Living the Fictional Dream

Erin M. Kinch’s musings upon the writing profession

Archive for the 'Revision' Category

Finding Good Reads in Self-published Books

Since getting my Kindle (best first Mother’s Day gift ever!), I’ve taken to stalking the free fiction available on Amazon.com. It’s interesting what pops up there. Some good, some bad, and some just meh. And then I started noticing the self-published books that are available. For $0.99 to $2.99, you can buy whole novels. The number available in Y/A paranormal is mind boggling. You have to wade through some dreck, but you can find some decent reads for a much cheaper price.

The first one I read was Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy. The first one, Switched, showed up in the top 10 on the best selling list. It was only $0.99, the premise (trolls) was intriguing, and the reviews were good, so I picked it up. And liked it well enough to splurge on the remaining two books in the series at the higher $2.99 price.

Over all, they were a good read. If only Amanda Hocking had better critiques and copy editors for her self-published work. Grammatical and punctuation errors jarred me out of the stories sometimes, and she falls into a lot of beginning writer traps that my writing group has helped me get away from (using “just” and “almost,” passive voice, repeating the same word multiple times in the same page/paragraph, using complex verb constructions when a single one will do, etc.). She also really could have used someone to tell her that the climax of the third book needed a little more build up to be believable and to help her smooth over certain plot issues (like the abrupt switch in the heroine’s “one true love” and how the ending of the trilogy was just too happy and too perfect).

But, despite the flaws, the concept and the heroine’s voice drew me in and held me there until I finished the story. I think the ability to do that is the most telling indicator of a writer’s talent (despite valid criticisms of her plotting and writing style, Stephanie Meyer has that gift, too). The mechanics can be learned and honed. (And maybe now that Hocking, self-publishing phenom, has signed a deal with a major publishing house, which includes re-release of the Trylle trilogy, she’ll get some guidance in those areas from the trained editors.)

Next, I tried Hocking’s zombie apocalypse story, Hollowland, at $0.99, and I liked this one even better than the Trylle books. The heroine was awesome, the world building was spot-on, and the supporting cast had a lot more purpose. There were still editing and technique issues, but the story was so much better, it was easier to ignore. I’m still hoping that another book in this series will come out, but I guess that will depend on her schedule with her new publishing house.

I’ve tried a few others here and there, and I seldom have as good of a reaction as I did with Hocking’s work. I need something outstanding to get into a book. A good character and can identify with and/or root for. A unique, intriguing, fresh twist on a concept that I haven’t seen a zillion times. Quality writing that doesn’t jar me out of the story, or a story so compelling that I don’t notice the sub-par writing skills (or at least can ignore them).

Without one or more of those attributes, I can’t commit to the book. I tried Hocking’s vampire series, My Blood Approves, but I couldn’t get into them. Sadly, I did not realize this until I’d already purchased them (my new rule, only buy one book of a completed series at a time to make sure you still like it when you finish the next installment!). The vampire series was just so… meh. The narrator never did anything but react. She really seemed more passive than Bella of Twilight fame, if you can imagine that. And things kept happening that were just too convenient. Once sure, but over and over again? Strains my ability to suspend my disbelief.

I alway skim the reviews of self-pubbed books . If one or two say there are grammatical problems or writing issues, I move on, even if there are a ton of 5-starred reviews, as well. Also, if the concept seems tired or a rip off, it would take very stellar review to get me to even take a peak. The Vampire Journals self-pubs that have been popping up on Amazon lately make me cringe. I think L.J. Smith was there first, people, and even if you weren’t into Y/A in the 1990s, her stories are back in the public view thanks to the TV series.

However, I think I may have finally found a winner on the self-pub Y/A market this weekend. Barbara Pandos, who wrote The Emerald Talisman. Pandos can actually write! She doesn’t use the same words repeatedly, but has a range of vocabulary (even a couple of higher priced words thrown in from time to time). And I don’t think a single grammatical or punctuation error jumped out at me. Her descriptions were vivid, and her characters were unique and interesting. Her take on vampires was different (at least to some extent) than the plethora of stories on the market right now. Her heroine had a gift of her own, and was not completely passive. And, also, her book is (as of today) available for free on Amazon, so the price was definitely right. I enjoyed the book a lot, and just downloaded the sequel, The Sapphire Talisman.

