Saturday, December 6, 2008

Traveling and Research

Well, I can't believe how long it's been since I last posted. To all of you who continue to write comments, thanks. I definitely haven't given up on the blog, in fact, soon I'll have a whole new bunch of posting ideas for us to discuss.

As far as the novel goes, I'm on track to finish the revision by my deadline of 12/31. I have one more minor change to make then truthfully, just the final read through. Soon it will go back to my agent.

Which brings us to the new and exciting stuff and why I've been gone so long. You've all heard the adage "write what you know." Well, in truth, the adage should be "write what you can learn about." We can't all write about what we know and make it interesting, but we can all do research and bring new and interesting ideas and information into our lives and writing. To that end, I intend to do several posts coming up on research, how, where, when and why.

As for me and why it's been so long between posts? I've been doing my own research, in Istanbul. My next medical thriller will take my hero there so I went away for a few weeks to live in the City and gather the vibe. Details, sights, sounds, smells, sensations. People, places, foods, drinks. Tourists and locals. I have detailed notes and images to lend veracity to the next novel.

That one, we'll write together.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Eleventh Point - Kill the Clunkers

As I'm finishing up this (hopefully) final revision of the book, another revision strategy point has come to mind so frequently that I've been tempted to add it as the eleventh point on our Ten Point Revision Strategy.

Unfortunately, it's so simple and basic, I'd be embarrassed to have to remind myself to do this.

Yet, time after time, reviewing the book that I'd worked on, slaved on for such a long time; woke up at 4 am daily to squeeze more hours out of my exhausting day; obsessed over in the waning hours of night, story ideas coming to me instead of dreams, I've realized I don't always do this one particular thing.

What is it you ask? What daunting discovery have I made that could have such magnitude that it deserves consideration as the 11th point of our strategy?

It's really very simple.

Write well.

Yes, that's it. The new 11th point of our revision strategy. Write Well. Or as I'll rename it and gussy it up; Kill the Clunkers.

It's stunning to think that after all the times I've gone through the novel, how many clunkers remain hidden in the text. What happens is that our eyes get immune to our own bad writing. When we re-read it, our brain nods "yes, that's what I wrote. That's what I intended to write," without ever realizing that what we wrote was bad.

Sometimes it takes an external eye, like a writing group, to help point out these bastards of the English language. If you don't have a group, then the best thing to do is to read your book out loud to yourself. Not in your mind or in a whisper, but out loud. Belt it out. Imagine you're giving a book reading in front of 1,000 of new, unfamiliar readers. Talk loud, with emphasis, and listen to your own words. See how they hang together in this context.

You may find a few clunkers.

What's a clunker? Simply a really badly written sentence. It may be cliche. Melodramatic. Flat. Overly reaching. Whatever, it clunks when it should purr. It's a clunker.

Since I've never been embarrassed to show the horror of some of my own writing, I'll offer a few examples of clunkers I found on this draft that somehow survived all my other reads.

1) What are you going to do?" she asked, drawing on her cigarette. (how can you ask something when you're sucking on a cigarette? You either ask, then suck, or suck then ask. Not at the same time.)

2) Malcomb's eyes widened like a terrified doe's. (that's just bad)

3) Memories he'd spent his entire life running away from were now chasing after him, like a rabid dog biting at his heels. (What? Doggy memories biting me? Ouch!)

4) A tear fell onto her cheek. (cliche)

Other things I've noticed is using the same word too many times in short bites of the book. For example, I have a character who has a "familiar toothless grin." Darn if I didn't write toothless three times in three paragraphs.

These are all clunkers. Examples of bad writing. I found them in my book. I killed them.

Now I'm hunting for more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Getting Back to Revisions - Rewrite or Start Over

Time to get back to revising.

Heard from my writing group in a fillet session, er. . . constructive criticism session. Actually, they were quite kind and actually very complimentary, which was unusual. Must have been the wine.

But their comments brought up one very important point that's worth discussing and getting your thoughts. Rewriting or Starting Over.

Before we get there, let me explain. My current novel is actually a revised version of a revised version of an earlier work. Essentially, I took concepts and basic plotlines from an earlier work and deconstructed the novel, re-concepted the plot and characters, wrote new story arcs for each character and wrote a new outline for the new story. I did however make one major mistake that has come back to haunt me over and over, which is the title of this post.

Whenever possible, in order to save time, energy and writing, I reused some of my old book parts. At the time, I thought I was being clever. If I could reuse a chapter here or a plot line there, make some minor changes, I'd make my writing faster. Turned out to be wrong.

Here's the problem. In reusing some of the old stuff, I ran into a few instances where the character motivation for doing a certain thing was actually no longer valid. Since I wanted to reuse the part, I simply changed the motivation in my current form, thinking it would solve the problem, but it didn't, it created new problems.

Let me give an example. In my first version of the book, after the police come to the lab and my hero and his research partner make a daring escape, they go back and meet at the hero's apartment. At the time, this was crucial, because my hero desperately needed to do something with their research project and time was of the esscence. It had to be done right then. Afterward, they went on the run before the police found them at the apartment. Are you following this?

In the new version, after they escape the police I decided they would still go back to the apartment and do the same repair of the research project. The problem is, the reason they desperately had to do it before, no longer existed. Now, they just did it, to which my entire writing group could only ask "why?" And my answer? Well, there really isn't one, is there. My characters did it because I was lazy and wanted to keep some old scenes rather than rewrite them. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I violoated one of my own ten immutable laws of revising: Know each character's motivation.

My advice then, when confronted with a similar situation in your rewriting, is not to reuse old scenes. Rather, it's always best to rewrite them. When you rewrite them in the flow of your current writing, the character's motivation is more organic from the story, not contrived by the author just to be able to reuse some segments. And this is the key lesson from this experience. Each action that the character performs, each motivation, has to be organic to the current book. If you're going to reuse some scenes, make sure that the motivation and action still makes sense in your current writing. If there's any question, it's probably best to just rewrite it.

I'm doing that now. Fortunately, I'm very near the end of the novel, and this is a quick fix for me, but I'm going through each line, making sure that any old vestiges from the last novel still make sense now, that the reasons are organically grown from the current state of the characters.

Then I'll be done and it's off to the agent!

We'll write about query's and synopses then.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I'm Back!

Wow! Hard to believe so much time transpired since my last post. But it did.

In case you were wondering, I've been fine. In fact, your great comments of encouragement and the growing number of readers who've found some value from this blog keep me motivated to keep on going forward.

Over these last three weeks, I simply took a break. After completing the novel and waiting for my writing group to come back to me with their final recommendations (which will happen this Thursday) I decided to take some well-deserved time away from writing or writing about writing. Instead, I focused on The Ripple Effect, which has been incredibly busy of late.

But with my writing group meeting coming later this week, soon I'll be launching back into the novel. And with that, I'll begin updating here again as well.

I intend to finish our discussion of outlining. And with the novel just about ready to go back to my agent, I thought I'd write about the all-important query letter and the extremely difficult novel summary. Both essential topics if you hope to get published.

