Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Interview with Steven Malk

I've mentioned Literary Rambles a few times, but if you aren't following that blog, you should be. At any rate, this week Casey opened up the blog for questions to the Writer's House agent, Steven Malk, who was kind enough to answer some of them. There are a lot of great questions and answers, and I'll let you go visit the site to read them all. However, right off the bat the first one was especially noteworthy. As a new author, I've never been sure of what to put in the credentials section. I put down my M.A. in English, which is good, but there was nothing else, really. I haven't submitted anything to any contests and all my writing awards are from high school. However, when someone asked Malk that question, he was sure to mention blog writing and other types of writing as important.

Well, obviously I write a blog. I guess I do it well (fishing for compliments here. How pathetic!). I also work in the training department, and a lot of what I do is writing. I have plenty of writing experience. It's just about being able to see it. The same is true for you.

Anyway, here's Malk's full response:

It states on the Submission page to include in your query letter your credentials. What if this is the first book I've ever written and have no "credentials?"

Hi Carol,

Rest assured that it’s absolutely fine if you’ve never been published before. I’ve worked with new writers throughout my career and it’s something I greatly enjoy. However, keep in mind that credentials don’t pertain solely to books that you’ve published. Perhaps you’ve published short stories, magazine articles, maintained a blog, or done other types of writing. Or you could be connected to the writing community in other ways, such as working at a bookstore, attending writers conferences, or just having a lifelong love of reading. Those all count as credentials in my book, and they’d certainly be worth noting in your query.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Three: Trimming the Fat

It's the most dreaded part of novel-writing, I think. None one likes to do it. I certainly don't. If you do enjoy it, please let me know why. Did you have a head injury, perhaps? The rest of us, though... there is nothing worse than editing for length.

Over-long novels. It happens to the best of us. It certainly happened to me. When I finished the first draft of The Ledger Domain, my book had 202,000 words.

Yes, you read that right. 202,000 words. And that's actual words, not "manuscript length" based on pages. I had a whole extra book's worth of material.

That sort of length for a first novel is UNPUBLISHABLY long. Don't let anyone fool you or lie to you. I'll shoot it to you straight. If you have a novel that long, it's not going to get published as is. You need to edit. Period.

The thing about it is, if you're novel is that long... you need to edit. It's not just about being "too long to publish." There isn't a reason for your book to be that long. Mine certainly didn't need to be. There was a lot in there that needed cutting.

For some, that editing could be that you need to cut the book in the middle somewhere. If you have a place close to half-way through the book that would be a good stopping point... great! Now you have the first two novels in a series! Congratulations! More often than not, though, that won't be the case. For the rest of us, we need to edit.

Ok, so now what? Do you just go in and start trimming a word here and there? Not quite. I've read that a lot on blogs about this subject, but that's really more targeted for those writing magazine articles, not novels. Trimming phrasing is good, but it isn't really helpful if your talking, in my case, needing to cut 50,000 to 75,000 words or more.

Actually, the best analogy I've found for this comes in the commonly-used metaphor "trimming the fat." If your novel is anything approaching good, you'll have two types of scenes in your story: meat and fat. The meat is in the sections that are the heart of your story. These are the scenes that advance the plot. These are the scenes that tell the actual story of your book. The rest (the character development, the humorous scenes, the background stories, etc.), are "the fat."

The easiest way to get frustrated when it comes to trimming is to confuse fat for meat. You'll end up tearing your hair out saying, "I know that it's 180,000 words, but they're all important!" No, they aren't all important, actually. Yes, some of it develops your MC, but do you need that development in order for the MC to do what happens next? If it is not absolutely crucial, it's fat. How do you know it's crucial? If there is no way that the plot advances without telling that scene, it's crucial.

Typically, there are two ways in which character development is actually meat. First, it imparts something important. For example, the death of the MC's brother John two years ago might have been an important traumatic event that made the MC who they are today, but since it's not actually happening today, it's not meat. Now, if the book is about a potential terrorist attack, and John worked on the bomb squad and supposedly died in an explosion, and his body was never recovered... now that might be crucial to the plot. If we find out that John is actually the person behind the attack, then yeah. It's meat. Otherwise, it's fat.

