Noah Chinn used to be a travelling fool but has now taken to settling down and writing for a spell. He’s published two urban fantasy novels with Mundania Press: Bleeding Heart Yard, and Trooper #4. His third novel, Getting Rid of Gary, should be available this winter.
Conventional writing wisdom tells us that we need to strip away from our first drafts. To tighten up our prose and make the words sing. When we’re first putting our thoughts down on paper we often end up being redundant or saying too much and don’t even realize it. An editor’s eye can trim a manuscript down to what’s needed, if it makes the story stronger.
But if you worry too much about it in your first draft it can be taken too far. What happens when you become so focused on being direct that you forget to stop and smell the roses? A writer has to be mindful of the journey you want to take the reader on, not just the destination, and that means making sure they see what you see in your mind.
For example, in my latest story I mentioned two adjoining convenience stores, based on the ones I grew up next to in Oshawa. On my third edit I realized my description consisted of this: a convenience store with an arcade game in it. Given that I was trying to take the reader back to a moment in the character’s youth, this hardly seemed sufficient. Huge chunks of the story were more like a glorified synopsis.
I didn’t get across anything that gave life to its place in the character’s history: Memories of going to each store to compare the inventory, looking for candy on sale, or finding the last “look under the cap to win” Coke of the season. Trying those god-awful Popeye candy cigarettes that tasted like sugar and chalk when they were out of the good ones—the ones made of chocolate, wrapped in real paper and kept in a cigarette box…
Normally I’m a taker-outer, but in this case I’ve had to turn the tables and become a putter-inner. Where do you stand on this when it comes to your edits?
Aurora-winning poet Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and self-proclaimed bibliophile.
Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was released from ChiZine Publications in 2012.
Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts. Unwisely. When you look into a book, who knows what might be looking back.
When readers come to your work, they come to it from many different perspectives. Some of them will be your ideal readers; many of them won’t be. So rather than thinking of every reader as starting the story at the same place, it’s useful to keep in mind that like in Plinko, you can start the reading experience from any number of positions. Your job, as the author, is to try to take these divergent readers and bring them all to approximately the same place. That is, your story—as you want it received, or as close to that as possible. If you make the entry too narrow, you leave a lot of readers you could capture outside the box.
But on top of that, let’s say that each of these nodes is a major aspect of the story—plot turns, characters, reveals, reversals, etc. Depending on their position, when your readers hit these nodes they can spin off in all kinds of directions. Some of these are okay. Some of these will be entirely spurious, and will throw your reader out of the story.
The biggest thing having a story critiqued by eighteen writers taught me was how easily eighteen people can get different meanings or can turn on different nodes. As I say, sometimes you want this. But a lot of the time, the reader is going to be spinning out on something you had no idea was there.
So when editing, go back and think about where the reader needs to coming from, what information he or she needs, in order to get where you want him to go. I know it sounds easy, but it isn’t. So practice. Ask your first readers. Ask your editors. If someone doesn’t end up where you wanted them to be then it’s because you didn’t get them there. Yes, readers read badly. They read sloppily. They read quickly.
Kim Neville writes contemporary fantasy. She has sold stories to On Spec and Leading Edge and is a graduate of Clarion West. When she’s not writing stories or hanging out with her husband and daughter, she likes to visit the beach near her home in Vancouver. You can learn more about her at www.kimneville.com.
Recently a friend was lamenting her inability to finish a first draft. She’s got plenty of ideas and a solid handle on writing craft. The problem? She can’t write a sentence without her inner editor piping up to tell her why it’s not good enough.
Cultivating a sharp critical eye is an essential skill for a writer. But what do you do when your inner critic paralyzes you? How do you get that first draft out so you’ve got something to work with?
Here are some things that have helped me:
Sometimes the only way through to the end is to fool myself. My first drafts are always called “Draft Zero”. They’re less than first drafts. They don’t even count. Somehow it’s easier to write a story when I’ve convinced myself it’s not real. I also use Scrivener so I can only see the scene I’m currently working on and am less tempted to tinker with previous ones. Kind of like the writing equivalent of keeping your chocolate stash hidden in a cupboard.
