Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Art of Pacing

One of the many great sessions I attended at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference involved the concept of pacing in your novel.  Pacing doesn't need to be consistently fast, but it means there should be an overall smooth flow to your story. This often means that it's faster in some parts, slower in others, but always moving forward - like a river. It never stops.

Kelley Armstrong, the impressive #1 NYT bestselling author of the "Darkest Powers" YA trilogy, gave  some quick tips for checking the pacing of your story:
  • Active scenes should far outweigh passive scenes, and you shouldn't have too many passive scenes in a row.
  • Even passive scenes should be accomplishing something and moving the story forward (e.g. for me, this means not going on and on about the 'colorful wildflowers dotting the meadow' because I really don't care -- unless an intergalactic ship filled with space monkeys is landing on them. Then I care.)
  • 'Just do it.' In general, don't have your characters plotting to do something or analyzing how they're going to do something (unless there is inherent conflict in their plotting/analyzing). Just have them do it. 
  • 'Go in late, get out early.' If you find you don't have enough tension throughout a scene, it's sometimes because you started the scene too early and let it drag on too long. Start it later; end it earlier.
  • 'Taking care of business' can usually be left out of your manuscript. This often involves a character getting from Point A to Point B. (e.g. 'Bob put his key in the ignition and started the engine, then strapped on his seatbelt, checked his rearview window and pulled out into traffic to head toward the crime scene.' *yawn* You could just say that 'Bob arrived at the crime scene to find it splattered with Jello and spray starch,' and the reader can infer the basic mechanics of how he got there.
  • Dragging dialogue slows down your pacing. As a rule, you shouldn't have more than two pages of dialogue as that can slow down the pacing even more than narrative can -- this is when you end up with 'talking heads.' 
  • Don't re-hash events in your dialogue that the reader just read about.  (e.g., Bob sighed, "Mary Jo, did I tell you about the horrible day I had at school today?" Reader of book: Um, you told me in Chapter Six -- and I really don't want to hear it again.)
  • Be careful with your technical details. You want to ensure that your details are correct but don't overdo it just to show people how much research you did. A little Google goes a long way.
  • Too many flashbacks slow the pacing. Same with backstory, introspection, and narrative description. Use them sparingly.
  • Don't end your chapters after something has already happened - end them when something is about to happen. This makes the reader want to turn the page.
To sum up the gist of all these tips, when Elmore Leonard was asked how he keeps readers turning the pages, he said, "I don't write the parts that people skip."  Follow that little rule, and your pacing will be golden. Good luck! Any pacing tips that I missed?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Contest Monday and Elana Rocks

Here's a heads-up for an awesome contest that will start on June 1st. It's being hosted by the great gals over at the Querytracker blog and involves literary agent, Kathleen Ortiz. She'll read your pitch AND first chapters of the first 100 entries she receives as if they were requested partials -- and she'll give feedback on them. All of them! While I have yet to successfully enter a contest involving time constraints, this is an incredible opportunity for those of you more technologically advanced than I am. Which would be all of you.

Speaking of Querytracker gals, I've said on many occasions how much I think Elana Johnson rocks. Seriously. I'm a huge fangirl of hers and she just shared some uber-amazing news -- as in her book sold, she's getting published kind of news! Click on her link to read her amazing journey to publication and give her a huge congrats - she deserves it!

Happy Monday!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When you find your voice.

Every writer's journey is different but along the way we all experience the same things to some degree or another: The first love of a new project, the daunting revisions, the rejections...

The newest thing for me is feeling like I've really found my voice. I've written more than one full length novel and I love them all, even the shorts, but the newest one I've been working on is really me. It's still pretty new, so maybe that will fade when I'm on revision #500, but it's such a GREAT feeling! It's refreshing.

Have you found that one perfect story that just fits you? If not, think about your favorite book or the book/author that most inspired you to write. Don't try to imitate that voice but look to them for inspiration. Sometime along the way writing can feel like a mega shot in the dark. You've got a million story ideas floating around up there and it's hit or miss trying to find the right one for you to write right now.