My only complaint with Pandos’s story is that sometimes the emotions felt by the lead couple weren’t completely justified by the text and there were a couple of plot holes that could have been fixed by just adding an extra scene. But I’ve seen worse in books released by an actual publishing house (Need, by Carrie Jones, for example — blarg, good concept, but what a mess!). What the book had going for it, far out weighed the bad.

I wonder what it takes to jump into this self-publishing market. So much is out there. Of course, if you go that route, you most likely give up your chance at publishing those books via a traditional outlet, and I’ve heard it makes it more difficult to get a traditional agent, even if you were shopping around a different project. However, that’s not 100% the case, because Hocking’s Trylle trilogy has been taken down and will be re-released by St. Martin’s Press in upcoming months.

Too bad some of these self-published authors don’t seem to care about grammar, punctuation, prose, writing style, and critique. I could make a good living whipping these novels into shape. They’d probably all hate my comments, though, and refuse to pay! :-)

Well, I’ll sign off for now, but hopefully I can find the time to blog again soon. I really want to write a blog about the titles of self-published books. I know titles are not easy, but some of the ones out there are just so, so bad that it’s hilarious.

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How Much Detail Is Too Much?

Last night, at my writing group’s monthly write-in, I worked on revising a story that the group critiqued at the meeting in June. One of the main characters gives birth during this story. Now, as anyone who knows me or who has spent much time on this blog knows, I have given birth myself (and I will be doing so again later this year).

My familiarity with this subject matter led me to an interesting conundrum. How much detail on a subject like child birth is too much?

Juggling the amount of detail to include in a story is a balancing act sometimes. As a writer, you have to know more about your world than anyone else. This is especially true if you’re creating a fictional world from scratch (like a sprawling fantasy realm or a high tech sci-fi world), but I’ve found it true in literary and mainstream writing, as well.

You have to know your characters inside and out. You have to know much more of them and the world they live in that needs to show up on the page. In fact, if writers routinely put all the information they have on world building checklists and character descriptoin forms into their stories, readers would run away screaming at the minutia of it all.

So, all that to say, I know that I need to limit the baby birthing details in this story. However, I found while writing it that this particular subject was really hard to reign in. And then, when my writing group read it, I found out that details I thought were important and fairly universal, were actually too technical and apt to be misunderstood.

I had no idea no one else had heard of APGAR tests. Amniotic fluid was another stumbling block. Hard to talk about a woman’s water breaking without mentioning amniotic fluid!

And then there is the consideration of how much detail is too much on the ick-factor scale. Let’s face it — child birth is pretty gross. You’ve got fluid and cords and a placenta to deal with. Not to mention that, despite what you see on television, that baby does not pop out all clean and pretty — it’s actually kind of gray until it gets to breathing and that cottage cheese looking stuff that covers it… even I’m squicked out by that! I wouldn’t want to write a story where the readers stopped reading because the details were too disgusting. (And this particular story is actually in a genre which is traditionally read more by men than women, so the tolerance level for child birth ick might be even lower.)

On the other hand, though, I got many comments from the crit saying that they liked having the details because it helped ground them in the story. So, for all the bad things about including too much, you also want to make sure you include enough that your readers can fully imagine that fictional dream and be fully committed to it.

Last night at the write-in, I took another pass through the story with a critical eye for detail. I’m not sure I’m done tweaking it yet. There is actually another plot element that I’m toying with adding, which would make a new draft a definite. But, hopefully, detail-wise at least, I’ve sorted out some of the problems.

If you made it through this whole entry, feel free to let me know what you think on the subject. How much information about birthing babies is too much for you?

Happy writing (and reading), everyone!

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Proofs

This morning, when I checked my email, I found the proof for “Dinner for Three,” a story set in my superhero universe that is coming out in the next issue of A Thousand Faces.

There is something fun about looking over a proof of my very own story. It’s a little sneak peek as to what it will look like when it’s published. And a proof makes the acceptance real, at least to me. I may have had an email acceptance sitting in my inbox for the past six months, but now the story is actually here, right in front of me.

I also revised my bio, which was fun. I was able to mention my baby girl in it, which gave me a happy.

