Archive for the ‘Discussion’ Category

Common Writing Mistakes: Starting in the Wrong Place

Trucking right along, squiders.

(As an aside, Pinterest now allows you to create sub-boards, so I spent a lot of yesterday organizing my most problematic board, unhelpfully called “Your Pinterest Likes” and left over from when you could like pins. I, unfortunately, would both like and pin some pins, which has resulted in a lot of duplicates across boards, but I have gotten it straightened out now. Bwhaha. I wonder how the sub-boards affect the feeds of anyone who follows your boards. Anybody know?)

Now that we’re into story mechanics issues, let’s talk about what might be the most common issue of all: starting your story in the wrong place.

This is ridiculously easy to do. You can start too early. You can start too late. You can pick the wrong character to focus on, or have them do something completely useless in relation to the rest of the plot.

And the most annoying thing is that, a lot of the time, it’s not obvious that you’re starting wrong until the rest of the book is written.

Stemming from this issue is that starting in the wrong place can make it hard to get the rest of the story to flow, which means that you might languish at the beginning of the story, trying to beat it into submission.

Has that happened to you? You just can’t seem to get going because something’s obviously wrong.

(Ask me how many times I rewrote the beginning of my fantasy trilogy before I found a workable beginning spot. I dare you.)

Starting Too Early

This may be the most common of this common mistake. Your character does things, sometimes for chapters, before the story manages to get going. Some people will argue that you have to show what’s at stake for the character to lose before you have them lose it, but this can be done without three chapters of watching someone go through the daily routine.

Starting Too Late

You can get away with starting in the middle of the action, or even working backwards from a later plot point. You can even show a lot of earlier story through conventions such as flashbacks. But you can start too late, and if that information doesn’t come out in a timely fashion, then it feels like you’ve walked into a movie five minutes too late and are missing key information for the rest of the story.

Starting with the Wrong Character

Even if you have multiple viewpoints, there is still usually a “main” character, someone whose stakes are higher, someone who has a bigger journey to go through, to get through the completion of the book. You don’t always have to start with your main character, but realize that readers tend to bond with the first character in a book unless something is obviously a one off (a prologue, or a chapter from a murder victim’s point of view, for example). There also can be the problem of you trying to focus on the wrong character in general, and changing to a different character might make the story work better.

Starting with Useless Actions

Every scene counts in a story. It has to explore characterization, or move the plot along, or introduce new information, or some combination thereof. Yet many authors make the mistake of starting with something that does none of the above, such as going through their character’s daily routine. Can you have their daily routine mean something? Of course. But you do have to be purposeful with your intent. Even an exciting scene, such as a character getting carjacked, is useless if it doesn’t provide something larger to the story.

So, how do you fix this? Look at the story you’re trying to tell. Are you trying to stuff too much in the beginning? Are you leaving out key information? How does your opening scene work with your intended plot?

Some people recommend thinking about where you want the story to end instead, or even writing the ending first. By knowing where the story needs to go, it can help you understand what’s necessary to have it start.

What do you think, squiders? Other ways beginnings are wrong? Ways to fix them?

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Common Writing Mistakes: Pacing and Plot Flow

Back to it, squiders!

Also, a reminder that we’ll discuss Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead next Thursday, if you’re planning on reading that along with me. (Have you been reading it? Once again we have a future where all the scientists are men and who knows what the women are doing with themselves. It’s pretty sad in ’60s-era scifi, but this is mid ’80s and he should know better.)

(Also, I kind of want to punch the main character in the face, but we’ll get to that next week.)

Today we’re going to talk about issues with pacing and plot flow. Pacing is the speed of your story, and everything affects it, from how often you hit your plot points to your dialogue, your description, and even the length of your sentences. Plot flow is related, but is essentially the order your plot happens in and whether or not things make sense.

Have you ever read a book where you realize you’re halfway through and nothing’s happened? Or where things happen so quickly you’re exhausted just thinking about it? These are pacing issues.

The range of what is acceptable for pacing varies widely, with some genres tending to be faster (a lot of thrillers, for example) and others slower (romance). Some readers are willing to accept a slower or faster story pace than general as well, so you may find that some of your readers are fine with your pace while others are yelling at the book.

Pacing is a hard thing to work on. To some extent it’s instinctual, and it can help to read books to use as an example. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get pacing to work better is to make sure you’re hitting key plot points when you’re supposed to. Too spread out, or lacking them early in the book, and your pacing is too slow. Too close together or bunched in weird places, and you get other problems.

