Friday, June 29, 2007

Chapter by Chapter Plot Points

Continuing a bit with the discussion of a few days ago.

Because I'm not not much of a planner, I don't really have a tight outline of the entire novel. But also because of some great thoughts one of my readers had, I have realized there are some major plot points that are missing. So one of the things I have decided I need to do is go back and outline each chapter and list the major plot elements.

I'm about half way through now and I can already see where holes can be filled, and fluff taken out. I'm writing down number of pages for each chapter, and one quick thing I can tell is if my chapter is 20 pages long, and I only have 3 plot points, there is probably much that can be cut. On the other hand if I only have 3 plot points and the chapter is 10 pages long, there is room to add more in. (Not that I have a target chapter length or plot points per chapter number, but you get the point.)

This is a great way for me to quickly see how the story develops.

I'm still not sure if this is something I could have done before I started writing, but I know there are plenty of writers who would say I should have done this a long time ago.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Best thing since sliced bread.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a site: AutoCrit: Fiction Editing Software. Man, what a tool. You take a chunk of your writing (up to 8,000 words if you buy their platinum membership) and paste it into their site. Then using an algorithm they developed based on published fiction, the tool shows you where your writing is weak. Things like: Overused Words, Repeated Phrases, Cliché Finder, etc...

The first time through, chapter one was pretty bloody. I cannot believe how often I used "ly" adverbs. I hate ly adverbs, I worked very hard to never use ly adverbs. It found 58! With a ratio of 1.7%. They claimed this is 1% more than I should have.

Now, I must warn you, it doesn't fix the problems, it just points them out. So I spent several hours going through and editing. As I worked on it, I discovered they were right. The writing became much stronger addressing the problem areas. Now as I run chapter one through AutoCrit, all the red, weak words are gone. I've fallen to a mere .4% ly adverbs. It has much more punch to it. And I didn't have to pay $2,000 for a professional editor.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Planning Vs. Writing as the Story Takes You.

I started writing Crimson Swarm after I read a biography of Tolkien. (I don't remember at the moment which one) In the biography the author talked about how Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings. Basically he had the idea that he wanted a story to follow The Hobbit. It had to have the One Ring as a primary element, and he wanted to have some kind of quest. He also had the poem: One Ring To Rule Them All, written. Other than that (and a great deal of back story) He just sat down and started writing.

It was said when he first wrote about Frodo meeting with "Strider" in the Prancing Pony, Tolkien had no idea who Strider was. He only knew that because Gandalf didn't show up (which he also didn't know why) Frodo needed a guide. So thus Strider was born.

This idea appealed to me greatly. I had tried my hand at a large novel in the past, and failed miserably, partly because I'm not a planner by nature. I like to just do things. I'd rather go on a vacation with only vague idea of where we are going, and just see where the road takes us. (My wife however is about as detailed oriented as they come, so this just doesn't fly in my house)

So I sketched out some very basic concepts, and just sat down and started writing, and it was wonderful. I really reveled in the unfolding of the story, and the times when things just surprised me.

I pretty much wrote the entire novel like this. Sure as I went along I started to map things out further, but when I did, I found myself deviating from that pretty quickly.

So now that I've reached the end of the first draft, what do I think about the whole process? Well, there are some good things and some bad things that came up doing it this way. The good is, it was completely enjoyable. And because of that I kept at it. Even when I didn't feel like writing, I told myself, I had to write, because I wanted to see how it ended. I also think there are some twists, and surprises that would not have been there had I mapped it all out before hand.

Now the downside. As I look at the ending, and get feedback from my reading partner (see previous post) I see some major problems. Problems that if I had taken the time to map the story out better probably would have been avoided. I let myself get off on a tangent, following a story line that I never really intended to highlight much.

So now that I see both sides, which will I do next time? I honestly don't know. Maybe a combination of the two.

Do I think that Crimson Swarm is doomed because of lack of planning? No way. I actually don't think there will be much work to go back and adjust the story, cutting what shouldn't be there, and adding what should be, than if I had planned it from the beginning. Only time will tell of course, but I think I have a good idea where I need to go. And the first step is to diagram it out.

I'm excited to see what happens to the story, and I'm convinced it will be much stronger in the end.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

With friends like these...

I got an email from a good friend of mine today who just finished reading the entire first draft of Crimson Swarm. (You know who you are.) From conversations we've had in the past, I had the idea that he might not like the direction I took at the end, so I told him if he was totally disappointed in the ending let me know. His response, "I can't say I'm totally disappointed in the ending. I'm only largely disappointed."

