July 30, 2010

Don't Kill Them With Kindness

Halfway through reading DRACULA, I noticed one thing that was bugging me about how the story plays out, and as is the way with noticed things, I then couldn't stop seeing it. It's worth bringing up because it's a problem that can surface in any story. The problem is that the characters in DRACULA are all too damn agreeable.

There's a villain, sure, but Count Dracula only appears in a fairly small number of scenes. The majority of the book follows a group of friends who are trying to defeat the vampire. Like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, right? Except much of the plot of the Buffy series (and the most interesting part, as far as I'm concerned) focuses on the conflicts between the friends and their changing relationships. Whereas the Dracula slayers don't argue, they unquestioningly go along with whatever Van Helsing wants them to do, they always understand each other (often without even having to speak), and on the rare occasions when there is disagreement, forgiveness is soon asked for and immediately granted. That's all very nice for the characters, who have a difficult enough task in front of them, but where's the fun for the reader?

In real life, we hope for as little conflict and difficulty as possible. Real life doesn't usually make a good story. Stories need conflict, and the more conflict, the better. DRACULA delivers a strong main plot, complete with life-and-death stakes and mounting obstacles. But I wish Bram Stoker had spiced up the many planning scenes with some arguments and sniping. I mean, come on, three of the main characters were recent romantic rivals, and not once does anyone grumble, "If she'd chosen me, things would have turned out differently."

As I said in my last post, I'm always reading to learn, and this book was a good reminder to look for ways to make my characters cope with even more conflict. It's not easy, because I feel bad for them. And they feel bad when they fight, and as a result, it's been pointed out that my latest draft contains too many apologies. I'm really sorry about that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book distributor David "Skip" Prichard has an optimistic answer to Will the Book Survive?: "I think this is the most exciting time to be involved in the book business. Not only are books receiving more media attention, the new technologies offer an unprecedented opportunity to engage readers." (Thanks, PWxyz!)

→ Sonya Chung at The Millions analyzes different types of literary endings. (Thanks, Dystel & Goderich!)

July 28, 2010

Reading to Learn

I finished reading DRACULA, finally. It took me a while to get through the book partly due to being busy and forgetting that I love reading, but in part because I lost interest in the middle of the story and had to force myself to continue. The ending was satisfyingly gripping, as was the beginning, but the middle dragged (as middles often do).

Agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, "the one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, 'Do I like this?'"

I agree with the point he goes on to make, that "The real question aspiring writers should ask is not whether they liked a book, but whether they think the author accomplished what they set out to accomplish." But I do think there's value in considering whether you like a book, as long as you're thinking about the reasons why or why not, then figuring out how to do or avoid the same things in your own writing.

I didn't actually dislike DRACULA, though I've read plenty of books I liked more. I got a lot out of reading it and noticing what worked for me and what didn't. (More on that tomorrow.) While it's more fun to read a book that I love, it's usually more educational to read one I'm less than crazy about.

Bram Stoker accomplished what he intended to with DRACULA, and then some, since the book is still being read over a century later. It has survived because it's an exciting story told in an interesting way, and whatever flaws it may have are relatively minor compared to the book's longevity. (Insert vampire joke here.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tayari Jones urges readers to seek out books by black writers: "A reader-focused initiative reminds everyone that depriving the broad marketplace of books by black authors is a crime against society, not just an offense against the careers of a few folks who happen to write books." (Thanks, L. Rebecca Harris!)

→ Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond the Margins warns, "Revise in Haste; Repent in Leisure" and suggests some starting questions for revision.

July 25, 2010

Secrets and Office Supplies

I previously wrote about using index cards to plan a revision. I expect I'll be doing some form of index card event rearrangement before I embark on my third draft, but I'm not quite ready for that step yet. First, I have a specific aspect of the novel I want to focus on. I also have a large collection of sticky notes. These forces came together to create the Secrets Chart:

July 22, 2010

There's More to Writing Than Writing

This morning I stared into space for a while. I paced around the room. I scrawled notes onto half a dozen index cards. It was a productive morning.

Writing is, if I may be so bold, an indispensable part of the writing process. But thinking is crucial as well. The trouble with thinking is that it can't be measured with nice metrics like word or page count, and to a casual observer, it looks a lot like procrastinating. In fact, legitimate thinking can eventually become a form of procrastination if none of the brilliant thinkety thoughts are ever set down in writing.

