sloppy flow. Even within the context of genre fiction (and arguably all fiction), pacing at the beginning of your story can be just as important. Do you start your story with immediate action, leaving out any context your protagonist’s situation, or do you take some time to set the scene and risk the dreaded information dump through heavy expositional passages? If you hit the extremes on either of these polarizing approaches, you run the risk of losing your reader within the first thirty pages.
Just to further illustrate, let us say your protagonist is in a story where he is unexpectedly jarred loose from a comfortable and familiar life. For this particular narrative yarn, you could have the catalyst enter the protagonist’s life and force him out of his shell on pg 4, setting the plot in motion, but what did we really know of the protagonist’s old life from only reading pgs 1-3? Certainly, you can revisit elements of his old life as your character is propelled forward. He can meet people from his past and reflect on the life he once knew, but that requires a gradual release of exposition over time in bits and pieces. On the flip side, if you spend the first thirty pages establishing his life, routines, friends and family, and then have him jarred out of that existence, you have a better feel for what he is leaving behind, and as a result, what is at stake for him. The pitfall of this approach is that you can fall into a slow developing exposition heavy first section.
So, how can you make sure the pacing of your story is in a good place? Well, one way is to sit down and outline your book. This will give you a broad sense of how your novel flows. You probably won’t be able to make too many declarative statements from an examination this broad, but it will give you a head start on isolating any problematic sections. Another approach is to go through each of your chapters and look for sections with long dialogue exchanges. This isn’t necessarily a red flag in itself, but you should pay close attention to these sections and make sure that they do not become long meandering diatribes. These are the sections where you run the greatest risk of losing the interest of your readers.
I personally prefer to dive right into anything I’m writing with a little bit of action. However, I also suffer from the dreaded exposition dump, bringing any sense of established pace to a screeching halt. This always leaves my first thirty pages as something of a bloated mess. Not really a desirable place to be, but this is where the editing process becomes invaluable. It is within revisions that I am able to trim and redistribute information, finding some semblance of pace to begin the story. So, do not despair if you think the flow of your story is a bit uneven. Editing is a great place to tighten that up.
Because I tend to write genre fiction, I actually do like the function of cliffhangers as chapter bookends (not for every chapter though, moderation is key). Cliffhangers and twists can be easily misused if you stuff the belly of your chapters with filler information and then try to rescue them by tossing in some unexpected cheap thrills to close. Utilizing this approach, you run the risk of having a notably hollow story strung along by unearned moments of shock and awe. But, if you can use cliffhangers well and you put time and effort into crafting moments of genuine surprise, these moments will pay off for you.
Ultimately, I think pacing is about balance, flow and consistency. If you’re writing a thriller, you can’t count on 300 out of 307 pages of car chases and shoot outs to be an involving experience. You really have to work at the other elements of your story and pace the action, so that when your character is placed in a tense or dangerous atmosphere, we care about them. So, yes, you could argue that the other elements of writing (character, setting, dialogue) are directly effected by pacing in your story. Because they are. If you don’t take enough time to develop your characters, you will leave the reader disconnected or apathetic to their plight. And on the flip side, if you spend too much time developing your characters and don’t place them in any situations of dramatic tension, readers may tire of the experience. For an example of really effective pacing in a genre novel, I would cite Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games.’ That’s a great example of a book that utilizes effective pacing without skimping out on the core elements of what makes a compelling story.
For the majority of the writers out there, a platform, usually accomplished through an online presence (a website, blog, equivalent soap box), is necessary to let readers know that their work exists and should be purchased at the soonest possible convenience. Of course, there are writers who can thrive without websites, twitter accounts and the like, but their names usually end in things like King, Rowling, Meyer and Gaiman (and that’s not to say that these authors don’t put a lot of time and hard work into their platforms, signings, appearances, etc, because they do).
But for the rest of who don’t share such last names, prestige, or wildly successful Mormon vampire franchises, the online presence is almost a necessity. And one of the biggest questions that arises when talking about an author’s platform, is how much time should a writer dedicate to their platform and how much time should be spent actually writing their manuscript?
Well, there really is no easy answer to this dilemma because there is no rule that says either of these things are necessary. Some people may just want to blog and socialize, working on their books in a very casual and gradual manner, and some people just want to write books and be left alone. That’s absolutely fine for an author to do that, but I think this post is more for the writers out there who are trying to find some semblance of balance between the two worlds.
