Friday, October 29, 2010

A Brief Lesson in Scene Writing

Raymond Carver said, “There are significant moments in everyone's day that can make literature. That's what you ought to write about."

Do your scenes captivate the reader? Are your scenes memorable? Do you weave your scenes so that they move your story forward?

A scene is written so that it seems to occur in real time as if the reader were watching and listening to it happen. It's built on talk and action and is dramatized, not described or summarized (although exposition and description exists along with action). Each scene has specific reason for occurring at the point in the story -- something needs to be proven, established, or revealed. A scene exists to enrich or reveal characters, provides information about the plot, and pushes the plot forward.

A scene contains:
• a distinct time and place
• a specific conflict
• the main character wants something
• emotional reversal
• TIP: Include a good dialogue (if necessary), tension, reactions to what is taking place or being said, movement, gestures. Try ending scenes at a cliffhanger moment or high note.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Who’s Counting?

Do you worry about word count when you write? I usually don’t, unless I’m entering a contest where the word limit is enforced. A long time ago, one of my fellow writers asked me what the word limit for children’s books was. I didn’t have an answer at that time. So I did some research and found these guidelines in the Writer’s Digest.

Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won't scare off any agent anywhere.

Now, speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. That is the total range. When it dips below 80K, it might be perceived as too short—not giving the reader enough. It seems as though going over 100K is all right, but not by much. I suggest stopping at 109K because just the mental hurdle to jump concerning 110K is just another thing you don't want going against you. And, as agent Rachelle Gardner pointed out when discussing word count, over 110K is defined as "epic or saga." Chances are your cozy mystery or literary novel is not an epic. Rachelle also mentions that passing 100K in word count means it's a more expensive book to produce—hence agents' and editors' aversion to such lengths.

In short:
80,000 - 89,999: Totally cool
90,000 - 99,999: Generally safe
70,000 - 79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 - 109,999: Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000: Too short
110,000 or above Too long
Chick lit falls into this realm, but chick lit books tend to be a bit shorter and faster. 70-75K is not bad at all.

Science fiction and fantasy are the big exceptions because these categories tend to run long. It has to do with all the descriptions and world-building in the writing.

With these genres, I would say 100,000 - 115,000 is an excellent range. It's six-figures long, but not real long. The thing is: Writers tend to know that these categories run long so they make them run really long and hurt their chances. There's nothing wrong with keeping it short (say, 105K) in these areas. It shows that you can whittle your work down.

Outside of that, I would say 90K-100K is most likely all right, and 115-124K is probably all right, too. That said, try to keep it in the ideal range.

Middle grade is from 20,000 - 45,000, depending on the subject matter and age range. When writing a longer book that is aimed at 12-year-olds (and could maybe be considered "tween"), using the term "upper middle grade" is advisable. With upper middle grade, you can aim for 32,000 - 40,000 words. These are books that resemble young adult in matter and storytelling, but still tend to stick to MG themes and avoid hot-button, YA-acceptable themes such as sex, drugs and rock & roll. You can stray a little over here but not much.

With a simpler middle grade idea (Football Hero or Jenny Jones and the Cupcake Mystery), aim lower. Shoot for 20,000 - 30,000 words.

Perhaps more than any other, YA is the one category where word count is very flexible.
For starters, 55,000 - 69,999 is a great range.
The word round the agent blogosphere is that these books tend to trending longer, saying that you can top in the 80Ks. However, this progression is still in motion and, personally, I'm not sure about this. I would say you're playing with fire the higher you go. When it gets into the 70s, you may be all right—but you have to have a reason for going that high. Again, higher word counts usually mean that the writer does not know how to edit themselves.

A good reason to have a longer YA novel that tops out at the high end of the scale is if it's science fiction or fantasy. Once again, these categories are expected to be a little longer because of the world-building.

Concerning the low end, below 55K could be all right but I wouldn't drop much below about 47K.

The standard is text for 32 pages. That might mean one line per page, or more. 500-600 words is a good number to aim for. When it gets closer to 1,000, editors and agents may shy away.

Memoir is the same as a novel and that means you're aiming for 80,000-89,999. However, keep in mind when we talked about how people don't know how to edit their work. This is specially true in memoir, I've found, because people tend to write everything about their life—because it all really happened.

Coming in a bit low (70-79K) is not a terrible thing, as it shows you know how to focus on the most interesting parts of your life and avoid a Bill-Clinton-esque tome-length book. At the same time, you may want to consider the high end of memoir at 99,999. Again, it's a mental thing seeing a six-figure length memoir.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Character We All Love to Hate

Who says villains only belong in mystery thrillers? Remember Mr. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights? He’s the type of character we love to hate. He was not your typical villain but he had some rogue traits (for some he's the Byronic hero, for some the hero, take your pick). Your villain can be smooth or despicable or both. This character can be anything…he/she just has to be credible. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers: create believable characters.