All in all, a very pleasant morning. I hope you all have some good news to brighten your day. And, hey, if you haven’t read issue 9 of ATF, click on the link above and check it out. There are some really good superhero stories in this issue, including one by my writing group mate, Stephanie.

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Revision…

I’m working on another flash piece right now… it started with one of the prompts from my writing group’s April prompts writing contest. The prompt challenged me to write a story about ice. I wanted to do something different than just have the story take place in an icy setting or have an ice cube as an object. So, instead, ice is the main character… in a way.

Now I just need to buckle down and do revisions after my writing group was so helpful as to send critiques to me. I don’t know why I’m having such troubles making myself sit down and write or revise these days. Maybe my group should have more write-ins… I find myself being more productive at planned writing activities than in finding time on my own. When I’m at home right now, there is always something else to do — usually baby prep.

Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and we’re going to stay at my parents’ cabin for the holiday. It is usually so quiet and peaceful out there — also, there is no internet or cable to distract me. Perhaps I will find some good writing time while we’re there — when we’re not at my friends’ pool party!

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Turning off the Editing Brain

Sometimes, it’s really hard for me to turn off the editing portion of my brain and just read. I’ll be reading along, be it a novel or the latest offering from one of my favorite online fiction venues, and I’ll come across some bit of language and think how much better it would have been if they’d edited just a little more closely — eliminate that passive voice or not say the same word twice so close together, things like that.

Now, of course, if it’s a style thing, that’s totally different, but a lot of the time, it reads to me like it’s just a be verb or whatever that the author didn’t notice, as opposed to a conscious choice to stick with the passive.

I was reading a story recently that said something like, “Her dress covered her like….” (The quotes have been changed, because I don’t want to point fingers.) I thought the similie that the author used to describe the outfit was lovely, but the sentence would have been so much more impactful to me if the author had written, “The dress covered her…” instead. Having the same word twice so close together bumps me out of the story and has me thinking about repetition and redundant word choice instead of marvelling over the similie and description.

Then, not much farther down in the same story, there was an intrusive be verb — something simple like, “He was walking down the street.” Again, I was thrown out of the story to wonder why the author didn’t just say, “He walked down the street.” Why put in that passive voice, when the active voice flows so much better and creates a more vivid picture?

It’s like, now that I search for these things in my own work with such a critical eye, I can’t shut my brain off when I see these things elsewhere. And then I wonder why the author didn’t see them. If only he or she had taken a few extra minutes to edit — perhaps do a search for be verbs. Such a small thing can make a story so much crisper and cleaner!

Is it the mark of a writer who has not spent as much time honing his or her craft? I know that I used to fling passive voice, repeated words, and complicated verb constructions around with abandon. I go back to some of my earlier work and wonder how I ever didn’t see that! It’s thanks to the efforts of my writing group that I’ve learned to go through my first drafts with a fine-toothed comb, searching for better, more active, more descriptive ways to say things.

(A quick shout out here to writing group mate Jens for his nazi like devotion to marking complex verb constructions in crits, and to writing group mate Virginia for doggedly pointing out each and every repeated word! And, heck, to all of Writer’s Ink in general — I’ve learned so much from you guys!)

An author blog I read once recommended reading a book about screen writing and the three-act structure as a way to help develop novel plots. The caveat I remember this author mentioning was that after she read the book and understood the formula used in movie scripts, it made it harder for her to simply lose herself in a film. Instead, she was always looking for the catalyst, the denouement, and the other traditional parts of the screenplay.

Sometimes I feel that way about reading. The more I hone my craft and the better I get at this writing thing, the harder it is for me to be forgiving of other work out there. Especially published work, and especially work that is published in novel format. I’m much more apt to set a novel down and not pick it up again if the writing is sloppy than I ever used to be — even if I like the plot and the characters.

The mark of a really good book to me is one that sucks me in as a reader and totally short circuits the editing brain. If I look up an hour later, and I haven’t thought about word choice, grammar, or passive voice once, it’s a good story.

Take the Twilight series as an example. People give it a hard time because it’s not quality literature (I’m not sure it’s supposed to be, but people judge best sellers harshly, I suppose). And it’s true — there are many books that are better written than Twilight (though, I do think that Meyer’s craft improved over the course of the series). But when I jump into the world of Bella, Jacob, and Edward, I am totally sucked in. Hours can go by, and I don’t even notice until I start getting a crick in my neck or the phone rings.

