It’s Been a Thing

Well, it’s been a rough election season, but I haven’t gone away exactly. I haven’t been able to post much, here or on Twitter, but I’m hoping to make a change in that soon, and I have never stopped working.

I’m working out the details right now, but probably in March or April, I will begin offering some charity work, probably along the lines of all proceeds of one full novel edit will go directly to the ACLU, the Trevor Project, or something similar.

More to come, my friends.

Grouchy Cat Reads: HOUNDED by @kevinhearne

Before we begin – I’m starting a FREE fiction writing support group, workshop and critique exchange in Colorado. If you’re in the north Denver/Broomfield/Boulder/Longmont/Fort Collins area, drop me a line!

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This is Ulkesh. She’s a 16 year old half Maine Coon, so she’s opinionated and grouchy, especially when a person interrupts her nap to interview her.

Me: I ran into Kevin Hearne at Anomaly Con, our local steampunk convention here in Denver. He’s a nice guy, and I had never seen his work before. They had it in the bookstore, where I was seduced by this cover. Isn’t it gorgeous?

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Grouchy Cat: It’s not too heavy, in any case. That’s a plus.

Me: I agree! It was a solid, well written story that didn’t suffer from too much angst and unnecessary drama. At my age, I found that refreshing.

GC: At my age, I find naps refreshing. Can we get back to naps?

Me: My favorite thing was how it was a very masculine story, but wasn’t toxically masculine. The hero was battle ready, but not violence prone. He was lustful without being rapey, respectful of women without pulling his punches when they were needed. And the lady characters are just as much fun to read! What was your favorite thing?

GC: You got the paperback, so the corners are tasty, but not too chewy.

Me: …Okay, what was your least favorite thing?

GC: Dogs. So many dogs.

Me: Well, the hero does have a dog, it’s true. He’s one of the best characters in the book, and helps to bring a lot of the humor that enlivens this tale.

GC: Ugh.

Me: I liked the world building too. The juxtaposition of various ancient pantheons in our modern day world, gods and goddesses with their own agenda, our hero caught in between. If it were a video game, the main character might seem to start off overpowered, but then you find out that many of his opponents are gods!

GC: Are we done?

Me: I’ve read the second book in the series too, and I’ll definitely buy the rest. I highly recommend these, for a great action series with plenty of variety, humor, history and fun. It’s well plotted, the characters are well drawn, and the laughs are sometimes blissfully unexpected. Warning: there are some really, really awful puns.

GC: And way too many dogs. We’re done? Good. Now naps.

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Finding Your Voice

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What do people even mean when they refer to your author voice?

Often, beginning authors receive critiques like: “Once you find your voice, you can start writing better books.” Or “you have to find your voice before you can start a long series.” How is author voice different from character voice?

Character voice is giving each of your main characters an individual, distinctive way of speaking and thinking that makes them stand apart from other characters, and hopefully makes them interesting. But an author’s own voice encompasses all that, rather than simply being another voice. It’s what makes the author’s work uniquely their own, a signature way of putting words together that no one else has. It’s what elevates writing from simply putting together existing things to an art form.

How do you work toward that, how do you find it, how do you know when you’ve found it?

Like any other skill, developing it is a long process of work, practice and feedback. It’s perfectly fine to begin by imitating other writers – their styles, their plotlines, even their characters. You’ll find, as you write story after story, that certain things keep happening, for good or ill. Some of them will be things your beta readers don’t like; some will be qualities unique to your work that people really do like. Take joy in them all. Your flaws as much as your skills will ultimately come together and coalesce into your unique voice.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix your errors, or listen to critique, or try to improve. But those stubborn things that keep coming back and back just might be part of your individual style, and can be turned to your advantage. Learning to use your flaws as tools, as much as your skills, is a way to find and grow confident in your voice.

How do you know when you’re there? When you no longer have to ask this question, because you’ve been doing this so long you already know the answer.

Why Does My Editor Want Fewer Characters?

imageThe guidelines: keep head hopping to a minimum; collapse characters that could do the same job into one; as few viewpoint/main characters as possible; don’t introduce viewpoint/main characters very late in the story, such as in the third act. But why are these important guidelines?

To write a novel is to guide your readers through an emotional experience. You want to do so as smoothly as possible, using every tool in your possession to keep them on the track you want them to be on, emotionally. One of the primary tools for doing so is characters.

Each character that is important has their own journey to go on, and the reader is following them, their guide on that emotional experience ride. If there are too many guides, the reader will be going in too many directions; if they start showing up just when the ride is getting really exciting, pulling the reader in different directions, things will be very bumpy and they may even be thrown entirely out of the park.

There are many guidelines that editors and writing advice books will offer you, and frequently you’ll say “But my favorite novels throw that guideline right out the window!” You’re probably right. That’s why I try not to refer to them as rules. But here’s the thing: your favorite novels? The author has almost certainly broken only a few of those guidelines, and for a really good reason and – this is important – with great skill and ability. New authors tend to flail about, ignore the rules, smash together whatever they’ve seen work well in other novels, without a strong understanding of why that broken guideline worked so well in that novel. And without understanding that breaking them all is simply going to lose readers’ attention.

It’s not that the guidelines should be unbreakable, even for new writers. But to learn when to break them mindfully, knowing what you’re doing, you first need to follow the guidelines, understand them, internalize them, accept why they work. Only then can you tamper with them.