The other way character development might advance the plot is by causing the character to do something they wouldn't otherwise do (assuming the thing they do advances the plot). Again, this development needs to happen during the course of the novel. This can't be a "background" element. If it happened before the start of the novel, it's not meat. However, even if the development happens during the novel, it's not meat unless that development directly affects the plot! Here's an example. Let's say your MC, Julie, finds out during the course of the novel that her father, Paul, is having an affair. Unless this is a novel that centers around Paul's affair, then the entire affair plot line is going to be fat, not meat, even if it helps us identify with Julie and develops her character. However, what if the person Paul is having an affair with is Julie's boss's secretary? Nope, still not meat. But what if Julie's boss is involved in a dangerous and illegal scheme? Well then, Julie learning about her father's affair might cause her to investigate the secretary to "find out who this girl is" (something she wouldn't otherwise do), thus revealing the truth about the boss's scheme. Now, if that's the case, then it's meat.

Got a good handling on fat and meat now? Good.

However, understanding what's meat and what's fat is only the first step. Now, you need to know when to cut. You want to start by cutting fat. Just not all the fat. Think of a good steak. For the best taste, you need some marbling. Some fat heightens the flavor of the meat. Too much fat just makes it greasy and unappetizing. The same is true with a novel. You need some of the fat so that we can learn to love your story. If you're story has too much fat, we'll be left wondering when we'll get to the meat. If your story is too "lean," then it's going to be... um... dry.

But what if you think you've done a good job of cutting the fat, and you're still too long? Well, now it's time to cut meat. That does need to happen sometimes. However, just as with steak, you should be careful where you cut. If you're going to cut down a T-Bone, you don't cut the tenderloin (at least, not if you want the best-tasting T-bone possible). Cutting the meat means simplifying the plot. Maybe there's a twist you just don't need. Simplify. Make the story easier for your reader to follow. Just don't cut out the heart of the story. If you don't know what that is... well, I can't help you there. Leave the elements that must be there, and cut the rest.

Now, this won't be easy sometimes, but to be an author, you must be ruthless. Just as you sometimes must kill off characters you like, sometimes you need to kill off your favorite scenes. Trust me. I cut my novel from 202,000 words to 125,000. I had to get rid of some scenes I liked, but the novel as a whole is much better for it. Trimming the fat can be a difficult process, but it is very rewarding, and your readers will thank you.


P.S.: The tool I mentioned in my previous post is a great tool for fat-trimming. It organizes your plot into scenes. This can really help you see which scenes are fat, and lets you trim accordingly. I'll say again that I highly recommend it. And in case you're wondering, it's a free tool, so no they aren't paying me to promote them. I just really like the software.

P.S.S.: Note that you may have a lot of fat at the beginning of the story. This is often described by agents as "starting in the wrong place." Always start your novel with meat. If you're eating a steak, would you want your first bite to be a big hunk of fat?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Possibly the Best Writer Software Ever Made

Ok, I'll make this short and sweet. Go get this software. I just downloaded it, and it's the coolest software I've seen for writers. I've seen some fancy stuff with plot assistance and all that sort of thing, but honestly I tend to find that sort of thing tiresome. This is simply a project editor. And it's free.

The software eliminates the problems of having either a single huge file that tends to get corrupted, or else a bunch of tiny files that you can't navigate through. It works by creating a number of .rtf files on the back end, but as far as you're concerned, you can edit through this software, including global find/replace.

It will also help you keep track of characters, important items, locations, etc. It doesn't take long to enter all the basic info for your characters (if you enter the goals, etc., it may take longer), and then you just use the "automatically add characters" command, and it links everything up. There is even a "problem words" tool that helps you find overused words, etc.

I actually had the idea for software like this, but didn't have the programming chops to do it. I'm so glad someone else has done it!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Book is Not a Rose by Any Other Name!

If there is one thing I hate in the querying process, it's comparative analysis. There is nothing worse than the annoying task of comparing my manuscript to published novels. It is something I personally have chosen to avoid, but still, there are some agents that list comparative analysis in their submission guidelines.

Now I'll be honest here. Even when they request this, I ignore it.

