Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writing Wednesday: A Novel Idea

I thought I'd go back to basics and talk about how to start a novel. Remember I've never been anywhere near the top of any best sellers list so this is like taking dieting advice from the skinniest kid in fat camp.

On his Monday former super-agent Nathan Bransford talked about first person vs third person in novels. It is definitely worth a read.

Most people who start their first novel do it in first person (I'm not most people and haven't yet attempted a first person novel). Most first time novelists take this approach because first person seems easier, you've got more freedom in your expression, grammar rules are looser, and you don't have worry about losing the reader when shifting the POV.

Now I've read that agents shy away from first person POV in novels because it is so hard to do correctly.

So, what determines if you should start your novel in first or third person POV? It depends on how strong a voice your main character has.

I ran across this little piece I wrote for Ficly a few years ago in a contest to place one famous literary figure in a different story:


So there I was, your humble narrator, with his smashed up house lying on some old bag with some real nice ruby slippers. I figured I could cop them and have a nice evening at the milk bar.

But no, all these little people have to run over and ask me, “Am I a good witch or a bad witch?” Not that I wouldn’t mind giving a few of the midget madams some of the old in and out, but I was needing to get with me dreugs for some mad capers later.

I was just about to unleash some of the old Ultra-Violence when some floating femme told me to “follow the yellow brick road.”

That was all fine and well but then the little people start singing and all, it wasn’t bad but I really could have used some of the old Ludwig Van.

So now your humble narrator is off to see the Wizard so I’ll either be sent home or he’ll be in for a little of the old Ultra-Violence, that will give him a horse of a different color.

That was pretty easy as Alex, the humble narrator, from Anthony Burgess's CLOCKWORK ORANGE has a very strong distinct voice.

If the main character is paranoid of his “Dark Passenger” you would know immediately that it is either Jeff Linsey's DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER or someone ripping him off.

To really have an effective first person novel you need to have a voice that anyone who has read your book will immediately recognize if they see it in a different setting.

So, as you ponder if you should start your novel in the first person or the third, think about how the character's voice effects the novel. If the voice is strong enough and the character's view on life is different enough to change how reader sees the novel then first person is the way to go.

If your character's view is a “normal” reaction to the things that are happening around them third person is the way to go.

Naturally the first rule in writing is that there are exceptions to every rule (including this one?). If the entire world is hiding something from your main character then first person might be the way to go. If the world you've created is so out there that the reader needs a point of reference to hang on to, first person gives the reader that anchor.

That's the one of the first things to thing about before starting a novel.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rules or Conventions?

Here's a little fact that my younger readers might find interesting; In the before time, pre-1984, there wasn't a standard way of spelling.

Before (and for a few years after) the Mac brought real word processing to the masses different Professors had different ways of spelling words and if your version didn't match theirs, tough you got marked off on it. One of the most useful cheat sheets that the English Majors would passed around was a list of how the different Professors spelled words so you could check to see if you spelled it the way they wanted.

If your paper needed the word “Trying” you would check the sheet to see if your professor spelled it, Trying, Triing, Trieing, or Trieng. Sounds chaotic but those of us who went to school in the before time learned to live with it.

In '86 one of my Professors didn't allow papers that were done on the Word Processor because he felt the spell check misspelled words. So with my poor spelling abilities I would type my papers up on the Mac, run the spell check (They weren't powerful enough back then to have check as you go) print it out, check it against my list, then retype it on my Remington Standard 16 (I had a new Smith-Corona as well but the 1920 Remington worked better) and then handed it in.

Once the word processor killed the typewriter people accepted the word processor's spell check as god. Although the spell check on Open Office is a little sexist and can't deal with the few words in English that have gender. It keeps wanting to give my females blond hair instead of blonde (the feminine spelling).

Besides showing my age, this story does have a point.

If you look at the reviews on Amazon there are trolls who complain about the grammar in almost every book. These people have me in awe, traditional books get proof read by a team of copy writers that pass tests that 98% of the people fail. Good copy editing is very profitable so these people who take their valuable skills and freely use them on books proofed by others are incredibly generous souls. Either that or they don't know what the hell they are talking about and are using their high school level grammar to judge people who have studied English as a language.

English is unique as a language as all others were created by humans and evolved with society, English was handed down by God in 1762. Bishop Robert Lowth wrote A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO ENGLISH GRAMMAR in 1762 as he had studied Latin extensively so he felt English would benefit by having a set of grammar principles laid out just like the Vatican had for Latin.

There were two slight problems with this. First, English is a Germanic language and Latin is a Roman language. Second, English is a living language and Latin is a dead language.

If anyone else had written it they would be laughed at, but at the time the church could chop off peoples heads for laughing at them so it was treated as if god himself had written it. Bishop Lowth's book is the basis for most grammar books used today.