The Value of Rethinking

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I sometimes find that I don’t want to do something. Say, eating pickles. Okay, bad example. I always don’t want to eat pickles. But let’s take it for example nevertheless. Say that one time I refuse the pickles in the presence of my mom, who might have made the pickles by hand, herself. She protests, because she’s my mom, and I have to defend my choice.

“Well, I never like pickles. They’re sour. I can’t think of a single pickled thing I like.” Subtext: it’s me, not you. It’s not that I don’t like your pickles, it’s that I don’t like any pickles.

Next thing you know, I pass the pickles by on the grocery store aisle, and eventually it’s a settled thing: I don’t like pickles.

Do you do this in your fiction? I don’t write romance. I don’t read nonfiction. I don’t write in first person. Maybe because it seemed hard at the time, or you just haven’t tried it, or you feel some faint desire to defend a genre choice or a type of character.

Every time you bump up against something like that, be mindful. Realize what you’re doing and consider whether you REALLY don’t like pickles, or whether you just haven’t tried them in a long while. It might be worth your time to give that genre a chance, or try a different author who writes in first person. It might even be worth your time to try it yourself.

Sometimes it turns out you liked the green squishy things better than you thought.

Five Great Revision Methods

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Get All the Feedback

If you have beta readers, a critique group and/or a content editor, make use of them! Get their comments on what worked for them and what didn’t. Then remember that while they collectively might be able to point out WHERE there’s a problem, their ideas for HOW to fix it may not align with yours. Then dive in!

 

Wait For It

The moments after your draft is completed may the the worst time to dive in and fix it. It’s often best to take some time, turn your mind to other stories, write something else, don’t write at all for a while. Leave that thing in a drawer until you’re less emotionally connected to it. When you no longer NEED it to be amazing, then you can start making it amazing.

 

Rewrite

Some folks prefer to actually rewrite the entire novel from start to finish. Now, you don’t have to go crazy – it’s perfectly fine to put the documents next to each other in two windows and do some cutting and pasting as well as reworking. But this method lets you focus on whether you really needed that scene, and on what genuinely needs rewriting as opposed to just tweaking.

 

Three Hats

As an editor, I have three modes of thinking that I use when reading an author’s work, and you can apply these to revising your own. I put on my content editor hat, and I’m looking at the overall plot structure, the character arcs, the logistics, the big picture. In my line editor hat, I’m looking at character voice, word choice, sentence structure, dialogue tags, and so forth. And finally, in my proofreader hat, I’m paying attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, consistency. Trying to revise all three at once would be exhausting, so I make at least three passes!

 

Read Out Loud

Now that you’ve been through your novel multiple times, you’re familiar with where the trouble spots are. Read those parts out loud, if not the whole thing. Reading it out loud forces your brain into a different way of looking at it – you’re literally using different parts of your brain when you hear it than when you read it. This helps enormously to make your character voice work, your dialogue better and your sentence structure more straightforward.

Sequelitis: The Series Killer

It’s happened to so many of our favorites. I won’t name names, but we’ve all read an epic fantasy series or a long line of urban fantasy novels and thought, Gee… The first three were so much better. It happens with movie franchises, television series, with anything that comes with a long list of sequels. Sometimes a multi-season show, or a multi-book series, continues to work for us. Sometimes we just stay with it for the fanservice, but not always. But it used to be a truism that the natural state of a series of novels was three: the trilogy. More was pushing it.

What factors in a series make it less interesting or exciting to read after the second or third book comes out?

One thing I see frequently is characters who start with a fascinating range of problems, but then they solve them, and gain power and insight, sometimes in the form of magic or technology now at their disposal, sometimes merely in wisdom. That’s fine – what you want for your characters – except that suddenly the author either has to cook up bigger and bigger problems, bad guys or whatever to compensate for the increased abilities of the protagonists (looking at you, comic book franchises). This happens in video games sometimes, where the protagonist becomes overpowered, or collects an OP weapon or ability, and suddenly the challenge is gone.

The opposite problem also exists. If your protagonists solve their problems, but the cost is so great that it’s much more difficult for them to solve the next ones, and by the fourth book they’re limping on the shreds of their abilities and the whole thing just becomes massively grim – well, you’re probably going to lose me. We want to see our protagonists suffer and learn, but not be beaten down into the emotionally broken remnants of their former selves, still somehow struggling against their fate.

Repetition can also be deadly. If your characters are facing problems that are way, way too similar to the ones they faced before, it just looks lazy.

Often, the problem is that the first novel is mostly world building and character development and team building, with a little story wrapped around it, and the second novel is a story wherein the characters use all that world and team they’ve built, and then by the third novel, the author has no idea what else to do.

But take heart. If you look at series that did it right, you’ll find they are many and varied. Usually, the author has the characters learn and grow and increase their abilities – but then the ground shifts under them and the problem is a whole different thing this time. Or teams break up and reshuffle, or bad guys learn from their mistakes and turn into good guys and everyone has to deal with the consequences of their actions and their trust issues. Or the whole setting changes, bringing a new host of issues. Or the rules change. Or…

Shake it up, authors. Don’t get caught in traps of letting your characters have too much power to keep their obstacles relevant, just because you like them and so do your readers. Don’t fail to consider the consequences of success, as well as the consequences of failure. Sequelitis can be overcome!