Sometimes you've just got to clear your mind and go back to the beginning. Back to that moment when you said, I want to be a writer and taking with you all the things you've learned along the way. Go back to that initial inspiration with the know-how to make it happen!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Revision #500

I might be exaggerating a wee bit, but it certainly feels like I've been revising FOREVER. When I finished the first draft back in October, I thought I'd be ready to query by January. Right.

Then I thought I'd jump into querying at the end of April, which is the same point at which I got another round of feedback from my fabulous beta readers. I got some great suggestions/ideas to think about from these readers (two of which are my amazing Sisters). However, some of the ideas made me think "but jeez, if I did that, I'd have to practically re-write the entire book." Yeah.

But I liked one idea so much that I've spent the last few weeks doing just that. I've heavily revised (borderline re-written) the whole thing. And you know what? I like the book so much better - and I liked it a lot before. Every revision has made my book better which makes me a little hesitant to stop revising! I feel almost ready to take the leap. I have no idea what will happen, but at least I'll be able to say I gave it my all.

How many revisions did you do before taking the leap?  Did you know the book was ready? Did you know you were?  

Monday, May 17, 2010

Contest Monday: Radiant Shadows Winner and new Dear Lucky Agent Contest!

Drum roll please....the lucky winner (as randomly chosen by BuzzMyBlog) of Radiant Shadows signed by the fabulous Melissa Marr is...STELLA (Ex Libris)! Congrats Stella, please email your mailing address to me at drhelvig [at] yahoo.com and I'll send it out ASAP!

Thanks to everyone who entered our contest! As promised, I donated $1 for every contest entry, so a donation of $100 (I rounded up) was made to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to help victims of the Nashville flood. If you would like to make a donation but have been bid outbid on the items over at Do The Write Thing for Nashville, you can click on the link above and donate any amount - every dollar helps!

There's also a new "Dear Lucky Agent" contest going on right now, so click here for the details. The agent is Roseanne Wells from the Marianne Strong Literary Agency. She's seeking fantasy and sci-fi entries so check it out! Happy Monday!

Also, hop on over to the Authoress blog: http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/ and enter the May Secret Agent contest! Contest opens to first round of entries at noon so get ready.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Secrets of novel Pitching

Kristi talked a bit about pitching recently and after her post I decided to give it a shot. Kristi made it look easy. I have not even come close to mastering a great novel pitch.
I went web surfing and came across a great post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner on "Secrets of a Great Pitch."

Rachelle says(copied from her blog):

To me, the best pitches include the following information without me having to ask for it:

My name is _____ and I wanted to meet with you because _____.

I'm writing ______ (what genre).

My publishing history includes _____(number of books, genres).

Today I want to tell you about my book called _____ .

This book won the _____ award (if relevant).

My tagline is _____ (20 words or so that capture your book).

Then, launch into your pitch. This should be 2 to 3 minutes long, max, allowing time for the agent or editor to ask questions. Have a 1-minute pitch prepared, too, in case of mealtime or elevator pitches.

Here are some guidelines:

→ Don't try to tell the whole story. Start with the plot catalyst, the event that gets the story started.

→ Then give the set-up, i.e. what happens in the first 30 to 50 pages that drives the reader into the rest of the book. Include the pressing story question or the major story conflict.

→ Fill out your pitch with any of the following: plot elements, character information, setting, backstory, or theme. You want to include just enough information to really intrigue your listener. Note that your pitch doesn't have to be all "plot." If your story is more character driven, then fill out your pitch with interesting character details. If the setting is an important element, talk about that. If the backstory plays heavily, round out your pitch with that. Be intentional in how you structure your pitch.

→ Finish by giving an idea of the climactic scenes and the story resolution.

→ Try not to tell too much of the story in the pitch. The pitch is supposed to get somebody interested, not tell the whole story. Stick to the high points, but be sure to tell enough that you don't leave your listener confused.

→ Include only a couple of characters.

→ Include one plot thread, or two if they’re closely intertwined. You can hint at the existence of other characters and plot lines.

