Today my friend Kristin McFarland’s agent (SQUEE! This is new news!) Eric Ruben responded to me on Twitter with something that made me ponder. I had asked my writer and agent followers (more of the former than the latter, heh!) for craft book recommendations. I have a whole stack of them that I’ve read, from Stephen King’s brilliant, wipe-tears-away-hilarious On Writing to the book that changed the way I write first drafts, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I’ve read most of the Normal Fare. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.
I was looking for something new to go along with a book I’ve been meaning to purchase for a year (The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, if you’re wondering). Eric responded by saying that he prefers reading great writers to craft books, and it made me think. Because I agree with him. So why do I read craft books?
I’ve been an avid reader my entire life. I’m probably one of the few kids who ever got yelled at for reading too much. Growing up, you could find my nose sandwiched between pages and tucked against the spine of a book at any given moment. I read and read and read and read.
I’ve read heaps of classics — some 80 percent of the books on various top 100 great works You Must Read Or You Fail sorts of lists. I’ve read non-fiction and literary fiction and genre fiction in equal parts and have a whole two shelves devoted to the literary greats I just had to bring home with me.
And I’ve been writing for just about as long as I could read.
There were things that I learned from reading probably over a million pages in my childhood that translated directly to the page when I was writing. If I go back and read the first novel I started to write in earnest, there’s actually a lot I did right.
That said, there’s a lot I did wrong.
Granted, I was seventeen. It wasn’t total crap, but it also was derivative and decidedly un-genius. At the time I wasn’t really thinking about publishing. I just wrote because I wanted to.
While I learned a lot about character development and the story met a lot of appreciation from my AP English teacher, there were things that I was missing. Things that I needed to realize on a conscious scale in order to master.
Stephen King wrote hundreds of stories. It took him years to sell a book. He did what I did for a long time: trial and error.
He learned through that lengthy process how to structure a story. How to keep readers turning pages. How to horrify and suck readers in.
I did the trial and error thing for a long time. But it was a craft book — and a very specific one at that — that I credit with the jump in my writing ability.
My first completed novel (the first in a planned trilogy) had certain aspects correct. It followed the epic style of structure of the fantasy I grew up with, from David Eddings to Star Wars. Hero has tragedy (or another inciting incident), meets mentor, gathers band of supporters, learns new skills, discovers threat is much bigger than anticipated, fights, fails, and eventually triumphs.
But all that is a little vague, and there was something lacking.
I read Story Engineering just before I started work on SHRIKE. Six weeks later, I had a new book in my hot little hands. And it was a thousand times stronger than my first (or second) completed novels. I dug hard into editing, carefully scrutinized points I’d only ever pondered nebulously before, and less than two months after completing my manuscript, the full thing was in the hands of two agents. My first book had gotten no requests. And now the whole thing is with five different people, three agents and two editors of small presses. I’ve gotten hugely positive responses from my betas and from agents — even ones who rejected it.
So how is it possible that enough clicked in the two months between putting aside a foundering trilogy that needed a page one rewrite and starting SHRIKE ?For me to go from kindly worded rejections on that first ever manuscript to excited and personal responses and requests for revisions on the third?
The picture that started this post is of my TBR pile. Some of those are ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) I won in a contest, others were gifts. It’s a large pile. A veritable mountain of words. I’m all for reading great fiction. It’s imperative that writers do it. And it got me through the years where my face was more pimple than skin and I had shock absorbers installed on my molars. But to write great fiction, sometimes it takes a little more.
A few months ago I picked up several genre novels from my shelves that were similar lengths as SHRIKE. And I flipped to page 40. Within three pages on either side, every single one of them had their inciting incident exactly there. It might sound formulaic, but learning structure as it applies to fiction was the single most important lesson I’ve learned as a wanna-be-published writer.
Reading hundreds of novels throughout my life instilled the foundation for it, but seeing it articulated gave it a framework you’ll see in almost every single great book on the shelves. Structure executed poorly is one of the biggest reasons novels fail. They don’t start in the right place or they run around squawking without getting anywhere. You can learn it by trial and error, but craft books can accelerate the process.