Plot flow is directly related to pacing in that if your flow is messed up, your pacing is probably also messed up, and vice versa. If you have five things happen within a chapter and then another five chapters pass before anything else of note occurs, well.

But plot flow issues can also include what’s happening, and in what order. Is your character learning things before they should? Are they doing things and then doing them again because you forgot they’ve already been there, done that? Are you skipping key scenes that will help explain what’s happening? Are you forcing things to happen because you feel like they have to, not because they flow organically?

Plot flow issues can be hard to see while you’re writing as well. Some are obvious, such as when you get your character into a situation with no way out except some deus ex machina that stretches disbelief. But it might not be until you start getting feedback from your betas that you realize that you never showed your characters falling in love.

Perhaps the best way to avoid plot flow issues is to outline. If you know how your story is supposed to go, and what steps you need to go through to get there, it’s harder for things to sneak in (or get left out).

(See posts about outlining for more information on the subject.)

Thoughts about pacing and plot flow, Squiders?

Another nonfic post on Tuesday, and then the Dream Thief on Thursday. I hope everyone has a lovely weekend!

Star Trek Discovery, Mid-Season

Back in October, we talked a bit about Star Trek Discovery, which was fairly new at that point. And I think I spent most of the post complaining about CBS Access, actually.

(We have managed to get several free months out of CBS Access now, so I’m a little less grumpy about the whole situation, though it is still stupid and we had to buy my MIL a Roku for Christmas so she could watch the show.)

Discovery had 9 episodes in the fall, then went on a mid-season break, and started back up this past Sunday with the second half of the season.

(I have Feelings about Sunday’s episode. Most of them fall into the “sdfhkesfhsfhddf amazing” category but I am also REALLY MAD about one little part so I haven’t been the best conversationalist on the topic.)

So, now that we’re further into the series and the show is more established, how do I feel about it?

I love it. I unabashedly love it. Have there been some less than stellar episodes? Yes. Are there some characters that I don’t like that much? Yes. But that’s television.

(Stamets is no longer a no-go for me, but I still don’t like him as much as I want to like him.)

(Tilly, however, I ♥.)

The acting is great, the writing is good, the throwbacks to the original series and even Enterprise make me happy, and for whatever flaws you want to point out (mileage on that seems to vary person to person), the story is interesting and engaging. It is good television. And it is good Star Trek.

(Though I am sad that it is too adult in content to be able to watch with my kids. Most episodes are rated TV-MA, and it does get dark and scary in some places. But I can still watch TOS and TNG with my kids when they are willing to sit down and watch Trek with me, which, to be honest, is not often.)

(Though we did watch this very interesting Next Gen ep the other day that I don’t remember, about a Romulan who comes to the Enterprise with information, fully intending to betray the Empire to help avert a war, but the Empire has fed him false information so he basically just proved he was a traitor and the Federation got nothing useful.)

(I ♥ Romulans.)

The new plotline that started up on Sunday is amazing and I wish I could gush about it more without revealing major spoilers. I’m super excited about this week’s episode.

So if you’ve been holding out on watching Discovery for any reason, I’d say go for it. As I said last time, it takes a few episodes to get the shakes out, but man, it is so worth it. You should catch up now, so we can flail about the next few episodes together, because they promise to be doozies.

Watching Discovery already, Squiders? Thoughts? Captain Killy, amirite?

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 2)

Sorry it’s a bit late, squiders! Also, I haven’t started wrapping Christmas presents yet and aaaaaahhhhhhhh

So, last week we talked about common issues with Point of View, and today we’re going to be looking at a specific, sneaky issue known as filtering. We talked briefly about filter words a few weeks ago, which is a related issue.

Filtering is when you add something unnecessary that adds a layer between the reader and your chosen point of view. This is mostly an issue in first or third limited point of views, when you’re directly following a single character at a time.

Filtering is also extremely subtle. As I mentioned last week, this is something I learned about this year. I belong to a specfic message board that does critique marathons twice a year. You submit a chapter each week for others to critique and then return critiques so everyone gets something useful out of it.

And one of the other critiquers pointed out a few aspects of filtering in the chapter I submitted. And I learned something new, and it was amazing.

Filtering normally comes about around what a character is thinking or feeling. When in first or third limited, you are essentially in one character’s head along with them. Here is an example of filtering:

She thought that perhaps he was cheating on her.

