Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Your Work Outloud

It's no secret that authors get close to their work. Really close. Dangerously close. So close in fact that criticism can hurt as badly as if someone were criticizing your child or threatening to do them harm.

Don't get me wrong, it's good to love your work. You are your manuscript's best advocate and if you don't love it there is simply no hope that anyone else will either. The problems come when you get so close to your work that your refuse, or are physically unable, to see the faults that are staring you every time you go through it.

Let's face it. You know every word, sentence and paragraph you've written and you know exactly why you wrote it and the importance it is to the manuscript. So why would you even consider taking it out? "Killing your darlings," as they say.

I recently discovered just how close I was to R.A.G.E. and just how hard it was for me to kill anything.

I work on my novel a lot. I consider writing a job in fact and put the necessary amount of time into it. So it came as no surprise the other day when my almost 12 y/o son came to me and wondered when he would be able to read this work I never seem to step away from.

Now R.A.G.E. is an adult book but it does have some cool aspects that a 12 y/o would like such as power over electricity and lots of guns and grenades and such. I'm also in the middle of a heavy edit and I thought, "Hey why not read it out loud to him?" I could bleep out a few choice words while I was reading and it would be fun. This way I could catch all those things your eyes pass right over when you're reading in your head as well as spending some quality time with my son and my manuscript.

I've read my book out loud to myself before so I was unprepared for the way I would view my own manuscript while reading aloud to SOMEONE ELSE who has no idea what the story is about.

And you know what I found? Way too much exposition.

I kept wanting the story to move along. Get to the dialogue. Get to the next relevant item. I began yelling at my main character to stop thinking about stuff so much and just get on with it already!

I couldn't believe the change in my perception of my work. It was though I was viewing it from my son's eyes. And then it hit me. I could actually distance myself from my work. It would take my son's help but I could do it. Today I went back through the chapter I read him last night and edited out a lot of the extraneous exposition.

It's amazing what a new perspective can give your work. How do you distance yourself from your manuscript?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Importance of Invisible Writing

So you’ve just finished your novel. No, not just any novel, the Great American Novel. No, your magnum opus! This novel has been designed to make people perk up and listen. You had a theme and you stuck to it and now everyone will be talking about it. The word will go out and awareness will be raised for those trees in the Amazon rain forest, those civil rights issues in the south, the sea turtles off the Eastern seaboard facing extinction, the sexism across the country.

Well, I hate to tell you this but if you’ve just finished writing a novel under this mindset, you have a problem. Notice I said novel, not nonfiction. The trouble is people read novels to be entertained. They want to be taken away with a cast of characters. They want to see what they see and feel what they feel. They want to be brought into the emotions of another person and learn their story and savor the conclusion. No one wants to be preached to. That’s what textbooks are for.

We’ve heard it time and time again: The story must be king.

When anything in your novel bounces the reader out of the story and takes them away from the vividness of those characters and settings, I’m afraid to tell you that your writing is showing through. You worked hard on those words but in actuality, no one wants to see them. They just want to be told a story.

Now unfortunately this doesn’t just apply to those larger themes mentioned above. This applies on a much smaller scale. You may have that novel where nothing is more important that the conflict and the characters. And yet your readers are constantly being pulled out of the story for some reason or another and forced to examine the actual words you’ve put on the page.

I’m talking of course about the technicalities of writing. I recently read two books back to back. One, an absolutely fantastic work where the only thing that took me out of the book was the use of OK vs. okay (okay, I admit, I really like “okay” better. OK looks like it’s being yelled). On the other hand, the other book was so full of passive writing, telling vs. showing, adverbs and other bothersome things you may think are not so important, that there were times where I would go for pages only seeing the words and never being drawn into the story at all. I spent more time mentally editing sentences than I did actually reading the stupid thing.