Is SHRIKE the best thing I’ll ever write? Oh, gods, I hope not. One of the ways to get better is to read great writers and do so critically. Supplementing that with craft books (that you read just as critically, because no one gets everything right) can help you identify areas that need strengthening and understand specifically why certain things don’t work.
My plan is to learn all I can from every source possible. Reading fiction is a must for all who want to write it. If you can analyze well and apply it to your own writing, more power to you. But everyone has their blind spots, and sometimes we need someone to poke at them for us. Plenty of writers have done the trial and error thing. I’ve made my own heap of mistakes, and I’ll definitely make more. Craft books can be that beam of light into your blind spot. As the proverb says, “A smart person learns from her own mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of others.”
I guarantee almost all the lessons writers put into those craft books come from experience — when the writers learned what didn’t work the less-than-easy way. Let’s take a page from the proverb and learn from them.
Now to start whittling away at that mountain.
What defining moments do you remember in your career? Have you ever had to hear something from someone else in order to apply it deliberately in your own work?
Yesterday, my good friend and blogger Kristin McFarland had a post that made me sit and ponder for a while. She talked about her defining moments as a writer, from childhood through now. Some of you may know that Kristin and I are slogging through what I call the Query Trenches together. We’ve been lock-step this whole way, from first full requests to rejections. We’ve even had manuscripts in the hands of the same agents. Sometimes we’ve gotten different results.
But the biggest thing that has been meaningful about having Kristin around is that we’ve experienced the ups and downs together. We’ve had weeks where we were both walking on sunshine and lollipops — and weeks where we feel like people are doing nothing but chucking mustard gas at us and waiting for our skin to fall off.
We’ve gone from thinking, “You know, five years from now we’ll probably be sitting on a panel together telling new writers about this and celebrating new contracts” to “WE ARE NEVER GETTING AGENTS THEY ALL HATE US LET US GET DRUNK AND OGLE DAMON SALVATORE’S ABS.”
I’ll take that one. Also, join me for a Damon-fest tonight at 8 on the CW. Prrrrrow!
Her post was about how she got here, and it made me think about how I did. How two women from different states ended up starting the same stage of a writer’s path together.
Mine started with this:
Or something very like it.
1. I learned to read at age 4. I loved stories. I would tell them with my Bernstein Bear dolls and the Legos I’d leave strewn helpfully about the floor so my mum could step on them. And as soon as I could hold a pen, I started writing stuff down. Usually in Mum’s day planners, which weren’t cheap and therefore she concluded weren’t the best venue for my scrawling (which may or may not have made sense. But I started telling stories any way I could, through comics and paper, as cave art on the walls of my walk-in closet in the middle of the night.
2. In fifth grade, I set out to write a novel. I got a mechanical pencil and a sheath of college-ruled paper and got started. It was an overblown space melodrama starring all of my friends at the time . I changed exactly one name: mine. I’d heard somewhere that if you traveled fast enough, time would slow down. That astronauts could conceivably leave Earth and visit other worlds only to come back and find everyone they love dead of old age.
My story was based on that being a surprise, and I never got that far. Somewhere around my hand-written page 34, I decided I didn’t know enough about quantum mechanics to write a convincing sci-fi and put it away.
3. In eighth grade, I had a teacher whose name was, rather fittingly, Pamela Wright. I wrote a story about falling off my bike at age six, described the blood that spurted from my head wound, needing stitches, and being more scared about getting my clothes dirty and getting in trouble than anything else. I still remember a white-shirted neighbour hauling me out of the muddy ditch and cradling me against his chest, hurrying up the stairs to our apartment.
Ms. Wright told me I was a great writer. For a kid who wasn’t popular or good at much besides getting As in school, having A Talent For Something changed the way I looked at my life and my potential.
High school, FTW.
4. High school rolled around, and with it, several more moves. My family landed in Corvallis, a tiny town known only for its proximity to a slightly-less-tiny town of Hamilton, but I landed in Darby for my final year and a half and refused to budge. It was there I started writing my next novel — an epic fantasy influenced by my infatuation with my Celtic heritage and a deep, abiding love for David Eddings and Robert Jordan.