Do you see it?

It’s the “thought.”

Here’s another example.

I felt my stomach churn as I watched her walk away.

Here it’s “felt.” And the “watched,” actually.

Do you see the filter? When you’re sad, do you think “I am sad”? No. You just feel sad. Tears form in the corners of your eyes. Your heart sinks. Things happen. The same thing with characters. By adding words like “think,” “feel”, and “seem,” you take an action out of its immediacy and add a level of detachment.

Here are the examples without the filtering (be aware that there are multiple ways to fix these, and this is just one):

Was he cheating on her?

My stomach churned as she walked away.

Most filters are set up by mental verbs: think, feel, seem, wonder, decide, know, realize, etc. These are all things people do, but it’s not something they think about as they do them. And it’s really easy to have these instances sneak into your writing. It still happens to me all the time. But knowing what you’re looking for can help you edit these instances out later, or become aware when you’re writing.

That being said, it’s still okay to use filter words occasionally. In dialogue, of course. For clarity or understanding, if the sense is important to the meaning of the sentence. And sometimes, there’s just no other good way to put something.

Clear as mud, squiders? Thoughts about catching filtering in the writing stage without completely ruining your flow?

In other news, I’m reading Ready Player One (because the preview for the movie showed in front of both Thor: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi and it looked pretty awesome) and loving it. I know I’m several years behind the times, but that’s how it goes. Feel free to share your thoughts on that too, but no spoilers, please, since I’m still a little less than halfway through.

 

Library Book Sale Finds: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Hey, look, squiders! I actually picked a scifi novel out of the bunch for once!

(Well, in actuality, I was talking to my grandmother about Connie Willis and the Oxford time travel novels because I’d seen Connie at MileHiCon and I’m a bit of a fangirl about her. And the next time I went by, my grandmother was reading The Doomsday Book and I was like, “Hey, I have that book and I should read it and then we can talk.” Except, of course, my grandmother is 95 and has nothing to do except read all day, so she was done in about four days and it took me three weeks, and she’s probably read four other books by now.)

Title: The Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Year: 1992

Pros: Excellent twists mid-book, Colin, Mr. Dunworthy, Kirvin trying to speak Middle English
Cons: Drags a bit for first third of book

Let’s talk for a minute about the Oxford time travel books. There’s four novels and one novella in the series, and now I’ve read them all except for the novella, though Connie has it nicely available on her website, so I can get there shortly. (All five entries won Hugo awards, if you care about that sort of thing.) The premise is that sometime in the mid-2000s or 2100s (the Internet is telling me both and I can’t recall which is correct off the top of my head) time travel was invented. However, you can’t bring things through time, so commercial interest quickly died off and time travel became the realm of academics, “historians” who travel back in time to observe how life worked or important events, etc. There is some amount of “slippage” based on how far you’re traveling and how close you are to milestone events (which tend to be unreachable directly).

The Doomsday Book is the first of the series, published in 1992. (The novella, Fire Watch, is technically first, being published in 1983. Then there’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, 1999, and the duology of Blackout/All Clear from 2010.) I will say that time travel is more of a frame story, and most of the novels tend to be historical in nature. Blackout/All Clear is a brilliant WWII story within the trappings of time travel (which mostly doesn’t work throughout for Drama), for example. (To Say Nothing of the Dog is not as historical as the others. That’s not to say that there’s not historical elements–Ned and Verity spend a lot of time in WWII era–but it’s not the focus. It’s much more of a farcical/romantic comedy.)

The Doomsday Book is a play on the Domesday Book (pronounced the same way), which was produced by William the Conqueror in 1086 to take stock of the land and ownership thereof in England after the invasion. The Medieval department has just gotten access to the “Net” (the process that time travel works through) and are taking advantage of the history department head being MIA to send their first historian back to 1320. The 1300s have a danger rating of 10 (because of things like the Black Plague) so they’re supposed to go through a bunch of tests before sending people, but screw that. Nothing can go wrong, right? 20th century has been sending people forever.

Of course, things go wrong.

Like most of the series, the book switches between “modern day” Oxford and the historian (Kirvin, in this case) in the past. (To Say Nothing of the Dog stays in Ned’s point of view throughout, if I recall correctly, but he’s going back and forth through time so often that he can carry both time periods on his own.) An interesting mechanic of the time travel is that time is equivalent. So if you want to spend a week in 1918, for example, a week has to pass in the current time as well before you can be picked back up. This makes missing your “drop” a big deal as you can’t just go back and try again.

