Wednesday, December 7, 2011

IWSG: What Gives?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, time for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  I’ve been participating in this group since its inception, and have written of my many frustrations and insecurities.  After last month’s post, I asked myself, “Do I complain too much?”  I thought I probably did and planned on writing about that today, but once again, I found myself discouraged by events, or the lack thereof.  So if you’ll be so kind as to indulge me, I’d like to get something off my chest.

As a writer with a novel ready to go, I’ve been busy polishing my query.  It’s been a while since I actually queried any agents, but that’s because I still have a few requests pending.  But even though I’ve emailed the agents who are currently reading my novel, I haven’t heard back.  And that’s discouraging.

I figure it’s because my story is not quite ready yet, not quite there.  If it was, wouldn’t they have called me by now?  So, since sending out those requests, I’ve further revised my manuscript based on feedback from other agents.  I feel pretty confident now, because I’ve been busy reading and studying books on craft.  The most recent two, The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel, were written by literary agent Donald Maass.  After reading them, I noted all the important factors that make a novel great, and I can honestly say, I’ve included most of those, at least the ones appropriate for my genre.  But even though I’ve made some important revisions, those factors were already in there, before my last round of requests.  So what’s the problem then?

I have a premise and plot that are plausible with inherent conflict and gut emotional appeal, and with my unusual twist, it’s pretty original.  It has high personal stakes that continually escalate, and I believe the reader can sympathize with the strong protagonist, who while is sometimes dark, he also has inner conflict, self-regard, and strong relationships with the other characters.  The voice is authoritative, clearly articulating a personal belief system through dialogue that snaps with tension and immediacy, and the setting is linked with emotional details.  And most importantly, from the word go, it’s filled with constant tension.

So what gives?  I can only surmise it’s the writing, though I’ve been told by my critique partners that it’s pretty darn good.  But is that enough?  Hmm, I wonder.  Maybe it’s just the timing and the fact that adult thrillers aren’t selling like they used to.  I keep thinking, if I just had more agents reading it, someone is bound to love it as much as I do, as much as my beloved and talented critique partner, Lisa Regan does. 

But to do that, I have to have a kickass query.  After Matthew MacNish critiqued my query last week, I worked every day to fine tune those points he and his followers commented on.  I feel I clarified those key questions and am now ready to go.  Of course, now it the holiday season, so I’d be crazy to start querying before New Year’s.  It’s just one more thing to frustrate me.  But I suppose, if I’ve learned one thing in the last twenty months, it’s patience. 

What about you?  What frustrates you about writing, querying, and publishing?  And what have you learned from your frustrations?                

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Maid's Here & She's Biting Her Nails

She looks just like me!

So normally you wouldn’t be hearing from me until Monday, but I have a few items I need to take care of, and I won’t be posting again until Wednesday, December 7th, which, as the first Wednesday of the month, is reserved for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. 


So I’ve done something crazy:  I gave my new query to Matthew MacNish at the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment.  He posted it yesterday, December 1st, and critiqued it today.  You might be wondering why I would put myself through that.  Well, I participated in a query blogfest last July, but the query that blogfest produced garnered not a single request, so obviously I needed to revise it.  I came up with a formula for a new one and sent the new query to literary agent Suzie Townsend last month.  She offered a critique as a form of celebration for her recent move to Nancy Coffey’s agency.  For one hour on November 1st, she accepted all queries via email with a specific subject line.  Then she spent a couple of weeks critiquing those lucky few.  I was one of them, and she gave me some great feedback.  That revised query is now up for  critique on Matthew’s blog.  I have further revised my query after reading Matthew's comments and those of his followers.  You can find that version here on my blog under the tab marked The Query.  And feel free to comment.  I can only improve with feedback.

On December 16th, Nicole Ducleroir,  Lydia Kang, D L Hammons, and Katie Mills are hosting the Déjà Vu Blogfest, which gives participants the chance to resubmit their best posts for the benefit of all those who might have missed it the first time around.  After all, it’s easy to miss some awesome posts when you’re away or simply unable to keep up.  Joining this bloghop will instantly connect you to many others who are interested in your writing.  So go to Nicole’s site and sign up using the convenient Mr. Linky’s Magical Widget.  104 bloggers have signed up so far.  Don’t miss out on meeting some fantastic new bloggers and the chance to gain a few new followers of your own. 