Please keep your comments coming. It's nice to know that all of my blabbering may actually be helping some body.

Back to the updating and novel after my meeting Thursday!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Revising the Novel - Performance Update

I may not have been quite as sequestered as the monk in this photo, but it's been pretty darn close, hiding myself away, working feverishly to finish the revision of Deadly Vision. And, after about 6 months of mostly concentrated work, I'm thrilled to say, that I've finished! Yea! Much applause and fanfare (and hopefully some much needed sleep!)

Sunday, I went through the last chapters, made the final cuts and got the novel down to about 100,000 words, which was my goal. Without a doubt, this is the cleanest, tightest, most aggressive version of the novel ever.

Keeping the Ten-Point Revision Strategy on my desk the whole time, I found the points useful in constantly reminding me of what I needed to do. One thing that I realized is that during all of my previous revisions, I didn't really revise the book. instead, I would really just read the book. Sure, I'd make a few changes here or there to wording, expand a small scene to add more detail, fix a grammatical error, but that's about it. It's so easy to get into the pattern of reading our writing, not really revising our writing.

To that end, the Ten-Point Revision Strategy was really helpful.


1) With each chapter, I asked myself consciously, what are the character's motivations here. What does each character (not just my main hero) really want to happen? This brought up lots of previously unseen opportunities for conflict.

2) Does this scene move the story forward. Wow! That one was really powerful for me. I can't tell you how many times I read a scene that I really liked, but on close scrutiny, realized it wasn't necessary to move the story forward. Here's the latest example.

In one scene, my hero needs to use the internet to contact someone. He can't connect from the place he's hiding for fear of it being traced back to his location, so he has to go to the public library to use their computer. In that scene, I loved writing about the elderly librarian who ran the library since our hero was a school boy. I loved the descriptions of the library itself, really imparting the small town feel I was reaching for. I loved the tension, our hero felt by connecting from such a public place.

There was only one problem. None of it was necessary.

The Librarian never appears again. I'd already described the small town. Our hero has been nervous and in fear of being caught for the last several pages. In the end, the whole point of the scene was to mention that he connected with his lab partner to set up an important trial, then steps to the payphone and calls the police officer that's been chasing him. That's it. I wrote 3 or 4 pages to describe what I just wrote to you in one sentence.

So I cut it. All of it. Kill your babies, they say. Librarian, gone. Library in small town, mentioned in passing. The scene now starts with my hero stepping out of the library where he'd just connected with his lab partner and walking into the phone booth. I still have all the tension of him getting caught while he's standing there, fully exposed, making the phone call. I mention in brief back story, that he'd just connected with the lab. Now, I'm moving directly on to the conversation with the cop. Saved 4 pages. probably 700 words.

3) I really loved the "end each chapter earlier," point. I really recommend you try this one. Something so simple, often times had a really powerful effect of increasing tension and drama. Sometimes I just eliminated the last sentence of the chapter, sometimes the entire last paragraph. Either way, what I found was all those cut little pat endings I'd written, the final chapter summary or forced dramatic ending, were usually hampering the drama. By cutting them, and ending the chapter with an earlier sentence, I often felt there was actually more tension. More of a cliffhanger.

4) I paid lots of attention to word choice, avoiding overused words, and overall tightening my word selection. I eliminated writing "he paused," instead, creating the pause. And adverbs became an endangered species in my book. Or as Metallica once said, "Kill em all!"

5) Tightening dialog also worked well. In truth, we tend to never speak more than 3 sentences during a conversation before the other person interrupts us with a comment. Yet, when we write, we have no problem with one character going on for whole paragraphs. I've even seen some characters in books going on for a whole page, or more!!

This doesn't happen in real life, and shouldn't happen in your novel. Keep the dialog tight, brisk. It flows faster, the book flows faster and the dialog feels more natural, less forced.

So now, I just need to let my two writing groups catch up with me, give them a chance to destroy . . er, I mean critique my work, then one more final read through and it's back to my agent.

Just so you know, Warner Books and Bantam had both expressed an interest and both requested this revision, so hopefully we'll hear soon. Either way, I'll keep y'all posted of the developments as we move through this publishing experience together.

As always, you comments are most appreciated. They've kept me motivated to keep this blog going when I felt like stopping.

In the future, we're going to finish up outlining, move to query letters, novel summaries, plotting and other points. Let me know what you'd like read about.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writing the Novel - Outlining Part 2

Back to outlining.

A while back, when I started the first outlining post I answered the question, "Should I outline?" with a flippant, but honest answer.

Yes, if it works for you. No, if it doesn't.

In truth, very few people are capable of writing a successful novel without some sort of outline. Even the most free-flowing of us has some idea of what the novel is about. And even if they never commit this to paper, in their mind, if asked, they'll have an idea of where the story starts, who the characters are (at least some of them) and a vague idea as to what will happen in the book. Even if it's a totally vague idea, they'll at least know that their novel is a story about Mandy and Mike, growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, and they fall in love, but as economic hardship strikes their town, they break up and have to deal with the question of whether or not to have their unborn child or abort it. Etc.

This little sentence may be all the author knows about his/her book, and they may intentionally say, "I never outline because I want to be free to explore the story where ever it goes." But they're wrong. That little sentence is an outline. Even if it's only in their head, it's still an outline.

An outline is a basic structure for a story. A preconceived notion of a beginning and various events that will happen as the novel moves towards the end. Notice I didn't say that an outline includes an ending. It doesn't have to. If you really want to live the "mystery" of writing and see how the story ends for itself, that's fine. You've still outlined in your head how the story will go.

Let's look at that for a moment, as loose as this "outline" is.

There's a story start; characters and a location.
Story points are laid out; economic hardship, a romance, a break-up, a pregnancy.

That's an outline. Now to take this basic idea and turn it into a more structured outline, one that won't cramp your "creative freedom," all you need to do is add a timeline and vision the obligate scenes that are necessary to make these events happen.

In other words. The beginning. You may start by introducing the town, the characters, the economic setting, what have you. But you've identified your beginning.

At some point you must introduce the characters. So you will need obligatory introductory scenes to bring in Mandy and Mike.

They need to have a romance. It can be already started and we're catching it in the middle or we can watch it start and grow. It's up to you. But either way, there are some obligatory scenes you must have to show a romance growing or maintaining.

She becomes pregnant. Her discovery of this is a pretty obligate scene.

Economic hardship strikes. Another obligate scene (or several)

They breakup. Many obligate scenes here to show how the economy has affected their relationship.

They need to decide what to do about the baby.

Where you go from there is anybody's guess.

It may not seem like much, but you've just outlined the basis of your novel. Now, once you really start to think about this and add a timeline, you'll see that there are really several obligatory scenes that need to happen to connect these scenes. As you fill those in, the outline becomes more clear. And you haven't necessarily written anything yet.

Tess Gerristen, the best-selling author, states that she never outlines. But this isn't true. What she means is that she never commits an outline of her novel to paper. But she knows from before she starts writing at least some of the obligatory scenes she'll be telling. She's also already done a ton of research, which in and of itself, dictates some scenes. By the time she sits down, with all her research, she's ready to start writing. She may not know everything that will happen as the novel unfolds, but she certainly knows where the book will start, the major events that will happen, how the research will factor in, and the obligate scenes she'll need to have those events unfold.

