Still alive and kicking

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an update there are several reasons for this.

  1. Printer proofs came in for The Crown Tower and I was working on that
  2. As soon as I got done with printer proofs for CT proofs came in for The Rose and the Thorn so I need to work on it.
  3. I’ve not been feeling well, and combined with some recent travel and some personal family issues I’ve been away from the keyboard
  4. I’m at the 50% mark with Rhune and as such I’m “taking stock” and re-assessing. This means that I’m more likely to remove content rather than add so my word counts isn’t something I want to look at right now.  Soon I’ll be back to writing (as opposed to evaluating and editing) and when that occurs I’ll be more visible here again.

My own take on first paragraphs…

So yesterday I tore a part and put back together an opening paragraph from an author who asked for my help. So today it seems only fair to turn the magnifying glass on my own writing.  The first paragraph for Rhune isn’t in a state to do that yet…and I don’t want to stop my forward momentum to polish it. So I’m going to look at my most recent work, Hollow World and discuss it.

For those that want to read the first section of the first chapter you can here

Before I go into what I wrote I want to explain what I was intending so you can judge if I hit my mark.  Now certainly it can be argued whether these “should” be what I try to do…but it is what it is, and it’s my book so I get to decide it’s direction 😉

Okay so here goes:

  • First off I wanted a “setting” something that people could identify with and not feel lost and confused. I wanted people to know where he was but not state he was in a ….
  • Second I wanted to make sure I gave some “basic” details about the main character. That he was male, married, and while it doesn’t come out in the first paragraph we’ll learn very quickly that he has a terminal disease.
  • I wanted to show how he reacts to difficult situations. He doesn’t cry, rant, or go into a fugue state. 
  • I wanted to hint at mystery that will be explore throughout the novel and is central to the final resolution of the book.
  • I wanted to provide some juxtaposition to give the scene a bit of panache.
  • I wanted them to be interested to find out more.

Sounds like a tall order…what did I come up with?

Ellis Rogers expected to see visions, flashes from his life: learning to ride his first bike, kissing Peggy at the altar, the death of his son Isley. He also expected his mind to focus on all the things he’d never done, the words he said, or ones he hadn’t. Instead, he was thinking about how the two jars on the Formica counter looked like they belonged in a kitchen, except they contained tongue depressors and cotton swabs instead of sugar and flour.

Pretty short and sweet, at least I think it is sweet. I could easily have said:

Ellis Roger’s sat in the doctors office trying to wrap his head aorund the fact he was dying.

Because both say the same things.  But letting the reader find out it’s a doctor’s office by describing items that we’ve all seen in doctor’s offices a million times before makes them work a bit harder, and feel rewarded for that.  Also, most people will figure out  that he just got the “bad news” and again will be rewarded with that shortly.  

But I also said a few more things for those that read closely

  • His son is dead
  • He thinks fondly about the days of his youth
  • He’s not close to his wife (why else did she not come into this thoughts)
  • He carries around a number of regrets

Hopefully people are going to be curious about…

  • Is he dying?  Is there a cure?
  • How did his son die?

My hope is that the first paragraph presents enough of a breadcrumb to lead them to the second, and my job is to continue these crumbs until they are firmly hooked into the story.  At least that is how I see the role of the opening paragraph.

 

First Paragraph

No, I’m not ready to post the first paragraph of Rhune yet…won’t be for a very long time.  But I think that first paragraphs are so important that I wanted to talk about them a bit.

Sometimes brave wannabe authors…very brave ones…approach me asking my opinion on a bit of their writing. I must admit I hate it when this happens. Mainly because, I really, really want to help others, but I’m incredibly picky and most things sent to me fall very short of where I think they need to be. To say “it’s fine” would be a disservice, but I know that the criticism is going to sting.  What’s a writer to do?  By the way if you ever get me to say your first paragraph is good, it’s probably really, really good.