I’m sure someone is yelling at me at this point that not all readers see or even know about these silly writing rules. I agree. Most readers don’t know about them. They simply read the book with a vague sense of annoyance. They’re never drawn fully into the story and they probably don’t even know why.

Writing rules are in place for a reason. They allow us to smooth down those sharp edges into a silky piece of work. People will read it and walk away talking about your characters as though they are real people. They’ll make fan pages for the fantasy world you’ve created and sport t-shirts with your brilliant magic system brought to life.

The only people who appreciate purple prose are the ones who write it. You will never be able to sell the importance of your theme to a group of people if they can’t get into your novel. People will never get to know your characters unless you can make them seem like something other than words on a page.

So here’s the kicker. You know your characters better than anyone. You can go to any page of your Work in Progress and see their faces and feel their emotions and see their thoughts. To you they are real because you created them. You saw them before they were those words on the page. So how do you know if you’ve actually made your writing invisible?

1. Alpha readers. Beta readers. Writing groups. Editors. I can’t stress enough how you need an outside opinion on your work. Someone honest who won’t tell you what you want to hear. Allow them to tell you when they can’t stay connected to parts of the story. Or when that word keeps jumping out at them. Or when they’ve had to read the same sentence five times to discern the meaning.

2. Learn those all-important rules. Active vs. passive writing. Limited adverbs. Varying word choice, point of view, etc, etc, etc. Don’t just learn them, embrace them. Make them become as natural as typing. The rules are in place for a reason. They are formulaic devices honed over the years by people much more brilliant than ourselves to pull the story forward and make the words sink quietly into the background.

3. You know if you’ve themed your writing. It’s good to have a theme. It’s better to have a story where readers feel for the characters plight and worry about said characters surviving in that doomed rain forest in the Amazon.

Make the story the King.

So let’s be honest here. Is your writing invisible?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I was talking to a fellow writer the other day who is struggling a bit with her first draft. She’s an amazing writer but sometimes has a hard time putting down that crappy first draft because she’s a self-proclaimed perfectionist. No matter how many people say, “Just write it. It’s a first draft, it’s supposed to suck!” she just hates leaving behind any ugly sentence structures, even the slightest bland-ish character, or stilted dialogue and therefore doesn’t always feel excited about getting back to the work.

We came to the conclusion that what she needed was a payoff. And not just any payoff—a daily, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence payoff.

So what’s a payoff? Something that excites us about the sometimes not-so-beautiful work-in-progress that brings us back to it day after day, month after month until it can be completed and therefore edited to perfection.

I hadn’t actually thought about it until this conversation and I realized that I have a payoff in place for myself. Sometimes I’ll find myself writing some beautiful prose that I wouldn’t mind reading again and marveling at my brilliance, but most often it’s simply the dialogue.

I love dialogue with all my heart. I like writing conversations and arguments. I love the act of communication and how it can drive a scene either by characters learning more about each other or miscommunication that leads to blows (I like the blows a lot. Ask anyone.). I like speaking dialogue I’m considering for a scene to myself in the mirror while I get ready in the morning (don’t judge, you do it too...erm, maybe) and therefore even in my first drafts, my dialogue tends to shine. Everything else is an atrocious lump but, hey, I have fancy dialogue.

That’s my payoff. I don’t move onto another scene if I feel that the dialogue is even a little off. So the next day, after letting my mind be filled with other (more important) things, I’m still excited to come back and see what my characters said to each other, and what they might say next.

What’s your payoff to keep you writing?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I'm guest posting at another blog today!!

As the title states, I'm doing my very first ever guest post on another blog today. This is super cool on many levels, the first of which is I adore the author of this blog (Michelle Argyle). I have even been privileged to obtain an advanced reading copy of her novel MONARCH and will be reviewing it right here in October.

My guest post is pretty much the same post as this one I did last week but I added one more tip concerning the "Starting Syndrome".

Go check it out when you get the chance and spend some time browsing Michelle's blog as well. You won't be sorry.

The Innocent Flower