Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel- Part Two: The Importance of Proper Word Choice

"There are two important corrections in the update on our Deep Relaxation professional development program. First, the program will include meditation, not medication. Second, it is experiential, not experimental."
-Richard Lederer, Anguished English

I love Jay Leno's "Headlines." I'm not always a huge Leno fan, especially after the whole Conan thing, but I do love "Headlines." I'm especially amazed at how a slight word difference can affect the reading of a line. Take the example above (which is actually from Richard Lederer's Anguished English). Can you imagine what that original note would have read like? The difference between drug-induced sedation and pseudo-spiritual relaxation is just two words.

I know you're thinking: So what does this have to do with novel writing, Kyle? The importance of editing?

Perhaps, but that's not really my point. What I'm talking about is the impact word choice has on the feel of something you read. It's something we stress a lot in poetry writing, but is sometimes lost in novel writing.

Let's take a look at a line of some very rough prose of mine from my current WIP Weathervane, in which the protag, David, is chasing down the cow Veala before she gets herself killed in a thunderstorm:

After a second's hesitation, David drove towards the cow, who moved on slowly
. He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, this is fine enough, I guess. Not great, but decently gripping. However, the word choice is a bit blah. Let's try to make it better, shall we?

The first word that catches my eye here is the word "drove." That's pretty generic. Yes, we need to pick a better word, but which one? What's the feeling we want here? We want time to feel like it's moving fast. Hurtled? Raced? Flew?

Now comes the poetics. We want to read through the line without stopping. We're moving fast, right? So does that mean we want the shortest word (flew)? Not necessarily. We need to look at the poetic "feet" of the line.

First, we hesitate at the first clause, because it's just a bit jumbled (not a clean rhythm). That's good. We're supposed to "hesitate." The second clause, though, should move fast. Let's look at the stresses: "DAvid DROVE toWARDS the COW." See how we have a nice hard/soft repeating here? That's good scantion of that line. It flows well. We don't have anything breaking the rhythm, so we move fast through it.

If we used "hurtled," it would have a different feel: "DAvid HURtled toWARDS the COW." See how we have "-tled to-" (two soft sounds) next to each other? It's a bump in the line. Slows us down. Now, if David were hurling along a bumpy path and we said that in the next clause, then maybe. Our prose would reflect the feeling. But here, we're just moving fast, so this doesn't work.

So, it's either "raced" or "flew." Well, flew can mean fast-moving, but it can also mean literally flying. Could this throw off a reader? Possibly. Raced, though, means moving fast, or literally trying to move faster than another object. In this situation, he's literally racing against the cow. He needs to get to her before she gets where she's going. So, raced it is.

Now comes the third clause: who moved on slowly.

Despite the word "slowly," this line moves too fast. We "move on," but not in the way we should. Let's add a couple words, and then I'll show you what I did:

who continued slowly and obliviously.

Now, the line doesn't fly by unnoticed. Cow is a hard sound and who is a soft sound, which flows, but then you get to the first sound of "continued," which is a soft sound. The line comes to a screeching halt there. EXACTLY as it should. As readers, we read the last clause slower, stumbling through it a bit. The contrast between the image of David driving his bike and the slowly trotting cow is reinforced by our word choice here. And we didn't even realize it.

Here's the line again. Do you get the feel?

After a second's hesitation, David raced towards the cow, who continued slowly and obliviously.

Could you tell the difference? Amazing how a small word change affects the reading of the line. Let's move on.

He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, for one thing, this line is too long. This is an action sequence. Short lines heighten action. This long line just goes on and on and on, and we get lost. Sometimes that's a good thing, but not now. Remember, it's all about whether the feel is appropriate. We could cut this up into two lines, but I'm going to cut it up even smaller. Let's see how this feels:

He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. Almost there now. At the precise moment he passed it, he jumped. As he did, David tossed the lasso at Veala and kicked the bike, sending it the opposite direction.

Now, that's not quite perfect, but it's better than it was. What did I do there? I made them short lines. I also made each a poetic phrase, so that the "feet" of the lines flowed, soft hard soft hard. He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. I ended on a hard at the end of each sentence, so that each one felt like a tiny gasp of information. Then, I changed it up with "almost there now." Hard soft hard soft. It's a "leaning forward" effect. Then, a long string of more complex stresses (not as flowing), then a single clause ("he jumped") that ends on a strong stress and an action word. That's a triple-hard stress, which reinforces the feeling of jumping. A hard pounding and then a pause. Then, it returns to more natural prose, and the poetic moment is ended.

Let's put it all together and see the difference. Originally, it was:

After a second's hesitation, David drove towards the cow, who moved on slowly. He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, it is:

After a second's hesitation, David raced towards the cow, who continued slowly and obliviously. He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. Almost there now. At the precise moment he passed it, he jumped. As he did, David tossed the lasso at Veala and kicked the bike, sending it the opposite direction.