Hallie Ephron says, “Create a villain that captures the imagination of your readers and challenges your main character throughout your novel by using these three techniques.” On July 12, 2010, the Writer’s Digest published Ephron’s article titled “3 Techniques for Crafting a Better Villain”.

Some writers know right from the get-go which character is guilty. They start with the completed puzzle and work their way backward, shaping the story pieces and fitting them together. Others happily write without knowing whodunit until the scene when the villain is actually unmasked. Then they rewrite, cleaning up the trail of red herrings and establishing the clues that make the solution work. Thus, having a plan up front can save a whole lot of rewriting in what should be the home stretch.

You can’t just throw all your suspects’ names into a bowl and pick one to be your villain. For your novel to work, the villain must be special. Your sleuth deserves a worthy adversary—a smart, wily, dangerous creature who tests your protagonist’s courage and prowess. Stupid, bumbling characters are good for comic relief, but they make lousy villains. The smarter, more invincible the villain, the harder your protagonist must work to find his vulnerability and the greater the achievement in bringing him to justice.

Must the villain be loathsome? Not at all. He can be chilling but charming, like Hannibal Lecter. Thoroughly evil? It’s better when the reader can muster a little sympathy for a complex, realistic character who feels her crimes are justified.

So, in planning, try to wrap your arms around why your villain does what he does. What motivates him to kill? Consider the standard motives like greed, jealousy or hatred. Then go a step further. Get inside your villain’s head and see the crime from his perspective. What looks to law enforcement like a murder motivated by greed may, to the perpetrator, be an act in the service of a noble, even heroic cause.

Here’s how a villain might justify a crime:
• Righting a prior wrong
• Revenge (the victim deserved to die)
• Vigilante justice (the justice system didn’t work)
• Protecting a loved one
• Restoring order to the world.

Finally, think about what happened to make that character the way she is. Was she born bad, or turned sour as a result of some early experience? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If she can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know. By understanding how the villain justifies the crimes to himself, and what events in his life triggered these crimes, you give yourself the material you need to get past a black-hatted caricature and paint your villain in shades of gray.

There are many ways to kill off a character. You can have him shot, stabbed, poisoned or pushed off a cliff. You can have him run over by a car or bashed in the head with a fireplace poker. You get the picture.

The first issue to consider is: Would your villain have the expertise and capability to commit this particular crime you’ve conceived for him?

Here’s an example: Suppose there’s a novel about a surgeon who, up to Page 302, has been the soul of buttoned-down respectability. Suddenly, on Page 303, he leaps from a hospital laundry bin and mows down his rival for hospital director with machine-gun fire. Never mind that up to this point in the novel the guy has done nothing more than attend board meetings, get drunk and obnoxious at a cocktail party, and perform heart surgery. Now suddenly he’s The Terminator? The behavior doesn’t fit the character. If he stabbed, poisoned or pushed his rival off the hospital roof, the reader might swallow it. The author might get away (barely) with the shooting if hints were dropped earlier that this surgeon once served in military special forces.

Choose a modus operandi that your villain (and all your suspects) might plausibly adopt, and establish that your villain has the capability and expertise required. A murder by strangling, stabbing or beating is more plausible if your villain is strong and has a history of physical violence. If your villain plants an electronically activated plastic explosive device, be prepared to show how he learned to make a sophisticated bomb and how he got access to the components. If a woman shoots her husband with a .45 automatic, be prepared to show how she learned to use firearms and that she’s strong enough to handle the recoil of a .45.

The second issue to consider: Is the rage factor appropriate for the character’s motivation? The more extreme the violence, the more likely the crime is to be fueled by hatred and rage. A robber shoots a victim once; an enraged husband pumps bullets into the man who raped his wife until the ammunition runs out. A villain may administer a quick-working deadly poison to a victim he wants out of the way, but a villain who loathes his victim might pick a poison that’s slow and painful—and hang around to watch.
Adjust the violence quotient to match the amount of rage your villain has toward her victim.

Do you create likeable or despicable villains?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Top 10 Productivity Pitfalls for Writers to Avoid

Happy Friday, fellow bloggers!
I hope you had a productive writing week. Today I'm recycling a helpful article I found from Pushcart Prize nominee, author and poet, Sage Cohen. She writes the following:

When you find time to write, you want to make sure you’re making the most of whatever time you have. With that in mind, here are Sage Cohen's productivity pitfalls you should avoid.