There are some comedic elements, such as when Kirvin realizes basically everything she learned about the time period is incorrect (and her attempts to understand and speak Middle English) and the general snarkiness of Mr. Dunworthy’s thoughts (he’s our viewpoint character in the “present” day) and Colin in general. (I ♥ Colin, and he’ll be back in Blackout/All Clear.) But this book is closer in tone to Blackout/All Clear, more serious, and it doesn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of the time period.

(Seriously, though, if you haven’t read Blackout/All Clear I highly recommend it. It’s long–1300 pages between the two books, but it’s one of those books you read and are awed by.)

(Not great for re-readability, though.)

Overall, it’s a good book, especially once it gets moving about a third of the way through, though I like the later books in the series better. It’s always nice to see reoccurring characters (Mr. Dunworthy is a constant throughout all the books) again, and the comedy is spot-on when it’s present. I’d recommend it, especially if the series sounds interesting to you.

Back Thursday for more common writing mistakes.

Read any of the Oxford time travel series, Squiders? Thoughts? Which one is your favorite?

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 1)

Happy Thursday, squiders! I’m doing #SFFPit over on Twitter today, so if you follow me there I apologize for the amount of pitch tweets you may or may not be seeing.

Before we get going, I just want to talk briefly about filtering. This is something I didn’t know about, or least didn’t have a name for, until earlier this year. Someone read my first chapter for me and pointed out a couple of instances. Just to show you that there are always new things to learn.

Anyway, on to it!

First off, to review, your point of view is, according to Google’s dictionary, “the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” In almost all cases, this will be either first or third person.

If you get confused, I like to compare it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “person” in this case refers to how close the reader is to the narrator. In a first person narrative, the reader is directly in the narrator’s head. First person point of views are characterized by using “I,” “me,” and associated words when referring to the character.

Example: I realized that, once again, I was cutting my blog writing close. I would need to leave soon or I would be late.

Third person is more distant, and the character is referred to by their name and the appropriate “he,” “she,” “it,” etc. words.

Example: Kit realized that, once again, she was cutting her blog writing close. She would need to leave soon or she would be late.

Third can be further broken down into limited and omniscient viewpoints. With third person limited you’re in a single character’s head at a time, going along with them, hearing their thoughts and experiencing their feelings. It’s similar to first person, but a step away. Third person omniscient is like you’re in a hot air balloon looking down on what’s happening. You can see what a bunch of people are doing at once. Some people also make a distinction between omniscient and what can be called third person objective. In an omniscient point of view, like a god, the narrator knows what everybody is thinking or feeling. In an objective, they don’t.

Understanding and sticking with your chosen point of view can be hugely helpful in solving a ton of issues.

(NOTE: Second person is rarely used, but you may see it occasionally. In second person, the narrator is talking to “you.” Example: You are reading this blog post. You may or may not realize that this post is late.)

Issue #1: Not sticking with your point of view

It is surprisingly easy to slip out of your chosen point of view. Your character can suddenly know something they shouldn’t, for example.

Perhaps the easiest and most common way people slip out of their point of view is by “head-hopping.” This is where you jump from your viewpoint character’s head into another character’s head. In an omniscient third viewpoint, you can get away with this (provided you are using omniscient properly), but in every other viewpoint it is jarring.

Example: Jane bit her lip, watching Jared walk away. God, how she hated to watch him leave, despite the great view. How could he leave her like this?

Jared looked back over his shoulder. Jane looked like she might cry.

Do you see the point of view slip? It’s a bit subtle. We’re in Jane’s head, hearing her thoughts, her feelings. We see what she sees.

Can you see what you look like? No. That’s Jared’s point of view.

NOTE: You can use more than one point of view in a book. Just stick with one at a time. Using our above example (and, indeed, many romances are structured this way), you could do one chapter from Jane’s point of view, the next from Jared’s, etc.

Issue #2: Choosing the wrong point of view

In most cases, it’s pretty instinctual what point of view will work best, based on the story you’re trying to tell, your genre conventions, how many characters have viewpoints, etc. But it is possible to choose the wrong one, and it basically boils down to your chosen viewpoint not having–and not being able to get–information necessary to the completion of the plot.