If I had to come up with an ideal ratio, I would say I personally shoot for an 80/20 split in favor of my time being put into manuscript writing. Do I always hold to that? No. Absolutely not. Realistically, I think most days I probably fall into a 60/40 split with my platform occupying a bigger chunk of the day as a mild procrastination tool on the creative front. On the really bad days, I drift into an unenviable 90/10 split in favor of blogtwitterfacebooking and those nights often come to a notably unproductive end with me making pancakes, watching ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and cursing my characters for not being as cool as Han Solo.
If you really want to get a feel for where you are in the ongoing manuscript vs platform battle, there is an easy test. Close your eyes and ask yourself this question. When you have a full day free for writing, is your biggest problem for the day trying to form your characters, outline your plot and punch out your 1,000 words or is it trying to break out of the cycle of constant twitter checks, website maintenance and email drafts? If it is the latter, it might be time to try to limit your time spent on social media and forge some new routines. Try to dedicate certain times of the day to answering emails instead of checking every five minutes. Treat checking a chunk of your tweets, posts, etc at the end of the day as a reward for a productive day on the narrative front. Or if you have a word count goal for the day, check your messages early in the day, then work straight through until you hit your goal. Then you can dip back into the twitterverse guilt free.
Another easy way to get your writing back on track? Subscribe to a writing magazine like Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers. I know you would think that periodicals like this might provide another excuse to distract yourself with interviews, contests and writing prompts, but for me it has the opposite effect. After I read a couple of articles on inspiring author successes and upcoming writing conferences, I always find myself back at the computer in a matter of minutes with a renewed sense of inspiration and clarity for my writing. These magazines also feature a lot of helpful articles on budgeting your time as a writer too.
I know it may be cliche to suggest that the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to forge new routines and find new motivation for your work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Why not take a shot at improving your word count output or page revisions in a day? Use some mid-year goals for motivation. Is this your first novel? Then why not shoot to be drafting a query letter for agents by July? Are you working on a series? Why not try to have the series outlined and in progress by May? Either way, it’s up to you to take the initiative and make 2015 a memorable year in your writing career, so get going!
Dialogue is an important element of writing fiction. Even a book filled with the most wonderfully lyrical prose can be derailed by characters spouting tin eared speech. Today’s post not only examines the importance of dialogue, but more specifically how even the smallest tweaks (regardless of how innocuous the exchange may seem) can shape your characters in more ways than you would believe. This will be demonstrated with the differences between the responses, “Is it?” and “It is?”
So, let’s say you’re writing a first-rate thriller novel called ‘The Murdering’ with the outstandingly original characters Tom and Janet. Tom comes home late, despite numerous news bulletins warning that a serial killer is on the loose, victimizing sad sack businessmen with decaying marriages, which Tom just so happens to be. As he stands in the foyer, shedding his coat, concerned wife Janet enters the picture and comments, “You’re late.” Tom glanced up at her. “It’s raining,” he responded. Now, it’s Janet’s big moment. “It is?” she said. Okay. Now based on that response, what can we deduce about Janet?
For starters, “It is?”, regardless of the modifiers and tags that may follow or precede it, will almost always be read in our minds with a challenging, doubtful tone. We almost expect, “Are you sure?” to immediately follow the inquiry. The character shows no sign of conceding to the fact that it may be raining outside and caused Tom to be late. It can be read as stating this semi-question as a polite alternative to, “No, it’s not. You’re a lying scumbag, Tom. You’re seeing her again, aren’t you? I hope you get knocked off by that very specific serial killer on the loose,” or simply as a device to buy more time, so they can phrase their disagreement in more diplomatic terms.
Regardless, it is sharp, almost bordering on an accusation when uttered. You’ve established character with this response. You’ve established conflict. There is drama in Tom and Janet’s once picturesque marriage and you have laid the foundation for it without having to steer the reader and use less than exciting telling-not-showing prose like: Tom and Janet are not happy. Their marriage is on the rocks. They haven’t slept together in months. Tom stays out late. Janet suspects he might be seeing someone. Tom and Janet might need to hire a better writer to chronicle their lives. Blah, blah, blah.
Okay. Let’s try again with a different response in this rather generic prompt. Tom arrived home. He shed his coat, surprisingly unmudered.Janet leaned against the bannister, her nightgown fluttering open.“Where were you?” she questioned.“It’s raining,” Tom responded.“Is it?” Janet said. “Is it?” is a more passive response. It signals a concession, an ignorance to the conditions outside and in its passive nature forgives Tom for being late in these businessmen being murdered by serial killers like conditions that the business community is forced to endure. We can almost hear Janet whispering it to her estranged husband in a euphoric haze. Maybe she just popped a few Xanax beforehand. Maybe she just finished reading the Glass Menagerie. Well, these deductions might be a little much, but you get the picture. Just by flipping these two little words, you’ve shaped your character in a completely different way.