Be prepared to answer questions that could include things like:
→ How does your story end?
→ What published author's style would you compare your writing to?
→ Who are your favorite authors in your genre?
→ Is this a series? And if so, what are the subsequent books about?
→ Have you worked with a critique group or a professional editor?
→ Have you pitched this to publishers in the past? If so, what was the response?

Important: Know all the key points of your pitch, but don't memorize your pitch verbatim. You want to be ready to speak it aloud and sound natural, whether during a planned meeting, a meal, in an elevator or a random encounter. Having your pitches prepared ahead of time (and adjusting them as necessary if you learn new things in workshops) will raise your confidence level.

And most important: To help raise your confidence and lower the nervousness, realize that agents and editors are regular people just like you. We clean our toilets, we change our kids' poopy diapers, we stress over what to wear and whether we're having a bad hair day. Also, we REALLY like chocolate. How much more normal could we be?

Rachelle has a plethora of good info on her blog. Be sure to stop over there and check her out sometime.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

All About Setting

So today I'm going to talk about setting. As in, where your story takes place. At my recent SCBWI conference, agent Beth Fleisher of Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency, Inc. spoke on the importance of setting in your ms. Here's some of what she had to say:

Setting makes a story unique. (Which helps with sales.)
Look at something like, Titanic. If you take away the boat, you just have a pretty common story about forbidden love between a poor boy and rich girl who's supposed to marry someone else. It's a story we've seen a thousand times, but never on the biggest, most opulent boat ever, or in the middle of the ocean.

In a good book, setting informs character and plot.
Setting can give the character's view of the world, and show so much about a character without explicitly saying so.

In Beautiful Creatures, (a book that's dripping with setting - so much that it's almost another character in the book) the setting tells us so much about Ethan, and the townspeople just from it's description. We know it's small, and hot, and steeped in history, all of which gives us a sense of what kind of people live there.

In Twilight, the rainy weather gives us hints about character and plot early on. We notice that The Cullens are never in school when it's sunny long before we find out why.

Setting has an external function.
Think again about Titanic. Once the ship hits the iceberg the setting becomes the major motivator for all of the characters' actions. Jack and Rose are no longer focused on being a couple, they're fighting to stay alive together. The setting moves the plot along.

Setting can be used to set up a juxtaposition, which can be powerful and moving.
One example of this that has always stuck with me is September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in New York City. Then the terror attack happened. It was surreal to see the bright blue sky and sunshine while there was so much horror and tragedy going on. It felt like it should be a dark, bleak day, but it wasn't, and in some ways that made it worse. Bad things aren't supposed to happen on beautiful days.

On a smaller scale, think of a girl getting dumped inside the most beautiful prom ever, in the most perfect dress. Or standing on a beach in Hawaii and getting a phone call that their mother is in the hospital. The reverse can work too. Stranded and freezing cold in a rain storm, a girl learns her crush is in love with her and suddenly she doesn't even notice the rain anymore.

Setting is the soul of the book.
You can use your setting to build a sense of intensity and fear, or romance. In most cases, it should work invisibly with the plot. Use your setting to build your atmosphere.

Everything must serve the book.
Don't be afraid to create your own setting. Even in a contemporary, realistic story. If there's no town or place that fits your needs, make one up! Just be sure to do your research, especially if you're setting your fictional town in an area you've never been.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Got Micro-tension?

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with Donald Maass on the importance of having micro-tension in your manuscript. Just as the term suggests, this doesn't refer to the over-arching conflict or obstacle facing your main character (which you could think of as macro-tension). Micro-tension is the tension that keeps readers turning each page in that "Oh, I'll read just one more chapter before bed...oh my god, it's 3am" kind of way. It's "line by line" tension. Do you have enough micro-tension in your story? Is there some sort of conflict on every page of your novel. Every. Single. Page. Mr. Maass discussed 3 main components of micro-tension:

1) Dialogue - every interaction between two characters should involve some sort of tension. This doesn't need to be overly dramatic, such as a fight. It can be subtle and implied, but it should still be there (think Hills Like White Elephants). 
2) Exposition - this is a great place to show the contradiction (conflict) between what a character is feeling/thinking and what they're doing (their actual behavior).
3) Action - while this might be the easiest place in theory to create micro-tension, you still need to make sure you have conflicting emotions in order to keep readers turning the page.