That is the point that character, setting, and good, old-fashioned story-telling trump the mechanics of writing. Twilight transports me into the fictional dream and doesn’t let me go without a fight. To me, that’s the mark of a good novel that’s worth reading, no matter what the nay-sayers think. (Though, I can see how someone who’s not into young adult romance or vampires might not be sucked in the same way — subject matter is subjective.)

So, from the reader’s perspective, I guess I would have to say that the editor’s brain is a detriment. It is harder to enjoy reading certain things than it used to be — I’m much more selective than I used to be.

But, from the writer’s perspective, the editor’s brain is an asset that you simply cannot do without. The better your craft, the better chances you have of selling it — case closed. Sure, sometimes less well written stories get published, but I prefer to think that’s because the person who bought it was swept away by the story and the characters so much that they didn’t mind a few mechanical flaws.

I don’t think I would give up my editing brain, not even for all the reading enjoyment in the world. There are enough books out there that still suck me in and there are books with issues that I still enjoy (remember the clavicle thing from the Luxe series?), despite being knocked out of the fictional dream every once in a while. There is a wide world of books to choose from out there — I’ll keep my editing brain and let it have a field day with all of my first drafts.

And then all you guys can laugh at me when you read something of mine where I missed a glaring instance of word repetition or passive voice!

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A Beautiful Beginning

I am cursed with stories that have good beginnings but never go anywhere. This happens to me all the time. I will get an idea for a character, a background scenario, a setting, or a combination thereof, and I’ll sit down to write. The first scene will come out beautifully — the situation seems interesting, the characters intriguing, hints of dire things to come — but the middle and end turn out flat. The plot doesn’t hold up, and the whole thing crashes and burns.

Sometimes, I can go back and salvage the ending with a lot of work. And sometimes, my muse takes a holiday and nothing ever comes of it.

One of my biggest failings, which falls into this larger issue of good beginnings and bad endings, is that many times my characters are reactive instead of proactive. They may have a larger goal, but the things that happen to them aren’t necessarily about that goal — at least not on a personal level. Instead, stuff happens to them that isn’t of their own choosing, and they react to it.

Once I wrote a story about a girl who met a sea dragon. She had a companion who was a sand wolf. I really liked these three characters. There was a whole adventure where they tried to sail to an island, and the sea dragon saved them from a sea monster. It was very exciting. But, in the end, there wasn’t really a theme to the piece. Stuff happened, people reacted, and then the story was over. I’ve fiddled with that story several times since, but I never can figure out what the main character’s motivation is, what it is she has to do.

I’ve been trying to work on the reactive/proactive thing. I think I’ve gotten better just because now I realize that tendency in my writing and work to eliminate it, but sometimes my characters fall back into their old reactive ways.

I’ve finally felt like writing again now that NaNo and that big work project are over. I’ve had a few ideas glimmering in the back of my mind, but they are more concepts than plots, and no good plots have come along for the ride.

This morning, I pulled out a story that I wrote for my writing group’s “Story Every Day” contest last summer. My goal had been to write something sci-fi that I could submit to the “Return to Luna” anthology, but this story fell into that same trap — the beginning was good, the characters interesting, but the plot fell apart at the end. It was cliched and somewhat trite.

Now I’m working on this story again, and the beginning has polished up really nicely. I just have to get some work done on the actual plot. I have to figure out what bad thing my protagonist did or will do and how it will affect him and the woman who’s helping him out. Seems like a tall order, but it’s been fun to get back into a story again (one that’s not in the ‘verse of my NaNo novel!).

So, what about you writer’s out there? Do you ever have this problem? Do you keep fiddling and fiddling with that great beginning until it becomes something marketable, or do you toss it down and look for the next good idea, which will hopefully have a better plot. What do you think about making characters proactive?

In other news, I got my copy of the EDF anthology in the mail last night. The hardback edition is really gorgeous!