So don't feel guilty for taking time to think instead of writing when you need to, but be realistic about when you need to. I give myself long, hardcore thinking sessions when I have big story problems that I need to resolve in advance or risk writing thousands of words in the wrong direction. When I know what comes next and am merely avoiding the scene or uncertain what's going to happen in it, I force myself to tackle the damn thing and figure it out through writing.

I'm between drafts right now, transitioning from the not-actually-doing-anything stage to the serious-revision-planning stage. I've been fiddling with index cards and other office supplies for a couple of weeks now, which I'll talk about next time, but this morning was the first solid chunk of nothing-but-thinking that I've had in a while. I made real progress. It felt good.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Janet Fitch encapsulates every useful guideline for writing dialogue into one brilliant post.

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard has some encouraging words about coping with rejection: "The fact is, rejection and negative feedback never feel good. They just don't, and if your twentieth rejection bothers you as much as your first, it's not because there's something wrong with you, it's because you're human."

→ Rands in Repose explains How to Write a Book. Big topic, big ideas, all valuable. Rands is coming from the perspective of a nonfiction writer, but his advice applies just as well to novels. (Thanks, Louise!)

July 20, 2010

Reading Confession #2

I often forget that I love reading.

I can't tell you how many times in recent years I've started a book and thought, "Oh yeah, books! I love reading books!" Or how many times I've been in the middle of a book, gotten too busy to read for a day or two, and apparently lost sight of the fact that I should find out how the story ends. This can happen even when I'm really enthusiastic about the story.

It's not that I have a bad memory. I actually have a rather good memory, especially when it comes to fiction, which is fortunate, since it allows me to resume reading after (sometimes) weeks and still follow the plot. And it's not like I ever seem to forget that I enjoy, say, watching movies or drinking coffee. But I sure do spend a lot of time in imitation of a person who doesn't like to read.

So I confess that I haven't gotten much farther in DRACULA than I was a week ago. I've been busy, yes, but my real excuse is that I'm too silly to know what I like.

Meanwhile, in the latest news of the coming printpocalypse, The New York Times reports that Amazon sold more Kindle books than hardcovers in recent months. I'm not excited by the idea of print books going away, but I won't be sad if hardcovers are phased out. I don't much like reading hardcover books because I find them heavy and harder to hold than paperbacks. I have no idea of the economic implications, but a future in which all new releases are printed in paperback is one that appeals to me.

July 16, 2010

Thickening the Plot

I write a monthly column for WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club. Today I'm busy working on my column for next month's issue, so in lieu of a regular post, here's my July Writecraft column.


The first novel I wrote is packed with events. Throughout the lengthy manuscript, my protagonist goes places, meets people, and encounters challenging situations. What's it about? Well, there's this guy, and after high school he stays at home while his friends go off to college, and then . . . some stuff happens. The story contains well-developed characters in realistic scenarios, but it wasn't until several years and novels later that I recognized it has no plot.

Plot isn't just a series of events. This is far from obvious. Even though I'd read countless novels before writing one of my own, I hadn't taken much notice of the way a sequence of linked episodes propels a story forward. I set out to capture an important year in a character's life (a reasonable topic for a novel), but I wrote it too much like reality, in which incidents occur mostly at random and with little connection or reason. That doesn’t make good fiction.

A plot is a structured progression of selected events that build to a resolution. Goal-oriented characters struggle against increasing complications until they succeed or fail, usually changing in the process. In retrospect, a tipoff to the plot trouble in my first novel is my uncertainty over when the story should end. My poor hero doesn't have any particular desires or avenues for change, the conflict doesn't intensify, and there's no conclusion to reach. Why would anyone keep reading if it's arbitrary what happens next?

July 14, 2010

Reading on the Screen

Recently Amazon made me very happy by finally releasing Kindle software for Android, my phone's operating system. I don't have a Kindle device, and while I read a book on a borrowed one and found the experience pleasant enough, it didn't compel me to buy one. But I was intrigued by the idea of reading a book on a gadget I already carry in my pocket all the time.

I figured for my initial test run, I wouldn't invest any money, so I started with one of the millions of out-of-copyright books available for free. I chose DRACULA, since a couple of friends read it recently, and hey, vampires are all the rage. A post about the book will come next week -- right now Kindle tells me I'm 42% through.

I'd previously downloaded Kindle for Mac to look at some first chapter samples, and I began reading DRACULA on my laptop. When I got hungry (for blood?) and went to eat lunch, I started up the phone app, and through the magic of syncing, it automatically found the spot where I'd left off reading on the computer.

