Enough Already!

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It’s the hot topic for agents today, and for writers as well. High word counts. Ideal range for a novel is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. It should be no more than 120,000 and that’s if it is a really good book. 180,000 word books and 200,000 word books are laughed at and rejected on sight.

What about the 25,000 word books? Why do I never hear gentle reminders that books can be too short also?

My first draft for Life of a Suburban Unicorn was 25,000 words. Yes, I know that’s too short. I also realized looking at my query letter (a previous blog post you can read here) the reason why is because my writing is too thin. I’m a skinny person in real life, and my stories are just as stringy as I am. We both need to gain weight, and my recent edit is making that happen.

Since no one sees fit to help the skinny people out there, I shall step forward. Listed below is my easy 3 step process to helping your novel gain weight.

Step one: Question everything.

Print out your novel, and pretend that you are a nosy journalist trying to squeeze a story out of this mysterious lump of text. Ask every question you can possibly think of that relates to the novel. Here is the list of questions I used to help me get through Chapter 5, in order to give you an idea:

Why is Peter in the woods?
Why would Joseph Thunderhead send a unicorn?
How does Elizabeth react to seeing Peter?
How does Peter react to seeing Elizabeth?
How does Elizabeth find Peter?
What is Peter doing when found?
Why would Mom shoot a unicorn?
What are they feeling at this point?
Where are they in the woods?

There are tons more questions too. Ask about the senses. What do they smell? What do they hear? What plants and animals are present? Do they notice them?

The point isn’t to add all this information into your novel. It’s to make sure you are aware of the information. I came from a background of short story writing. I’m used to focusing on one thing, and excluding everything else from my focus.

If you’re artistic, drawing a sketch of the scene helps too. The whole scene. Including the background, what the people are holding, how they are posed, etc. Even if you’re not artistic but suitably enthusiastic, you can make it work with stick figures and weird boxes that represent furniture. (You can even label them so you remember what those blobs are the next time you look at the picture.) Filling in the details helps fill them in your mind too.

Step Two: Highlight Telling

If, when questioning your novel, you come across a particular sentence so vague you can question it, that’s probably telling. Here’s a sample from an unedited portion of my novel, telling in bold:

Her finger touched the trigger, her whole body quivering with tension, and then she dropped the gun at his feet. It wasn’t worth it. Nothing could make her kill another person. Even Joseph Thunderhead.

Joseph stooped and picked up the gun. “Come on,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”

Anyone here know what a resigned person looks like? He just had a gun pointed at him and thrown in his face. Does anyone here think a single word should sum it up? When I get to this part in my novel, I’ll detail what “Resigned” looks like on an aging unicorn hunter.

This may not seem like a big deal, but when you replace a single word with a whole sentence every other paragraph, that’s a lot of words.

Step Number Three: Replace Adverbs and Adjectives

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. I do a highlight search in word for anything ending in “ly”. Almost every time a ly word can be questioned, and that questioning offer a wordier, stronger sentence. Example: What does “casually” look like? I’m sure you’ve got a vision in your head. Describe that vision, in detail.

These three steps are really all the same step. Question everything. You may find a huge plot hole you never noticed before. (Why is my character walking into a trap again?) You may just clean your writing up a bit. (Because if you can sing the song “Here a Lee” from the musical 1776 and find every word in the song, you may have too many ly words.)

What are your tips for lengthening word count? (Filler doesn’t count!)

How do you keep your writing life organized?

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Starting a writing related blog didn’t sound like such a big deal, until I hit the “play” button. I started writing blog posts at the beginning of July, and had 35 or so ready to put up by the time I officially opened the blog. Then it felt like the second I started my writing time got sucked into blog land.

I’m not complaining. If it were really the blog I’d just shut it down. The blog just happened to be a great excuse to not work on what ever difficult scene was bothering me. Its so easy to tell myself I’m building a following, when all I’m really doing is hanging out with the people I know and love: Other writers.

Why write when you can talk about writing?

And it’s not as if I’m not actually writing. I’ve written 140 words so far, just typing out a new blog post. All these excuses are true, but they’re still just excuses. I realized that when I found new blog post ideas taking priority over how Elizabeth escapes from her airport nightmare.