These are small changes, but they really change the way the line feels. Keep this up over an entire passage, and you can really shape the way the reader reacts to your book.

But Kyle, that's a lot of work.

I know it is, and I don't expect you to put that much thought into each line, but if you get in the habit of thinking that way, it'll soon become a feel thing. You'll read a line and go, "That doesn't flow right." When you think that, you're noticing the poetics of the line. Maybe your line goes "hard soft soft hard soft soft," and then you have a random "hard soft hard soft" in there throwing it off. Consider: is that a good thing or a bad thing? How do I want that particular clause to flow?

If you can keep your mind on that, you'll be far on your way to writing a stellar novel.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Writing that Stellar Novel- Part One: The Balancing Act

So you want to write a bestselling novel. Here's how to do it in three easy steps!

Ok, so maybe it's not that easy (although, if you come across such a blog post, please let me know!). In truth, a lot of different things go in to writing a bestseller, not the least of which is having the right book in the right place at the right time.

Imagine you've written a great book about a girl falling in love with a vampire. You don't normally read such books, but you had this dream... Well, now let's say you're about 3/4 of the way through, when you see previews for this new movie called Twilight. Now, you suddenly realize there's this whole series of books and they're really popular and everything and are selling really well. Now, if you had the novel done and were already shopping it, that would be great. People will be wanting books in that genre. However, you're only 3/4 of the way done with the book. By the time you finish and get it ready to submit to agents, the market will be saturated. If you're writing a vampire love story at the time of this blog posting, you might as well put the project down and write something else. No one's buying right now.

My point is that chance plays a large part in getting published and doing well. However, there are things you can do, and in this series, I'm going to examine some of those. I don't expect this to be a limited-run series as the previous one was, but rather, I will add to it as the need and inspiration presents itself. Hopefully, you'll find it helpful.

The first (and perhaps most important) element to writing a stellar novel is writing a balanced plot. I don't care about the beauty of your prose, the depth of the characters, or the importance of the themes. If your story is boring, few people are going to pick it up. Mark Twain once said, "High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water." (Letter to William Dean Howells, 15 February 1887) My problem with "fine literature" has always been the same as it has been with "fine wine." If the taste must be so strenuously acquired to even appreciate the experience, wherein is the value? If it's really so great, shouldn't everyone like it? I'd rather have a "water" novel than a "wine" novel.

My point is that if you want a "water" novel, that is, you want to write a novel that will sell well (or at all), then you'll need a plot that is balanced. What does that mean? Think back on novels you really, really liked. Think especially of novels that also sold very well. For my exercise, I'm going to use the (perhaps obvious) Harry Potter series.

In very, very general terms, what are the basic elements of the plot of Harry Potter that draws people to it? Now, I'm not talking about theme here. I'm talking about plot elements. Also, I'm speaking generally, not specifically. So, what does it have?
  1. Action- At some point in every Harry Potter novel, things fly around and blow up. A fight breaks out in some form. People run, jump, flee, etc. Stuff happens. The same should be true for your novel. At some point your MC should be in a situation that is tense and somehow dangerous (whether fleeing death eaters or merely hiding from the girlfriend of the guy you just slept with). If everything is always hunky-dory for your MC, then why do we care?
  2. Drama- This is different than action. Action is a "right now" tension from some external force. Drama is an internal force. In the Harry Potter novels, there's always something that Harry is dealing with, whether it's uncontrollable anger and feelings of injustice, a spat with Ron, or else Ron and Hermione fighting amongst themselves (again). These situations, even Ron and Hermione fighting, have some impact on Harry that develops him as a character. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry must deal with feeling torn between his two friends when it seems as if they will never reconcile. Dramatic scenes are necessary, and should always be a point of character development for the MC.
  3. Suspense/Mystery- In every Harry Potter book, there is something that both the MC (Harry) and the reader does not know and is trying to figure out. Now, this occurs in different forms. Sometimes the reader and MC are looking for the same thing ("What is the philosopher's stone and why is it so important?"). However, sometimes it's different things (Harry wonders "What is Draco up to?" when the reader is also wondering "When and how will Harry find out/prove that Draco and Snape are planning something sinister?"). A gripping scene will keep the reader interested for a while, but there must be something in the book that the reader doesn't know to make them want to keep turning the pages and find out.
  4. Humor- All of the Harry Potter books have humorous parts. People love to laugh. The whole book doesn't have to be a laugh riot, but there is a reason why it's called comic relief. Tension needs to break so it can build again. Rising and falling tension is key to a good story. Humor also draws us to characters. If we can laugh with a character, it makes us feel bonded to them. Joke with your MC, and your readers will feel more connected and invested in the story. Joke with your antagonist, and your reader will either feel conflicted if it's something we also find funny (which can sometimes be a good thing) or feel disgusted if it is something we don't find humorous. Humor impacts the way the reader feels about your characters, so use it. It's an important tool.
  5. Romance- I actually hesitated to put this, because not all great novels must have romance. However, love is a very strong emotion and thus romance is an important element that appears in most greatly-loved stories. Another caveat here. Harry Potter didn't begin to have romance until Goblet of Fire, but that was when the series officially made the cross from middle grade fiction to young adult fiction. If you're writing middle grade fiction, you can ignore this category. However, if you're writing YA or adult fiction, then take heed. Love is something that every post-pubescent reader you have can identify with. Want to be sure your story is relatable to your reader? Add some romance into the plot. It's also a great way to add drama (and thus more character growth).
A good story will have all of these elements in an appropriate balance for the story. Think of the Twilight Saga. More romance and less action and suspense. However, it's all there. What about a James Patterson novel? In that case, there's more mystery and action, and less romance and drama. Still, he always adds romance and drama, because that's what advanced Alex Cross as a character. The same is true for the detective shows on TV that actually do well. Look at CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order, and see why they are more successful than shows that run 6 episodes and die out. They have the right balance of these five elements. Not enough humor or drama? Flop. Too much drama and not enough mystery and action? Flop.

