Saturday, January 21, 2012

More Grammar - the -ING Word

And I didn't even have to type up the post. Hop on over to the ever-helpful ACFW blog to find out what the problem is with those ubiquitous -ing words and phrases:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Writing Instruction: Genre

As I mentioned in a previous post, to determine a starting point for your manuscript, you have to know your genre. Shannon McNear has written a post on the subject. Click on the link to hop on over to a Novel Writing Site

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Preparing for the Genesis: Obstacles to Avoid

A few days ago, I offered cosmetic tips on manuscript presentation. Today, we'll discuss a few obstacles contestants will want to avoid along the road. This is by no means comprehensive. They're just a few techniques that can jostle judges, and readers, and possibly mis-align your entry.

And, we're off!

Every trip, whether it be to the store for milk or to the beach for a needed vacation, has a start, a middle, and an end, and a specific purpose. The same applies to a story. But as I recently discussed with a member of my critique group, determining where to start can often be difficult. To make matters more confusing, where you start also depends on the story's genre (Romance, Women's Fiction, Suspense, etc.) Starting at the wrong point can cause a story to drag, move too fast, or cascade into structural problems.

So where to start? A story covers a crisis in a character's life, so the time frame should encompass that crisis from start to resolution. And sometimes, a bit more to help set things up. Think of your favorite movie. Where in the character's life does it start? For Luke Skywalker, the crisis occurs a day or so before he's even aware of it--when an Imperial Star Destroyer captures the ship that's transporting Princess Leia, one of the leaders of the Rebellion. The chain reaction from that event literally brings the galactic fight to Luke's front door.

What would have happened if Lucas had started with Leia stealing the plans to the Death Star and then jumping into the ship? A far less powerful opening.

With Star Wars: New Hope, the story starts in the middle of an action scene, but that isn't always the case. In You've Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly's crisis begins when she strolls to her humble book shop one fine morning and discovers a mega-bookstore is about to open around the corner. However, the movie opens with her at home, talking to her boyfriend. All is calm, and we get a feel for her life and her character. This sets a nice pace for the movie, appropriate for a Romance.

So start in the right spot. To help you gauge where, look at the books and movies released within your genre. Shannon McNear has written a blog post on the subject, which is due to be released in the next few days. I'll post the link when it's available.

Changing Lanes

One moment, you're cruising in the right lane of a highway that's undergoing construction. Thanks to lane shifts and a confusing mix of newly painted and faded lines, you're trying to figure out where your lane is and exactly where you're supposed to be.

The same often occurs with characters points of view. One second, a character is walking down the hall. We read her thoughts, see what she sees. The next second, another character passes by and suddenly, we shift into his head with no clue how we got there, and we're looking at the world through his eyes.

Whether omniscient POV or head hopping, it isn't a good idea. Write each scene from one character's perspective. We see only what she sees, what she feels, hears, touches, and we know her mental reactions, and her reactions only. When you want to switch to another character's point of view, then use a line break and start from his perspective, or start a new chapter.

Officer, I can explain

We've seen it in movies, heard others talk about it, and some may have even done it themselves. A driver gets pulled over by a police officer and she attempts to talk her way out of a ticket by rambling on about the string of disasters that lead up to the infraction.

In similar fashion, new writers often feel the need to explain why their character is behaving the way they are, or what brought them to that point. It leads to a lot of telling and blocks of backstory, i.e., events that occurred before the story began. Camy Tang wrote a nice post on the subject for Seekerville. Thanks to her advice, I learned how to weave bits of the character's history into the prose instead of dumping it all in a block of text as I had been doing. Here's the link to the post.

So make sure the pages you submit flow, and the judges aren't pulled over while you fill them in on the character's history.

End of the Road

When we reach a destination, whether the store or the beach, we want the car to come to a nice, smooth stop. We park, open the door, and continue on with our life.