Why? Well, I hate comparing my novel to some existing work, and not because I think my book is "so cool and unique." On the contrary, I get the idea behind the request. The agent is wanting to get a better feel for the book. However, writing the comparison is, by definition, fraught with peril. Take my novel The Ledger Domain for example. It's a novel about a girl who goes to school to train to become a magical spy. There's action, suspense, and romance... it's a lot of fun.

Still, when I begin writing a comparison, the heart of my book falls flat. What do I say? "It's Harry Potter meets James Bond?" Doesn't quite capture it, does it? Sounds kinda lame, and besides, I can't use either of those. Comparing your work to a big name is a huge no-no, because obviously, since I've made that comparison, I surely think I'm the next J.K. Rowling or Ian Fleming.

(I don't, for the record.)

So, I need to find something rare enough that it's not bragging but not so obscure that they haven't heard of it. Great. That'll be easy. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Hmm... Ok, how about a book series I recently discovered? "It's like Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, but with magic!" (Ally Carter is a bestseller, but not necessarily a household name.) How dumb is that comparison? Besides, it's not really true. Ally Carter's series is about a girl who goes to a girl's school that trains future spies. Yeah, that much is similar. However, the actual feel and plot style of that book is way, way different. Carter's series is a lighthearted romance about a girl using her spy skills to get a boy and handle normal high school experiences. My book is much darker, with sinister shades, international crime syndicates, and threats to our way of life. It has romance, yes, but that isn't the main purpose of the plot. It's a far cry from "The Gallagher Girls with magic."

The problem with comparative analysis is that when I mention The Gallagher Girls, I'm not just calling forth the premise to your mind. I'm also calling forth the feel of the book. It's what those boring literary theory types call "semiotics." Derrida tells us (oops, did I expose myself as a boring literary theory type?!) that a word doesn't boil down to a single, specific meaning. This is because there are so many varying potential meanings and relationships to the word (this is Derrida in a too-confining nutshell, but hey). With books, it's the same. The Gallagher Girls is more than just a plot premise. There are themes, characters, voice, and style. All of these elements come to mind as part of what The Gallagher Girls means to you (assuming you've read the books).

Does that mean that you can't use a comparison in your query? Definitely not. It can be a good thing, especially if your book's premise isn't simple/clear. Your book about "the rambling adventures of a boy in dark-yet-ordinary world of monsters who are just like us" might be better understood as "an darkly humorous cross between Percy Jackson and On the Road."

I'm just saying that, if you're going to attempt it, be sure you're aware of the pitfalls and do your best to avoid them. Clearly demonstrating the "voice" of your book is always important, but when you're using a comparison, it's crucial.

This is in response to a comment below. I could have just responded in the comments, but it is something I wanted to mention in the blog anyway.

When an agent makes a list of "submission requirements," that doesn't necessarily mean you must give them everything that is exactly on that list. Now some people may be saying, "Yes, it does!!!"

You're wrong.

The agent is listing what they would like to see. If you leave something out, you just need to weigh the cost/benefit. There are reasons to use comparisons and reasons not to use them. Honestly, leaving that out isn't like leaving out, say, a good explanation of who you are. The latter is a standard part of a query letter that will make your letter look less professional if you leave it out. A comparison is what I call a "would-be-nice." If an agent is going to write you off for that... do you really want that type of agent? After all, if the agent's main concern is how a single book fits perfectly within the current trend, then they aren't likely to be concerned about representing you for the long haul.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bucket List

Do you ever find yourself living in buckets? I do sometimes. Without realizing it, I'll have my writing bucket, my family bucket, my work bucket, my music bucket, even my religion bucket. Everything in it's nice, clean place.

The problem? Life isn't neat and clean. It's messy. Moreover, it should be messy. I'm a writer, and this blog is directed towards writers. However, that doesn't mean that I should write from inside a bucket. Despite from wondering where in the world you'd find a bucket large enough to fit me inside it along with my laptop, and despite the confusing motivations that would cause me to climb inside and start writing in the first place, the thing is that a bucket isn't a location that breeds good material. You can't see the outside world from there, and you need to see the outside world to write.

You see, I'm married with a little girl whom I adore, plus another one on the way. I don't talk about them often, though. Not on the blog. That's my family bucket. This is my writer bucket. S. Kyle Davis and Kyle Davis aren't the same person. S. Kyle Davis is my writer persona. Not me.