The ability to transfer seamlessly between devices is a huge benefit. I've been reading quite a bit my phone while out and about, and it's great to get in some reading during times when I otherwise wouldn't (I'm not in the habit of carrying a book around). I don't mind reading on the small phone screen, but constantly turning pages gets a little tedious, so I've read much more of the book on my laptop, in longer sessions. I have no problem staring at a backlit screen for hours on end, and reclining with my computer on a lapdesk is somewhat more comfortable for me than holding a book. I'm finding a lot of positives in this screen reading experience.

I expect to read more books this way, even ones I pay for. I don't yet think I'm going to buy a Kindle device, though I'm not ruling out that ending to this story. I still foresee the purchase of some new paper books at a local independent bookstore in my near future. And I'm sure the topic of ebooks is something I'll be talking about more.

It's a topic a lot of people are talking about right now. Among the many pieces on the future of books that I've read or heard recently, two worth checking out are Mike Shatzkin's prediction about Where will bookstores be five years from now? and a Morning Edition story on Stanford's Engineering Library getting rid of books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A. Victoria Mixon enumerates 6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers and 6 Who Will Succeed.

→ The New York Observer investigates a secret, writers-only room at the New York Public Library. (Thanks, MobyLives!)

→ The New York Times looks at book trailers. (Thanks, BookNinja!)

July 10, 2010

Revision Is Just a Phase (And Then Another Phase)

During revision, you can't expect to do everything at once. A flawless second draft is a wonderful daydream, but it's an unlikely reality. Revision happens in phases.

When I started the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I made a deliberate choice to focus on character and plot, while leaving the development of setting and period details for later. This was a natural order for me, since setting is the part of storytelling I think about least. It also makes sense in general: you can still figure out if pacing and motivations work even when the characters are wandering around in something of a featureless void. Plus, keeping things vague in earlier drafts means you avoid doing research or worldbuilding that later becomes unnecessary when you remove a scene or subplot.

I believe my intention at the beginning of the draft was also not to worry about the careful crafting of every line. Again, putting off this step is sensible because it means you don't invest too much time on material that may not make it into the next draft. I seem to have forgotten this plan almost immediately, which helps explain why I spent a good eight months on a draft I wanted to get out in two or three. (Additional explanation: I have never, ever been right about how long something will take.)

Now I have a tight, nicely written draft, and if all I had to do was bring the setting to life and read up on 1960s childbirth practices, this novel would be going really well. Alas, though I made huge improvements to the characters and plot in this round of revision, there are still major weaknesses that require more big changes.

So I'm figuring out the next phase. I certainly won't be starting over, as I did for the second draft, but this revision is going to be more substantial than I'd hoped. It would be great if I could fix the remaining story issues and simultaneously build up the setting, all in the third draft. But I suspect that's just another wonderful daydream.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins explores the idea that stories endure longer than the words that tell them.

July 8, 2010

Responsible Internet Usage

Mamagotcha asked how I regulate my internet usage. While her comment was on a post about reading, what little advice I have relates to writing, so I'll focus on that.

Using the internet isn't inherently bad, but it's important to prioritize it properly. Writing time should be writing time, not internet time -- or laundry time, dishes time, or cleaning-dust-from-the-keyboard time. Some days, knowing there is undone housework nearby distracts me almost as much as the online world (which is lovely for my house, but doesn't help my writing). The extra challenge of the internet is that it's right there on the same device I use for writing.

I address this problem by temporarily taking my computer offline during designated writing times. Lately I haven't been as careful about this technique as I should, but for a while I had a predetermined set of hours every day that I'd disable the wireless on my computer.

I have enough willpower that I don't turn the wireless connection back on before I'm supposed to, whereas clicking over to email or Facebook is such an ingrained habit that I can't stop myself except by making these inaccessible. Others may need to resort to more drastic measures. Author Jeff VanderMeer has his wife hide the router every morning.

You have to be realistic about what strategy allows you to get writing done. Hannah Moskowitz recently blogged about her writing process, and I had to laugh at "I flip to the internet every 70-100 words and screw around", because that's exactly what I do if I don't take away my wireless access. Moskowitz gets through two drafts in two weeks, she has one book in print, and another one's coming out next year, so I believe she's being realistic that these internet habits work for her. I'll keep writing the practically old-fashioned way.

