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May 20, 2011

Are Teachers Allowed To Write Erotica?

In the news:
In the last week of April, a Pennsylvania high school teacher was “outed” for writing romance novels under the pen name Judy Mays. Guess what she teaches? Yep, English – like my grandmother –and so the connections start to be made. Worse yet, according to nay-sayers, these aren’t inspirational romances; Mays delves in the erotic realm. Although Mays does not discuss her writ- ing in the classroom and she’s taken a pseudonym, some parents have called for her to either give up one career or the other.

Since then, Mays’ students, the romance world of readers and writers, and others have bonded together in support of her right to write. At the time of this writing, a support group of readers, writers, and others have bonded together in support of her right to write.

Hat tip: Night Owl Reviews

May 19, 2011

Three Reasons To Research Right

Writers can sometimes overdo research....

Ha.

I'm kidding. You can never have too much research.

Yes, fine, eventually you need to stop researching and start writing. But most writers stop researching far too early. There are three good reasons to take the time to do your research.

(1) You should never be wrong by mistake.

It's not just that if you are writing a historical novel you have an obligation to get the history right, and if you are writing science fiction to get the science right. Actually, you don't necessarily have to have accuracy in these things. (I know, I'm shocked I said that too.) The thing is, the story comes first, so yes, if you need to pretend that your imaginary early modern British coal mine already had a Thomas Savery steam engine in 1675 because you want it to coincide with the Great Fire of Northampton, go ahead, just so long as you know it wasn't patented until 1679. Don't get the details wrong out of ignorance.

In The Unfinished Song, I mix the flora and fauna of several continents. It was a deliberate move on my part, because I didn't want my story to be considered merely "Celtic" or "Viking" or "Native American" or "African." It has elements from all of those cultures, so I included elements from all of those places. Maybe if I were to do it all over again, I'd do it differently, but it was a conscious decision.

(2) A well-researched novel is less derivative and trite.

Have you ever read a book or watched a tv show and felt like the setting was "thin," or you'd seen these cardboard characters a million times before, or guessed the "surprise" ending from the start? There are a lot of reasons for thin setting, shallow characters and poor plotting, but one reason is that when we are visualizing a scene in our mind, we are limited to what we know. Orson Scott Card warned about the danger of a writer using the first idea to pop into your head. Chances are, this "inspiration" comes to you so easily because it is trite...it's something you've seen a hundred times before in films and books. That's why it falls flat when it goes into your book.

When you do research, ideas also pop into your head, and they might also follow closely on what you've read, but, if what you are "copying" is an original source, your fiction is ironically more likely to feel fresh. Let's say you're writing a regency romance. If you read only other regency romances, your book will read like a copy of a copy. But if you read a book of real letters from a regency lady, and let that inspire you, you are more likely to capture a unique and authentic voice.

(3) Research primes the pump.

The main reason to do research is that it is a wonderful source of inspiration. Whenever I feel writer's block...now, for instance...I do one of two things: (1) read other people's novels, (2) research. In fact, the number one reason I suffer writer's block is because I don't know my world and my characters well enough. Research isn't just about dry facts. It's about spending time with your characters, moving around in their space. But dry facts, believe it or not, can help you do that. Consider something as simple as handwriting.
I used to work for a national magazine and write an advice column. I received hundreds of letters and I could always tell how old the person was by their penmanship. If they were over 75 they wrote in the Spencerian method. It is a cross between what we would call Cursive writing and calligraphy. If they were over 85 they would write in the Spencerian style with a little bit of a quiver in the letters. ( see picture above)

If the writer was between 65 and 45 they wrote in cursive writing of the Palmer school which is a slanted writing with specific style to each letter.

If they are under 40 they wrote with a smidgen of cursive style and a smattering of printing.

If they are under 30 they often wrote in cursive and when they became anxious or tired by the end of their four line letter they often fell into block letters.

If they are under 20 then the writing is usually block lettering and then becomes larger and more scrambled when they are expressing an emotional thought. It often looks like the writing of "Son of Sam",the paranoid schizophrenic who wrote to the newspapers in 1976.
How would knowing this help you? It might be of major import. Suppose you are writing a mystery, and the kind of handwriting in a note left in a coat pocket is a crucial clue. But this knowledge could also just help you know more about your characters, to describe the elderly aunt's slanted Palmer letters and her young nice's blockish, txt-like handwriting.