Yes, all of this is very subjective. And what I may want in a first paragraph may not be what others think is good. All I can speak to is what “I” think works (and what doesn’t) and I’m start this post with the caveat that I may be all wet and you should ignore everything I say.

So a few days ago a brave soul submitted me something, which I thought demonstrated some of the classic problems that many new authors do, so I asked if I could use as a demonstration. They agreed. The name of the character in the follow piece is changed, so you won’t be able to later identify the author or the work, but other than that. It’s presented as I received it.

Angelina Brovina stood beside her desk and traced her fingertips along the rim of the silver goblet which rested there. Along the sides of the cup grapevines stood in relief, twisting their way down the along the stem of the goblet. Around the base of the cup ran two small silver foxes with emeralds set in their eyes. They were sculpted as if chasing each other’s tails, cavorting in the vineyard with one another. The goblet had belonged to her for many years, and she always took it with her into the field. She was fond of the goblet. She enjoyed looking at it, enjoyed touching it. Above all she enjoyed remembering the screams of the man she had killed and taken it from.

Okay first the honey:

  • I like that the author flips me. Initially, I’m thinking this is someone I should like, some brave shield maiden perhaps, and then I find out she may be dark…very dark.  Okay my interest is piqued – Bravo.
  • I really like that I know the characters name right off the top. I can’t tell you how may times I’m frustrated because I’m 5 – 10 pages into the work and all references have been  to “the man” or “the woman” – It’s not building anticipating it’s annoying me and I’m likely to put down a book if you piss me off too long – so bully for that.
  • I’m glad the person is trying to set the stage as to “where” I am.  The “into the field” early is  a nice clue to that.  The fact that there is a “desk in the field – could have thrown me – except that we find out in the second paragraph that we are in a tent.  It could have been “just a tad” stronger” if the goblet wasn’t on the desk, but that’s nit-picking.

Okay, now for the bad, and I’m going to focus this toward how an agent or acquisitions editor is going to look at it – so think traditional publishing.  Readers may not be so picky, but let’s aim for a book that “could” be signed  and then later decide if it makes sense to release traditionally or self-published.

  • Wordiness – This is the #1 sign of a new or inexperienced author and will get you put in pile “b” (form rejection) faster than anything else.  Tight prose is the sign of a professional, excessive words are problematic. Why use “foxes with emeralds set in their eyes” when “emerald-eyed foxes” says the same thing and much cleaner (two words (okay so one is a compound so maybe I should count it as three) versus seven).
  • Unremarkable first sentence is  a big pet peeve of mine. In this paragraph all that really is shown is three objects and where they are in relation to one another.  Desk? Check.  Woman? Beside the desk. Cup? On the desk.   Oh good…glad we have that all straight.  Remember that sometimes people will list the “first sentence” of their book as part of a reviews, or readers will have memes where they share the first sentence of the book they are reading.  Use this as an opportunity to attract people to the book.
  • Repeated words are another tell of someone who is fresh rather than seasoned.  Notice how many references to cup or goblet is in that paragraph – I felt drowned in drink ware in this very small snippet.
  • Parallelisms can also be a sign of someone new. There  is a time and a place for it and when it looks like it was done purposefully – then great. If it looks like the author didn’t notice they did it, then it is bad.  In the example above we have two sentences side by side that start with “along the sides” and “around the base.” It immediately hit a raw nerve with me when I read that.
  • Don’t bury the lead. Yeah I see what this author was doing…and yes I praised them or it. But I also felt really bored up until that last line.  I might not even have gotten to it because of all the goblets and cups I had to wade through first.
  • Last but not least, never make a statement that gives a snarky person ammunition  When I saw “silver” foxes – the very first thing that popped into my head was, “Well, duh…it IS a silver goblet, afterall.”  Same with “small foxes” – how big could they possibly be?

I would rewrite the opening as follows (and no it’s not perfect – I hate the ending of the first sentence – but I really don’t have time to polish it – this is a “quick fix” not the ‘final edit).

