May 18, 2011

Moving Right Along

The writing has been going well these past few weeks, though if you'd been watching me at work, you might have thought I was in the process of being eviscerated by hamsters. Revision can be painful. Especially when for several chapters in a row, the outline says little more than "will have to add some new material to this chapter." Gee, thanks a lot, Past Me.

After a few agonizing planning sessions (thinking is also frequently painful), I came up with the required new material and rewrote the problematic chapters into a series of tense, gripping scenes that move the plot along and provide crucial character insight. At least that's what I hope I did. If nothing else, the new version is an improvement over the sagging middle that was there before.

The next few chapters in this storyline are going to stay fairly close to the previous draft, so that will be easier. There are more changes ahead, but I may be through the trickiest parts. And then it's on to the other two storylines, which I expect to be more straightforward, but let's not think too much about that right now, okay? I'm in a good enough groove with the section I'm working on, and I don't want to get distracted.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ From author Will Allison, a powerful essay about his second novel and his marriage: My Editor, My Wife. (Thanks, The Elegant Variation!)

→ The New York times presents Book Covers That Got Away, and Flavorwire pairs the rejected covers and the final products.

May 9, 2011

How to Survive the Zombie Menace and Common Writing Pitfalls

FEED by Mira Grant has a fantastic premise, an exciting plot, and characters I enjoyed spending time with. My recommendation of this book is tempered with the caveat that I wish it had been better written (or failing that, better edited). Still, I'm enthusiastic enough about the other elements to overlook the writing flaws, and it must be emphasized that I'm rarely so forgiving.

The story takes place twenty-six years after a viral outbreak caused a zombie epidemic that took out a third of the world's population in a few months. At the time of the book, zombies continue to pose a serious threat, but the healthy population has secured enough safe zones to carry on a heavily restricted version of pre-outbreak life.

The book's narrator is Georgia Mason, a journalist in her early twenties. Along with her daredevil brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy, she runs a fairly successful blog collective. In the post-outbreak world, blogs have become the main source of news and information, and bloggers who leave safe zones in search of stories are subject to stringent goverment safety regulations. Near the beginning of the novel, Georgia and her team get the opportunity to go on the road and follow a major story that will help them score big ratings.

I'm a fan of stories about siblings, and the portrayal of Georgia and Shaun's relationship in this book is great. They've grown up in a world in which people tend to stay isolated and avoid trusting others, and they've come to depend only and completely on each other, though the two of them are different in many ways. Their closeness is further cemented by the recognizable phenomenon of "you're the only person who understands what it's like to have my parents." Georgia and Shaun are unrealistically adept at trading clever quips at life-threatening moments, but that fits with the tone of the book, and otherwise their actions are believable and consistent.

The world-building in FEED is fascinating and comprehensive. I like to read about epidemics, but fiction involving plagues often glosses over the details of how the disease spreads. This book, even though it's set long after the initial outbreak, doles out sufficient plausible backstory. There are realistic details, such as that the virus spread especially quickly in schools. And there are clever insights, such as Georgia's hometown of Berkeley faring better than other college towns because it was pre-populated with the kind of people likely to believe and act on crazy internet rumors about reanimation of the dead before other cities understood what was going on. The novel also does a good job at imagining the kinds of social changes and government policies that would emerge in the aftermath of a zombie uprising.

What disappointed me about this book is that it continually exhibited the easily avoidable problems of narrating too much detail and not trusting the reader to be paying attention. Over-narrating is related to the over-description I discussed in my post on describing settings: both stem from how perfectly a scene appears in a writer's head. If the writer can visualize exactly what's happening, it's natural to want to record every movement that every character is taking, but it's unnecessary and eventually annoying. FEED contains inconsequential sentences like "The [guard] on the left leaned over and took the tray from the one on the right, who opened the door." These may have left me screaming at the book, but they also serve as a good reminder that during my own revision, I should think about what actions really matter to a scene.

Another problem to watch for during revision is repetition, specifically explaining the same piece of information too many times. Since this book is set in a world different from our own, many aspects of the characters' everyday lives require explanation. For a crucial plot element, it may be reasonable to mention the same information a couple of times to get the point across. And if the point is that this element is a ubiquitous irritation in the world of the book, it could make sense to refer to it over and over. But there are only so many times it's worth saying the same thing, and readers are good at filling in the blanks. By halfway through FEED, I was really wishing Grant had the confidence in her readers to trust that we assumed Georgia had put on her sunglasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and that we understood the ever-present blood tests involved needles every time.