It’s easier to ignore that critical voice in your head when you’re in a time crunch. I attended Clarion West this summer. Secretly I wondered if I’d be able to complete a story every week. It turns out I could. The deadline mobilized me. NaNoWriMo can be a powerful tool for letting loose. Critique groups are great for productivity too. Knowing the group is expecting a story helps force the words out.
I think sometimes we worry that if we banish our inner editor we may never see her again. Not true. She’s yours, a part of you. That not only means you have the power to tell her to get lost; it also means you get to call her home when you need her. It helps to remember to keep that faith.
It’s always this way, isn’t it? Over time I’ve realized the doubts, the criticisms, that sinking fear the sight of a blank document provokes, they never go away. But you learn to be okay with it. Beginning a new story is a writer’s version of skydiving. The freefall can be intoxicating. So embrace the fear. It’s part of the process.
How do you handle your inner editor when you’re writing a first draft? What techniques do you use to allow the words to flow freely?
Jennifer Lott has appeared in print in Neo-Opsis Magazine (“A Day in the Life”; Issue 18; December 17, 2009) and the Opus 5 Okal Rel anthology (“Pet Peeves”, Absolute XPress, 2011). Her first public foray into writing is her popular fan fiction Alternative Ending to the Animorphs, which was well received by readers disappointed by the dark turn taken by this young adult series in its final installments. An early childhood educator, Jennifer writes mostly for children and young adults. But is currently working on an SF novel. She said “yes” to boyfriend JP Sullivan last December and the marriage was in June 2012.
“I wanted to finish my series and retire,” said an author at this year’s Surrey International Writer’s Conference, “so I told my agent I was killing my main character so my fans couldn’t ask for more. My agent said ‘no’. I said ‘why, it’s just a character’.”
Without knowing anything else about what this woman writes, I know I don’t want to read her books or watch the movie she’s got in the works. Letting your book get made into a movie does not make you a sellout. Treating your characters as disposable products does. If the creator of said character cares so little about her creations, I certainly don’t want to meet them. My assumption is they can’t be worth caring about; they must be cardboard. It got me thinking, what does lead an author to portray her work that way? My mother may be in the right when she says it is just a hidden brag: “I am so famous, smothering popularity is what I suffer.”
My husband, who loves Dragonlance, believes series should just go on; authors shouldn’t make finite series without at least letting someone else take over when fans want more. I was willing to agree as far as books such as Dragonlance go. This is a D&D based universe featuring multiple authors. I also agree there are picture book characters who carry on very well after their original authors stop telling their stories (although I would not begrudge an original author feeling too attached to allow this). I am guilty of loving the Animorph series which is largely ghost-written, but as an author thinking of my own personal work the idea horrifies me.
Fans shouldn’t have the power to push an author beyond his/her vision. They have every right to want more, but so has an author to say “this one’s finished”. I believe in fan fic. By all means, if you can think of so much more that happens in my universe, write the stories and post them online. I am honoured you’re that interested. But don’t expect me to drag out what I’ve built. Just like a painting, the work is done at some point and throwing more paint onto official artwork only obscures what’s already been achieved. I believe a writer should have the integrity to know when they can’t do their next book justice. To decide this is where it ends: this is my completed masterpiece and I’m proud to have it out there.
After this discussion, my husband posed a terrible question: “What if your heart wasn’t in it halfway through your series? Would you really wrap it up where it was and leave your fans hanging?” My series has the type of framework that concluding it any earlier than planned would make it a glaringly incomplete masterpiece. My immediate response was “that would never happen!” Because of course if it did, I’d be screwed. I don’t want to write books I’m not proud of, but I don’t want to hand the integrity of my series over to a ghost writer either.
How would you answer the question yourself? Do you have fall back plans? Is losing the passion for a project even a concern?
Your host, Lynda Williams, is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). She also works as Learning Technology Manager for Simon Fraser University and teaches an introductory web development course at BCIT. For a list of Okal Rel titles see: Lynda Williams on Amazon.com.
Readers mispronounce the names of my characters and places. It’s not their fault. The starry-eyed teenager who invented words like “Gelion” and “Ranar” was lousy at pronounciation and a creative speller. I’d give my younger self a C- for fictional proper nouns. Of course, people who have been to the Okal Rel Universe have been living with the vocabulary for years now, so it’s too late to name Amel something there’s only one way to pronounce.
