Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On First Lines

I may have written about this before, but here it is again! This is also being posted to the blog of Knox College Quiver, the genre magazine that I'm an editor of.

I don’t think I’m alone in my terror of the blank page. Whether I’m writing a story, a novel, an essay, or even a blog post, my mind freezes when I see the cursor just sitting there, blinking, waiting for me to start.

I think first lines in fiction are especially difficult. There are so many classic first lines that are quoted by many people who haven’t even read the book. These lines are witty, deep, and engaging, and they set the tone for the entire book. Some opening lines that come to mind:
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
  •   “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” –A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • “Call me Ishmael.” –Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  •   “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” –The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

On the one hand, I’m amazed at the complexity of some, how they make a sweeping statement about the nature of humanity. On the other, I’m blown away by the simplicity that Melville and Tolkien open with, a simplicity that is nevertheless engaging.

When it comes to writing my own opening lines, I usually skip them and put [AMAZING FIRST LINE HERE] instead. Nothing gets more revised than my opening paragraphs, especially that first line. It’s so important, especially in a submission to a major publication, an agent, or a publisher. If the person reading it isn't engaged by line one, they might not go onto line two. It must set the tone, began to establish character, plot, setting…that’s a lot. Even if it doesn't address all of these specifically, it must set up the following lines to do that.

For my first lines, when I finally make myself write them, I tend to pick something to focus on, such as character, setting, or plot. Then, I zoom in on the most interesting image or aspect of that element. For example, the first line of The Thunderbird Project is: "Bleeding wasn't something Jupiter normally did." Of the opening scenario of her being hunted by unmarked tanks, I decided to focus on what I thought was most interesting: she doesn't hurt easily, implying that this was a big deal and she's scared out of her mind.
I’ve found that simple works better, as not to confuse the reader. And when I’m stressing over revisions, convinced that I’ve written The Most Terrible Opening Line Ever, I remind myself that, at its core, the first line has only one job: make the audience read the second line.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Critique Etiquette

This post is way overdue, since my life has been pretty crazy lately. But, as promised, I'm going to follow up my previous post about workshop etiquette with one about the specifics of critiquing. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it's what I keep in mind when I'm reading stuff over for my fiction workshop.

Understand your biases

This is hugely important. The only negative experience I've personally had during a workshop was when someone went off about my piece, saying it was terrible because it was a fantasy story, and all fantasy is crap. I keep my own biases in mind when I'm reading something that isn't science fiction or fantasy, especially if it's meta or postmodern or extremely literary. I generally don't like those types of stories, and the conventions of those genres. Because of that, I make sure my comments don't say "your story is crap because it's a _____ story." Sometimes, I'll write very little, not trusting myself to give a fair critique, since I just really don't like a certain type of story. When critiquing something that isn't your cup of tea, make sure you're critiquing the story in front of you and not the genre as a whole.

Point out strengths

As writers, it's just as important for us to know what we're doing right as well as what we're doing wrong. Additionally, it makes swallowing a criticism far easier when it's followed up by a compliment. It's pretty easy to just shut down after awhile when there's nothing positive said, or to get defensive. It's much harder to write the reader off when they also praise your piece at points.

It's not about you

As in, the critique isn't about what you would have done with the story, or what you want in it. Stop yourself if you start making comments like "can you add a dragon somewhere" or "make it a mystery." These aren't helpful, because they don't address the story as it is. You are not the piece's writer. While it's fine to point out where the story weakened, it's not helpful to tell them what you would've done there. I have to stop myself from "spitballing" (our workshop term for throwing new ideas at the writer) all the time.

Frame comments as suggestions

This is pretty easy to do. Make sure that all your comments are written as suggestions, not orders. It's the difference between "consider starting the story a bit earlier" and "you need to start the story earlier." Essentially, you're saying the same thing, but the tone of the first one is much more polite, and the writer will be much more receptive to it.

Remember: you have nothing at stake here

This is perhaps the hardest point for me to remember. I want every piece to be the best it can, and sometimes I can go overboard on driving a comment or criticism home. I have to take a mental step back and remind myself that it isn't my story, and that, ultimately, it doesn't affect me how this story turns out. You don't want to be apathetic, but it's okay to let it go, especially when the writer isn't being too receptive.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Workshop Etiquette

So far, January has been extremely busy for me, and that's in no small part due to the advanced level fiction workshop I'm currently taking. Every week, I write a short story (or part of one), and every week we meet once for 4.5 hours to critique everyone's pieces. It's exhausting, but also completely inspiring. 

Here's the thing: workshops are great. Whether in a classroom or writing group setting, they can be incredibly helpful to whip a piece into shape, or to figure out where a piece is headed. However, their effectiveness (and how stressful they are) depends largely on how everyone treats the workshop. From my experience of the writing classes I've taken so far, here are some things to keep in mind if you're participating in a workshop or thinking of setting one up.

Everyone needs to read everything. 