My best friend Catie was also writing a novel. Hers was 500-some-odd pages already, and she was writing and editing like a fiend. We were both way ahead of the graduation schedule and had to fill in the hours of school with something, so our English teacher, Nancy Rokusek, decided to offer us a creative writing independent study. We had to turn in 10-20 new pages of story a week or supplement it with character descriptions or the maps you see above. I got actually past the first plot point of this novel. I’d planned it to be a trilogy. Who knows? Looking at that map makes my heart go warm and fluffy. Maybe I’ll go back to it someday.
4a. Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, I told a whole other story. I was in a biology class taught by a phenomenal teacher called Craig Kuchel who gave us these packets to use as workbooks each quarter. They were only printed on one side, and I was always done early. So naturally, I spent the rest of my time drawing stick figure Johnny Castaway (anyone remember that screen saver?) comics on the backs of the sheets. Mr. Kuchel greeted these with a sense of joy, tempered by the resignation that it would take him four times as long to grade my papers.
Och, I found a video! You’re welcome.
5. The College Years. I started university as a biology major, thanks mostly to Craig Kuchel drilling a fascination for DNA and molecular biology into my noggin. Unfortunately, the biology programme at my university was lacking in many things, a lively professor being one of them. I got there and discovered I already knew everything they taught in Bio 101, so I slept through it. Literally. It was really rude of me.
Meanwhile in my required history class, Bill Watson was dancing about the room and miming out hieroglyphics every time he said the word, and I got to enjoy writing his weekly ten page papers. I fell in love with history and changed majors. The cynic in me says that’s probably why I am still poor. I am pretty sure they’re hiring more scientists than historians right about now. ANYWAY.
I wrote a couple little snippets of novels that never quite clicked for me. Then, sometime in 2005, I started hearing voices. One voice, to be exact. She had a presence like a cool wind and a deep sadness. But a fierce, fierce love. And I knew I’d found the story I had to tell. So I started telling her story, page by page, between papers and preparations to go to Poland. About fifty pages in, I found that her story wasn’t the beginning. There was another character about to come on the scene, and she was the real beginning. Back I went. And in the autumn of 2008, I finished my first completed novel.
Three years later (last autumn) I finally finished telling the story of the girl with the cool wind voice. But her story wasn’t the end. There was a flame-haired, four-hundred-year-old vampire who needed attention. I got halfway through her story and found out I probably couldn’t publish them after hearing from several agents at the Writer’s Digest Conference that vampires were an almost impossible sell. And, you know, finding out that as my first book ever, the writing and structure needed work. I could see the quality shifting as I wrote the third book in that trilogy, and I knew it didn’t match the beginning.
6. Sometime in May, I got hit upside the head with a 2×4 by a female superhero called Gwenllian Maule. She was sitting in Edinburgh, listening to her crappy boyfriend go on about the pointlessness of Scottish independence, and she wished her boss’s head would explode. She was insecure, doormat-y, and didn’t have superpowers. Yet. And she hijacked my life for six weeks, from mid-May until the end of June.
After two months of furious edits, and some serious LURVE and gushing from my amazing beta readers, I sent my first (crappy) query letters on 5 September. A week later, I revised my query and sent out a bunch more. 10 hours later I got my first request. Four days after that, I got a requery request from an agent who saw a glimmer of something in my query but not enough. I revised my query in an hour and sent it back. She requested the full. Two days later, the first request upgraded to a full, which turned into a revise and resubmit.
So here I am, writing verbose blog posts and plowing through NaNoWriMo at the speed of a moderately fast person. I’m finally getting to tell another story that’s been poking at me for four years. And there are heaps more stories in there, waiting to come out.
That’s what it all boils down to — is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet. But that time is coming. My time is coming. Kristin’s time is coming. Right now we’re just crossing off the days and waiting until our stories are in front of the right eyeballs. And they will be.
So I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one’s flashing a peace sign.