That's an outline.

In truth, I'm a big fan of outlining. And I'll go over my outlining process next post.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Writing the Novel - Another List of Overused Words

I hope everyone's writing is going well and that progress is being made. Again, I'd like to thank all those who've posted comments. Your thoughts are much appreciated and gives me motivation to keep this blog going when I really have so many other things I should be doing.

A while back, I posted a list of words that I'd jotted down during various writing courses. These were words to be avoided, poor modifiers, weak descriptors, over-used words. That post has turned out to be one of my favorites, as I go back to it often as I'm rewriting. As I'm nearing completion of my revision, each word it seems is taking on greater importance, and I find myself commonly go back to that list.

So for today's post, I wanted to update it and expand it. Some of you may remember that the reason I originally started this blog was to share all that I've learned over the years towards publishing, but also for myself. When I came up with my Ten-Point Revision Strategy, this blog served as a thinking pad for me to flesh those ideas out, help me to concentrate and focus in the important details. And I still find I'm doing that. Each time I post, what I write about is as much to help me understand the topics as it is to offer any insights to the readers. Hopefully, we'll both be able to learn and grow in our writing together.

This list has been modified from

I present it here as a tool for all of us to remember those weak, overused words. If you'd like any further research on the topic, please visit their site.

Overused Words

approximately, nearly, almost, approaching, close to
absolutely unconditionally, perfectly, completely, ideally, purely
activity action, movement, operation, labor, exertion, enterprise, project, pursuit, endeavor, job, assignment, pastime, scheme, task
add attach, affix, join, unite, append, increase, amplify
affect adjust, influence, transform, moderate, incline, motivate, prompt
amazing overwhelming, astonishing, startling, unexpected, stunning, dazzling, remarkable
awesome impressive, stupendous, fabulous, astonishing, outstanding
bad defective, inadequate, poor, unsatisfactory, disagreeable, offensive, repulsive, corrupt, wicked, naughty, harmful, injurious, unfavorable
basic essential, necessary, indispensable, vital, fundamental, elementary
beautiful attractive, appealing, alluring, exquisite, gorgeous, handsome, stunning
begin commence, found, initiate, introduce, launch, originate
better preferable, superior, worthier
big enormous, extensive, huge, immense, massive
boring commonplace, monotonous, tedious, tiresome
bring accompany, cause, convey, create, conduct, deliver, produce
cause origin, stimulus, inspiration, motive
certain unquestionable, incontrovertible, unmistakable, indubitable, assured, confident
change alter, transform, vary, replace, diversify
choose select, elect, nominate, prefer, identify
decent respectable, adequate, fair, suitable
definitely unquestionably, clearly, precisely, positively, inescapably
easy effortless, natural, comfortable, undemanding, pleasant, relaxed

effective powerful, successful
emphasize underscore, feature, accentuate
end limit, boundary, finish, conclusion, finale, resolution
energy vitality, vigor, force, dynamism
enjoy savor, relish, revel, benefit
entire complete, inclusive, unbroken, integral
excellent superior, remarkable, splendid, unsurpassed, superb, magnificent
exciting thrilling, stirring, rousing, dramatic
far distant, remote
fast swift, quick, fleet, hasty, instant, accelerated
fill occupy, suffuse, pervade, saturate, inflate, stock
finish complete, conclude, cease, achieve, exhaust, deplete, consume
funny comical, ludicrous, amusing, droll, entertaining, bizarre, unusual, uncommon
get obtain, receive, acquire, procure, achieve
give bestow, donate, supply, deliver, distribute, impart
go proceed, progress, advance, move
good satisfactory, serviceable, functional, competent, virtuous, striking
great tremendous, superior, remarkable, eminent, proficient, expert
happy pleased, joyous, elated, jubilant, cheerful, delighted
hard arduous, formidable, complex, complicated, rigorous, harsh
help assist, aid, support, sustain, serve
hurt injure, harm, damage, wound, impair
important significant, substantial, weighty, meaningful, critical, vital, notable
interesting absorbing, appealing, entertaining, fascinating, thought-provoking
job task, work, business, undertaking, occupation, vocation, chore, duty, assignment
keep retain, control, possess
kind type, variety, sort, form
know comprehend, understand, realize, perceive, discern
like (adj) similar, equivalent, parallel
like (verb) enjoy, relish, appreciate
main primary, foremost, dominant
make build, construct, produce, assemble, fashion, manufacture
mean plan, intend, suggest, propose, indicate
more supplementary, additional, replenishment
new recent, modern, current, novel
next subsequently, thereafter, successively
nice pleasant, satisfying, gracious, charming
old aged, mature, experienced, used, worn, former, previous
open unobstructed, accessible
part section, portion, segment, detail, element, component
perfect flawless, faultless, ideal, consummate
plan scheme, design, system, plot
pleasant agreeable, gratifying, refreshing, welcome
prove demonstrate, confirm, validate, verify, corroborate
quick brisk, prompt, responsive, rapid, nimble, hasty
really truly, genuinely, extremely, undeniably
regular standard, routine, customary, habitual
see regard, behold, witness, gaze, realize, notice
small diminutive, miniature, minor, insignificant, slight, trivial
sometimes occasionally, intermittently, sporadically, periodically
take grasp, capture, choose, select, tolerate, endure
terrific extraordinary, magnificent, marvelous
think conceive, imagine, ponder, reflect, contemplate
try attempt, endeavor, venture, test
use employ, operate, utilize
very unusually, extremely, deeply, exceedingly, profoundly
want desire, crave, yearn, long

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Revising the Novel - Word Count

Before we delve deeper into our subject of outlining, I wanted to share what I've learned about a very commonly asked question.

How long should my novel be?

The answer is not "long enough to tell the story." While that may be what we all would love to hear, the truth is publishers and agents have very specific guidelines for novel length depending upon the genre. As I've said before, my work is mainstream fiction, a medical thriller, so that's really all I'm qualified to talk about. If you're writing a romance, or horror, or sci-fi, or literary fiction, you should refer to a good reference book for the answer to that question, like the Writer's Guide. If you're writing a thriller or other mainstream fiction, this is what I've learned. Understand that my goal in writing is publishing and establishing a career, not a whimsical fairy tale of life as an author.

For a first time author, your book length should be 90,000 to 100,000 words, which is about 450 pages. Strict. No more, no less. While you may tell the world's greatest story in 175,000 words, and it may become a huge best-seller, it will be awfully hard, as a first-time writer, to get an agent to look at a book of that length. It may happen. If your writing is so undeniably fantastic, you may be able to hook that agent. And if you are an undeniable talent, your agent may be able to convince a Publishing House to buy your book. But the odds are stacked against you.

Publishing Houses do not like to take chances and invest big dollars into first-time authors. They're very conservative. So what you need to do is follow their guidelines, play their game. They're the ones setting the rules. Once you're as big as Ken Follett you can break the rules and unleash your 1000 page tome. Not now.