The thing is... he really is me. Why pretend otherwise?

If I include my family within my writer world, my books are going to be better. Why? Because all sorts of crazy, sad, hilarious, and amazing things happen with my family. What a wonderful place to find inspiration for material! My girl, whom we call Monkey, has developed this cute habit of singing "Ada" over and over. We sing together, and she tries to trick me. She'll hold it out really long, like "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAda!" and then giggle. Other times she pretends to start singing, and then doesn't, and laughs that she tricked me. She's so funny.

Wouldn't that be a great thing to include in a novel? One of my MCs, Taylor, has a foster brother that's 4. You could modify that for age, and it would be cute, a nice character development moment to see the MC interacting with the little boy that isn't in any way related to her.

I don't mean exploit your family for the sake of your novel. I mean that who you are and what's important to you should flow into your writing. Is family important to you? Be sure you include a family in your story. Look at Twilight. Meyer is a mother with a family that is really important to her. That comes across in the way Bella interacts with her dad and the Cullens interact. There is family all over the place, and it is one of the things that she does really well in the novel. It gives it heart.

The same is true for everything else. Is what you do important to you? If so, use the knowledge and love you have for that in your story. I work for an AV manufacturing company, and my love for technology really comes across in both my novels. Also, I'm a Christian, and proud of it. I don't write "Christian novels,"but that doesn't mean my faith can't affect my writing. If I really believe it, then shouldn't it affect my writing?

My point is this: If it's important to you, then use it in your story. Your writing and your life will be better for it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

YA Book Review: Feed and Octavian Nothing

I apologize for the hiatus from writing. Things have been hectic on the writing and editing fronts lately. I am going to try for a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, and at least blog on those days. Not as prolific as some of you bloggers that write every day, but hopefully they'll be somewhat meaningful to people anyway.


So, I've decided to add a new feature to my blog. I do quite a bit of reading in the YA genre, which is something that every author should do. If you're not reading books in
your genre, how do you know what the trends are, what's been done, and where the gaps are? How will you know how to make your novel unique? More importantly, if you don't love the genre, why are you writing in it? That doesn't mean you must be a "genre writer." Plenty of authors write across all genres. Even still, you should love the genre you're writing in, or else your attempt will come off as what it is: an attempt to exploit a genre because it's trendy this week. My point? READ PEOPLE!

Anyway, I read a lot. Well, technically I listen, because I use audiobooks. I have a bad case of ADHD, and it tends to get in the way of my physical reading. I can't focus on the lines on the page enough to read sometimes. Even as I write, I have to read aloud a lot so that I can be sure I don't have any dropped words and to make sure everything works. I know that everyone does this, but for me, it's actually a necessity.

However, because I read a lot, I occasionally come across a book that is particularly interesting for whatever reason. Sometimes it's really good, other times it's really bad. Sometimes it's just mediocre, but there's just something about it that peaks my interest. Whenever I find those books, I want to talk about them. Now, here's a way to do that!

Of course, because it's me, I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into my own formula. I'm going to review two books.

The first is a short little novel (about 5 CDs in length) called Feed. Now, it's a YA novel, but out of the gate, I must say that this is OLDER YA. You probably don't want your 14-year-old reading this book. Filled with sex, drugs, and strong language, it's not for the faint of heart or the sheltered child. Still, none of it feels gratuitous, except perhaps the language, which really isn't gratuitous at all. The language is part of the experience. Want to read an excerpt? You can do so here.

Now, don't go clicking on the link just yet. Wait to read it until you're done with the review. You'll see why as we go along. Trust me.

Anyway, whenever you do read the excerpt, or the book, you'll see that there is a certain flow to it. Authors and agents talk a lot about voice, and this book has voice in spades. The entire novel has a feeling to it, and the 1st-person narrative is exactly what you'd expect a semi-intelligent but half-stupid trendy teenage boy to sound like. At times, he sounds dumb, which he should, but then there are these moments where the language just gets luscious and the descriptions are the type that curl your toes.