Whatever your career, what were your defining moments? What got you where you are? Did you take the scenic route like I did?
Part of being raised by two mums in a tree-hugging, dirt-worshipper sort of household is growing up with an eye for magic. Ever since I was a wee thing, I’ve been obsessed with the unmundane, from Care Bears and their sparkling tummy rays to sorcerers and witches.
I used to sit with my NeeNee (short for a much longer Native American name — this is the woman I still think of as my second mum), and we would go through her animal cards. They were beautifully drawn in greens and blues and reds, patterned on the back, a centered animal totem on the front, encircled in a dreamcatcher. They came with a book, and books like that just breathe magic.
hummingbird – yay!!! (Photo credit: Debbi Long)
She would shuffle the cards together, moving one over another with a reverence far from the poker table, and sometimes she’d let me draw one. We would open the book with the card face up then, paging through each chapter until we came to the animal we’d drawn.
I loved reading the descriptions that highlighted each animal’s symbols and strengths. Those moments have stuck with me for almost twenty years.
When we first moved to Montana, we had twenty acres of land that we purchased for $30,000. Even then that was a steal. On our land, we had a small gully and a large thicket, with one tall Ponderosa that lent its branches quite often to a neighbourhood porcupine. The mound by that Ponderosa and the chokecherry thicket were our sacred places. They were places of quiet reflection. They were places where magic came alive.
I had a friend who lived just down the road about a half mile from where we lived. She and I were both hungry for magic. We loved the click of gemstones and the scent of Montana sage. We spent days and weeks roaming the gullies of our land together, climbing trees and each hoping to stumble upon something buzzing with power.
In fiction, I was drawn to anything supernatural, from horror to epic fantasy to urban fantasy and paranormal romance (though back then, paranormal romance didn’t have a name).
I quickly discovered many different types of witches.
magia/magic (Photo credit: SIRHENRYB.is ****the dreamer****)
1. Earth Magic
These witches drew their power from the earth itself. From the elements. Little was impossible when they mastered this power, because if anything is endless, it’s the power of nature. The Aes Sedai in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are a good example. They drew power from the elements themselves, weaving together Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Spirit to create, protect, move.
English: Dreamcatcher Español: Atrapasueños elaborado con lana, plumas y cuentas plásticas, adquirido en feria artesanal del balneareo de El Quisco, Valparaíso, Chile. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
2. Talisman Magic
This type of witch drew power from the earth, but focused it through talismans. L.J. Smith’s witches were this sort — while they had some powers without aid, their best work came only with the focus provided by stones, herbs, and spells. Spells are the manifestation of a talisman, the product of power, will, focal points, and words. Heady stuff.
Lightning (Photo credit: Pete Hunt)
3. Self Magic
Some magic-users created it from within themselves, by a gathering of will and a focal point of a word. Harry Potter. David Eddings’s sorcerers. The word aimed the intent. Some used wands as well, but for others the word was enough. This magic came from within and could exhaust or easily backfire on the user if not careful.
blood (Photo credit: bedrocan)
4. Blood Magic
Sometimes the mage’s blood — often someone else’s. This type of magic is almost fully condemned as dark magic. In the Dragon Age universe, spilling blood is a sacrifice to demons, who then supply power if you can control them. In Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, blood is used as a focus and an activator with little moral implication unless taken by force. Blood magic is often portrayed as more powerful than earth or talisman magic — perhaps because it’s forbidden.
Micah’s DNA (Photo credit: micahb37)
5. Gene Magic
In comic books and graphic novels, this gets called science (albeit futuristic, hold-on-to-your-breeches science). Mutations, reactions of certain blood types — all that manifest in supernatural powers of some kind. It’s still magic to me. This magic is interesting because it is unique to each person. One thing might affect two different people in completely disparate ways. One X-Man might be able to fly; another just has really sticky fingers.
One thing is sure, there’s enough magic out there for all of us.
Which witches did you like to read about most? Beyond all the different terminology (witches, sorcerers, warlocks, wizards, mutants, Aes Sedai), if you could choose a type of magic what would it be?
Yesterday I posed the question: What characters from literature did you have a crush on growing up?