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Brief NaNo Status Report

The NaNoing is still going well. I’ve actually been on quota or ahead for most of this week. It’s been a new and crazy feeling for me. I’m usually behind all month, and then pull it out with 7K weekends/holidays at the end of the month. It’s been fairly exciting to be ahead of the game. It sure would be nice to win one of those gift cards my writing group is awarding to the first two members to 25K.

Today I am slightly behind quota again. Wednesdays just are not conducive to writing time, what with watching kids in the church nursery. I don’t get home until way after 9 p.m. most Wednesdays, and I’m way too tired to do much more than watch TV or read. However, with today’s double-header write-ins (lunch and dinner), I think I’ll have no trouble catching back up, or at least getting close.

I’m still liking where my novel is going, but I’ve hit another rough patch. There are plot elements that I know need to happen, but we need some character development between here and there. For some reason, that has been difficult to push through. I’m not sure my characters are ringing quite true enough… But that’s what revisions are for! It’s weird, though — usually I’m all about character development and not about plot. This is a switch.

I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I don’t really write polished first drafts. I wish I did. Some people really do, which makes me jealous. I’ve critted a lot of first drafts that, while still needing a light polish, are really well put together. I have to get the whole glut of words down on the page, work the story down that way. When I’m in the midst of the flush of muse, I can’t stop to worry about if I used the word “looked” when I could have used something more interesting like “glared” or “glanced,” if I told instead of showed, etc. If I stop to do all that, I’ll never finish the story. The stories I send to my writing group are usually at least the second draft, if not the third.

But, all writers are different, and I do like my finished product — it’s starting to make sense to me why I’ve not yet completed a novel revision, though. With such a lengthy revision process, it’s so much more satisfying to stick to the short stories. I can actually get them finished in a timely fashion.

My hope is, though, that this novel won’t require a total rewrite like my other two do. If the plot works and all it needs is good smoothing out, maybe actually finishing novel revisions is something I can do this time!

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Inching Forward

It’s the second day of NaNo, and I’m moving forward slowly but surely. I’m just shy of 3,000 words right now, but I’m not worried. I always end up a little behind schedule at the beginning, but pick it up by the end. (In the years that I actually finished, anyway.) It’s easier to write at that frantic pace the closer I get to the end of the plot.

I have the basic idea of my novel’s plot in mind, but while writing I still have to fill in the small stuff. I could also really use a subplot. Right now, the main plot is about my heroine, but I’m thinking that I need at least a subplot for the male lead, too. Preferably something that would tie into her plot, at least thematically. And I need to figure out the specific ins and outs of the main plot — whodunnit and that sort of thing. Hopefully, it will all come together.

The thing about NaNo is that it’s quantity over quality. You rush to get the words on the page and the plot out there, without worrying as much about word choice, pretty sentences, and showing/not telling. It helps you to get around the internal editor (who can be stifling at times) and get to writing.

The problem is, it needs so much revision when you’re done. My goal this time is that I don’t want to have to rewrite the novel when I’m done. Revise, yes… but I’d like it to be plotted out enough that it doesn’t have to be a full-on rewrite to have it in a finished state. I think that’s been my downfall on my other two novels-in-progress.

The first one, I wrote when I was in high school. I still love it, and I’ve actually got all sorts of grand plans and schemes and dreams about how to fix it. My style has improved so much from those high school days. Back then, I was way too easy on my characters and didn’t understand craft like I do now. I’m sure in 10 years, I’ll think the same thing about what I’m writing today, but there you have it. Novel 1 (well, really it was novel 2, but the first one… no saving that sucker… it was just practice, notable only in that I actually wrote the whole thing) needs a total rewrite to fix the plot problems (which were extensive) and to improve the writing.

Novel 2 (my 2006 NaNo novel — the 2005 one was the one I never actually finished, even though I hit the 50,000 words) is the one that I realized halfway through should have been written in the first person. It was too late the change during NaNo, so that one requires a total rewrite, as well. Somehow, that one I’m just not as excited about. I like the concept, but getting back into it has proven difficult.

So, with this NaNo novel (assuming I finish it) I want to not need that total rewrite. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it, but maybe, if I can, I’ll have some revisions that are less mind-blowing than the ones for my previous novels. Perhaps, then, I would be more apt to actually get the novel through the revision process, which is where my previous novels have all bogged down.

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New Story Today!