Because English grammar rules were enforced so heavily by both the church and British Government, English speakers have a larger percentage of Prescriptive Grammarians than any other language.

In linguistic terms people treat their language as either Prescriptive or Descriptive. Prescriptive grammarians feel that there is a strict set of rules for their language. Descriptive grammarians feel the speakers and writers of a language determine how the language is used.

All the commenters on Amazon feel that the Prescriptive Grammar is how English should be written. They feel that they will win the war of grammar. Except that war has been fought and the Prescriptive Grammarians lost. Which brings me back to the story at the beginning of this post.

A Prescriptive Grammar checker isn't that much harder to program than a spell checker. The early Mac's came with a much more aggressive grammar checker than modern word processors. Early users went through the same steps, turned it on to 5 its highest setting. Hit Ignore 15 times per page. Next paper, back it down to 4, hit Ignore 10 times per page. Next paper, turned grammar check off. Re-read the paper and noticed a bunch of grammar mistakes. Next paper turned grammar check to the lowest setting, let it catch the biggest grammar mistakes, re-read the paper and caught a few more and were happy with that.

In a 75,000 to 140,000 word novel there will be mistakes, in the pulp science fiction novels from the 50s that I grew up on their were 4 to 6 per page. In modern novels a couple per chapter. In the last book I reviewed I got more distracted by the lack of mistakes when I hit my first one after 100 pages than if I encountered 4 to 6 per page. The whole point of spelling and grammar in a language is to make the writer or speaker be understood. If a reader can see what the writer is trying to say without having to re-read the sentence the writer has done their job.

Corrections and Retractions:

A book critic said that those who can write, those who can't write reviews. I hope that means that I can write because I can't write a review. In my review of NEW WORLD ORDERS Monday I forgot the most important thing that any review needs to have: Where to buy the damn book.

NEW WORLD ORDERS is available at Smashwords for $0.99

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: New World Orders

New World Orders
by Edward G. Talbot

Shadow Government is such an overused term. But the guys in the tinfoil hats aren't all wrong. In the nineteen-sixties, a group of wealthy men knows it's already too late to stop global warming. And they have a plan to save themselves. Editor Jack Crowley chases their story and winds up running for his life. Because one thing is more important than money and power. Survival.

My Take:

I love a good conspiracy theory, I've written a few myself Moon Landing Hoax and The Scariest Conspiracy Ever . So naturally I had to check this book out.

I knew I'd like the conspiracies in the book, but what surprised me was how much I liked the triller itself. It really grabbed me from the beginning and I was hooked. I loved all the twists and turns that they had Jack Crowley navigating through to find the men behind the conspiracy. It was a great read that I highly recommend.

Formating and Typos:

Holy Professionalism, Batman.

I'm not a proscriptive grammarian, so I tend not to care about a few typos here and there. I grew up on pulp paperbacks from the 50s that had 4 or 5 typos per page. Even with traditionally published books I do notice 1 or 2 typos per chapter. With this book I had read over 100 pages and I noticed a typo/formating problem, that's when it hit me that I hadn't seen one earlier. I don't believe there are more 5 or 6 problems in the entire book. That is better than almost all traditionally published books. Well Done.

NEW WORLD ORDERS is available at Smashwords for $0.99

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two Sides to a Conversation

In my last book MIND THEIF I struggled with one character, Debbie. She was an interesting character with a very clear motivation that wasn't shown until her final confrontation, with a lot of reworking her I had her I had her stay true to character except when she slipped up. But the scenes with her were painful.

Naturally I blamed her for the horrible scenes until I put the manuscript aside for a month and looked at those scenes again. Once I had a small degree of objectivity I could see she wasn't the one ruining the scenes it was my main character, Howie.

He had a clear, if selfish, reason for hanging out with her. But not strong enough to excuse her little slip ups, so she either made him look unbelievably naïve or that she was an unbelievable character. The problem was I was showing their interaction but not telling what my main character was inferring from their conversations. Oddly enough I had the problem of showing not telling.

When someone says something to a person two things happen, they hear the words and they infer the meaning. It's what the person infers that is the most important. I had my Debbie slipping out of character on purpose and my main character was barely reacting to that. That's normal, if you questioned every slip of the tongue that someone has in a conversation you wouldn't have many friends. But you would think about those odd slips of the tongue.

In making a character come to life, it's not enough just to have them act realistically but the other characters have to react them. Even if it's only internally they will think about what is being said to them and what they think about what is being said is at least as important as the actual words.

By showing what Howie is thinking about Debbie's little slip ups it brings both their characters to life. As he is now reacting to her even if only in his head.

It turned out my problem wasn't with the actions I was describing, it was the reactions that I knew my character had but I wasn't describing.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Writing What You Know (And why you shouldn't)

In my sophomore year of college I received a token of wisdom that raised my grades on research papers from 3.0s to 4.0s, “Write about what you don't know.”