Sometimes the character you pick initially just isn’t the right person to tell the story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t published books out there that do this (if you try hard enough, you can find most of these common mistakes published somewhere), but the story tends to be unsatisfying, sometimes in a way that a reader can’t put their finger on.

A way that authors get around this with varying degrees of success is to include one or more chapters from a side character to provide the information.

Issue #3: Too many viewpoints

This one is highly subjective and depends on the genre as well. In a romance, you’re going to want one or two viewpoints. In a thriller, you can have one off chapters from any number of unimportant characters that never have viewpoints again.

The issue tends to be the most apparent when you have several viewpoints that are all vying to be important in some manner. Important viewpoint characters need to be important to the plot, which means you need to check in with them fairly regularly, they have to be advancing the plot or a subplot every time they show up, they have to be interesting, they might need a character arc, etc.

If you have two characters, this isn’t bad. Three? Sure. Some people can manage five or even seven. But eventually, there’s too much going on, too much to keep track of, too much, too much, too much. A lot of times those characters can be cut or combined to make a tighter, more enjoyable read.

Other viewpoint issues, squiders? We’ll talk about filtering in part 2 next week.

Common Writing Mistakes: Tenses and Passive Voice

Hi, squiders! Today we’re going to talk about tenses and passive voice, since they tend to be related, and because this is a good segue from our grammatical issues into our storytelling issues.

Tense in this case refers to the form of verbs used in the prose. In English we have three major tenses: present, past, and future. In most cases, you be writing in either present or past tense.

Present tense: I type this while I wonder where I put my tea.
Past tense: I typed this while I wondered where I put my tea.

NOTE: Just because you have a main tense for your writing doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally use other tenses WHEN APPROPRIATE such as in dialogue or in complex sentence structures.

Voice in this case refers to the voice of the verb. In English, verbs can be active or passive.

Active voice: I type this.
Passive voice: This is being typed by me.

The difference between active and passive voice is in the subject. Is the subject doing something (active) or having something done to them (passive)?

Problems with Tense

By far the biggest mistake made with tense is tense consistency, i.e. staying in the tense you’ve chosen for your writing. Have you ever started writing something in past tense only to find that somewhere along the line you accidentally switched into present? This can happen for a number of reasons: you were writing in a non-preferred tense and your brain switched over to your normal one automatically, you started a new day of writing without remembering where you were or what you were doing, you switched tenses for a particular reason–such as a flashback–and forgot to switch back, etc.

The good news is this is pretty easy to catch when you read back through your work. Tense switches stand out. They’re a bit harder to fix, however, because you need to go back through and correct verb forms throughout, and also make sure the sentence still makes sense grammatically.

If you find you’re often switching tenses without noticing, it may help to put a note somewhere obvious–such as a sticky note on your monitor or even a note in the header of your document–about what verb tense you’re using. (It can be as simple as “Past tense.”) This can also be helpful for remembering point of view, which we’ll discuss next week.

Problems with Passive Voice

Passive voice is okay in small doses–and, indeed, in some cases, it’s preferable to use passive voice. When you want to emphasize something, if you don’t know who is doing a specific action, when the person doing the action doesn’t matter, if you’re stating a general truth, etc.

In general, however, using passive voice creates clunky, unclear sentences that can drag down your pacing and the flow of your writing.

Examples:

This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.

The sword was swung by the hero toward the villain. Dodging, the villain’s spell was released.

Passive voice can often by identified by some form of “is”: is, are, was, were, has been, etc. And if you take a closer look at the sentence, the “active” party (whatever or whoever is doing something) has been pushed into the object portion of the sentence while the object has become the subject.

(Back in the day, Word used to have a feature that would tell you what percentage of your sentences were passive. We’re talking ages ago. I was a teenager and didn’t quite know what a passive sentence was. They also had an Autosummarize feature which has also gone by the wayside, alas.)

Using a passive sentence here and there is fine. But routinely using them doesn’t work in most cases (excepting academic papers in some fields). Unfortunately, if you find that you’re using a lot of passive voice, you’re probably going to have to train yourself out of it, or else face a lot of rewriting in your revision process.

Luckily, changing from passive to active voice is pretty easy, in most cases:

Passive: This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.
Active: I am writing this post. I am writing it on a computer. (Or even better: “I am writing this post on a computer.”) I’ll have to stop soon so I can run an errand.

Clear as mud, squiders? Questions about tense or passive voice, or other issues you’ve noticed with these subjects?