So those are my complaints about the writing, which I'm airing because they provide such a good lesson for writers in what not to do. I still found FEED to be a highly enjoyable read, and I'm looking forward to the second book in the trilogy, DEADLINE, which will be released on May 31.

May 5, 2011

Setting the Scene

This post first appeared as the May "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


When writing a story, whether a work of fiction or a nonfiction narrative, it's a good idea to describe the setting of a scene so the reader can imagine where the action is taking place. Here's an attempt at doing that:

Nora walked into her old childhood room. It looked almost the same as when she left home twenty years earlier, from the pale pink carpet to the eggshell paint on the walls and ceiling. To the right of the doorway, alongside the wall, was a single bed covered in a comforter with a green and black abstract pattern. Opposite the foot of the bed stood a tall pine dresser with six drawers. The dresser top displayed a collection of glass animal figurines arranged on a piece of blue silk. To the left of the dresser was a window framed by pale green curtains, and to the left of that, an oak desk with three drawers on one side and a hutch on top with two shelves.

The writer has described Nora's old room in painstaking detail, so the reader should have a clear mental picture of what the character is seeing, right? Well, probably not, because chances are, the reader skimmed past this paragraph, fell asleep, or threw the book away.

A powerful description goes beyond cataloging every object visible in a scene. It shows the reader what's important in the setting while providing insight into a character. Learn to create effective descriptive passages, and you'll keep readers engaged and paying attention to every word.

May 3, 2011

May Reading Plan

I'm carrying over two books from my April list:

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead - Haven't start it yet.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - Read about a hundred pages.

And I'm adding two more:

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China MiƩville - This book was mentioned frequently at FOGcon, which had a theme of "The City". It was recently handed to me by a friend along with a glowing recommendation. What I know about the book is that it's a fantasy concerning two cities that exist in the same physical location. I've previously read MiƩville's UN LUN DUN, set in a mirror version of London.

IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary - A new release that I probably read about on some book blog, though I've lost track of which one. I didn't realize until I received my copy that Cary is the author of the memoir BLACK ICE, about her time at a New England prep school. I read that book -- it must have been soon after its release -- in a class at my own (different) New England prep school, and then Cary came and spoke at a school assembly. Anyway, I was attracted to the new novel because it involves several generations of a family.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Robin Black at Beyond the Margins contemplates story beginnings: "In the moment before the story starts, the reader knows nothing, and the author knows everything."

May 2, 2011

April Reading Recap

Despite a bunch of non-reading days while I engaged in vacation-y activities with visiting family, I did pretty well on my April reads:

FEED by Mira Grant - Finished. A page-turner about a sister and brother working as journalists at a time when zombie infection is an everyday threat. I was sucked right into the story and couldn't stop reading. I didn't like everything about this book, but I'll be picking up the second installment of the trilogy, DEADLINE, when it's released at the end of this month.

THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY by Hannah Pittard - Finished. A collective coming-of-age for a group of friends. When a high school girl goes missing, her male classmates (speaking in the first-person plural point of view) imagine what might have happened to her. The girl's different hypothetical futures mix with the accounts of the boys' lives as they grow up, start families of their own, and cope with the often-unwanted responsibilities of adulthood. The book jumps around in time and focus, using this odd narrative style to gradually tell the mostly-complete, mostly-sad story of the residents of a suburban neighborhood.

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead - Haven't started yet. I'm looking forward to reading it next.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - About a hundred pages in. As with the first book in the series, I expect to read this one over a few months while also reading other books.

In addition to the published books I read this month, I also reviewed and critiqued a manuscript for a friend. I'll probably be looking over a different manuscript in May.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Intern offers Ten Reasons You Should Rewrite That Scene: "In Draft One, you account for every minute in your characters' lives. Big scenes in which your characters experience major conflict are strung together with long, creaky suspension bridges of little scenes showing what happens in the meantime (vacuuming, taking a shower, going for a walk, etc.) Do we need to know what happens 'in the meantime'?"

→ The Guardian Books Blog is asking readers to help build 24 hours of fictional time using lines from literature.