May 18, 2011

Trends and Stuff

Author/Agent Mandy Hubbard has some interesting links on trends in MG and YA fiction. Also, if you didn't catch it before, she breaks down how much an author makes with a traditional publishing advance.

Dystopian is the new hottie in YA. Agents and editors are prophesying that MG will be the new YA, and sci fi will be the new dystopian, so apparently the big money is a breakout sci fi MG novel. That's great news for me, because I've got nothing remotely like that, although I am working on a chapter book about a Dragon Doctor.

Just remember, when you actually go to write, that the two things you must never, never think about are (1) Chasing Trends and (2) Making Money.

I don't know about you but I obsess about those those things all the time, and it's like eating ho hos to lose weight, which, yes, I've also tried. Nothing is more guaranteed to scare off my muse than demanding to know how much money she's going to make me.

May 14, 2011

The Typo Lois Missed

Smallville fans and copy editors everywhere, this one's for you. Lois copyedited Clark's paper.... but she missed one.

May 11, 2011

Ten Tricks To Make Your Fight Scene Realistic

Today, I'm happy to present a guest post by Rayne Hall. Rayne Hall has many hats. In addition to being a terrific writer of both genre fiction (fantasy and horror) and non-fiction, she's also a terrific teacher and writing mentor. She runs a writing group which I've belonged to for a couple years now, and has helped me immeasurably over the years with her thoughtful and incisive critiques. She was one of the Beta Readers for Initiate.

Rayne will be giving a workshop on 'Writing Fight Scenes', which starts on 1 June 2011: www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=303  No matter what genre you write, if someone's going to throw a punch, swing a sword or shoot a gun, this is a great class to get the fight scene juices flowing.

Ten Tricks To Make Your Fight Scene Realistic

Spacial restrictions.

Your scene will gain realism if you show how the available space limits the fighting: Perhaps the ceiling is too low to swing the sword overhead, or the cop heroine can't risk shooting at the bad guy because he's standing in front of the wall, which could lead to bullet ricochet and kill innocent bystanders.

Ground underfoot

Inject a realistic flavour with a single sentence: simply mention what the ground feels like underfoot. What's the ground like: Persian rugs? Concrete? Lawn? Uneven planks of splintered wood? Hard, firm, soft, squishy, muddy, wet, slippery, wobbling, cluttered, sloping? The ground may even affect the fighting: the heroine may slip on the rain-slicked asphalt or stumble across the edge of a rug.

Close-up vision

During the fight, the point-of-view character sees only what's immediately before him: his opponent's face, his opponent's hands, his opponent's weapon. If he takes his attention off what's immediately before him, he'll be dead. Therefore, don't show the distant sunset and an overview of how the fighting progresses at the other end of the battlefield.

Dialogue

Avoid dialogue during the fight. The fighters need to concentrate their attention on staying alive, and can't spare a thought for conversation. Panting with effort, they don't have breath to spare for verbal banter. Any talking should happen before the fighting starts. If you really need dialogue during the fight, use very short and incomplete sentences, because these convey the breathlessness and sound real.

Thinking

Your PoV doesn't think while he fights. His mind is totally focused on the action. He can't think about anything else: not about about his loved ones back home, not about the futility of war, not even about fighting strategy. Any thinking would be a distraction that costs his life. Share his thoughts about strategy before the fighting starts, and his profound insights once the fight is over.

Skills

The fighters can use only skills they possess. A heroine without martial arts training can't defeat her opponent with an uppercut and a roundhouse kick. Unarmed combat and fighting with weapons requires practice. Establish beforehand what fighting skills the protagonist has, for example by showing her in an earlier scene dusting her shelf of karate trophies.

Sounds

Mention the noises of the fight: the pinging of bullets, the clanking of swords, the sharp snap of breaking bone, the screams and gurgles of the dying. Sounds create realism as well as excitement.

Real weapon

Make sure your fighters use weapons which existed in that period, and that they use those weapons in plausible ways. Not every sword can split a skull, not every gun allows accurate shooting at a distance. If you invent a weapon, model it on real weapons, and keep it simple.

Pain

Fighting hurts. Your PoV character must feel the pain of the blows and cuts. During the fight, the rush of adrenaline may dull the pain, and the real pain kicks in when the action is over. Real fighting also leads to injuries, and your hero needs to sustain some cuts and bruises, at least.