I sat down at this point, and started reorganizing. New blog posts are to be written on weekends only. (I’ve got ten zillion of them waiting their turn to go up. It’s not like there won’t be a daily subject anyway.)

Comments now take up my morning, and writing has been moved to the evening. I kind of like that, because if I sleep in I’m not losing real writing time, and I don’t have to recheck my work for things I wrote in a sleep deprived stupor.

What’s your secret for keeping your writing life organized? Please share!

NaNoWriMo talk already!

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I just found this post by the Swamp Witch, and of course, I am now obligated to stand up and point out that NANOWRIMO IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER!!!!!

If you don’t know what it is, National Novel Writing Month is where you attempt to write 50,000 words in a month, starting on November 1st. I’m going to try again this year, although I’m standing at 2 successes in something approaching 6 attempts. I’ve got a great plot bubbling around in my head though:

What if humanity, for the good of the Earth, decided to phase themselves out? Purposefully extinguish the entire species in order to preserve life they see themselves as destroying? A small group of scientists stays behind to observe, and discovers that life without humans isn’t as perfect as they thought…

I haven’t gotten any more on the idea, but hey it’s only august. I’ve got months and months to plan. I want to try working with a detailed outline for once, so I need plenty of time to practice.

Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo? What’s your plot going to be?

Author Update

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The first third of my novel is officially FINISHED!!! I have edited and corrected and perfected all the way up to Elizabeth’s discovery of unicorns. I even managed to get just a little bit farther! The meeting of Joseph Thunderhead can finally be written! WOOOO!!!!

Now she’s still bopping back and forth on whether she believes in unicorns 100%, but that won’t come until she actually sees a single-horned beast standing before her. That’ll be about mid-book. ^^

The middle of the book consists of her stay in a unicorn boot camp, and should be fun and exciting to write. I’m hoping for smooth sailing from here on out!

Unimportant Characters Need Love Too.

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~*~Warning. ~*~ I am about to rant. ~*~ Warning.~*~ It may involve spoilers ~*~Warning.~*~

I hate it when I can tell a character is unimportant just because of how the author treats that person. I first became aware of this when critiquing a friends novel. He sent the novel chapter by chapter, and I critiqued each one individually.

By chapter four, I told him, “I know X is supposed to be the Dark Villain of Doom, but he feels like a secondary character.” 

Turns out I was right. The author knew all along Dark Villain of Doom was really a shadow figure for the real bad guy, a suspiciously well developed secondary character I’d noted in chapter one. >_> (It’s a fabulous book now that it’s polished. I’ve no doubt it will be published one day.)

Graceling, a wonderful best-selling novel, also has this problem. By the time you get to the second chapter you know the king is an unimportant secondary character, just by the fact that there is absolutely no character building scenes what so ever. The only development of the king is by Katsa’s own thoughts and dialog such as “Oh what will the KING say?” “Oh, the KING is so SCARY.”

>.<

A more complex version of this same problem is Alice in Wonderland 3D. The white queen is a completely undeveloped, flat, unsophisticated character in the world.  (Who annoys me by holding her hands level with her head in every single scene. Blah!) Watching the movie, I was totally unmotivated to help her, even though she was good. You were simply supposed to take it for granted that since she was the force of good, you naturally wanted her to win.

More confusingly, the red queen was very well developed, and the author took pains to make us understand why she did the things she did. We are then given a token “villain” development scene and a bunch of floating heads, and that’s the end of it. She’s kind toward people who are considered oddity’s. She treats her prisoners well. The only villainy is the frog scene and the obvious frequency of beheadings. (Although the only people she tries to behead are for logical, sound reasons during the movie.)

And while I’m ranting on that subject, not one single character aside from Alice grew or changed at all. Everyone else was deadlocked into the same mind set as before. -.- It was so uncomplex I wanted to cry, because the story itself could have been so good. And before you blame acting…all the actors involved are top caliber. Yes, even the white queen. In fact, I know and love her from several other movies, which is why I blame the writing.

So people, dig out your WIPs and take a good long hard look at your “unimportant” characters. Do they have their own moments to shine? Do they grow and change? What’s at stake for them? Are they supposed to be important in order to distract them from the real baddy? Please. Distract us. With a well developed character.