Angelina Brovina traced two fingers along the rim of a silver goblet, remembering the screams of the man she had killed to get it. Grapevines twisted their way along its stem while two emerald-eyed foxes chased each other’s tails along the cup’s base.  She always brought it with her into the field….(more is needed here but I don’t know enough about the story to say what. Probably why that cup was so important or perhaps her thoughts are interrupted when a servant brings in her armor to dress her for battle).

To me  this is cleaner and more compelling opening. If someone posts THIS “first sentence” on their blog, it may just get someone to check out the book. As for the cup, I get the same “mind’s eye” impression of it in far fewer words. I also removed the desk because it really isn’t necessary to the scene and seemed odd to have a desk in a tent in a field).

I want to thank the author who volunteered up this paragraph.  And sorry I tore it apart but it really was done with the intention of helping not hurting, and I hope you’ll learn something from this critique.  Now back to my own writing, maybe I’ll share a few “opening paragraphs of my work and explain why I did what I did.

Editing

I’m probably going to put this same post on my “main blog” but I wanted to include it here as well as I know many aspiring authors are following here and might not be  “there” at some point I need to combine the two.  But in any case…here is a rant I have about editing inspired from some recent interactions with editors and Hollow World.


Editing can polish a good manuscript into a piece of fine art. It can also shred a fine manuscript into a mess only fit for lining an undiscerning gerbil’s cage. Being able to tell the difference comes from confidence born out of the experience of writing and discovering what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately the responsibility falls to the writer, but how can a novice author be expected to know when to stay with what they have written or take the advice of the self-professed gurus of literature?

In the broadest sense, editing comes in two forms: structural, which concentrates on the story, and copy editing, which is meant to clean up grammar errors and make awkward sentences flow better.  For my Hollow World book, I recently placed a small ad on the job board of the American Copy Editor’s Society. I specifically mentioned a need for copy editing, as Betsy Mitchell is doing my structural edits.

Ask most authors and they’ll tell you that copyeditors are gifts of the gods. People who save you from embarrassment and make you look better than you are. The general rule is to always listen to your editors, and I would agree with that, if you’re certain you have a good one.

The copyeditors that I worked with at Orbit are phenomenal. Their level of detail, not only at finding stupid little typos, but at watching the larger picture and finding inconsistencies, or outright errors in the story is amazing. These are the people who check the spelling consistency of every made up word. Check the timeline, check the time of day, check to make certain the same speech pattern is used with the same character. You don’t have to tell them that Bob always substitutes yeh, for yes, or that Karen avoids any kind of contraction—they discover this on their own and look for breaks in the patterns. They learn your style, then make it better. When they find a problem they very politely highlight and ask: “David had a red tie on in the previous scene, now he has a burgundy tie, is this correct?”

Mostly copyeditors ferret out mistakes in language changing:

The soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet, his face downcast.

 To…

His face downcast, the soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet

To better show whose face is downcast. To get rid of those pesky dangling participles they would change:

Drawing back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.

To…

As Arista drew back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.

 Or how about:

Lord Valin was an elderly knight with a bushy white beard known for his valor and courage, but never for his strategic skills.

To…

Lord Valin, an elderly knight with a bushy white beard, was known for his courage, but not for his strategic skills.

 Because of the misplaced modifier and because valor and courage are redundant.

My editor even knew that I have a pet peeve with any sentence that contains more than one “had” in a row, as in: …when everyone else had had the good sense to get out of the way. At such times the double hads would be highlighted and the comment in the margin would be: “Reword to avoid “had had”?

Such corrections are phenomenal, but not all editors are created equal and aspiring writers planning on self-publishing, or those aiming to have their books professionally edited in order to get an agent, need to be very careful. Some freelance editors (that I’ve found in multiple searches over the years) are actually aspiring authors believing they can help improve your work.