So yeah, I liked the feel of the book. Now, for the plot. Feed is a dystopian novel set in a world where internet, radio, and tv are all combined and sent directly into teenage brains. A book about consumerism, the pages (and the kids' cerebral cortexes) are filled with advertising messages about the best local bars, the new gadgets they need to get, and the coolness of the legions that the feed causes. It's pretty typical cyberpunk stuff (or rather "cyberprep," as Wikipedia puts it), but that wonderful language I mentioned really sets it apart. The story is artsy and great, and I really enjoyed it until it stopped.

Yeah, the book doesn't conclude. It just ends. You see, I was listening to it on my iPod. I hadn't gotten around to converting the stupid audiobook format to music format (in music format the entire book is actually a single album, but with the audiobook format each track is a separate album). That meant that at the end of the book my iPod said it was track 5 of 10. So, I thought the book went on at the next track. I was kind of wondering where the author would go from here, but then I knew there must be more. And then the intro to Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, but then I'd Have to Kill You came on.

Wait. What?

I then realized I'd been tricked by the iPod's stupid audiobook format. The last 5 tracks where the other audiobook I hadn't converted yet. The book actually stopped THERE!

It didn't wrap up. Nothing happened. No one changed anything. There wasn't a hope of a change. There wasn't even much hope that the MC would change. It just ended. I was SOO furious.

Ok, pause that review. We'll come back to it.

Now, the next book I read that I wanted to talk about was the overly titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. The first in a two-part series I couldn't completely get through, Octavian Nothing is a bit of historical fiction about a young boy during the time of the American Revolution. The boy lives at a house with scientists and philosophers that measure his food intake and waste outtake (yep, he pees into a bucket, which they weigh). Other than the occasional oddities, he lives a very good life there along with his mother, and is trained in the fine arts and classics. Octavian is much smarter than you or I could ever hope to be.

Still, despite his intelligence, he's also very sheltered. You see, it isn't until he's 12 that he thinks to wonder why his skin is darker than everyone else's. And wonder why other people that look like him and his mother work cleaning dishes or driving the carriages. Finally, someone spills the beans. They're all slaves. And Octavian... he's a slave too.

Octavian is owned by the men who teach him, and he's part of an experiment to see if it is possible for the "African Negro" to learn and become civilized. As Octavian learns this, his life is changed. The narrative is interesting and well written, and also well-researched. The facts about slavery and the American Revolution are surprising and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed it, but that isn't the part that stood out.

The language was flawless. Do you remember reading late 18th century American literature? Remember that over-formal language with tons of odd and interesting description? Word choice was always varied, and if you weren't good at reading context, you'd need a good dictionary with you to help interpret. Remember that?

The language in this book is exactly like that. Written in the form of a sort of confession from Octavian, you would never be able to tell the difference between it and an older text. Is that a good thing? I don't know. I never really enjoyed late 18th-century American literature that much. Still, it's very impressive. Want an excerpt? Well, you can read it here.

Ok, so what's my point here? Well, if you clicked on the links (despite my telling you not to), then you already know.

These two books were written by the same person! They were written by an amazing new author named M. T. Anderson. I know! Can you believe it?

Perhaps you can. Both stories somewhat lacked in narrative (although Octavian, being a later offering, had improved over Feed). Both stories had amazing voice. Still, they didn't sound, in any real way, the same. Even bestselling authors can't say that.

So, my advice: if you're an author, pick up these books just to see how he does it. You don't have to read through both volumes of Octavian Nothing. The Pox Party was good but Kingdom on the Waves (the 2nd volume) got a bit slow and I started to not care. I'll probably try to finish it eventually, but not yet.

Still, it's worth reading through The Pox Party and Feed just so you can see the stark differences in language. It proves my earlier point. You can write in multiple genres. It's ok. You don't have to just write fantasy or paranormal or sci fi or romance or historical or whatever. Dabble in all of it. Just enjoy what you're doing. You can totally tell Anderson enjoyed himself. Give it a read, and be prepared to be impressed.

Oh, and PS: note the humorous and probably overlooked inside joke 3/4 of the way through The Pox Party where Anderson references Feed. During a party where people are getting together to try to inoculate themselves against small pox (thus "pox party"), Octavian looks up at the moon and wonders if someday, even when there are people living in colonies on the moon, will people sit around and compare the size of their legions. A clear Feed reference that made me laugh.