Monday, August 17, 2009

Solid foundations.

This whole ripping up my carpets to put down new flooring experience has taught me a lot. Including giving me a perfect metaphor for writing. (Bear with me.)

The flooring we picked is like linoleum, but it's not. It comes in planks, like laminate wood flooring, but it doesn't stick to the floor, it has overlapping edging strips that stick to each other. So the floor doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to be solid and fairly smooth.

With me so far?

By contrast, when I did my kitchen floor a couple of years ago, I had to rip up the old sheet linoleum that was stuck to the concrete sub-floor. Meaning days of scraping the leftover backing off the concrete so I could put down the peel-and-stick linoleum tile I used in there. It HAD to be dang near perfect, or the tiles would lift.

Now, that job was a damn sight harder than this new flooring. Yes, it's a pain in the ass to pull up carpet and padding. We have to move furniture around like one of those frigging tile puzzles where you have to keep shifting tiles around to unscramble the picture, but you can only move the tiles certain ways. Add to this I have a small house FULL of furniture and six dogs who want to "help." And the new floor has to be laid straight (it looks like dark bamboo) or it will look really weird.

And while concrete sub-floors don't need a lot of prep, I've found as I pull up the carpet tack strips along the walls, usually the nails holding them down (the house is over twenty-five years old, and I don't know how old the carpet is, but we've been here for over twelve and it's the carpet that was here when we moved in) rip out a chunk of concrete when they let loose. So I do need to patch around the edges. If I don't, sure as God made little green apples, my dogs will find those little indentations and rip up strips.

I also have to start each initial row I lay by staggering the length of the strip so it doesn't look fake. My hallway is done, and it looks fantastic. (Although my dogs hate it because now they can't run down the hallway without sliding into the closet door at the far end.)

What the heck does this have to do with writing?

Your prep work needs to be properly done. This means you can't just slap something together and hope it turns out okay. If you slack on the basics (research, grammar, punctuation, point of view, continuity, etc.) then the final result will look like crap, and it'll be a LOT harder to go in and fix things once you're finished. It's much easier to adjust things causing problems as soon as you see them.

I mean, some things, yes, you can fix at the end. I can caulk any edges of my flooring to hide gaps. I can wait until the end to fit pieces into the door jambs. (I can fix misplaced commas and remove/replace overused words.) But if I screw up and don't lay a row properly during installation, it will throw off everything I try to lay after it.

Everyone has their own way of writing. Whether they are a "pants-ster" or a "plotter," whether they throw everything including the kitchen sink in at the beginning and write quickly with plans to trim later, or slow and steady writers who edit everything before they move to the next chapter, that's fine.

What success stories have in common is that they take the time when they begin to do the prep work necessary to make sure their floor (story) looks seamless at the end. Maybe you do a room, realize you need to do more prep work for the next room, and take time to do that. You might realize three chapters into your new work that you don't know nearly enough about one of the topics and have to do research. That's fine. Better to do it sooner than to write yourself into a corner you cannot escape from later.

One of my current WIPs is stalled because it's part of a series. As I was writing and showing it to my friend (who is also an editor and has seen snippets of scenes I've written for later books in the series), she said, "Weren't you going to do X in book six?"


Yes, I was. So now I'm left looking at trying to figure out how to change the manuscript to preserve a THREE-BOOK STORY ARC. (Actually, it's a six-book story arc, but this WIP is book three in the series.)

Fortunately, this was caught early enough that I don't have to rip up any large sections of "flooring" (to continue the metaphor) but it means I need to step back and figure out how to proceed so I can preserve the originally planned story arc. I know there's a solution, I just need to work it out.

So how solid are your writing foundations? You cannot slap something together -- and you especially cannot send it out for submissions -- without making sure it's as "perfect" as you can make it. Believe me, if you don't take the time to do this, editors will notice. (And so will anyone who walks into your house and sees your floors laying at a wierd angle! *LOL*)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The list of lists...

What writer hasn't made a butt-load of lists in their life? I think it sort of goes hand in hand with the whole "I'm a writer" gig.

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I was led to this writers "list of lists" (The (Nearly) Ultimate Resource: 176 Tips for Writers) and thought it was a hoot because, frankly, I've done quite a few of them myself, although not all of them, but one of them hit home particularly hard:

65. Approach writing with gratitude, not just with a ‘must do this’ attitude.


Considering this IS my evil day job, and I spend anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day doing it, there is the rare occasion I whine, "Man, why the hell isn't this scene coming together!" I mean, yes, I'm living my dream, working my dream job, no complaints there overall. But the big picture sometimes gets lost.

So today, I'm going to quit reading lists and following links (yet another tip on the list) and get back to work with an attitude of gratitude. (I actually think that last part was a line from The Secret, but hey, it works.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Getting feedback.