Now for a very short moment, less than ten seconds, I was crushed. This is not the kind of thing you want to hear. But, it didn't take me long to be grateful for a friend like this. What would have annoyed me more is if he gushed all over it, and I knew he wasn't being totally honest. (something this friend would never do, one of the reasons I respect him.)

For those of you who don't know me from Adam, I am a graphic designer. I don't really consider myself an Artist. I went to art school, and did pretty good. But in my school there was a raging debate between the Fine Artists, and the Graphic Designers. You know the old story, what we do isn't art. Well, I agree. What we do is sell a product. Whatever that product is. We may be every bit as talented as the guy whose work is hanging in the Museum of Modern Art, but that is not where we took our lives. I just didn't have it in me to spend countless years trying to make a name for myself in the art scene, when I could make a decent living selling other people's stuff. But one of the big downsides to the graphic design side of things is you are not your own boss. You can't decide that everything you do is going to be blue, because blue doesn't sell alfalfa sprouts. Green does. Most jobs you've got several people telling you what to do. Change this color, make this font bigger, crop this photo differently, etc... It can get darn frustrating. Many, if not most times the end product is not as good as it should have been because the client had to have it their way (even though they hired me because I was the professional).

What the heck does this have to do with getting "I'm largely disappointed" emails from a friend about my ending. Everything.

When I set out to write a book, I didn't do it to fulfil some inner muse. I didn't do it because I wanted to create a work of literature to be debated in academia. I set out to write a book that people would like. One that people would want to read. Maybe I'm a sell out. I know lots of people in Art School would have said that. But I have a great job doing what I love to do. I've provided for my family for years, allowing my wife to stay home with the kids when she wanted to. And now I'm having the time of my life writing a novel, about something I love, and I have every expectation that when it is done, there will be others that love it too.

This is not to say that I'm going to just ditch my ending and totally change it because of one good friend's comments. But I am going to seriously consider his thoughts. And I look forward to sitting down and really digging into it with him.

Kristin Nelson had a great post on her blog today that really got right to the point. "How Honest Do You Want Us To Be?" She asked this question about how to respond to writers when they are looking for a critique of their work. My answer, "Bring it on."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Chapter One Complete

Well, I've just hacked and stitched and hacked some more on Chapter One, and I feel really good about it. It is much tighter, and moves much more quickly than it did in the past. I have had several comments that it dragged a bit so hopefully I have fixed that.

Also I worked very hard to get inside the main character's head. What is he thinking? What kind of turmoil does he experience? Although there is no conflict outside of him, I definitely think I have added some within him. So does it past muster? Does it begin the story in the right place? Does it present necessary information without huge info dumps? I think the answer is yes. I really feel good that I can tell my writing has improved over the past couple of years. There is very little left in this first chapter that is completely from the original draft. And I think that is a good thing.

Now all I need to do is get the entire book done before I improve too much more, otherwise I'll never get it finished.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Writer's Group Not for Faint of Heart...

...or for the lazy for that matter. I joined an online writers critique group year or two ago. (in the Forward Motion Writers website) It was really, really helpful. But one thing I constantly struggled with was keeping up with the critiques of my fellow group members. So at one point about 6 months ago, I decided to take a sabbatical from the group, so that I could focus on finishing up the first draft. Well as you know the first draft is done, so now it is time to get back in the group. As I contemplate this it got me thinking about the pros and cons of the structure of my crit group.

The pros are fairly obvious. I've got three or four people reading my work, giving me feedback, really trying to make my writing better.

The cons are a little harder to nail down. One that may not be a con, but more of a shortcoming of the structure, is no one ever has a chance to see the big picture. We post a single chapter at a time, and critique a single chapter at a time. So it is as if you are reading a novel with blinders on. Especially for the memory impaired. I can read a chapter, and then come back two weeks later and read the next chapter and have no idea who any of the characters are. It doesn't help matters that all the books are fantasy novels, so already they do tend to mush together a bit.

Another con is we are all just amateurs. Some a little more skilled than others (I'd place myself pretty low on the grammar scale), so any advice we get must be carefully considered. Not that it shouldn't be even if we were all published authors, but it does make me yearn for more of a mentoring type situation. (Stephen R. Donaldson is from my hometown, maybe I should look him up.)

I also long for a group of writers that I can physically meet. Read each other excerpts. Discuss with each other our thoughts. You just can't get that online.

All this said, I still think it is worthwhile. So I'm off to inform the group I'm ready to come back.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Where to Begin

I've struggled for some time on how to begin Crimson Swarm. It seems there is a lot of opinion on the subject. Some say never start with a dream sequence--never start with an info dump--prologues are frowned upon. As you will see on the link to the left of the 100 Best First Lines, I really like the subject. Therefore I've revised the beginning of my novel several... dozen times.