I had heaps. Some of the names I don’t remember, because it was twenty years ago. Others I know so well, I would recognise them on the street if I passed them.
I got a tidy mountain of names from people on Facebook — here’s a few of them:
Aragorn. Jondalar. Heathcliff. Perrin Aybara. Quatre Winner. Valentine Wiggin. Hamlet. Rochester. Mr. Darcy. Draco Malfoy. Dustfinger. Pippin. Ender. Laurie. Gatsby. Elizabeth Bennett. Eowyn. Elinor Dashwood. Sybil Vane.
That’s a tidy list of swoon-worthy characters there. A couple of mine are on that list, but I thought I’d share some of the others.
1. Ash Redfern (as modeled here by Alex Pettyfer)
Ash is first introduced in the first book of L.J. Smith’s Nightworld series, Secret Vampire. (I come honestly by my urban fantasy roots.) He’s described as laconic, dangerous, and self-serving. But he’s really rather lost. When he meets his soulmate (a concept that skewed my view of relationships throughout my youth), he makes some dumb choices, but Mary-Lynnette lines him out. He also has eyes that shift colours at random, which is probably part of my fixation with eye colour in writing. L.J. Smith gave her supernatural characters very interesting eyes. Ash is definitely a bad boy, but he’s educated and deliberate — and when it matters, he pours himself into being a better person. He’s one of the few recurring characters in the Nightworld series, and I still love him.
Plus, he was my first taste of a self-actualised vampire. He did his thing and didn’t fuss too much about it. In fact, a lot of Smith’s vampires didn’t brood. Bully for her. Broody vamps get on my nerves. (See blog logline.)
Unsuspecting Ian Somerhalder does not know he is really Gabriel from the Dark Visions trilogy
2. Gabriel from the Dark Visions Trilogy
Ah, Gabriel. Total brat, delinquent, bad boy who accidentally killed the girl he loved. But then he falls in love with Kait, and he risks himself to save her life. Yep. Textbook dreamy. In the books he had grey eyes, but Ian’s just so durn pretty that I couldn’t think of anyone else better to represent him.
(And he actually does have greyish eyes — this picture has been edited to make them look bluer, I think.)
Bua ha, Brian Robinson. Don’t you know you’re actually a witch called Adam Conant?
3. Adam Conant, from The Secret Circle
Before you get all, “Oh, that’s not the actor who played him,” remember that that show started as books. In the books, Adam is said to have red hair. This is Adam say, a few years after high school. I always loved Adam — not only because he was a witch who was also cool with women leading the circle, but because he really tried to do the right thing.
Plus, there’s a puurrrrow factor you just can’t ignore here. Just look at him.
Yes, there is a lot of L.J. Smith on the beginning of this list. Just take one look at my raggedy copies of her books to know how much I read them.
“So you want me to be a sorcerer now?”
4. Garion (or…Michael C. Hall)
This was one of those crushes for me that made me reread the entire Belgariad/Malloreon multiple times. It’s classic fantasy — farmboy turned king ad sorcerer, and I loved Garion. Especially in the Malloreon.
Yeah, Mr. Darcy will always wear Colin Firth’s face in my head. Always.
5. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy
That is is first name, by the way.
I think it’s impossible to read Pride and Prejudice without coming away with a crush on Darcy or Elizabeth, or even Bingley. But probably not Mr. Collins. I read the book before seeing the five hour extravaganza that is the A&E miniseries, but the moment I saw Colin Firth’s face, I died a little. The scene above? Yeah. Try to watch Darcy and Elizabeth in that scene without melting into a puddle of I-need-a-cold-shower.
There are so many other little crushes I had growing up. Taran from the Chronicles of Prydain (I wanted to BE Eilonwy), Julian from the Forbidden Game, Mat Cauthon and Rand al’Thor from the Wheel of Time — too many to list here.
In a way these early crushes influence what you look for in a partner. And they’re always there, like old friends you can go back to whenever you feel the need. Most of mine were from reading fantasy (surprise, surprise), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend a lot of my youth looking around corners for hidden magic.