Or, if you can't read a piece, don't make any comments on it. Nothing is more infuriating then when someone goes on and on, critiquing my work, and it's really obvious that they didn't read it to the end. As in: "I didn't buy into the existence of dragons in your world" when it is made very clear on page 2 that the dragons mentioned on page 1 are a figment of the protagonist's imagination. 

Appoint a moderator.

In my case, this is the professor. I think it's a good idea to make someone "in charge," in the sense that they will keep everyone's comments in line. They can also keep the workshop on track, and make sure no one is being ganged up upon. 

Split the time evenly.

Some pieces will need more work then others. That's a fact. However, if you spend 15 minutes on one person's story, and an hour and a half on another's, then one will feel cheated, and the other will feel singled out. Try for about 20-30 minutes per piece. That's enough time to get general feedback, address questions, and talk about ideas.

Letting the authors talk is a double-edged blade.

I've been in workshops where the author couldn't say a single word while their piece was being critiqued. I've also been in workshops where the author can ask and answer questions throughout. Both have good and bad points. If you don't let the authors talk, they won't always get their questions answered, or the feedback they want. However, they also won't spend the entire time defending their work. I like my current workshop where the authors can talk. I get my questions answered, and I get a lot out of the workshop. But there is one person who talks for half of her workshop, easily. Whenever someone makes a point, she explains it. Which is all well and good, but it that explanation isn't in the text, it doesn't matter how you picture it in your head. So, if your workshop decides to let people talk, make sure there is a moderator who will keep someone from tearing apart every comment that's offered to them.

Make sure to bring up good points, too. 

You'll read stories that have very little going for them, and everyone (except the author) will have reached a general consensus of how terrible the piece is. Don't just let  people tear into the work. Make sure good points are brought up as well as critiques. I've been in workshops where the moderator (in my case, professor) will ask "what did we like" in a piece before getting into suggestions for revisions. It really helps to hear good things, especially if you're nervous, and it's always good to know what you do well. 

Summarize each piece before workshopping it.

One of the best ways to tell if a piece of fiction is working is to see if people can summarize it in a couple of sentences. Doing this at the beginning of a workshop for each piece not only lets the author know how clear their story is, but it also refreshes it in everyone's mind. 

And those are some general thoughts about conducting a workshop. On Friday, I'll talk about the actual critiquing and commenting on pieces. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Scope and short stories

I started writing with novels. When I was in elementary school, I read some fantasy books (Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce and Redwall by Brian Jacques) that inspired me to write my own. It was terrible, but it was over one hundred pages before I gave up. I kept going with other manuscripts, all novel-length, and for a long time, that first novel attempt was the shortest thing I'd written.

What I'm getting at is that as someone who learned to write by writing novels, short stories are hard. I've slowly gotten better at them, but I still struggle. This term, I'm taking my first 300-level class, and it's an advanced fiction workshop. As I work on short pieces for this class, I've realized the one thing that I have to figure out before developing an idea for a short story: scope.

Scope, to put it plainly, is how big or small the story is, how complex it is. As a general rule, short stories need to have a smaller scope. Less has to happen. My first attempts at short stories failed so miserably because I took an idea that needed the length of a novel to properly write it, and I crammed it into twenty pages.

Some ideas can work for both novels and short stories (but when I say idea, I don't mean plot. I mean the germ of the idea that gets you started). My YA science fiction novel is a good example of this. The idea came in the form of two main characters: a thief and an android. They first appeared in my short story "Theft at Thunderbird Alpha." After writing that, I knew I wanted them to star in a novel. It worked, because as characters pulling heists, I could change the scope. The short story is a single heist. The novel is a single heist that goes horribly, horribly wrong and its aftermath.

Most ideas, however, are suited to a certain length. What I had to learn (and what I still struggle with) is discerning between a novel idea and a short story idea, and coming up with ideas that fit the short story model. Here are some rules of thumb that I follow when I'm starting to develop a short story:

  • Short stories should center around one character, maybe two. They can have more then that, but go over three or four important characters, and you're moving into novel territory. If the idea won't work without the point of view from six different characters, it's probably better suited to a book.
  • Short stories lack subplots, for the most part. If they do have them, they have one. My short story "Love in the Time of Clockwork" that is forthcoming in the Kisses by Clockwork anthology has a main plot about horse racing with a (sort of) subplot about a romantic relationship. The two plots are pretty intertwined, however. The scenes about racing are also about romance. If your idea needs several independent plot threads to work, it's probably not a short story.
  • Complex magic systems or world building are really hard to pull off well in short stories. With "Love in the Time of Clockwork Horses," the only prominent speculative element is the clockwork horses. There are other world elements hinted at, but none of them come into play. Because a short story has a smaller space, going into long explanations (or even short explanations) of fantastical elements can take away room from the plot and character development.
  • The idea needs to be complete. It needs to tell a full story, whether it's 100, 1,000, or 100,000 words. There needs to be a beginning, middle, and ending. Something needs to change. A short story isn't a fragment, those sometimes an idea fragment can disguise itself pretty convincingly. I've written several thousand words on ideas only to realize that there really is no story here. A short story is not a vignette. It's a novel in miniature, and it needs all those storytelling elements. 
I still find it extremely difficult to come up with short story ideas. Most of the ideas that come to me are meant for a novel, so I write them down and save them for later. However, I have gotten much better at spotting which ideas have the proper scope for a short story.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Kisses by Clockwork: a steampunk anthology