The top 10 productivity pitfalls you should avoid:
1. Unclear big-picture vision. Without an idea of where you’re headed, it will be impossible to set realistic goals and measure your progress along the way.
2. Lack of short-term goals. You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Knowing your daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals (both practical and aspirational) can help you keep moving in the right direction.
3. Fear. Risk is the hinge on which productivity turns; if we aren’t in danger of failing, we aren’t growing. When we let fear prevent us from taking steps that could bring our writing dreams closer, we limit our opportunities to succeed.
4. Trying to force productivity. Understanding your writing rhythms and honoring them is the key to finding and sustaining a flow you can count on.
5. Shabby systems. If you can’t find the latest draft of your essay, can’t keep track of what you’ve pitched and to whom, and don’t remember that great idea you had last week, you’re limiting yourself needlessly.
6. Lack of awareness about time: If you’re not aware of how you’re spending time, what your time is worth, how you might devote more time to writing, or what you intend to accomplish in each chunk of writing time you do have, you’re not maximizing this most precious resource.
7. Transition turbulence. Work to establish rhythms for everything from sitting down to the blank page to completing a writing session, so that shifts from one project to the next don’t leave you in a lull.
8. Perfectionism. If you wait for your work to be perfect, it (and you) may never leave your desk. Focus, instead, on professionalism—doing the best you can, learning along the way, and understanding that mistakes and failures feed every success.
9. Isolation. Without a social, professional and community context, we’re far more likely to get discouraged, lose our way and miss out on opportunities.
10. Negativity. It’s easy to focus on the negative in writing and in life. But when we turn our attention to what’s working and what we appreciate from moment to moment, our sails turn into the wind.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Versatile Blogger

Another blog award, yaayyy!!! I can easily get used to this. ;)
Thank you to my fellow blogger, Joanna St. James who blogs at Joanna St. James-Bionic Writer. She was kind to pass on the torch to me.

Now, I'm supposed to follow some rules when accepting this award.

Award Rules:

1. Thank the person who gave you this award and provide a link to their blog
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 5 other bloggers whom you have recently discovered and whose blogs you think are fantastically versatile/ resourceful/functional/adaptable.
4. Contact those bloggers you’ve picked and let them know about their award.

Seven things about myself:
1) I love writing short stories.
2) I would love to appear in either The Colbert Report or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about my book (when it gets published, of course).  :))
3) I have a great sense of humor (even though my blog is kind of serious).
4) I am a vegetarian.
5) I love animals.
6) I love traveling.
7) I still believe in the goodness of humanity (in spite of what I see in the news).

The Five Recipients of the Versatile Blogger Award are:
1) Sharon Mayhew at Random Thoughts
2) Doris Plaster at Hold my Hand
3) Cathy Bueti at Artsy Butterfly
4) Old Kitty at Ten Lives and Second Chances
5) Kelly Howarth at One Word Pundit

There are so many wonderful blogs out there but I can only list five. Next time!
In the meantime, please visit these wonderful and inspiring blogs. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Choosing a Point of View

How do you know which POV works best for your story?

I’m revisiting four short stories I wrote a while ago. I thought they only needed a little tweaking. Boy was I wrong! I asked my mentor to read them and give me his overall impressions. Although they're somewhat tight, he said they could be tighter if I change the POV of two of my stories.

He said, “When it comes to POV, it all depends on what you're trying to do with your story. If your story relies on bringing out the internal states of a character, how that character is feeling, what she is thinking, etc., then a first-person POV usually works best. If the story depends on a more objective outlook and/or on more than one character's way of looking at and doing things, then a third-person POV (omniscient) is usually best.”

When you begin to write a story, whether a short story or a novel, you first need to know from which point of view the story will be told. You can always change this once the story is written or just doesn’t work out the way you had intended, but it’s best to plan from the beginning.

No set rule for points of view applies when writing. A writer usually sticks to the POV that feels comfortable. If you are a beginning writer, try writing several paragraphs, including dialogue, from each POV. You will know immediately what feels right for your way of storytelling.

Have you experienced POV confusion? Do you know from the get go which POV will work best for your story or novel?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Word on the Street

On September 26, 2010, I attended the 21st Word on the Street Book and Magazine Festival in Toronto, the largest festival of its kind in Canada. Every year the festival showcases the best in Canadian writing, while offering diversity for every literary taste. This year the festival, which took place in Queen’s Park, added three new publishing houses: Random House of Canada Ltd. with McClelland & Stewart, and Penguin Group (Canada).

The festival invited special guests such as best-selling Canadian author and Man Booker Prize winner, Yann Martel (Life of Pi). He was the festival headliner on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Bestseller Stage to present his newest novel, Beatrice & Virgil.

The tents were crowded with people of every age and nationality. I volunteered at the Guernica Editions tent. This Toronto-based publishing house publishes books in English, French, and Italian. Guernica publishes poetry, anthologies of short stories, essays, and literary fiction. I couldn’t resist, so I bought seven books at amazing prices. It was a pleasure meeting a couple of authors who have published with Guernica Editions. Poet Karen Shenfeld is launching her latest book, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, on October 17, 2010, and Elana Wolff’s recent collection of short essays on contemporary poems, titled Implicate Me, was released this year.

Many book aficionados came to the Guernica tent because they knew Karen and Elana, having read their work.

Being surrounded by books, authors, and nature on a sunny autumn day was a wonderful experience!