July 6, 2010


The other day a friend and I were talking about rereading. She often rereads books she likes, and so do many other readers I know. They talk about how comfortable it is to revisit old favorites. They tell me that they turn to familiar books when they feel like reading but don't have the energy to get involved in a new fictional world.

I totally get this. It takes a certain amount of mental effort to start reading something new, and that's exactly why my "books read" record often shows that I spent a week on one book and then a week or two not reading any fiction while I waited for some perfect alignment of time and brainspace. Would this pattern change if I became a rereader?

Because right now, I almost never reread. In the three and a half years I've been keeping this book list, I reread two novels, both for a specific purpose. I reread THE GREAT GATSBY because I was assigned Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND for a class, and I wanted to be able to intelligently discuss the parallels that the critics drew between the two stories. I was also curious whether I'd like GATSBY more than I had in high school. (Answer: Not a whole lot more, but I really enjoyed NETHERLAND.) This was definitely not comfort rereading.

The second book I reread was THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. It's one of my favorite books, but like most of my favorites, I'd only read it once. I wanted to experience the book again before seeing the movie. (Movie review: Not badly done, but not great. I liked some of the choices but hated others. Read the book.) This is certainly a novel that warrants a second reading, since there's so much that can't be fully understood until you get to later parts of the story. Reading it again was wonderful, comfortable, like visiting old friends, all those things people say about rereading, and it made me think I should reread more.

But there are so many books in the world! That's what keeps me from picking up old favorites. Time is finite, and if I read a book I've read before, then I'm not reading one I haven't. I'm a slow reader, which makes the time problem even worse. How will I ever get through my always-growing "to read" list if I repeat?

How do other readers balance the old and the new?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Editor A. Victoria Mixon has some reasons to pat yourself on the back in 5 Things to Celebrate About Finishing Your First Draft.

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins offers a stern translation of your critique partner's gentle feedback.

July 2, 2010

What Am I Writing?

I've been writing a synopsis. Those who have done this know that the process is painful and involves a lot of crying out in despair, along the lines of, "Oh my god, why would anyone want to read a novel like that?" The purpose of a synopsis is to describe a novel from beginning to end in just a few pages, and early drafts generally result in the novel in question sounding completely stupid. It's not an easy task to condense a brilliant, complicated plot into two (or three or five) double-spaced pages without losing everything that makes the story interesting. I'm proud to say that after a few days of very hard work, I have produced a decent two-pager for THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE that I will use most imminently for entering the contest associated with the East of Eden Writers Conference (September 24-26 in Salinas, CA).

I'd written a synopsis for a previous novel, but I was stumped on how to approach this one, since DAMAGE has three interlocking storylines featuring different narrators in different time periods. I found a post from the amazing Anne Mini that addresses exactly the topic of synopses for multiple protagonists, and that helped immensely. (I should have known she'd have an answer, since I've followed so much of her great advice in the past.)

As I worked on telling my story in two pages, I also made a start at explaining the novel more succintly, in a paragraph and in a sentence. I don't need these for the contest, but they'll come in handy when I'm ready to query, and when I talk to people at the conference, and whenever I'm presented with the question of what my book is about. Or, for example, when I want to give my blog readers some context for this novel I keep discussing.

This is what THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is about, in 100 words or less:

When an earthquake devastates northern California, Nathaniel reluctantly joins the relief effort and returns to his native San Jose, where he's forced to examine the wreckage of his own life. As aftershocks rattle the city, Nathaniel's addiction and depression are exposed to his family, and he unearths generations of resentments and lies. Alternating chapters follow Nathaniel's father and grandfather as young men in San Jose during the dot-com bubble of the 1990s and the aerospace boom of the 1960s, constantly struggling to make the right decisions for their family.

I also came up with a one-sentence tagline that I'm very undecided about:

Three generations of fathers and sons are kept apart by secrets and resentments that are harder to budge than the plates of northern California.

First of all, does "three generations of fathers and sons" mean what I want it to? And second, come on, really, "harder to budge than the plates of northern California"? Who writes like that?

Good Stuff Out There:

Gayle Brandeis muses that "We write towards what we need to understand." Brandeis (who, incidentally, wrote at least one of her first drafts during NaNoWriMo) talks about life uncomfortably imitating art. (Thanks, Louise!)

→ Funny stuff: "Children have an acute understanding of the economic realities of being a writer" and Great Literature Retitled To Boost Website Traffic (Thanks, LitDrift!)