Okay. You can come out of that bomb shelter now. I’m done ranting.

Perspectives: Living off the Land

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I learned a lot about this as a kid. My mother liked to do hands on learning experiences, and researching the oregon trail focused a lot on “living off the land.” Here’s a couple of things you writers should consider:

1. You can live off the land, but you probably won’t be very happy about it.

Wild greens have a lot… *ahem* stronger flavor than that stuff you buy at the supermarket.  The most common flavors I have found from my sampling of wild foods is SOUR and BITTER. For heaven’s sake! There’s a reason we invented farming, and it isn’t just convenience.

Draw attention to these flavors in your WIPs. Your characters are bound to be noticing the difference between wild food and farm food.

2. Wood fires change the flavor of food.

Almost every camp scene in the history of the written story has involved gathering firewood. It’s typically something the new people do. Here is something I learned the hard, painful way. Pine wood does not make for good eating. (Unless you go out and stuff pine needles in your mouth just for fun. If so, you’re good.)

If your character goes out to gather firewood, make sure he either knows what kind, or you have a suitable reaction.

3. It is impossible to creep silently through the forest.

I’ve been to the “Forest” where one version of Robin Hood was filmed. Of course you can creep silently there. It’s a carefully designed set built around protected California Oak Trees that must never be cut for any reason. You can walk under the trees easily, because there practically isn’t even grass. >_>

A real forest has this stuff called “undergrowth”. My experience has found undergrowth to consist of 90%  vines, mostly thorny vines, mostly wrapped around bushes that have more thorns and grow all the way down to the ground. 10% of it is tall grass punctuated by plants with various barbs on it, and 1% ticks/something else that makes you itchy.

Face it. You are not getting through unless you have a machette or follow the deer path, and only then if you’re okay with taking some parts on hands and knees. Watch out for that log. It’s rotten.

Even assuming you can get through the barrier that is Forest, remember that the forest is full of trees. The trees primarily drop leaves. The leaves land on the ground and become dry. The dry leaves make crunching noises when you walk. (Of course, if your hapless character has recently endured a thunderstorm, this is not a problem. Damp leaves don’t crunch. They’re just slippery. Falling on your booty does make noise!

Lois L’amore actually did impress me with his version of ‘walking silently through the forest’ which detailed timing his characters pace with the noise of the wind etc. I’m so willing to be swept away by a story with real knowledge!

4. Once you return to civilization, people are going to notice you’ve been in the woods. Yes, even if you bathe.

I’m sorry, but it’s obvious. The torn clothing. The inevitable loss of weight/gain of muscle. The lack of a proper hairstyle. If nothing else, there’s probably at least one squirrel booty hanging out of your saddlebags as he helps himself to your food. Never assume your character is going to just blend right in.

That’s it for now. If you’d like to submit your perspective, please email me at sskid2000 AT hotmail DOT com. We look forward to your guest post!

Featured Blog Post by DT

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May 1st, 2006 marked my first day as an official writer. I swore to myself before I left the safety of my parents house, I would give being a full time writer a shot. On this day, I commited myself to writing two new short stories every month, editing two stories from a previous month, and double-checking/submitting edited stories from the month before that. It’s one of the first promises I made to myself that I actually followed through on.

Almost one year to the day later, I got my first publication. Then the people wanting to publish my work seemed to explode like popcorn under my feet. The more/better my credentials became, the better things got.

When I moved to Washington, I made another big commitment change. I decided to leave the short story world, and try my hand at novels instead. For those of you tired of the marathon vs. sprinter analogy, it’s kind of like shaping bonsai trees all your life and then moving on to growing record breaking pumpkins.

This post here reminded me of that dark time floundering between two different styles. I ran out of plot at 25,000 words on my first draft because in short stories detail is minimal. Not to mention you only focus on one thing at a time. Not to mention there are no sub plots. Not to mention…you get the idea.

Writing a novel has been interesting, and I believe I’m going to enjoy writing them every bit as much as I enjoy short stories–once I figure out the writing process.

How do you feel about short stories vs. novels?

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