There’s a fascination with the sweeping romances in the books I mentioned that has stayed close by my side for twenty years. The idea of soulmates, that there’s a silver cord connecting two people that will manifest the moment they get close to one another — I spent a decade wondering if I’d ever find that cord. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
If there’s one thing I learned from these crushes and the philosophy of their relationships, it’s to trust my instinct. After all, the best and most important love in my life has been found in a matter of instants — my closest friends and my husband. Of course, it’s easy to say that in hindsight. But ask my maid of honour and my bridesman (yep, I did that) how we became friends, and they’ll be the first to tell you how immediate it was. As for my husband, something bound us tightly within hours of meeting — and it remained even when we were separated by states and time. Remind me to tell you the whole story someday.
Thank you to everyone who turned up for the #SuperWomen chat last night — it was a raging success, and I had a brilliant time talking with you! We will be doing it again — date pending my whimsical work schedule — so if you missed it, keep your eyes open for details.
What have you learned from your early crushes? Who did you spend your life looking for? Who keeps drawing you back into the worn pages of a book?
I grew up reading fantasy. Beginning with Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and leading to David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon as well as Tolkein and Bruce Coville and Robert Jordan (with some Terry Goodkind sprinkled in for good measure), I read my way through thousands of pages, heaps of characters, and a whole lot of good and evil. I can deal with large casts, crazy magic, worlds that span continents, and random talking critters.
But I realised in the last couple days that there is a magical elixir for losing me in the first fifty pages.
Here’s the recipe.
folio 124r (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Heat your burner with a long, incomprehensible prologue.
The longer, the better. Make sure it encompasses an entire vein of philosophy, theology, or intertwined history.
Better yet, throw in another language.
If you really want to give it some punch, pepper every sentence with things the reader will glean from the book itself after a thousand pages or so, just so that someday they’ll go back to it with WTF tattooed on their foreheads.
folio 200r (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Next, gather a base of borderline high-style language
Who cares if your book starts in 2005 on a college campus! Make sure your entire cast sounds like Winston Churchill in 1942. Or better yet, go back to the 1800s and stick those word in their mouths. Can not you comprehend what I am saying to you? Even if no one has spoken like that ever, well. That’s almost better.
And if you are making your own world, fill it with odd localisms that none of us will understand.
Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) – 30000 waiting for Coldplay (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)
Dump in all these people. At once.
Forget that rule about large casts and introducing them slowly. Throw ‘em all in! Preferably within a page or two. Then switch back and forth between referring to them by their first or last names at random intervals, so the readers have to remember twice the number of appellations.
Make sure you dump in another batch or two before you hit the 50 page mark. For spice.
Evil olive oil (Photo credit: Cubosh)
Refer to sinister things in a vague manner, preferably in another language.
Oh, you didn’t see the murgendurfer lurking outside the window. *Pointed look at other knowing character* Carry on, then.
Pepper dialogue with stutter-stops so that the twelve protagonists have no idea what’s happening and the reader thinks you’re doing some sort of verbal pantomime. Throw in knowing looks and long stares where appropriate.
Which is everywhere.
English: Lone sheep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Separate one character from the herd.
With any luck, by this point the reader won’t know bugger all about the character. Make sure you lose him or her and make a big deal out of it being his or her fault.
Make sure the reader knows someone’s missing.
English: Sparkler, violent reaction (guy fawkes) Français : Cierge magique pendant la nuit de Guy Fawkes, en Angleterre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bestow random powers on one or more members of the cast.
This works best if they have no idea its coming, and better yet if they make no issue of it whatsoever and accept it without question.
“Sweet, I’m a mage-fighting slug monkey?” *Slimes nearby mage with anti-mage slug slime*
If you follow these simple, step by step instructions, you should be on your way to writing the world’s most confusing fantasy novel. And you’ll do away with pesky things like “readers” who seek to refine your rebel ways into something coherent.
What variations on this recipe have you discovered in your journey? Magical McGuffins that mutate to stay relevant? Plotlines that put the ex in deus ex machina? Share in the comments!