It's all about the right balance for the story and genre. Master that, and you're well on your way to having a stellar novel.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Becoming a Slush Pile Hero- Part Five: Pressin' On

Sorry for the slight hiatus. Easter holidays.


This post will conclude my series on becoming a slush pile hero. I would like to conclude with a post on what to do when an agent offers representation. I would like to do that. But I can't. You see, I haven't found representation yet, so I wouldn't have the foggiest idea about that process.

However, there is something I can talk about: rejection. I've gotten plenty of that. It's not something that we like to read about or think about, but it's there, and if you're going to become a slush pile hero, it's something you'll need to learn to master. Otherwise, it'll master you.

So, first step: knowing you've been rejected. If you're lucky, you'll receive an email saying verbage such as:

Unfortunately, this is not something that seems right for me.


I’m sorry, but I don’t feel this is going to be one for me.


Unfortunately I'm going to have to pass.

However, we're not always that lucky. Sometimes, agents get so busy that they don't have time to respond to each and every email. Or, they get so busy that they fail to respond until 6 months later. So what do you do in these situations? How do you know if they're delayed, or if you're getting the brush-off?

Well, the truth is, you assume a brush off. Read the response time stated on the website (if present) and if you don't get an email after the long side of that time period, assume a brush off. If they don't have a website or they don't state a response time, give them two months. Then, assume a brush off.

The key is to go with the "worst case scenario." If you're wrong and three months after you sent the query you get a request or offer, then great! However, in the mean time, you haven't sat around waiting for a response that never comes.

But what do you do when you get a brush-off without so much as an email saying as such? Well, unless you're in exclusivity with them (see the previous post for how to handle that), then you move on. You don't contact them again asking for status. You know the status. It's been six months and you haven't heard a word. They aren't interested. If they were, you would have heard from them by now.

"But Kyle, how can you be so callous and nonchalant about a non-response? Don't you know that it hurts to have someone reject you?"

Yes, I do know that. I was a teenager once. I know as much about the pain of rejection as anyone else. It sucks to get a rejection letter, especially if you've sent them part/all of your manuscript. You can't blame it on them not "getting the concept." They read the book. They didn't like it.

The thing is, though, that you have to remember that it's not a loss. You have a list of candidates as much as they do. You have (or should have) a list of agents you'd like to work with. This "rejection" helps pair down your list. This person doesn't want to work with you. Ok, scratch that one off. Time to move on to the next name. Maybe this person will be the right one. You aren't a desperate little beggar. You've written a stellar novel. All you need is one agent to see the potential and fall in love with it. That's it.

In the same vein, don't write them and tell them how stupid they are or how much they'll regret it. For one thing, NEVER burn a bridge. For another, your book will never meet its potential if you don't have the right combination of author, agent, editor, and publisher. Imagine how things would have been different if Stephenie Meyer hadn't found Jodi Reamer. Ms. Reamer rejected a very nice advance offer, because she knew Ms. Meyer could receive more. Would things have been the same for both Meyer and the novel itself if she hadn't received a three-book deal for 3/4 of a million dollars? Probably not.

See, it's all about finding the right champion for your book. You want someone to love what you've wrote and promote it. So, sometimes, a rejection may not even really be a rejection. Sometimes, it's more like, "It's a good book, but not really my thing." That's fine, actually. Get someone who loves the type of novel you've written and go for them. That's how you make that perfect match.

And as far as the rejection goes, focus on the list. You're trying to eliminate poor candidates. You're not looking for love. This is business. You can do this. You can be a slush pile hero. Now pick yourself up, find the next name on the list, and write that query letter.