That sense of completion is fine for the end of the novel, but not for the end of chapters. So look over your chapter endings. If they wrap up nicely, or seem to be a good place to put the novel down, change it. Force the reader to move on. Keep the traffic moving down that story highway.

So that's it. As with the tips on presentation, advice listed on this page is also cosmetic in nature. A means of eliminating obstacles that may distract or stop the judges. Once the road is cleared, the time and effort you've put into crafting plot, characterization, and emotion will shine through.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Preparing for the Genesis: Presentation

After leaving the Air Force, my husband did a short stint at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (the PX and BX stores found on bases.) On several occasions, he had to set up displays that covered entire walls. And he did it well. The result was product placed in a functional, appealing manner that accented the store's decor.

Presentation is also important in manuscripts. So important, a submission's lifespan can be determined with just once glance. I once served as a contest judge, and within minutes of receiving my assigned entries, I figured out how. Certain formatting and writing errors indicate the author is new, or that they're trying to get their point across using simple methods instead of crafting the story. And if they're relying on gimmicky writing, it's likely the story has other issues. So today, let's cover presentation, and then we'll dig a little deeper.

A few things to avoid:
  • Typos. Yes, people submit manuscripts that contain typographical errors. They're in a hurry to submit their entry, whether out of excitement or fear. Points are deducted for such errors, so take your time. Carefully read your entry and check for errors.
  • Punctuation. Know it. Few will get it all right, but know when to place commas before "and", and when not to. Know what a dangling modifier is and how to avoid them. Participial phrases can be your friend or your enemy.
  • One space after a period. Not two.
  • Spell numbers and time. There are some exceptions. If you don't own a copy of, or subscribe to, the Chicago Manual of Style, buy one or find their website. Then use it.
  • Bold type. Don't use it. Ever.
  • Italics. You can argue that italics are found in published work, but if you're entering a contest for unpublished writers, avoid it. Weave the thoughts you're itching to italicize into the narrative. If you can't do so without using first person, consider writing the entire story in first person.
  • Speaker tags. Use as few of them as possible, and when you do use them, use "said", not rejoined, countered, murmured and definitely not, she laughed or she smiled. Even a fictional person cannot laugh or smile words.
  • Adverbs in speaker tags. Need an example? "I love you," she said softly. Again, it's viewed as lazy writing. If you have to tell the reader she spoke softly, then you're not showing it. Delete them all.
  • Lack of white space. Blocks of text are hard to read and it's a good indication there's a boat load of backstory in the pages.
  • Too much white space. Indicates a lack of Internal Monologue, a good technique that puts the reader into characters' heads and slows pacing. There are exceptions, of course. Times when you want the dialogue to ping back and forth, or to speed up the pace. The trick is to use these techniques wisely.

Check over your submission and fix as many of these errors as you can. If you haven't yet done so, read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing (Write Great Books), among others. Are you following writing blogs that offer instruction? Do. And join ACFW's January course titled “Avoiding the Mistakes that Scream Novice.”

Why go through all that trouble? Besides the fact that writing is tedious and time consuming, and like any craft, it takes hours of practice to master techniques, other contestants have followed that advice, and it's your job to beat them. And as they say, presentation is half the battle.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Preparing for the Genesis

I said we'd talk the Genesis contest after the holidays, so talk Genesis we will. I'm in the midst of preparing one of my own entries, so I'll keep this first post short.

When you're submitting your entry, follow directions.

Did your hungry eyes graze over that searching for something meatier? Then you need to go back and read that again.

Follow directions. Read them, digest them, and then when you submit your entry, read them again, one by one and make sure you follow those instructions. Don't hope your story is so great, the judges will overlook a few transgressions. They won't. If the directions say don't end the last page in the middle of a sentence, don't. If the directions say don't send a .docx, don't. Following directions will be your first line of defense in the Genesis. Failing to follow them can result in lower scores, or, at the very worst, get you disqualified.

So, follow directions. Another reason to do so?

Because someone out there won't.

Next up: Presentation is Half the Battle!