Aftermath

Once the fight is over, add a paragraph describing the aftermath: the survivors assess the carnage, mourn their friends, bandage their wounds, repair their weapons. The adrenaline has worn off and the pain kicks in. The air is filled with strong smells, including cordite in case of a gun fight, and urine and faeces because bladders and bowels give way in death.

How realistic should your fight scene be? Real fighting is brutal and gory, and too much realism may put your reader off. In a hard-boiled thriller, you can use a lot of realism, but in a gentle romance, it's better to play down the gory aspects and create just enough realism to suspend disbelief. From these ten tips, select the ones which suit your reader and your story.

If you have questions about writing fight scenes, feel free to ask. I'll be around for a week and will respond.

* * *

Even if you've never wielded a weapon, you can write an exciting fight scene. Rayne will show you how, in her workshop on 'Writing Fight Scenes', which starts on 1 June 2011: www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=303

May 9, 2011

The First Rule About Fight Scenes

The first rule about fight scenes is not to discuss fight scenes.

Ok, well, when you end up punching your own face in a parking lot, don't say I didn't warn you.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have a guest blogger, Rayne Hall. She'll be teaching a workshop on 'Writing Fight Scenes', which starts on 1 June 2011: www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=303 and she's going to give us a little taste. And no, I don't  get a kickback for signing up people for the class, I just can't stress enough how much I recommend Rayne as a writing mentor.

Rayne has been one of my online buddy friends for a while. We were both on the Online Writers Workshop together, and I also continue to belong to a smaller, more select group of professional authors that she runs, called, cleverly enough, the Professional Authors. The purpose of the group is to help authors who have made one or two sales make the leap to a full time career earning a living wage as a writer.

On Joe Konrath's blog, he was discussing recently the rule of 10,000.
I'm currently reading a book that was recommended to me by my buddy Henry Perez, called Outliers: The Story of Success. It mentions the 10,000 Hour Rule. In short, no one becomes an expert at something without having invested 10,000 hours in it.

I found it interesting to apply this to my career. It took me twelve years to become published. While holding down a fulltime job, I still managed to write over a million words during that time--roughly 15 to 20 hours a week. Guess what? That's 10,000 hours.
How do you become an expert at something? You put in the time. One way or another. Two common ways of putting it for writers are in hours and words. You write a million words. You work 10,000 hours at it. But there is one other important thing we shouldn't overlook. You also have to allow yourself time to absorb the rules of writing.

Yes, ultimately, we learn by writing. There is no substitute for BIC-HOK: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. But unless you have infinity, you don't want to bang away randomly like a mathematician's monkey aping Shakespeare. You absorb the rules of writing in two ways, by reading, reading and reading, and by analyzing what you read. You exchange critiques with other writers.

There's a point at which most writers get burnt out on writer's classes, writer's blogs, critique groups, and all that jazz. After a while, you absorb the rules to such an extent that you don't need them anymore. That's natural, and all to the good, but don't make the mistake of thinking that classes and critique groups aren't worth it. At a certain stage along your journey, study can make the difference between someone who dabbles for fun and someone who is serious about perfecting their craft.

I've taken some of Rayne's classes, and she is an awesome teacher. She will hold your hand if you need it, but also kick your ass until you deliver the best damn scene you can. I highly recommend her class,  Writing Fight Scenes.

May 7, 2011

3 Things Not to Do When Writing Your First Page

I was fortunate enough to attend the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Misque Press didn't have a booth, although I did bump into some fans and signed some print books. That was pretty sweet.

I was also given a free (unsolicited) book myself. I wasn't too surprised to flip over the book and see that the imprint was AuthorHouse, a vanity press. I accepted the book because (1) I never turn down a free book and (2) I was curious to know if this was actually a viable way to gain new readers. Is it worth the expense and trouble for an author who is vanity-press published, self-published or with a small press to foist books upon passing strangers?

My conclusion?

No.

The problem is that passing strangers are likely to include only a tiny proportion of your target audience. This book, for instance, was not my usual genre. I'm still trying to figure out what genre it is. It's not even clear if it is supposed to be fiction or non-fiction. The back blurb doesn't tell me, the title makes no sense, and the cover art is generic. So the book is not off to a good start.