And lastly, Murees Dupe at Daily Drama of an Aspiring Writer has bestowed the Liebster Award on me.  And while I have received this award a few times, I never miss the opportunity to spread the word and introduce a few bloggers with less than 200 followers.  So go visit these wonderful folks and follow:

1.                    The hilariously cheeky Al Penwasser
2.                    My best friend and talented cohort Lisa L. Regan
3.                    The brilliant and insightful, Lora Rivera
4.                    The always fun and kind Carrie Butler
5.                    The brave and compassionate Julius Cicero


That’s it for now.  I’ll be back on Wednesday for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes on Craft: Tension

I love stories, whether they’re told by mouth, expressed through song, or acted out on film.  But more than anything, I love books.  I suppose the one feature that makes books different from these other genres is the pace at which the story unfolds.  I can read a book at whatever pace I choose.  Some books are only good enough for short bathroom breaks, while others are so well written I can barely put it down long enough to get my chores done.  So what’s the difference between them?  What makes a book a page-turner?

There are many elements that make up a good story.  While characters may or may not be likeable, they must be vivid and dynamic.  Dialogue must snap with electricity and be free of accompanying actions that bog down the pace.  Every scene must crackle with both inner and outer conflict conveyed through specific and identifiable turning points.  Setting must come alive not through eloquent writing, but through how the characters wrestle with their emotional ties to it.  The voice, more than just syntax, should sing clearly in detail and delivery, articulating a belief system and personal perspective while overwhelming the reader with authority and relieving us of skepticism.  So how does a writer accomplish each of these?  That’s easy.  Through tension.

As writers, we understand that a story has ebb and flow, a cycle of ups and downs.  But you cannot construct a story that is always on the upswing.  A reader cannot appreciate such an upswing unless there is a downswing with which to contrast it to.  And in order to keep the reader’s attention through a downswing, you must maintain tension.  Literary agent, Donald Maass, calls this micro-tension in his book “The Fire in Fiction.”  In it he says:

Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

Maass portends that micro-tension is vital in all aspects of a novel, whether it be in dialogue, in action sequences, or in exposition.  And more importantly, “micro-tension...comes from emotions, and not just any old emotions, but conflicting emotions.” 

Dialogue in a novel should never be truly natural, which is often stilted with interruptions.  If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point.  Maass writes, “In dialogue, it’s not the information itself, but the doubt about the facts and the skepticism of the deliverer.”  It is “emotional, not intellectual,” that as readers, “we don’t want to know if the debate will settle the point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.”   Also important, dumping information via dialogue only works “if it is infused with tension, and even then, it must be a tug-of-war.”  

This element of emotion is equally important in action.  Emotion, especially contrasting emotion, is what provides energy for each scene.  The same can be said for exposition, where the use of conflicting emotion keeps the reader involved.  They want and need to know if the characters will resolve their conflict.  This is where we learn of their “contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas…It puts the character’s heart and mind in peril,” explains Maass.

One area in a novel that frequently looses steam due to a lack of tension is backstory.  This is at its worst when backstory is used up front, before the story even has a chance to get started.  We lose interest simply because we don’t care about all those bits the author thinks we need to know in order for the story to make sense.  James Scott Bell calls this a first page mistake and warns never to front load with backstory, noting it will only serve to stall instead.  Maass contends that backstory may be added as long as it is not the point.  The point, he says, “is to set up the conflict of emotions and inner tension.”  He suggests using the past to create present conflict, that this will “stir curiosity to find out what will happen.

So while tension is not the only aspect of a successful page-turner, it is of primary importance.  After reading “The Fire in Fiction,” I read through my own manuscript.  For the most part, I did have tension is every paragraph, but I where it lagged, I pumped it up using the techniques described in Maass’s book.  I highly recommend it as a necessary tool on craft for every writer. 

Read through your own manuscript.  Is tension present in every chapter, paragraph, or sentence? 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Thanks!

            I had another post planned for today, but since it’s a short week, I thought I’d take this time to share what I’m most thankful for instead, aside from my family. 
First off, thank you to all those who offered me advice on last week’s post.  It has helped me a great deal.  Even more thanks to Lora Rivera for suggesting The Poisonwood Bible in her comment, and to Julie Musil for her post on the book, Hate List.  Both recommendations have helped me decide on how to proceed with my WIP.