So how many pages is 100,000 words?

Obviously, that will depend upon the type and size of font you use. What I recommend, from what I've learned in discussions with agents, is Times New Roman font, 12 point size. Courier is also an accepted font by agents but Times New Roman is the best, and here's why.

The spacing of Courier font adds length to your manuscript. So while the word count may be acceptable, the number of pages is increased. With my manuscript, at 106,000 words (I know, I know, still too long, I'm working on it. Got the Ten-Point Revision Strategy at my side) the page count was 560 pages. With Times New Roman, it is 477 pages.

What this means is that with Times New Roman, your number of manuscript pages is approximately equal to the number of printed pages in an average book. This makes for an easy guide to determine your novel length.

In general, the formula comes down to the average text has 10 words per line, 25 lines per page for a total of 250 words per page. This is comparable to the word count of a published novel.

So while the romantic, walking through the garden, following your lovely muse response to the question would be; "write until the book is finished, not one word more or less." In reality, this just isn't true. It's fine, if you really don't care about publishing. But the honest, business-like, non-romantic, but infinitely more practical advice for a first-time writer, is follow the rules. 90,000-100,000 words for mainstream/thriller fiction. It shows professionalism on your part, writing skill, knowledge and will greatly increase your chances of actually getting your novel read.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Writing the Novel - To Outlne or Not to Outline

Some debates can't be settled with the passage of time.

When it comes to writing, the question I'm asked more than any other is; do I outline?

And the truthful answer is, it doesn't matter whether I outline or not, what you really want to know is; should you outline?

It seems that very little can rile up as much contention, debate, anger and anxiety as this one very simple question. Should I outline?

And the answer to that can only be: Yes, if it works for you. No, if it doesn't.

How's that for a vague way to start a new series of posts?

For some reason, outlining seems to be this mysterious process, knowledge hidden by reclusive writing gurus, kept in secret, protected from the eyes of the rest of the world. Or else it seems to be this amazingly tedious, painful, arduous process, like a scientific experiment, that can only performed in one precise way to get the proper results. If done incorrectly. . . BOOM! The whole novel explodes in a silty smoke of disaster.

Neither of these perceptions are true. Outlining is simply that, outlining. A guide. A short "high points" guide to what the novel is about. A road map to where the novel is going. There is nothing mysterious or scientific about it. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It just is.

Good, now that we're past the philosophy of outlining, let's get down to the nitty gritty. The real deal. How to do it.

Of course, the answer to that last statement will be as varied as there are writer's, and that's important. You need to find a system that works for you. You may try several outlining systems before you find what works in your hands, with your brain. But eventually, you will find that system.

Or not.

Tess Gerristen, the best-selling author of ten billion books doesn't outline at all. She never has, never will. I've asked her about this and we'll talk about her views, my views and other views as we move along through this segment of posts.

We're going to explore all aspects of outlining. And we're going to do it without an outline.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Revising the Novel - Nearing Completion

Autumn is almost upon us.

My favorite time of the year, I love it when the temperature cools, the leaves change, the sweaters come from storage.

And my novel is finished. Or will be.

My goal was to finish my final revision by the end of August. So far I'm near my target. I have, what, five days left. Hmmm, I'm on page 320 of 478 in the revision and I still need to remove 6,000 words or about 20 pages.

As I'm going through the book, I try to keep the Ten Point Revision Strategy in mind (for those who've asked, I have already written the Ten Point Revision Strategy as an article and submitted it to Writer's Digest and The Writer. I'll keep you posted on the results). Each day, before I write, I re-read the ten points, trying to concentrate on what each point really means in terms of what I need to accomplish. Character Motivation. Dialog tightening. Word Choice. And especially, Ending Chapters Earlier.

I continue to find the strategy to be useful for me, and as I get closer and closer to finally completing this draft, I'm taking the time to really focus in on each of these points.

I believe, in the end, the writing is sharper, tighter and more dramatic than ever. I hope you'll find that to be the case for you as well.

As always, please send me your feedback/thoughts on the Ten-Points.

I think we'll start an outlining section next.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Revising the Novel - Sex Scenes - the Final Hitchcockian Word

We've had a few posts recently about writing that all important sex scene. Now, I'm not saying that every novel needs a sex scene, mine doesn't. But I have struggled over writing sex scenes before, so I wanted to bring it up here for discussion.

Previously, I've made two points about how to successfully navigate your way around this rather sticky subject.

1) Avoid cliche. Be very careful of cliche in every aspect of the scene, from the terms you use for male and female anatomy, to emotions, to setting, to tone. With so much bad daytime television and trashy novels, a sex scene will only work if it's novel.

2) Only introduce the scene if it a) doesn't interfere with the flow of the plot, and b) like all scenes, it must serve the story and move the plot forward.

So for our final discussion, I wanted to make one final point. Over at, I'd posted a thread in my favorite writing group, searching for opinions from fellow writers on how they handle this subject. After reading the responses, I was pleased that the general consensus matched my opinion and even gave me a great term to describe the best way to handle the scene.


What I mean by this is that the best way to write a powerful, dramatic sex scene is to think like the famous director, Alfred Hitchcock. What made his movies so compelling was the tension in the scenes. The lead up to the violence. The implication of violence. He usually avoided showing the violence itself. Instead, the viewer was left to fill in the holes with their own imagination, which can often be far more frightening than anything Hitchcock could have put on the screen.

I believe a great way to handle a sex scene in your novel is to follow that same advice. Really, unless you're writing erotica, it's not the sex in the scene that will interest your readers. It's the implication. The build up. The tension.

And just as importantly, never forget the ramifications. The post-sex scenes can be just as powerful or more so than the pre-sex scene. You simply can't (or shouldn't) have two characters fall into bed together without their relationship and possibly lives being irrevocably changed. Unless the point of your story is to show how a character can have sex and remained totally unchanged, don't pass up this opportunity to explore your character's feelings after sex; the embarrassment, the confusion, the insecurity, the building romance/love.

The possibilities are endless.

So my final advice on writing a great sex scene is maybe you don't need to write the scene at all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Revising the Novel - Intention

When I first started this blog, my original intention was purely to get my thoughts on the revision process down on paper to help me with my current work. I wanted to use this as a think pad, a guide book, to direct and focus my thoughts on what I needed to do.

The results so far, based on your feedback, has been greater than I ever expected. Thanks to all who've written with your encouragement and thoughts.

Now the reason I mention all this is that my intention directed my actions, and those actions led to results, perhaps even results I didn't anticipate.

That's a powerful statement and one that needs to makes its way into our writing. Knowing the intentions of your characters, in each scene, can be a vital tool to drive the drama and power of your writing. I mentioned this earlier in the Ten-Point Revision Strategy under "Know your Character's Motivation," but it's worth exploring deeper.

I don't know about you, but when I write, I often like to get into the feel of writing, the cadence, the appearance of the words on the screen. I have scenes set that I know are necessary to move the story forward; plot oriented scenes that bring conflict and drama. But quite honestly, I don't often step back and ask myself a simple question, "What does each character want out of this interaction/situation?"