A great idea from Donald Maass: Print out your full manuscript and throw it in the air. Yeah, this might give overly organized peeps (like me) a heart attack but it's still great advice. Pick up a page at random and see if there is micro-tension on the page. Then pick up another page, etc. until you've picked up Every. Single. Page. If there's a page without micro-tension - fix it. His reason for doing it that way is that when writers read their manuscript in chronological order, they tend to over-estimate the tension on a given page. It's easier to be objective when picking a random page off the floor.

Any other tips out there on ensuring you have micro-tension on every page? Now get out there and throw those manuscripts!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Doing the Write Thing for Nashville and Contest Monday

If you haven't yet heard about the amazing auction going on to benefit the brave people of Nashville, please go check out Do the Write Thing for Nashville. There are some amazing things being auctioned off including critiques, signed books and phone calls with agents. I can't even imagine what the people living there have gone through, so even if you can't bid on something, send some positive thoughts their way.

Along those lines, there is only one week left to enter our Sisters in Scribe contest for a signed copy of Melissa Marr's Radiant Shadows. We already have a bunch of entries, but I will donate $1 for every entry we get by the deadline (5/17) toward disaster relief in Nashville. I'll announce the winner next Monday, along w/ the total number of entries. Have a fabulous week!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Where do I start?

I am currently revising the ms I wrote during NanoWriMo 2009 and the most difficult task I've faced with it is where to start.

Before you start writing, you'll need to know your world inside and out. Even if you're basing your setting on the place you live you need to know it and know it well. And you need to know your characters better than you know yourself. Those things are important for writing a salable book, but how do you know where to begin telling your story once you've planned it out?

You can start with a bang, right in the middle of intense action, but then the rest of the story might fall flat and loose suspension (see Valerie's post). Personally I don't like to read a book or watch a movie where something awesome happens right away, and then I have to read/watch the events that lead up to it. It can be done well, but it's not for me. Like Valerie mentioned, SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson does this well, but the big bad thing that happened to the MC didn't happen at the start of the book. It happened in the past and we read about the after.

You can start with pages of back story, but if the first page doesn't grab your teen audience, chances are they won't read much farther. If you're looking for an agent, Jim McCarthy of Dystel Goderich Literary Agency once said that you have about 6.2 seconds to impress him and then he moves on. With the very first novel length work I wrote I ended up cutting about twenty pages from the beginning. It wasn't necessarily back story but it was too much description and too little action. My lovely Sisters clued me in on that. :-)

GOING BOVINE is an example of a good book that starts a little slow. Cameron tells us the best day of his life was when he almost died at Disneyland. Attention grabber! But then we read all about how that happened and then we move into the story where not much is going on right away. The voice and the characters are what moves that story in the beginning. If we didn't know Cameron the way we do, when the change comes in to his life we might not feel sympathetic enough to really care.

So how do you decide where to start your story?

Each story is different. Some of them need to start with more action, some with less. I think the main thing is that you start with a change. If your character is happy with her life, something needs to happen right away to change that and throw her off-kilter. Weave back story in later and only if it's important. If you have anything to add, this newbie would love to know!

I've got to get back on my revisions, so I will leave you with John Dufresne's 10 commandments for writers:

  1. Sit your ass in the chair.
  2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
  3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
  4. Honor the lives of your characters.
  5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
  6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
  7. Thou shalt steal.
  8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
  9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
  10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Injecting Suspense Into Your Novel

This past weekend I attended my local SCBWI spring conference in Lansing, MI. It was all kinds of awesome. There were SO MANY great lectures and workshops and this is especially amazing because it was only a one day conference!

THE Jay Asher gave an inspiring talk on his 12 year path to publication. Seriously, 12 years! And how he held onto the idea that would become his first published book for something like 8 years before he finally came up with the perfect story to execute it. (If you haven't read his NYT Bestselling book Thirteen Reasons Why yet, you really should.)