The first page made three mistakes which immediately made me want to stop reading. I don't mean grammatical errors or typos. I suppose those would have put me off as well, but that's so obvious, I don't think I'd bother to belabor the point. No, these were mistakes which I've seen newbie writers make, but seeing them in the relentless clarity of black on white reminded me of why these are not good writing.

Because I don't like writing negative reviews, I'm going to paraphrase the book rather than quote directly.

1. First and Second Paragraph:
Help! Help! Please don't kill me! (Scream - Scream) Don't chop off my foot! You monster, leave me alone! Oh! Oh! Not the other one too! Help! Please don't kill me!

Just kidding!! I gothchya! I just wrote that to get yur attention.

Mistake One: The book starts out with an apparent attack. There are no quotes, and the description formatting is odd: (Scream - Scream)...? Wtf? But anyway, some kind of assault seems to be in progress, a pretty bloody and gruesome assault. So I'm pegging the genre as horror, true crime, suspense, mystery, dark speculative or at least dark something. Although the cover, with its field of daisies, didn't exactly scream "dark" so, it's not without some head-scratching.

Then the second paragraph hits, and I realized the whole first paragraph is just a writer trying to be "clever." The writer even tells us so: you, Dear Reader, are so dumb, that I can only get your attention by blood and gore, even if that's not remotely related to my topic. So I'll deliver blood and gore in the all important First Paragraph, and then, once you're hooked, let you in on the secret of my actual topic.

Why This Doesn't Work: The reader, believe it or not, can actually close the book just as easily after the second paragraph as after the first. You cannot "trick" the reader into reading by offering false drama.

What You Should Do Instead: Begin as you mean to go on. By all means, start with torture and murder, if you are writing a thriller. If you are writing a sweet romance about a nurse and a millionaire and a secret baby, probably not. What good does it do to attract an audience to a show they won't like? Promise only what you deliver.

2. Third and Fourth Paragraphs:
Hello. My name is Star Jones. I'm a high school student at Dearling High. I have an important message for you that I need you to listen to and heed. You'll see. Right now, I am looking forward to going on a trip with my best friend. She's the greatest. But I have a bad feeling about this trip, like it might be cancelled.

There, what did I tell you? My mom just came in and said it was cancelled. Drat!

Mistake Two: Compared to the atrocity in the beginning, this is a minor annoyance. But addressing the reader is difficult to pull off. Discounting nineteenth century literature, I have seen it done with breathtaking aplomb to delicious effect one or two times. This was not one of them.

To add injury to insult, the sentence that follows is exactly what inspired that most repeated of all writing truisms, Show Don't Tell.

Why This Doesn't Work: The narrator is so busy speaking to the reader that we have no idea what the scene looks like, or if the narrator is even embedded in a scene. Is this a novel, with scenes and characters, or is the narrator telling us something meant to enlighten and persuade us, like a spiritual lesson? It's not clear here. (After skimming ahead, I reached the tentative conclusion that the author was trying to write some kind of extended parable, in which the main character would learn deep spiritual lessons and then pass them on to the reader. But it didn't work well, because the attempt to filter the message through the fiction format just came across as an awkward hybrid.)

What You Should Do Instead: Newbies in writing groups bludgeon one another with this moldy pickle of advice, Show-Don't-Tell, way too often, and sometimes not to the betterment of the piece of writing in question.

In this case, for instance, it would work just as well to say, Tell Don't Show. Because this paragraph is trying to do both, and doing neither well. If you're going to be relating the action blow-by-blow, then you should go all the way. Have mom poke her head in and say the trip is cancelled, describe the surroundings, etc. That would be "showing."

But you don't have to do it that way. If you want this to be an intimate conversation between the narrator and reader, you could also just tell the reader about the events. "I was looking forward to the trip, but shortly before I was to leave, my mom told me it had been cancelled." That's telling.

Either could serve the story. Just make up your mind.

3. Fifth Paragraph:
I think yur gonna like what you hear. Some people say I'm too young to be so wise, or that if I were so wise I wouldn't use words like "yur" and "gonna" but that's just how I speak. My mom has taught me how to use an adult vocabulary, though, so I can sound older when I want to, especially when discussing important matters. It doesn't matter to me if you believe I am a real teenager.