Then there’s you, my followers and fellow writer-bloggers.  As writers, we know this is a rather lonely avocation, but we feel pulled toward it regardless.  Lucky for our generation, we have the Internet and Blogger, or whatever service you use, to connect with folks you’d normally never have the opportunity to connect with.  But just because they’re there, doesn’t mean there is automatically a connection.  You have to work at it.  And it’s not always easy either.  So for what it’s worth, I’d like to say how grateful I am that you’ve all allowed me to make that connection with you.  I feel blessed to have so many other writers who are willing to share, teach, advise, or just talk with me.  What would have been lonely is now anything but.  So thank you!  I really don’t think I could do this without you.
            Within my group of online acquaintances, I’ve made quite a few honest-to-God friends, people who exchange manuscripts with me and others who enjoy exchanging emails.  There’s even one writer I get to interact with in person!  *GASP*  Her name is Jennifer Hillier.  I won a signed copy of her book, Creep, last summer and quickly became a fan, but what’s even more remarkable is that we actually became friends.

She lives an hour away, so from time to time, we meet up somewhere in the middle and have lunch and chat about all things writing.  Since the Seattle Puget Sound Area is not exactly the friendliest place on earth, I was grateful just to have a new friend, but even more so since she was a fellow writer, and even more because we write in the same genre, so we understand each other in ways others may not.  But alas, as is my luck, Jenny is moving back to her home town and country, Toronto, Canada.  This saddens me more than I can say, but I’m grateful just to have met her and feel privileged to call her my friend.  That won’t change just because she’s moving away.

(God, I wish I had a picture of us together!)

            Last, but certainly not least, I am eternally grateful to God for bringing Lisa Regan  into my life.  Sure, she is a fellow writer, and even writes in the same genre, but what we share is so much more intense and profound than just our writing.  We share our lives, the nitty gritty, the happiest of moments, and everything in between.  Yes, it began as a critiquing partnership and I can honestly say we have helped each other become better writers, but even though we’ve never actually met in person, Lisa knows me better than just about any human being on the face of the earth, save my husband.  Then again, she knows things even he does not.  *Shhh*  I know I couldn’t have survived the insanity that is my life without her.  I love her like an identical twin sister.
            So for you, my followers and fellow writers, for Jenny and for Lisa, I am incredibly thankful and I want the world, or anyone who is interested anyway, to know just how much.



Monday, November 14, 2011

In Search of a Little Writerly Advice

So I’m super busy this week and don’t have much time to write or visit until later, but I wanted to ask you all for a little advice.  When you’re starting on a new project, a new book, how do you choose the point of view?  What’s your process?  I know a lot of you write YA and so first person is the preferable choice.  I feel the same way and greatly enjoy those adult thrillers written in the first person. That’s why I wrote my first novel in first person.  But now that I’m starting out on my second book, the choice isn’t nearly as clear. 
My first book was primarily about two people, so I chose to write in their voices.  This time around, however, it’s proving a little more difficult.  I really want to write about the whole family involved in this story, not just because I need all their POVs to tell the story, but rather because they each play a distinct role in how the story plays out, yet they are each unaware of the other’s role.  So they’ll each be holding onto their own pieces of the puzzle and will play each one according to who does what before them. 
So my question is this, because this story is such an emotional one, I wanted to tell it in first person, but I worry about having four voices and hopping back and forth between them.  Not that I haven’t seen this done, because I have, but I worry that it will be difficult for me as a still-unpublished-author to get this story publish.
Since the story starts out with one of the four main characters—the antagonist— having a mental and emotional breakdown and being hospitalized, I thought of just having the story unfold during therapy, but not just for him—for all of his family, since his problem is related to the family dynamic.  This can be supplemented through journaling, as well, and all the details are revealed to the therapist treating her patient and his family as a whole.  But once the main conflict is revealed, the action will be in real-time, so to speak.  Not in flashbacks, memories, or recollections. 
Or I can use the old standby and write in the third person from all four POVs.  But then again, I worry about all that head-hopping.  And since the conflict originates years in the past, I don’t want to tell the story in a purely linear fashion, but rather slightly out of sequence so the details can build until the story reaches the present day and the reader learns how the sins of the past have affected those living in the present.  
So I know most of you don’t write or perhaps even read adult thrillers, but I’d be interested in what you think.  How would you tackle it?  What is your process for choosing POV and revealing a series of events over a very long period of time while trying to keep everything in the moment?  Have you ever had to tackle a story like this?