But Kristi talked about inspiration yesterday, so I'll tackle something else. Suspense. Because you see, Jay Asher wasn't just there to tell us not to give up, he was there to teach.

One of your goals as a writer should be to keep your readers reading. Make your book un-put-downable. Don't give them convenient stopping places because they might not remember to pick it back up!


We learn over time what happened to cause the situation the MC is in. Usually this type of story begins with the major event already having happened to the main character and throughout the story we learn bits and pieces of what lead up to that event, OR the main character is thrust into a new situation and as the story progresses we uncover the reasons why.

books that do this well: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Holes by Louis Sachar

BEWARE of gimmicky slow reveals. It can be difficult to pull this off without making the reader feel duped. A story like Speak works because the MC is too traumatized to even think about what happened. But if a reader gets 3/4 of the way through the book and discovers that even though they've been inside the MC's head the entire time the MC never once let on that they knew exactly what happened the reader will be frustrated. Wondering why didn't the MC just say so in the first place.

Forcing the reader to flip pages faster and faster builds tension.
One way to do this is Pacing:
When things get tense/exciting, use shorter sentences and paragraphs.
White space on the page makes readers feel like they're moving through the book faster.
So that big, action-packed chase scene?
Don't fill it with long, winding, literary descriptions and huge blocks of fifteen line paragraphs.
See? Dialogue can also speed things up this way.

This goes for emotionally suspenseful moments too. If a character is about to learn that her dad is having an affair, that can be every bit as tension-filled as fighting off a zombie attack.

BEWARE being obvious about this. It should be undetectable, so save it for the moments when it really is tense and use it to ENHANCE those moments, not to make your boring chapter about going to the dentist feel more exciting. (Because unless that dentist is a ninja assassin, it's not.)

The end of a chapter is not the end of an episode/scene/event, it's the promise of something more. Let me repeat that because it's worth hearing twice: The end of a chapter is not the end of an episode/scene/event, it's the PROMISE OF SOMETHING MORE.

Ways to do this:
- What just grabbed me?!? (Think: A character walks into a dark room, he hears a sound, turns and something grabs his shoulder. He thinks OMG! What just grabbed me? And the chapter ends.) - This is a fairly cheap way to get the reader to turn the page. (According to Jay, all of the Goosebumps books work this way, but I haven't verified this.)

BEWARE: The problem with this type of cliffhanger is that it only encourages the reader to read the next few sentences to find out what grabbed the MC. Once they're read that, they can stop. This is often used when the reveal is not that exciting, like in the example I used, the beginning of the next chapter would reveal that it was just his friend that grabbed him, not some hideous monster, they would both laugh at how scared they were and the tension would be gone. Too many of these will disappoint your reader and they start to believe your book is just a bunch of cheap parlor tricks.

- Cut the Action Early - This causes anxiety in the reader. It's similar to the above example but instead it occurs in the middle of an event like a confrontation, fight or chase scene. The reader simply has to read the next chapter and find out what happens next.

- Hint at Stories To Come - This builds anticipation. If you wrap up a major event in a chapter, make sure that the end of that event sets up the beginning of the next one.

For Example: Your MC finally finds the magic box they've been looking for. Yay! (Do NOT end the chapter here.) But wait, what's that rumbling sound? Oh no! Dislodging the box from it's hiding space has set off a rock slide! How will they get out of this? (And... end chapter!)

BEWARE tying things up in pretty bows. When you wrap up a chapter with all the loose ends tied up you lose anticipation. There's no reason for the reader to keep reading because everything was just resolved. Coming from the screenwriting world, this is probably my biggest weakness when it comes to suspense. I think in scenes which means generally they end neatly, and then the next one starts somewhere else at some later time. Do not be like me.

books that do this well: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Other Easy but Effective Ways to Inject Suspense:
- Prologues
- Countdowns
- Chapter Titles

What about you? What are some of your favorite ways to inject suspense? What books do you think do it well?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Writing and Perseverance

I was at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference listening to keynote speaker, Jodi Thomas, and I actually got a little weepy - and I'm so not a crier. Jodi is a NYT best-selling author many times over and is the author of books such as Tall, Dark, and Texan. She was a hilarious speaker who nailed the differences between people who are writers and people who aren't. She was also such an inspiration to aspiring authors everywhere. She told a story of starting out in the business and what led her to persevere, which I'll sum up briefly here.