Think how powerful those words are. From the main character to a bit player, the story will change if you spend some serious thought on what each character really intends to happen in that scene.

Say you have a big scene happening in a restaurant, I don't know, a meeting between two lovers on the verge of divorce. This is their last stab at trying to stay together. They arrive in different cars and flip their keys over to the valet. Now, in this scene, the valet obviously has little importance in the lives of our characters. But say for example, that you wanted to have the valet say something, just a sentence in passing, to build the scene. How can this affect the story?

If the valet is miserable at his job, just wasting his time away, pissed off that his big audition at the Broadway musical was a bomb, his demeanor, body language and sentence may be very different than if he's had a brand new baby boy and his wife is home waiting for him.

A minor character for sure, but it's easy to see how his one sentence, based on his intentions, can have a dramatic impact on our lead characters, setting the scene for their meeting. Say the valet is a snippy twit, sarcastic and angry as he takes the car keys. Now compare that to a happy, bubbling new daddy, spreading joy and love with every word. How could that impact the moods of our main characters as they step into the restaurant?

Now, I've just described how a bit character's motivation can impact a scene, imagine if you spent the time to really think about each of the main character's motivations as they enter the restaurant. There's a big difference between the male lead dying to get back together with her because she's the love of his life, and just going through the motions because he's head over heals in love with a waitress at the very restaurant at which they're meeting.

Character Intention. Motivation. Spend the time as you're revising each scene to make sure that you know exactly where each character is coming from.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Novel revision update

Thanks to everyone for your kind comments on this blog. I'll keep it, trying to publish 3 times a week until we all get our revisions done, and beyond.

Right now, however, I'm recovering from some abdominal surgery that has me laid up on the couch.

We'll get right back into the meat of our revision strategies next week, when I'm a little farther down the road of recovery.

In the meantime, please send me your suggestions on topics you'd like to see covered in the pages of this blog.

Upcoming topics include:

Plot structure
The heroic quest
outlining, yes or no
character arcs
story structure
how to research
drive the story forward
querey letters
novel synopsis

Please send me your suggestions for topics you'd like covered.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Revising the Novel - Best Word Choice or Big Guts and Belly Fat

Just finished a meeting of Mimi's Boys on Thursday night (don't worry, my bruises will heal) and a very important lesson came up.

Best word choice.

Now, I've already touched on this subject in the Ten-Point Revision Strategy, but it came up again in a way that was slightly different, and my writing was to blame.

In one scene, I have my character, the ER Department Chairman, a rather big man (or Jabba Browne as one of my group members calls him) lean back in his chair and rest his hand on his stomach. In that sentence I said something to the effect of "leans back and rests his hand on his large gut."

Doesn't necessarily seem like the that should be the focal point of a long discussion, but believe me, it was.

As we'd discussed before, each word, every single word, that we commit to paper (printer) has to be exactly what we wish it to be. It must convey exactly what we want it to convey. But more importantly than just conveying information, it has to be entertaining. After all, isn't that the point? To entertain? That's what reading is. Certainly reading a novel, particularly a thriller.

Les, one of Mimi's Boys, stated emphatically that we have to strive to make each sentence as entertaining as possible. That' right, our responsibility isn't just to write an entertaining book, but to make sure that each and every sentence in that book is entertaining in and of itself.

To be honest, I hadn't ever thought of it that way before. But he's right.

We can't rely on 2nd or 3rd tier adjectives or descriptors or cliches to finish our sentences. There are no "throw away" paragraphs, or sentences or words. Each word must count. And we need to make sure that each word conveys the information we need it to in as entertaining a way as possible.

Case in point, my large gut.

Sure it emphasizes Dr. Browne's large mass, but is it said in as entertaining a way as possible?

Les jumped all over that one, giving me his sly, one eyebrow raised look that states so clearly, "you can do better than this." And again, he's right. With effort, we can all remove these rather efficient but bland modifiers and interject some personality, some deeper level of description, some humor and some entertainment.

It's a lot of work. It means going back over the novel, word by word, sentence by sentence, and continually asking yourself, does this say what I need it to say? Is there someway I can write this better? More descriptive, more original, more entertaining?

In the margins, Les crossed out my large gut and interjected, "placed his hand on the roll of fat above his belt." Damn if that isn't better. More descriptive, certainly more original and even slightly humorous.

Do you agree? Do you feel that each and every word/sentence has to be polished as much as possible for maximal entertainment? Send me your thoughts.

Now I'm going back to work. I'll bet there's quite a few large guts in my novel that could stand being replaced by some rolls of belly fat.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing the Sex Scene part 3

So then, the real question is; how much sex should one have in their novel?

The answer, of course, varies with the genre and style of writing, but in general terms, the title above says it all, sex sells. Now this doesn't mean peppering your legal thriller with scene after scene of hot doings in the jury box, but on the other hand, I have heard an agent say that if a book doesn't have sex, the implication of sex, or at least a strong romance, it won't sell.

People enjoy sex (not the physical act, well, yes the physical act, but also the story of sex). They enjoy both romantic sex and steamy sex. Sex that they'd do and sex they'd never dream of, as long as it's not offensive (a difficult line to draw, I know). They love the prelude to sex and the after effects.

And I do to. Particularly the character ramifications. There is very little you can do to affect a relatonship more between two of your characters than to put them in bed together. I love what happens to the characters during the act; the nervousness, the desire, the fear, the insecurities, the abandon, the neediness. It is a great way to explore character. But so is the character ramifications after the act and the way the characters see each other, grow with each other or apart. Trust me, sex can be very revealing.

The general rule that I follow is that there has to be a romance in a thriller. Even if it's not completely consumated, it has to be implied. In fact, just the tension of romance, the possibility that two characters will have sex, can be enough to up the drama in a scene or in the entire book. I can't ever see myself writing a story that doesn't involve love and romance. It just reveals so much of a character and is such a powerful motivator for character actions.

But that doesn't mean I'll always have sex. Again, following my rule, if I can fit a sex scene in, and it falls in a logical place (perhaps a surprising place) without disrupting the flow of the story, the pulse of the action, then by all means, I'll add it. But if the scene is added just to have a sex scene, if it feels unnatural or most importantly, if it slows down the action or disrupts the tension, then I won't have it. The main flow of the story always has to be most important.

So I guess I'm saying that sex is great, in the right time and place.

Hmmm, now I sound like a 10th grade health teacher.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing the Sex Scene part 2

Back on the subject of sex.

As I mentioned in the prior post, of utmost importance to me when writing a sex scene is to avoid cliche. There are only so many non-offensive euphemisms you can use for penis. Even fewer for a vagina. Most of these are so full of purple prose that I'm embarrassed any time I even think of using one.

Breasts are easy. The word "breasts" works fine. So does nipple. But when it comes to the male and female genitalia, "penis" and "vagina" seem far too clinical for our writing. So we improvise. That's how things like "pulsating member," get published. I've even read once about a "vibrating stinger." I'm still scared at the thought.