It’s easy to tell the difference. Copyeditors do things like look for repeated words, improperly used homonyms, and that pesky participle. Any problem bigger than this and they merely highlight, and politely comment on in very brief terms as in the aforementioned: Reword to avoid “had had”?

Well-intentioned aspiring writers do things like taking this sentence:

He’d be an alcoholic if he had to look people in the eye the way she was.

And changing it to:

If he had to look people in the eye and dispense such news, he’d surely become deathly depressed, and he’d probably develop an addiction to alcohol or even heroin.

Or better yet, changing:

His mind refused to go there, wasn’t ready to, and remained focused on the sink and the dispensers.

To…

His ears almost refused to hear what she’d said, His mind simply wasn’t ready to accommodate her words.

And yes the capital on “His” was a typo the would-be copywriter actually inserted into the manuscript sample I sent out.


These and many more changes were accompanied by the note:

Suggestions for improvement:

  • Try to avoid so many negative sentence constructions. Rewrite them. Instead of “I’m not going out,” say “I’m staying home.”
  • Try to use the word “even” less often.
  •  Contractions are OK in informal writing, but keep them under control.
  • Take advantage of opportunities for literary devices such as stronger verbs, alliteration and the old rule of “show, don’t tell.” (I sneaked in words foreshadowing the possibility of death: cryptic, cadaverous, deathly. If I pushed too far, you can always change it back to your original version.)
  • You might devote more attention to the rhythm of your writing. You can practice little things like parallel structure, choosing just the right-sounding word and listening as if you were publishing mainly to an audio-book audience.

The fact is I agree with most everything in this note, but I’ve also discovered that while many people know the basic rules of writing, few are capable of actually applying them properly. I suppose it is kind of like riding a bicycle. You could watch others and learn a great deal about what to do and what not to. You could get a PhD in the study of physics, but all of that won’t make it possible to hop on a bike for the first time and ride it like an expert. (I have to admit I found the last sentence particularly entertaining given that Theft of Sword is up for an Audie award.)

What bothered me the most about this would-be editor’s submission was the level of confidence with which the editor presented the changes, and I realized that a novice writer might be persuaded to destroy a perfectly good manuscript to appease a less talented, less skilled, “editor” because of the adage that authors need to trust their editors. Writers tend to be a self-conscious lot, and it’s easier for many to accept that they aren’t as good as they had hoped rather than think individuals who earn their meals fixing manuscripts are idiots.

And if you’re still wondering if the “editor” was really that bad, consider that the whole point of hiring a copyeditor is not for structural advice at all, but merely to clean up the grammar, punctuation, and typos, but this “editor” changed the following sentence:

He also expected his mind to focus on all the things he’d never done, the words he said or ones he hadn’t.

To…

He also anticipated his left un would focus on all the things he’d left undone, the words he’d neglected to say, or the ones he’d said but wished he hadn’t.

A copy editor that inserts typos is probably not one you want on your project.

If you’re an aspiring novelist, and looking for copyediting, get a sample—send a few pages of your work for them to demonstrate their capabilities—and then look to see what kind of changes come back. If they’re correcting objectively verifiable mistakes (unintentional misuse of the English language) you’re on the right track. If, however, the editor has it in mind to educate you on how to write “better”, or merely are trying to rewrite your work to better suit themselves, explain that you are looking for a detail-oriented copyeditor, and their failure to read the ad correctly is indication enough that they aren’t what you’re looking for.

Writing is navigating a million decisions

If you are indecisive it will be difficult for you to be a writer.  Just my opinion, of course, but the longer I write the more I realize that a novel is just a series of decisions that keep branching, sending you down a path that could be much different if you had just taken the left fork instead of the right. This is one of the reasons why I outline, but as I’ve said before, outlining doesn’t mean there is no discovery along the way.

Part of that decision-making process is what you reveal when.  Some newish writers have problems putting information in the wrong place. I recently was helping to provide a critique to someone and in their opening chapter, during a horse chase through the woods at night, the main character started thinking about how afterward they would go to the tavern, and meetup with a certain woman there…seriously?  Is this really the right place to introduce this person’s love interest?