Mistake Three: For whatever incomprehensible reason, the author has decided that writing out slang words like "yur" and "gonna" makes her character/narrator sound like a teenager. It doesn't, but what's worse than the false note in slang is that the author is so uncomfortable with her character's vocabulary that the author feels the need to draw attention to the slang by trying to justify it.

Why This Doesn't Work: The author's "preemptive strike" against the reader's inability to believe the main character is authentic just makes the reader aware of how discomforting the whole mess is. Then the author becomes downright defensive and tells the reader she doesn't care if the reader believes in the character. Let me call that bluff. If I can't believe in your character, why should I read the book?

What You Should Do Instead: First of all, treat slang with caution. It's easy to sound like a doofus. But for goodness' sake, if you do try to use slang, don't draw attention to your weakness by trying to defend it. A preemptive strike is not a good policy in literature, especially if your attempt to bomb the enemy aircraft on the ground turns out more like Pakistan in 1971 than Israel in 1967.

***

In the author's bio, the author admits, "there was no plan as to how the subject matter was to be put across," and unfortunately, this shows. The book was first published on Amazon in 2004 and as yet has not one review. Of course, a better first page wouldn't help if there were not also another good three hundred some pages to follow. I'm not sure how good those pages are. I never reached page 2.

May 5, 2011

Nook or Die

Remember that post where I descended into an infantile rant against B&N, cursing so excessively that some of my four letter words had five letters? Hopefully not, because I erased it, and it's a good thing too, because it turns out the delay getting my books onto Nookbooks was, ahem, entirely my fault. Damme.

Moving on. The good news is that Initiate and Taboo are now available for the Nook! Woohoo! Finally!

Here's the link:

The Unfinished Song: Initiate (Book 1)

The Unfinished Song: Taboo (Book 2)

Now, Nook lovers, if you haven't already gerrymandered your own copy from the DMR-free Kindle editions, please go buy now, because I hate looking at the number 0.  :P

An extra big Thank You to SF Reader, Octopus Ink and Kiki Deister for having reviews up before the book itself. You guys rock.

May 4, 2011

Killing Off Characters

Sometimes, it is true, writers have to commit murder.

Some stories require us to kill off characters. I get that. It can make a story more real, more believable, even more satisfying, if it's the right character. Even if it is a character whose death we grieve rather than cheer, it can feel "right" and perfect the story.

Sometimes, however, a character dies in a book I'm reading or movie I'm watching, especially if I was taken by surprise, I feel like, "Damn, I don't need that extra dark in my day right now, thanks much."

If I see a movie about the Holocaust or read the memoir of a Rwandan refugee, as I often do, I go in knowing what to expect, and I can decide ahead of time if I am up to something heavy. But if the story has been billed as a light romantic comedy and then suddenly Mommy and Daddy die in a car accident and it's all weeping orphans, I am not a happy camper. As an example, take Stepmom which was billed as a comedy but [SPOILER] ends with a dead woman and weepy kids. Excuse me, but that's a cheap shot. Television and books do the same thing all the time. Hm, story growing stale? Let's kill someone off. Yeah, that will be deep.

Guess what? Just killing off a character does not make your story deep.

Making your character live is what deepens your story.

This is much on my mind as I work on the revisions for Book 3, The Unfinished Song: Sacrifice. As you might guess from the title, one or more characters might bite the dust. And I'm trying hard to make sure that no death is gratuitous, or there just to serve my plot rather than my theme. I am trying to ask myself, "How would I feel about this as a reader? Would I throw the book across the room?"

Of course, in fantasy, it's also easy to bring characters back from the dead. I guess that can be cheap too. Fans of realism in fiction (when people laud "realism" they always mean "pessimism") will argue that it cheapens death if a character can simply wake up a vampire or be brought back by a resurrection spell. I grant the point. It's also something I love about the genre.

There are some books that can pull off a character death, and even a character resurrection, without making it tawdry. One of my favorites is Passage, by Connie Willis. The book is about a team of scientists who are studying near-death experiences by simulating death chemically, so it makes sense that someone dies for real, as a contrast to the simulated experience... and it is one of the gripping questions of the book whether it will be a death experience or a near-death/resurrection experience. I won't spoil this one. What's wonderful about the book is that either ending could have fit her theme, and so I was prepared to believe and weep either way. Beautiful book.

I fear my book won't be in the same league, but I hope it makes sense. Also, still to come, there's Book 4, The Unfinished Song: Roots.