My advice on this sensitive topic is to use the real words, or the least of the purple prose euphemisms. It is unlikely that you'll come up with a term that hasn't been used before, or one that is so terrifically original that it will send your scene over the top. Usually, all that results is that you succeed in drawing attention to your poor word choice and away from the steamy sex happening on the page.

Just write it.

Use the words we're all familiar with. Concentrate on the action and whatever originality you can create in the scene. The mood, the background, the character's thoughts, their actions, unique fetishes, etc.

Don't get hung up on the words, or else a pulsating member may inadvertently make its way into your writing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Revising the Novel - The Difficult Sex Scene

No one can deny it, sex sells.

Most mainstream fiction today will have at least one romantic interlude. How far that goes towards an actual sex scene is, of course, up to the discretion of the writer. And it raises some interesting questions.

Some writers may relish the thought of writing a sex scene. I'm not talking erotica here, but mainstream fiction. Writing a sex scene can in some ways be liberating. A chance to explore fantasies, dreams, ideas that you'd never have the chance, or inclination, to explore in real life. A chance to let the hair (and pants) down and get animal.

For others, the sex scene is the absolute hardest scene to write. The constant editor sitting on your shoulder screams and moans with each word you put to paper. What if your mother reads this? What if my colleagues at work or the writing club read this? Will they think I'm strange? A pervert? A sex maniac? Doubts, worries and fears can rage into the brain like never before when it comes to writing about sex. In many ways, Freud was right about this baby. We got hang-ups on top of hang-ups.

But no matter what your own personal opinions of sex may be, if you're to be a successful mainstream fiction writer (I include the genre of thrillers, like my medical thriller, as mainstream fiction) at some point in time, the subject of sex will come up. And like it or not, it's a river that must be crossed.

I read somewhere in a list of things to do to break writer's block (which I don't believe in, by the way) that one way to ditch the block is to write a sex scene. That writer's opinion was that sex is fun and fun to write about. So if you're stuck, then darn it, take the clothes off your character, throw in a good bottle of wine and have them go at it. While I applaud the thought, I personally take the opposite opinion. I think sex is hard to write about. Not because of my Freudian repression, but because it's hard to avoid cliche.

So let's talk about sex. (Cue Salt and Peppa here)

1) Avoid cliche - It's not always easy to bring a fresh approach to sex (on paper, not in the bedroom. That's your own business and you won't find advice here.) We've all read or seen the extreme cliched version of a sex scene from smutty romance novels. There's a great scene near the beginning of the wonderful movie 10 Things I Hate About You (Heath Ledger's first film) were our heroine is called to the principle's office for discipline. Rather than reprimanding her, the principle is much more involved in writing her novel and it's steamy sex scene. The scene ends with our heroine suggesting the term "pulsating member," for our word-bare principle who's been struggling to find another juicy metaphor for penis.

That just ain't gonna work in most mainstream fiction.

In my writing group, there's a lot of sex going around (now, now. I mean in the writing, not the group.) It's been fun to watch each writer's varying approach to writing about sex, and believe me, the approaches are as varied as I'm sure the authors are in the bedroom. We'll talk about those approaches in the next few posts as well as more things to avoid and included in your sex scenes.

And always avoid the pulsating member.

As always, your comments, thoughts and suggestions about sex (writing about it) are always welcome.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Revising the Novel - Avoiding Overused Words

I'm moving along with the revision. After several weeks, I finally have a grasp on the final tweak I needed to get my antagonist's motivation clearer and stronger. Again, a testament to the success of writing groups as it was the combination of thoughts from different writer's that led me to where I need to go.

In the meantime (as I'm writing away furiously) I'm going to post this helpful little list of overused words. i came upon this list several months ago, on a number of different sites, and felt that it could add value to all of our writing. As we discussed in the Ten-Point Revision Strategy, weak words need to be discovered, isolated and excised like skin cancer. Hopefully this list will help you find your own favorites, words that we habitually rely upon. These words are weak and as descriptive or powerful as we'd like to think they are.


And by suggestion:


Any other words you'd like to add to the list? Let's make it grow of all those words we need to be careful of using.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Revising the Novel - Just an Update

Just an update today, as I try to finish this revision of my novel. I can feel my agent's breath on the back of my neck, steaming up my computer screen, prodding me to get this done. Remember, part of my idea for this blog was to share what I've learned about writing, but also to share all the steps along the way of having this book published. The good and the ugly. Today counts as the ugly.

My momentum was great a little while back, but has been ebbing recently. Have any of you noticed this before? Sometimes, when you take a break from writing, even just a couple of days for travel or other reasons, it becomes very difficult to get back in to it? I haven't touched the book in over a week, maybe two. For no good reason, other than I stopped while I was traveling. Now it just sits there like a lump of coal waiting for me turn it into a diamond.

Part of my distraction is that the music site is doing so well and really taking off. (The Ripple Effect, I'm spending too much of my novel writing time instead working on music reviews or contacting bands. I'm being contacted by record labels, PR Firms and bands everyday, asking us to look at their new albums. We've even got our first internet radio show scheduled for tomorrow night. All of that of course is fun. (for those of you who like music but don't like hard rock/punk/metal, you may enjoy the Sounds of Summer Special we posted, songs for your summer bar-b-Q's) Working on the 101st revision of this novel sometimes isn't quite as much fun. Particularly when I've decided that the motivation of a major character needs a bit of tweaking, which means more revising.

The other portion of my distraction comes from the atrophy of writing muscle memory. I wrote about this before (Writing and the Muse). In order to be a successful writer, it requires discipline and practice. It becomes like being a great athlete. The more you do it, the better you get. The easier it is for the words to flow, but just as important, the easier it becomes to just do it. Get yourself in front of your computer (typewriter, pad of paper) and write. That's why I wrote about how important it is to write everyday. Choose a time, sit down and write. No distractions for that time period, and no excuses. Just write. With my travel, my writing time got disrupted and now those muscles have atrophied. They're lingering, twitching slowly.

But I can do it. I've got my Ten Point Revision Strategy positioned on my desk, I'm going to re-read my points to refresh my memory and then jump back in.

A more intelligent, hopefully helpful post will come next time when we start talking about outlining. Now off for some character tweaking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Writing Groups - Final, Final Thoughts (no, really)

As I mentioned, today I'll give some details on how my second writer's group works. The first group, Mimi's Boys, is a local group where we meet once or twice a month. Those are easy to put together and easy to find. Around here, the SF Bay area, a quick look through Craig's List can turn up any number of groups looking for new authors. The bulletin board at local bookstores is another good source to find a group. Or you can do it my way and form a group from the students in one of your writing workshops.

My second group is very different, since we've only met each other once, haven't seen each other since, but have been actively working as a group for more than seven months now. This is my internet based group.

The group came about at the end of an intense two-day advanced writing workshop with Bob Dugoni in Chicago. In hindsight, the emergence of the group seems obvious. Throughout the course, Bob often referred to the writing of four of the participants to give examples of plot, writing technique etc. As the course progressed, these four writers (one of which was me) were also the most vocal in asking questions and making remarks. That night, I met up with two of the guys and had a few drinks in the bar with several other participants and realized that we all had good chemistry.