Good morning, world!

It’s an especially good morning today, because my flash piece, “A Million Faces,” is the story-of-the-day over at Every Day Fiction. If you haven’t read that story yet this morning, I suggest that you go read it before you read the rest of this blog entry — especially if you don’t like spoilers (and with flash, how much is there to spoil?).

This story was inspired by a single sentence. If you’ve read the story, you’ll understand how crucial this sentence is to the main character’s big problem. How many secret identities does one girl need?

That sentence spoke to me of the story of a girl who could have any face she wants, but who has been living as other people for so many years that she’s lost her true face. It spoke to me of a girl who used her power for what she thought she wanted, and lost so much more in the process. It also spoke to me of a shape-shifter who uses her ability to reel in the criminals.

All those themes ended up in the story; sadly, that actual sentence, did not. Somehow, in the final version, that sentence didn’t actually fit.

That happens more often than not, I think. There’s that phrase, “cut your darlings.” It’s those scenes, exchanges, sentences that you really love that you have to be willing to cut — and it seems you end up cutting them more often than not.

The story ending up going in a slightly different direction than originally conceived. First it was going to be more of an action story, as she used her ability to catch criminals, but the story changed a bit on me. Got more serious, more angsty. The best stories do that.

I won’t spoil the ending of this story here. This story has gotten a lot of comments, from readers and from the EDF acceptance letter, saying that people enjoyed the twist at the end. Since twist endings aren’t always my forte, I don’t want to give it away here. You should read it for yourself. And then vote on the story and, if you really want to, leave a comment there.

Happy reading, all! And once you’ve done that, go out and enjoy this lovely fall morning!

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NaNo Prep

I guess I have NaNo on the brain right now. Understandably so… My writing group dubbed October “NaNo Prep Month,” so Steph, VA, and I have been trying to come up with exercises that we can do during our lunch meetings that will help the group prepare for the upcoming madness. Not all of us are outliners, so planning for something like NaNo is a stretch.

I won my first year writing by the seat of my pants. And, yet, I never finished the novel. It languishes to this day at about 56K. I put it down after winning NaNo for a “break,” and never felt like going back to it. At this point, I don’t know if I ever will. We all have dead manuscripts like that laying about don’t we?

I won my second year with a brief outline. It was helpful to have something to go back to if I forgot what was to come next. I never write with outlines, so it was a new experience for me. Sadly, I realized halfway in (when it was too late to change for NaNo purposes) that I should have used 1st person POV instead of my preferred 3rd person. To get anything out of that novel requires a full rewrite, which I just haven’t been able to make as much progress on as I should have. I don’t know why… I’ve just been more into short fiction recently, and sometimes I think that revisions suck my creativity right out of me.

Last year, I had a fairly detailed outline, and I totally failed at NaNo. The outlined story had my interest intellectually, but I never really felt the story. I think that’s why it failed. It was too much like work, not enough like that creative spark that carries you away. The characters never took on a life of their own — I was forcing it. So, a few days in, I switched to another idea that I’d been pondering, but had not prepped for. I got a couple of chapters in and realized I’d made a huge mistake in Chapter 1. Sadly, that mistake was the premise for the whole plot thus far. I couldn’t face starting over again, so I gave up on NaNo and wrote short stories for the rest of the month.

I think I’ve decided that during our planning month, I’m going to noodle around with the urban fantasy novel idea. If I get something workable, I’ll go for that. But, if it never comes together, then I’ll focus NaNo on novel revisions. Possibly on the rewrite of my novel from 2006 (mentioned above — the 3rd to 1st person rewrite). I call it my Siren novel, because the main character is, in fact, a Siren.

Or, alternatively, I’ll work on the rewrite of the novel that I wrote in high school. It’s about a young group of sorcerers who have to save the world. I wrote the whole thing in high school, so the style and plotting are not up to snuff. It needs a total rewrite now that I actually have more skills on how to do those things. But I love those characters and their story, so I really want t finish it. This was the novel that first stole my heart and will always be my favorite pet project.

So, the possibilities are out there. I will see where NaNo Prep Month leads me!

And, not related to NaNo, I have to say, if you haven’t read “Outlast the Stars” over at Every Day Fiction today, you should. It’s great!

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