This went against everything that I had learned up until then, which was, “Write what you know.”

The problem with writing on a subject you know about, is that you are really, really familiar with the basics. When you write about the basics you either skip important concepts because you've heard them over and over again. Or you just paraphrase the most concise expression for that concept that you've heard and your work becomes dull. If you write on a subject that you don't know about, or only know a little bit about, as you research it you find out exciting stuff that experts have learned so long ago it's boring to them. When you write about it that sense of wonder shows through the on page and you've got an exciting research paper. Even research papers need have some excitement, that's why if I put a formula in I wouldn't give the answer until the next chapter. Lol.

In creative writing there is a similar problem with writing a novel that is like what you read a lot of. You either skip some of the concepts that your favorite authors based their books on so that the unstated theme goes more unstated than it is supposed to. Or, in weaving that concept into your book it becomes a dry carbon copy of the original author taking away from your unique writing style and ideas.

I've personally read most of the works of Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ben Bova. Writing something similar would have the problem that between them they've written around a thousand books, adding another would be pointless.

The short stories that I have had published took a completely different route, they blended elements of horror and science fiction. I was never a big horror fan but I had fun writing horror stories but putting a scientific explanation behind them, or at least some of them.

One of the reasons that I didn't get into horror was because I started reading Stephen King. I read Carrie, Cujo, Dead Zone (I liked that one the best), The Shining, and Firestarter. Then he came out with IT. When I read IT I felt betrayed. In the book at around the 1,000 page mark two teenage boys fool around with sex. Okay, little strange but they were the older teenagers in the book. Then at the 2,000 or 3,000 page mark (I can't remember it was a long damn book) the younger kids have a gangbang on a girl that just had her first period. I don't fault King for putting it in but he could have given the reader some kind of warning.

That just hit me wrong and that was the last King book I read. So I tried a few other horror writers, but the ones I looked at (this was early 80s) were trying to be like King and because King hit my hot buttons the others suffered.

I really didn't read anymore horror until I found myself writing it and people started paying me for my science fiction horror. I've since found out about splatterpunk where I might run into something that might hit my hot buttons, but the idea behind splatterpunk is you don't surprise the reader with the gruesome parts you put it all up front and just build on it.

By writing in a genre that I avoided for 30 years, I don't have to worry about my writing reminding someone of a different author of that genre. If some of the voice of my favorite science fictions authors slips in there, that's fine too.

It all goes back to writing about what you don't know, by being a science fiction fan who adds horror elements to my writing the horror parts are shiny and new to me and it forces me to be completely unique.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Rules

Because grade school teachers often see it being used improperly, they tell students that you can't start a sentence with the word because.

This sentence sums up most rules about writing. A lot of the “rules” of writing come from examining the work of writers who do something wrong. The big trend these days is to say that a story needs a glass wall between the writer and the reader. In one of the stories I'm proudest of is A HOME TO DIE FOR. not only wasn't there a glass wall, the reader was the main character.

Some of my favorite short stories are told as if the main character has stopped by the readers house to tell them about the incident that made either them famous or notorious. This is now considered bad form, not because it isn't clear and and effective, but because editors see it being done so bad that they cringe when they see it.

Another “Rule” is single consistent Point of View. Some of the greatest novels I've read have been told from omnipotent point of view that changed who the main focus was often. The funniest thing about the consistent single point of view “rule” is a lot of people refer to one of my favorite authors, Ben Bova, as an example of how to do this.

I became a fan of Ben Bova because he didn't use a single point of view. A lot of his books that I read started out with a omnipotent voice that set up the stage, moved to the main character and showed the rising conflict through things happening around the world. Once he became a famous editor and had to read tons of confusing POV shifts he started preaching the single consistent POV.

I must note that Ben Bova himself doesn't say not to switch POV, he says, “In a novel it is possible to shift from one viewpoint character to another, but you must take great care to make certain that the reader understands these shifts in P.O.V. and is not confused by them.”

The key point in reading about “rules” for writers is not to memorize and follow them, but to learn why people think something should be a rule so when you break that rule you break it properly and don't confuse the reader.

If a writer memorizes the “rules” without looking at the why behind them they risk having the craftsmanship of writing kill heart of the story. Rachelle Gardner talks about that here: Story vs. Craft.

Just like in the beginning sentence of this post, if you know that “because” is a conjunction to link unequal parts of a sentence, you can start a sentence with it. If you make the mistake that my classmates in 3rd grade made of using it to link to the teachers question, that is improper.

BTW: Being the smart ass that I was in school when a teacher told the class we couldn't start our answers with the word “because” I always would do something like this:

“Why was the main character feeling sad?”

“Because his bike was stolen, the main character felt sad.”

Teachers loved having me in their classes.