The next day, I asked the two guys, Jeff and Paul, if they'd like to form an internet group to read and give feedback on each other's writing. After setting a few ground rules, they agreed. We did approach the fourth writer, a woman with a beautiful, mystical Celtic writing style, but she was already in two groups of her own. (so we're still shy on the female input, hint hint to any wonderful women writer's out there.)

So here's how this group functions. At first, we set the goal for submissions every two weeks, but we've been more flexible than that depending upon people's schedules. When I submit, I send about 30 pages of my draft to both guys. In the email, I include a very brief, one or two sentence, reminder of where the story left off. They guys then respond with their comments, copying everyone on their emails. One of them likes to email back the draft with line edits as well.

Typically, we return about one page worth of comments, good and bad, focusing mainly on plotting, character and other larger issues. I don't line edit because I feel my strength is the bigger picture. By copying each other on the return emails, we stimulate conversation amongst ourselves and explore deeper issues.

I've found this group to also be very helpful. Each of these two guys are good writers with different viewpoints than the writers in Mimi's Boys. Their comments have helped me to broaden my view on the story and I'm just about to incorporate a very small, but potentially major change.

This group works because I trust their opinions and we're all committed. Now, I met these guys in person first, but internet groups can be joined or formed by meeting other writers through online writing forums, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Be careful who you join with. Remember my first two posts about what to look for in a group. And if it isn't working for you, don't be afraid to say so, or to quit. Also, if the group is good but there's one bad seed, never be afraid to trust your own judgment and ignore that person's comments.

So whether in person or over the internet, there are a wide variety of ways to be involved in a writer's group. In the end, it never hurts to have as many trustworthy eyes as possible on your writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Writing Groups - Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts on the subject of writing groups, and I'd like to thank Beth from Writer-in-Progress for her insights. If you haven't yet, you should check out her blog and her website, both are full of interesting tidbits.

As you can see from her comments (see last post) the decision to join a group isn't quite as straight forward as you may at first think. Unfortunately, the wrong group can probably do more harm than good for your writing.

Having said that, I'm in two groups right now.

The first group, I'll call "Mimi's Boys," came about after taking a UC Berkeley writing course with Skirts author, Mimi Albert. While the course itself was fun and useful, what struck me the most was the quality of the critique I heard from my fellow students. Having been in other classes, I know that usually students are either too hesitant to be honest in their critique or too angry/mean/arrogant to be of use. This class had just the right balance, honest, well-intentioned critique. As the course ended, I stood up, told the class how much I appreciated their critique and suggested forming the group. About 7 people joined at first and we lost five through attrition but gained two new ones, and have been going strong for almost ten years (with a couple of years off for personal reason's amongst members.)

The nice thing about Mimi's boys is that we all know each other very well. We all have different writing styles, reading patterns and genres. We also are all committed to becoming successful writers and assisting our partners. Each member has an area that I'd consider their specialty, whether it's someone who picks apart dialogue well, grammer and wording, etc. I know, for example, which sections of my writing Gregg might have trouble with, but Les will love and vice versa. Gabe happens to be a very technical guy which truly helps the science in my story. I consider myself a plot oriented kinda guys and work best in helping to move stories along.

We meet once a month, but currently every two weeks as we're helping Les get his materials ready for his agent before the Maui Writing Conference. That adaptability is also a great feature of Mimi's Boys. We truly are there to help each other. If there's one drawback to the group, it's that we lost all of our women over the years, usually to motherhood concerns. As such, we're sorely lacking a female perspective, which we desperately need. With the majority of readers being women, we can never discount that perspective. Gregg tells me that we have a new woman getting ready to join us soon. Let's hope so.

My second group was formed after attending Robert Dugoni's course in Chicago. Again, I approached the two guys who's stories fascinated me the most and seemed the most serious in writing. Since they live across the country, this is an internet only group, and its working beautifully.

Next post, I'll give you ideas on how to make an internet writing group a successful venture.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing Groups part 3

In the last two posts, I wrote about what you need to be aware of before you decide to join a writing group. Understanding that a writing group that fits you well will be a tremendous asset to your writing, today I have to give the biggest warning of all.

I firmly believe that a writing group should be used with caution when you're writing a first draft. At this stage, you should be a burning cauldron of creativity. Your entire focus needs to be on getting the story out of your head. You don't want anyone or anything to squash that, particularly not the opinions of others. What you need to do is close the door, lock yourself in a nuclear bunker, and write, write, write. Get the draft done. Get your thoughts onto paper (computer?). Once that draft if done, you can unbarricade the door, readjust your eyes to the light of day, take a deep breath of fresh air, and let your group know you're ready.

You may disagree with me on this point, thinking that it'd be helpful for someone to give an opinion as you're writing so you'll know if you're off base or not. It isn't. All it does is stall your creativity. Finish the draft. Create your characters, follow your plot. Write your novel.

When you turn in first draft passages to the group one of two things inevitably happens.

1) The group focuses on the millions and millions of small mistakes you've made; grammar, punctuation, spelling, name inconsistencies, date inconsistencies etc. Those mistakes are supposed to be there, it's your first draft. But when you turn in a segment, looking for critique, and what comes back is a long list of grammatical errors, it drains your strength. Plus, invariably they haven't really tackled the big picture questions that you need to know, such as, does this make sense? The small errors become too much of a distraction.

Or even worse;

2) The group will offer their opinion on what they think you should be writing, where you should take a character, how a character should act, where the plot should go. While this sounds like it may be of some value, at this point it's really more of a hindrance. Until you've finished the book and you know where those points are going, the opinions of others are roadblocks. In the end, they will only confuse you, make you doubt your own story.

Both of these common responses from a writing group to your first draft will result in slowing your writing down, not helping it.

Finish the first draft. Pound it out. Get it done. Then, once the draft is finished, it's time to share it with the group. Use the writing group for revision.

That's where the value of the group lies. In the revision (hence the inclusion of writing groups in my Revising the Novel posts.) Once you're in the revision stage, then you want all those grammatical errors pointed out. Then you want to fix inconsistencies in character, plot, time and setting. Then you want to know, does this whole thing work?

And for these issues, a good writing group can be invaluable.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing Groups part 2

Continuing on with our discussion of writing groups and a long answer to the simple question, should I join one?

5) Committment of members. It's not easy writing, reading, meeting. it requires time and dedication. We meet every month, but at times, like right now when a member is gearing up for the Maui Writing Conference, we meet every two weeks. Everyone must be committed to this. The goal is to help each other succeed.

6) Your writing. In addition to the writing group, you must commit yourself to learning your craft. You can't rely on the group to "turn" you into a writer, nor to make mediocre writing, spectacular. A group is a useful tool, a fine-tuning instrument to prepare your writing for broader readership. It isn't, in and of itself, a substitution for classes, courses, reading and studying. You still must learn your craft.