This post was inspired after I read this article, entitled "I Will Not Read Your F***ing Script." It applies to writers of fiction as well. Now, I haven't really had the problem the author of the article had. Actually, my problem has been the opposite -- who do I ask to read my stuff? Not so much a problem when I was an active member of the Novels-L list on the Internet Writing Workshop. But once I branched into writing romance and erotica, I'll admit my shortlist of critique partners shortened even further.

I am lucky that my best friend is an editor and reviewer of romance and erotica. And being that we are like sisters in many ways, she has no problem telling me if something sucks or not. Fortunately, she almost always has suggestions for de-suckifying it.

My husband has the mechanical editing portion of my life covered quite nicely too, because being a former newspaper reporter and editor, he's good at that. He might question plot issues he doesn't understand, but then I take those points to my friend, who can either say he's right or he's a man, ignore him. *LOL*

But I am one of those writers who, unlike the author of the article talks about, WANT the negative feedback. Not without the positives, if there are any, of course, but I don't want you to say, oh, this is great, don't change a thing, have a nice life. I want you to call me out on errors I make. I want you to politely brutalize my writing so I can... wait for it... get better at it.

I mean, seriously? If we're training airline pilots, if they crash in a simulator, we don't pat them on the head and offer them a "great job!" and a lollipop, do we? We say no, that's NOT how you do it, you killed them all. Here's where you screwed up and doomed them to death. Try it again until you get it right.

Okay, so that's dramatic. But I know there is a flip side to this too, that there are people who will gladly rip something apart without pointing out the strengths. That's as worthless as a meaningless "great job." People need to see where they got it right as much as where they screwed it up. I think as an effective critique partner, you must be able to fill BOTH columns -- strengths and weaknesses -- for the writer asking your input. And yes, it's damn hard to find good CPs. I get that. But handing everything over to your mom or your best friend who doesn't want to hurt your feelings isn't helping you. And then if you end up with a good CP, you get your feelings hurt because they pointed out where you need work.

And don't be quick to take every criticism to heart. If only one person mentions an issue, it might not be an issue, just a reader opinion. If several people start hammering you on the same issue, however, that means you probably should take another look at it.

Don't be upset if someone won't read your manuscript for you though. See, I always feel bad asking new people to read something unless they've previously and spontaneously said, "I'd love to be a beta reader for you." And I am VERY squickish about asking fellow writers for comment blurbs or reviews. That's just me. I always worry they'll think I'm an a$$hole or something for asking. Now, when I read something I love, I make no bones about cheerleading it to others. And I always get the warm fuzzies when fellow writers read and positively review my work as well. (Who wouldn't? *LOL*) I've been lucky not to be placed in the position of the article's author, but I have the legitimate reason that I'm totally swamped at this point. (That's the reason I'm not currently of the Novels-L list, I don't have time to do reciprocal critiques required to maintain membership.)

So when you find effective critique partners, treat them like gold, because they're certainly woth their weight in it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tag, you're it!

Dialogue (or dialog) tags tend to trip some writers. Add to the mix that the US tag standard differs from the UK, and it can add to the confusion.

CORRECT: "I don't like spinach," she said.
CORRECT: She said, "I don't like spinach."
INCORRECT: "I don't like spinach." she said.
INCORRECT: "I don't like spinach." She said.
INCORRECT: She said. "I don't like spinach."

Another problem, besides improperly punctuating the tags, is the tendency to tag with "unspeakables."

"Don't do that," she slapped him.
"I like that," she smiled.

Both of those are wrong. You cannot use an action that is not "spoken" as a tag. Smiled is the biggie and one that even I sometimes, if I'm cranking with a story, will forget and add in. Easy fix, though.

She slapped him. "Don't do that!"
She smiled. "I like that." (Or, alternatively: "I like that." She smiled.)

Some publishers have house styles that will also chop certain things like breathed, sighed, moaned, or gasped as well. Some will allow them. Sometimes it depends on the editor you get.

Here's the thing, one of the fastest ways to pick out a newbie writer is to find one whose characters rarely "said" or "asked" anything. They scream, chortle, yell, yodel, and choke every line. (You get the point.)

There is NOTHING WRONG with "said" and "asked" as dialog tags. Nothing. And you will get far more mileage out of your dialog by bracketing it with actions that put the dialog into crystal clear context. Or if it's a dialog exchange by two characters, let them talk and let the reader put it into context. You don't need to "block" action for the reader. They've got a good imagination, trust me. You don't need to put a dialog tag on ever line either, especially if it's just two characters talking and easy to keep up with them. An occasional tag will suffice and tidy up your writing.