To make matters worse, from what I've read if you get past the query stage and a potential agent asks to see more, often times they will ask for the first two or three chapters. So you really have to nail the beginning, otherwise they will never see the exciting action of later chapters.

I had this really cool, Cate Blanchett kind of beginning for a while. That's gone. Then I added a prologue, that I felt just had to be there. I'm about to cut that. I completely rewrote the first half of chapter one. So when will I know I've got the beginning I need? Honestly at this point I don't have an answer for you. I'm pretty happy with the first paragraph of the first chapter now, but will I be in two weeks? What do you think?

"His first memory was the smell--a strange mixture of burning lamp oil, cooked meats and vegetables, and something else, something he could not quite put a finger on until later... the smell of death."

If this makes it to the final edit, I'll be surprised.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Calendar of Events

I started editing last night, and one of the things that I want to be very aware of is what time of the year events take place in. To this end very near the beginning of the story-writing process I began keeping a calendar of all events. You can do this any way that works well for you, but for me I used the calendar in Outlook.

As I wrote new scenes and events, I would go back and add them to the calendar. This way I had a very quick way to know what the seasons and moon phases were at all times. (I installed a component to Outlook for the phases of the moon). Also this helped keep the chronology of different characters who were involved in different story-lines correct.

I did have a couple of very interesting surprises happen with the moon phases. On two separate occasions I wrote in the phase of the moon, and then went to my calendar to check to see if I was anywhere close, and on both occasions I was exactly right. In one case I wanted a new moon, so the hero's army wouldn't be seen sneaking into the enemy camp, and sure enough the very night I had them do it, it was a new moon. On another occasion I mentioned it was a waning gibbous moon, and sure enough that exact night it was. I don't know what it means, but it sure was nifty.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rush to Finish

Well I stayed up way past my bedtime last night finishing my read-through of the first draft of Crimson Swarm. I actually thought it ended pretty well. It was apparent though that I rushed the writing at the end trying to meet my self-imposed end-of-May deadline. The last chapter was only two pages (slightly less even). But the cool thing is, the meat is there, it just needs a little dressing. I found a few points that I'll need to go back and add some foreshadowing earlier in the book for, and actually realized one event I foreshadowed never happened. So I'll have to decide whether or not to add the event in, or take out the foreshadowing.

But overall, I'm pretty darn happy with it. So the next step is editing. I'm happy that my word count is right around 110,000. So this gives me room to add, or delete at will without having it get too long or too short. (From all I've read a first time novel, in the Fantasy genre should be between 100,000 and 125,000 words.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Drawings to build depth

I wanted to follow up on a thought I had in yesterday's posting. The use of drawings to help with your story. Not only to help with the background, world building aspect, but to actually help drive your story. One of the key locations in Crimson Swarm is an enemy fortress named Addlemort. Before I had my characters even catch a glimpse of Addlemort, I drew this:

Once again I probably put way too much time into the drawing, but it really helped me as I began work on the parts of the story that took place here. In the first scene, our hero had to sneak into the citadel undetected. Before I drew the picture, I had no idea how he would do it. Afterwards, I saw those cool flying buttress stairs on either side of the central tower, and I realized that if he could just somehow make it down the mountainside to the top of one of those walkways, he could make it in. Of course how do you sneak into a fortress across a bridge and down a flight of stairs out in the open? The solution I came up with was the majority of the soldiers were distracted. By what? A great plot element grew out of this question, and actually found itself intertwined tightly with where the bad guys drew their power.

The second scene involving Addlemort was when the our hero returned later with an army to attack the fortress. And again I was able to use the drawing to really drive the ebb and flow of the battle. To me it would have been nearly impossible to write the events that took place without having a strong visual like this drawing. I could look at it and run scenarios through my head before actually putting anything down on paper.

Of course you may say you don't have a fancy drawing program (in this case Adobe Illustrator), or you can't draw a straight line. As I said I think I put way too much time in this. There were other cases where I just did a very quick sketch to help orient me in a place. Here is a drawing of the council room where a big debate took place about whether or not to go to war:

Obviously only took a minute or two, but without this I would have had a very difficult time keeping track of everyone at the table.

I've even gone back and done drawings after the fact and then had to revise what I had written because it just didn't make sense once I drew it.

So get out those pencils (or mouses) and get drawing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Can't Put It Down

Well, I'm almost finished reading my first draft. (Anne Lamott has a great phrase for this that I choose not to repeat on this blog.) And it is most definitely rough, but I have found myself on several occasions having difficulty putting it down.