So should I have named more characters something predictable, like Ann, the protagonist of Part 1: The Courtesan Prince? Or is it better to have a unique brand?
In an email exchange with Stephanie Ann Johanson, artist and editor of Neo-opsis magazine, she said: “when we first looked up ‘Neo-opsis’ online there were no hits … For a while, every hit for a search of Neo-opsis was for our magazine” And this is generally considered to be good.
Google “Ann” and you get many pages with no hit for the Okal Rel Universe. But everyone knows how to pronounce her name. Google “Horth Nersal” and it’s three pages before you find a hit that isn’t about the alpha-male lead of the Okal Rel Universe. (Yes, all right Amel, I know you get to be more powerful eventually, but alpha male? Come on! Be happy I let you punch Eler Nersal in Part 8.)
How about your character names? Did you go for unique hits or easy recognition? Would you change them now, if you could?
Writers write. Writers also read. They should read to figure out how the other guy slung words together. Writers also read about writing. We do that to procrastinate and they ought not do that. But if you stop reading here, you’ll just feel guilty, so please continue and I’ll try to make it worth your while.
“Writers Mantras” are not rules, but aphorisms. Rules have to somehow cohere in a rationale whole, but Mantras are just things found true without regard to when, where and how. You see, truth is complicated, and truths about writing have exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions, /et cetera ad infinitum/.
Here’s the first Writing Mantra I found: “Work your opening paragraph to death.”
Let’s suppose your best prose is in your second paragraph, but your reader (a book buyer or an editor) never sees it, because s/he tossed it after reading the first paragraph. You’ve got to set the hook and reel in your reader over the course of the rest of your novel.
The last thing you want is for your prose to get tossed into the slush pile or put back on the bookshelf because of some goof in the first paragraph. You’ve got three pages’ of prose to convince the reader to commit to reading your work.
You want a trust relationship with your reader. Your story should raise questions in your reader’s mind. “Read more and I’ll give you answers.” Then you need to give satisfactory answers. If you are smart the answers will be such that they raise larger questions in your reader’s mind. This keeps the reader turning pages until you conclude the penultimate chapter.
The last chapter is where you sell your next novel, but that’s another story.
Kristene Perron is a former professional stunt performer for film and television, (as Kristene Kenward). Pathologically nomadic, she has lived in Japan, Costa Rica, the Cook Islands and a very tiny key in the Bahamas. Her stories have appeared in Canadian Storyteller Magazine, The Barbaric Yawp and Denizens of Darkness. Her recently published novel, Warpworld, is the first in a five book adventure science fiction series, co-penned with her Texan writing partner, Joshua Simpson. www.warpworld.ca. Gumballs roll from her cranium at www.the-coconut-chronicles.com
The first time I was punched in the face, really hard, I thought I was going to cry. The feeling passed in about the time it took for me to throw a punch back at my sparring partner, but when I write strong female characters I keep that memory close.
Women and men are equal, but different. Without some acknowledgment of this difference, fictional female assassins, soldiers, pirates, martial arts masters, and so on, are merely, (in the colourful words of my writing partner, Josh Simpson), murderous men with vaginas. As a woman who spent years living dangerously, this is both a literary pet peeve and an insult.
Unless a writer deliberately creates a culture or species with inverted or vastly different gender roles and/or biology than humans, even the gutsiest warrior woman will experience the world differently than her male counterparts. She doesn’t have to wear a dress or bake cookies; it only takes a small detail to make her feel authentic without reverting to stereotypes. As you write strong female characters, consider that gender affects size, strength, speed, power, vision, hearing, memory, language, and reactions to fear, pain and aggression, among others.
No matter how much butt your female character may kick, take a long look at what makes her different from the men around her. Does she have a knack for languages? Is she more empathetic? Does she need a special weapon because of her size or strength? Does she want to cry the first time she’s punched in the face but then fights back anyway?
Yes, to quote the t-shirt, girls kick ass. We just do it our way.
Who are some of your gutsy female characters and what makes them different from the men in your story? What about some of your favourite kick-ass fictional females – what makes them memorable?