I have some exciting news to announce today. My short story "Love in the Time of Clockwork Horses" has been accepted for publication in Kisses by Clockwork. It's an anthology of romantic steampunk being published by Ticonderoga Publications, an Australian independent publisher. You can see the final lineup of stories here.  The anthology will be published in April. I'll keep posting with updates and information on where it can be ordered when it becomes available. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2014 goals

Yesterday, I went over my goals for this year, and I made more than half of them, including the two most important to me: getting a book published and getting an agent. Here are my goals for this year.

1. Finish The Iron Phoenix.

That's the new title for the novel which I wrote over spring break this past year. I'm in the middle stages of revising it. Working with my agent on revisions for my YA space opera has really opened my eyes to the nuances of both text and story that make a piece great, so I'm going to take my time with this revision. I love the story, and I think the book has the potential to be really good.

2. Start another novel.

I'm not making it a goal to finish a second book in 2014, because my usual writing heavy times (summer) will be extremely busy and the difficulty of my classes will increase. However, I still want to start another novel and get it drafted. I've got a couple ideas in mind. The one currently at the forefront is another YA space opera with aliens and other awesomeness. 

3. Work on craft.

This isn't a specific goal, per say, but it's something that I want to keep in mind as I write this year. I still have a lot to learn about writing, and I want to make sure that I'm stretching myself on each piece to make it better than the last, from both a storytelling and prose standpoint. 

4. Get halfway through my To-Be-Read pile.

Right now, it takes up a shelf that spans the entire length of my room. We're talking well over one hundred books. Since I'll be moving out in the next two years or so, I'd really like to get through it all by then. For 2014, I want to read half the books on my TBR pile. 

5. Read more short stories, write more, and continue to improve.

I don't read nearly enough short stories, which is one of the reasons that I struggle to write them. I'd like to read at least one a week. That's not much, but at the end of the year I'll have read at least fifty. This spring, I'm planning on doing an independent study on writing science fiction short stories. I'll study the masters and then use their influence to write my own. I want to write four short stories this year, minimum. 

6. Get better at social media.

As an author, using social media to its full extent it probably the most important thing you can do, besides writing a great book. I haven't been disciplined enough these past months, and my blogging, tweeting, and posting has really taken a hit. This year, I want to blog regularly (twice a week) as well as tweet, and use Facebook and tumblr to their fullest extent. 

7. Sell my YA space opera to a publisher.

Yeah, this is pretty much out of my control at this point, but I wanted to put it down. This book is the best thing I've written to date, and I really want to get it out into the world. Hopefully, 2014 will be the year.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A look back on 2013's goals

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. Apologies for the long blog silence. I have been furiously revising my YA space opera for my agent, and I just finished those revisions today. If it's the last pass we need to make, then it will go out on submission soon. *squee*

2013 has been a big year for me. I ended up with a published book and an agent. I'd thought it would be nice to look back on the goals I made this time last year.

1. Finish Starwisp and submit it everywhere. 

Done for many months now. My submission process started in February and went on until this past September.

2. Sign with an agent for Starwisp.

Done. I officially signed with Pooja Menon of Kimberley Cameron and Associates in October. Since then, we've been doing revisions on the manuscript (which has been retitled). Starwisp was the fifth novel I wrote and the fourth that I sent out to agents. I got nothing but rejections with the other three. It just goes to show that you really do need the right manuscript at the right time. Working with Pooja has been wonderful, and I really look forward to what this year holds with this book.

3. Write another novel.

I did not make this goal. The revisions with my agent took up my entire winter break, which I had planned to spend finishing the novel I drafted over spring break. I do plan to work on this one next, hopefully finishing it sometime this spring. But I really want to take my time on it and make it amazing.

4. Write more short stories.

I wrote only three stories in 2012. For 2013, I have finished seven, most of them over the summer. While writing novel remains my passion and focus, I think I've improved with shorter pieces just by writing more of them.

5. Get at least three stories accepted for publication, one in a pro-paying market.

Mostly accomplished. I did get three stories accepted for publication. Two were in small genre magazines, one of the stories being a reprint.  The third literally just got accepted today, so I can't share many details. Look for more information to come--I am so excited about this!

6. Read 100 books.

Nope. Not even close. I have read sixty books this year, which isn't too bad. My to-be-read pile is becoming monstrous, though. 

7. Get a book contract.

Done. I sold and published The Thunderbird Project this year. Working with a small press has been a huge learning experience and completely rewarding. When I wrote up these goals last year, this was the least likely of them to happen, and I still have a hard time believing that it did.

I'll probably post my goals for 2014 tomorrow. Have a happy New Year, everyone!