Is this because I have such a big ego, that I just love to hear myself "talk"? Or is it hopefully an indication that it might be publishable? That someone else might get some enjoyment out of it? Time will tell of course.

I've most definitely noticed some holes in the story. Some places where I'm inconsistent, but on a whole it seems like it flows well. Has a strong climax. Means something.

One of the things I'm very glad I did is keeping notes as I wrote. Every character, every place, every race, every animal, every mountain range, sea, etc... got entered into a word document the moment they appeared in the story.

I also tended to go a little overboard with drawings. Here's a map of Nuadaim (the name for my world):

As you can see, way too refined, but man does this help when it comes to making the story believable and cohesive. I also do the same thing for all the towns, and citadels, and rooms, etc... I find that if I do a drawing, it is much easier to write about than if I just try to picture it in my head.

I had a whole battle that took place in an enemy fortress, that I had no idea how it was going to go until I drew it. Then it became very clear how the enemy would defend themselves, and how the good guys would attack it.

So even if you can't draw at this level (not that it is anything amazing) I still think maps and drawings are very important. So get out that pencil and paper next time you move your characters into a new setting.

Monday, June 4, 2007

What makes a "Scene"?

So all day I've been pondering the thoughts from Holly Lisle's ideas of editing a novel. The thing that really struck me is her idea that EVERY scene in the book must have a purpose. Every scene must move the story forward in an interesting fashion (paraphrasing here). She gives this definition of a scene: "A scene has a start and a finish, characters and dialogue, engages at least one and sometimes all five senses, and offers conflict and change." Then she says to go through the novel and make sure every single scene follows this definition. Wow! That is an amazing little piece of advice.

Where was she two years ago?

I know I've got some scenes that don't fit this definition. Now it is a matter of finding, and then cutting or modifying them. Be brutal man! Nothing is sacred.

Creating a New Language

It gets pretty difficult at times to work, when all I can think about is the book. I did go through a bit of discouragement a few days ago as I read through the first draft, but then the writing improved, and now I'm excited again.

The article I mentioned in the previous post by Holly Lisle has really got me pumped. I was thinking this editing process was going to be a long drawn out affair, but she makes it sound so easy. Of course I know that isn't true, but it does give me hope.

One area I know will bog me down is creating some languages. (Which I know Holly does BEFORE writing the book.) I used what I always considered a spacer language for the first draft. It was really just a "code" I developed in high school, swapping out various letters with each other. "Af e zhutho af quzho nquifl quzhogo thapol e zhukkaquo." Which I still think is pretty cool, but not quite what I'm going for. (By the way this is the first sentence from The Hobbit)

Now I really want to put some development time into creating actual languages. Again Holly Lisle to the rescue. I bought an e-book called the "Create a Language Clinic" it has some good stuff in it. I have four main languages in Crimson Swarm, and Holly's ideas will go a long way in helping me flesh them out.

The first language I started work on, was the one I considered the easiest because the race are pretty simplistic in their world view. I used to call them the Voormarg, but after working through the language development, I now call them the Vurmierg, and their language is "Common Gzuri" There is a "High Gzuri" that is spoken by the main villain in the book, but his grunts only speak a very simplified version. I'll post some samples of their language as I develop it, but in the meantime, here is a sketch of what a vurmierg looks like.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Writing a Fantasy Novel

I finally decided it is time to start getting my thoughts down about my experience writing my first novel, "Crimson Swarm". This has been a dream of mine since the moment I picked up the Lord of the Rings when I was a pre-teen. I have such a strong desire to be part of something larger than myself. Something beyond "normal", and I think that is the cord that Tolkien struck so soundly inside of me.

My faith is such a large part of my life as well, but I'm not very good at expressing it, so Crimson Swarm is also an outlet to help articulate what it means to be part of the grand plan of God for his creation.

So here I am. I honestly can't remember when I began writing Crimson Swarm, but I think it has been about two or three years. And finally last week I wrote the two words I had been longing for, "The End". Of course that is a load of baloney, it is far from over, but it felt good nonetheless.

So for the last few days I have been just reading it. Trying very hard not to edit, just read. One thing that is quite apparent is, I am a much better writer now than I was when I began. I'm probably about half way through reading, and at last the writing is becoming bearable.

I just read an article by Holly Lisle, (a prolific Fantasy Author, and from what I've seen an all around great asset to the writing community.) The article was on how to edit your novel, and in one pass no less. So that is where I am. I'm excited. I think the story has great potential, and if I can get it cleaned up, and well-written throughout, who knows... maybe it'll be something someone will want to read.

So that is it for now. I've got a lot more to say on the subject, but I'll save it for another post.