Now, we can’t expect the reader to grasp all that information from a little bit of dialogue and to be honest, you might not have wanted to imply nearly that much. Maybe you wanted a simple exchange between your characters. That’s fine. What this comes down to is authenticity. Choose the correct line of dialogue for your character and you will have cut a little notch into their personality. If you stay true to them throughout your story, you will lend them the authenticity both you and the reader desire. So, what do you hear your Janet saying to your Tom when he comes home late? Is she passive? Is she aggressive? Is she packing a bag while she says it? Sharpening a knife? Watching their wedding video? Working on a bike in the garage? Either way, it is important to remember that there is no bit of dialogue too small to ignore.
It’s that time of year again when “Best of” lists litter the internet and fill our Amazon carts with prospective purchases that will probably never leave the save for later section (I think my actually order to place in cart rate is like 14% retention, which has to be pretty good all things considered).
Amongst the early best of lists reporting in, we have Storyville’s Top Ten Best Short Stories of All Time, Goodreads Best of Fiction Awards, the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2013 and Film.com’s video countdown of the 25 Best Movies of 2013.
In other news, I hope NaNoWriMo went well for everyone that participated. Even if you didn’t finish an entire novel, I’m sure there is half a book, a chapter, a paragraph, even a single sentence that you wrote that made it worth it. Good job, NaNoWriMoers. And of course, it was very sad to hear about Nelson Mandela’s passing. At the age of ninety five it is hard to argue that he lived anything other than a full life, even if a good portion of it was robbed from him. RIP, Mr. Mandela.
This week’s writing links include the return of Jurassic Park, the pending release of J.J. Abrams’ novel ‘S’, a rumor that Benedict Cumberbatch might be up for a Star Wars role, io9’s September Book Club for Max Barry’s ‘Lexicon’ and nostalgic Redwall quotes from reddit.
J.J. Abrams debuted an odd sci-fi trailer titled ‘Stranger’ a few weeks ago, which was being pegged as another one of his secret projects, most likely a TV show from his company Bad Robot. Today, it was revealed that the project is actually a book that Abrams has been developing with writer Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis) called ‘S’. Not much is known about the book outside of its release date (October 29) and that it will have an unorthodox setup (not surprising) including notes written in the margin and other oddities like a scribbled on cocktail napkin wedged between the pages. Should be interesting.
– Jurassic Park 4 Set For June 2015 Release (iamrogue)
It’s interesting to hear Martin talk candidly about his ultra popular books, especially describing the inception of the series when he thought it might be a novella. It goes without saying that it would have been history’s longest novella (although truthfully novellas stops being novellas around 50,000 words). Martin also talks about how seeing some of his characters being brought to life on television has fleshed them out in a way they never were on the page. In other news, links!
– George R.R. Martin Answers Tough Questions About Song of Fire and Ice (io9)
– Fight Club Gets A Sequel As A Graphic Novel (yahoo)
– New Literary Agent Alert: Beth Campbell of Bookends LLC (writersdigest)
– 10 Literary Authors You Didn’t Know Wrote Science Fiction (flavorwire)
There are a slew of writing and sci-fi links this week, but I’d like to take note of Owen King’s debut novel ‘Double Feature.’ With the release of his novel (which received a solid ‘B’ review from the AV Club), King is officially marking his entry into the family trade. Owen, in a similar but not as extreme measure as his brother Joe, chose not to publicize his family heritage on the press release for novel. Although I have yet to get around to reading Joe Hill or Owen King’s books, I think it is admirable that they are trying to forge their own paths without riding on the coattails of their father’s accomplishments. By all accounts, Joe Hill’s books have been really solid so far and it sounds like Owen is off to a good start too. I wish them the best of luck.
Also, as seen in the photo above, the BBC has put together a radio show adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere‘ featuring voice work from Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones). The first entry will be available to download for free up until March 29, which will mark the release of the second part of the radio show, so make sure to grab it now while it is up. I quite enjoyed the first part. It is topnotch.
– Lev Grossman Speaks About The Magicians Trilogy (flavorwire)
– AV Club Reviews Owen King’s ‘Double Feature’ (avclub)
– Download The First Episode of The BBC’s ‘Neverwhere’ Radio Show (io9)
– Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘The Private Eye’: A Bold Move For Digital Comics (avclub)