Jodi decided she wanted to write for a living and proceeded to write non-stop in her free time. Sometime later, she attended a writing conference where there was a competition involving 15 different contest categories. She wrote something and entered ALL 15 categories! She went to the conference with high expectations, certain they would just keep her up on stage as she'd win so many of the awards. Not only did she win ZERO awards, but one of the categories only had 7 total entries and they gave out 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place and then 3 honorable mentions. Yep, she was the 7th place out of 7. Feeling horrible about herself and her writing, she left the conference and drove to a cemetery, saying it was the only place she knew she'd be doing better than everyone else.

She plunked herself down on a cement square and when she stood up awhile later, she noticed she was sitting on the word THROUGH that had been etched in the stone. Thinking that was an odd word to have alone on a stone, she brushed the leaves off the rest of the square to find there was one word on each side. It read:
"Triumph Comes Through Perseverance." She decided in that moment that she was a writer no matter what, and left that cemetery knowing for certain that she wouldn't turn back.

Don't get me wrong - talent is great. I think you need a certain amount of talent to succeed in whatever your chosen path is, but beyond that, you need perseverance. Plenty of talented writers will never be published. It takes perseverance and doing that 20th revision, if necessary, to get it right. Don't let anyone else tell you otherwise! Now excuse me, while I get back to my 20th revision...:)

Does anyone else have writerly inspiration that has helped them through a rough time?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spread the Awesome: Radiant Shadows Giveaway

The fab Elana J. organized this completely awesome event where each of us celebrates a different published writer - a writer whose book deserves 10 stars. As I love an excuse to celebrate and I think Elana rocks,  I jumped at the chance to help out. The entire list of participating bloggers and the authors they've chosen can be found on Elana's blog here.

As noted in my post last week, the amazing Melissa Marr spoke at the Tattered Cover in Denver. She was there to promote the newest addition to the Wicked Lovely Series, titled Radiant Shadows.

Hunger for nourishment.
Hunger for touch.
Hunger to belong.
Half-human and half-faery, Ani is driven by her hungers.
Those same appetites also attract powerful enemies and uncertain allies, including Devlin. He was created as an assassin and is brother to the faeries' coolly logical High Queen and to her chaotic twin, the embodiment of War. Devlin wants to keep Ani safe from his sisters, knowing that if he fails, he will be the instrument of Ani's death.
Ani isn't one to be guarded while others fight battles for her, though. She has the courage to protect herself and the ability to alter Devlin's plans—and his life. The two are drawn together, each with reason to fear the other and to fear for one another. But as they grow closer, a larger threat imperils the whole of Faerie. Will saving the faery realm mean losing each other?
Alluring romance, heart-stopping danger, and sinister intrigue combine in the penultimate volume of Melissa Marr's New York Times bestselling Wicked Lovely series.

Radiant Shadows is the fourth book in the Wicked Lovely series and it definitely doesn't disappoint. Melissa is a master at world-building and story-telling, and she makes it easy to suspend belief and reside in another world for awhile. NOTE: I planned to read the entire series on my annual book club getaway in the mountains this past weekend, but the hot tub didn't lend itself to keeping the books dry -- and I spent a lotta time in the hot tub! Since all the books are signed by Melissa, I wanted to keep them in great condition, so my goal for the week is to finish them before I send them out to the lucky winners.

One lucky winner will receive a SIGNED hardcopy of Radiant Shadows by Melissa Marr. Contest begins Mon. May 3rd and closes Monday May 17th. One winner will also receive signed copies of the first 3 books in the series: Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange, and Fragile Eternity on my other blog, Funky Fruit Book Reviews. So be sure to enter there as well for a chance to win all 4!

Good luck and please check out another great book recommendation on Nisa's blog here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...