7) Your fragility. Writing is not a career for the fragile. You're not here for the ego strokes, so if you decide to really commit yourself to writing, park your sensitivity at the door. Good or bad, not everyone will like everything you write, sometimes they're wrong. More often than not they're right.

8) Your filter. Your job is to take the critique and filter it through the mesh of your own certainty. You're the only one who knows what you're trying to do. If two people read something and one likes it, one doesn't, it comes back to you to decide if it's good or not. Opinions vary. If you love it, have the balls to keep it. If it always bothered you a little, then cut it. But if you send it to your group, and everyone agrees that a certain part is weak, or trite, or cliched, or just plain dumb, odds are it is. Keeping then would be an act of egotism. If the group hates it, it probably needs to be redone.

Now, you may wonder why this post is filed under my Revising the Novel section. It doesn't appear to be as directly related to revising as the Ten Point Revision Strategy or the Know Your Theme posts. But it is.

We'll get there next time.

Revising the Novel - Writing Groups

Often times, people ask whether or not they should be in a writing group.

Believe it or not, the answer isn't quite as straight foward as it may seem. The simple answer is 'yes.' Of course you should be in a writing group. You're a writer and the more people who read your stuff the better. You need the eyes on your material. You need the feedback.

But the simple answer isn't always the best.

In reality, the decision to join a writer's group is quite complex and depends upon a number of factors. Over the next two posts, I'm going to discuss the main issues that come to my mind, having been in a long-running writing group for about ten years. I'm basing this discussion on the premise that you're working your butt off writing with a goal to becoming published, not just wanting tea with some friends.

1) Who's in the group. What I mean by this is: is the group a serious group dedicated to writing and publishing or a casual group of repeat conference attendees who love the idea of being writers? If you yourself, are casual, by all means join the casual group, enjoy your tea. But if you're serious about your writing, you need to surround yourself with serious writers who'll get down to business, read your material and comment. The members don't all have to be writing the same type of fiction, in fact, I think it's better if they're not. While the idea of a "Romance Writers" writing group may sound good, I believe the conversation and critique may become a little self-contained and incestuous. It's good to have many writers from different genre's who'll push you to consider aspects of writing you may not normally consider. Such as a different view on character, conflict, or setting. Different genres use these differently, but we can all learn from each other.

2) The quality of critique. I'm sorry, but serious writers have no room in their life for pandering or hand holding. Critique, to be of any value, must be honest. If that is brutal, then fine. It doesn't do any one any good to hold back for fear of hurting feelings if there is a serious flaw in the writing . The best groups understand this. Rules should be set for how critique is delivered. It shouldn't be personal, teasing or patronizing, but honest. Flaws should be discussed not glossed over. Obviously, the group needs to be made up of people who's opinions you respect and trust, which you may not know at first. Mean spirited members should be asked to leave. But just as importantly, members who won't give negative comments for fear of hurting feelings should leave. We need direct, honest critique. What's good. What's bad. Now move on. This is a professional, not personal, endeavor.

3)The number of members. I think the optimal group size is four to five members. Six at the most. Otherwise, you won't be able to have a serious discussion about each member's writing at each meeting. Big groups are fun, but we're not there to have fun. We're not there to discuss upcoming wedding plans or weekends or car repairs. We're there to discuss writing. If that sounds anal, nonsocial and boring, then you don't need to be in a writing group, you need a social club. A real group knows how to say 'hello,' a few moments of small talk, then gets down to business. If you like each other, you can stay and socialize after the meeting or on weekends. Not when we're supposed to be writing.

4) The format of the group. Formats can take as many shapes as tigers have stripes (I almost wrote 'as lions have stripes.' Well, it is 4 am.) In my group, each member's material is reviewed at each session. Each writer sends out 20-30 pages to each member who then reads it, reviews it and writes comments. When we get together, we rotate who's material gets discussed first, then take turns talking about the submission. Everyone gets a chance to comment. The author is supposed to remain quiet, not defending, occasionally allowed to offer clarification. If that sounds rigid, then good. When you've published your book (or submitted it to an agent) you won't be standing there by the reader offering defense of your writing. Once you've submitted it, it has to stand on its own.

We rotate houses each meeting. The host used to provide some basic sustenence, but we've eliminated this as it started to become bigger and bigger, then we spent as much time eating as talking. Now, a bowl of nuts, some bottles of water and three hours of critique.

Not glamorous, but effective.

If you like this line of posting, let me know. I'll continue this thread in my next post. I'll be out of town on Thursday, so look for the next update on Saturday.

Thanks for reading, now get back to work. There's writing to do!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Revising the Novel - Theme to Story

What comes first, the theme or the story?

That's a very fundamental question, and I'm sure many of you have your own opinions on this. We can follow this up with a later question, what comes first, character or plot? But for now will stick to one concept. One theme if you will.

In my hands, story came first. I had an idea of a research project, a twist on current science that I wanted to explore. Idea led to plot, plot led to characters, characters led to story, story led to theme. It was only after I'd finished the novel, and gone through a couple of revisions that the main theme of forgiveness became apparent. At first, it was just a story about a pretty ambitious guy driven to do his research. It was only after the story evolved, that my hero kept going back, despite horrible odds, that it began to tick in my brain as to why. Why would someone continue to fight and fight, when the whole world is against him, when his whole life has collapsed? The underlying motivation had to be more than just the satisfaction of finishing the project, or money or fame. It had to be a reason deeply wrapped into the fabric of who he is.

In my story, it was his need for forgiveness, for himself and for his family.

Once I saw that, suddenly the story clicked. And that's the value of theme. Once you know your theme, then the story takes on the light of relevance. Suddenly, you can see scenes that contradict your theme, and they go. New scenes get added that enhance the theme, set it up, draw it out.

For me, the whole book changed. It was no longer a standard medial thriller, good guy fighting against bad guy for his project that meant, oh so much for the world. It was now a story about one man and his quest to move beyond his past, find peace and find meaning in his life.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's a medial thriller. I got blood and guts and bodies and car chases and murder, even poison, but don't you think having all that action surrounding a story that is so deeply personal makes it more interesting?

Stephen King says on theme that if you start with the theme, the book will fail. You must start with story. I suppose he knows. Last I checked he's sold more books than me (So far. Look behind you Stephen, I'm coming up fast) And in my opinion, Stephen King should be placed on the list of the greatest 20-21st century writers. Not because his books sell or are made into movies, but because most of his books move beyond the story, deeply into theme, and this makes them memorable. (not to mention that he's one of the great character writers of all time). We tend to think of King as the writer of Cujo, or Christine or Pet Semetary but let's not forget, he's also the writer of The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and The Green Mile. This man know's theme.

But even many of his horror books really delve into deeper topics, like The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand, even Carrie.

Still, I don't know if I entirely agree with his thought. Certainly, it is the way I wrote my book, story first then theme, but that doesn't mean its the only way. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, particularly the thoughts of the Plot Whisperer. I believe that if the theme is compelling enough for you, you can write a successful book, even in this day and age. But you must quickly move beyond theme into rich character, plot and story. Theme should be subtle, not omnipresent. A tickling under the skin, not a flesh wound.

Your thoughts?