I’ve read some other opening chapters where in the first few pages I know a quick encapsulation of  the characters whole history.  They were raised by their aunt and uncle after their parents were killed when their home was raided by a horde of invaders.  Again…is this the right place for this information?   Has it been a defining event in their life…probably…but you have a whole book (or if a series maybe several) to get that information.  You aren’t going to lose me if I don’t have this piece of information right away.

One last point I want to make about decisions…you have to walk a tightrope between careful readers and those that fly through and miss some details.  In the Riyria Revelations there is a romance that develops.  It spans multiple books and I provide little hints along the way. I often get letters from people part way through the series that say, “If  abc and xyz don’t get together, I’m gonna be very upset.”  So obviously they see the bread crumbs and where they are going.  But Publisher’s Weekly mentioned this in  one of their reviews, “Sullivan is not a subtle writer, and the sudden romance between abc and xyz is hastily tacked on.”  My response to that is you just proved your point to be false. For you, I was too subtle a writer because you didn’t see the clues that I had planted.  A romance that spans multiple books is only “tacked on” if you missed all the subtle details that were early indicators.

My best advice, don’t  get yourself  stymied by the plethora of decisions that need to be made. Take that fork, the next, and the one after that.  Trust in yourself and know why you chose the way you did. And always keep your character’s motivations in mind and they’ll usually steer you the right way.

Ease of research in the modern age…a great time to be a writer

Man, so much for my belief that I can post to this daily.  The days just slip by.  It’s another Wednesday which means I’ll be heading over to the bar soon.  I’m just past the 35,000 word mark and I’m happy with both the progress and quality of the work – so that’s good.

I’ve been doing a bunch of research as I need details about certain aspects.  Like how a Round House of the Iron Age is constructed. One of the coolest parts of writing is finding out tidbits like this.  For the most part I employ the “iceberg approach” so most of my research never shows to the reader, but I know about it and I enjoy the learning.

Over the last week or so I’ve felt a bit like I’m in the Matrix.

“Do you know how to fly that helicopter?”  

“Not yet.”  <jack in>

“Okay, let’s go.”

Back in my “first writing career” (from 1987 – 1997) I lived in the wilds of Vermont and had there was no such thing as the Internet.  Now I just have to do some searches and I get:

I the past I drove 80 miles to the nearest “decent library” and spent a fortune Xeroxing research text.  Now it’s all at my fingertips.

Man it’s a wonderful time to be a writer…in oh so many ways!

In the groove

Tomorrow I’ll be writing the 2nd section in Chapter 5, and I now am starting to feel “in the groove” with this particular book.  The foundation is now firmly in place and I’ve got my head in the right place such that now I feel the momentum really starting to build. It’s a good place to be, and makes writing a joy.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t enjoying myself previously. I feel fortunate that I get to do what I love the most, and wake each day excited about sitting down to write.  I’m not a writer who has to force my butt into the seat…I WANT to get there each day. The early stages were just “different” as I felt like I was puzzling things out and as such did more writing and re-writing then I typically need to do.

As I mentioned previously, it’s also good to have more of my “old routine” back. I do feel less pressure now that I can devote myself to non-Rhune activities and not feel guilty for doing so.

One thing that I am disappointed in is that I missed a few blog posts. I really wanted to have one a day, and will try to get back on track.  The big reason for this was related to Hollow World and getting the Kickstarter ready to launch.  I’ve never done a Kickstarter before, and I’m anxious to see how it will go.  It’s now “officially submitted” and “under review” so for those who have been waiting for “something new from me” participation in the Kickstarter is the way to go as that will get you Hollow World in June/July rather than January 14 which is when it will go officially for sale.  To learn more about Hollow World, Kickstarting, or self-publishing in general you can visit its site which is here.