Heather Sharfeddin’s blog

One of the writers in my critique group has started a blog that is well worth checking out:

Heather writes contemporary western fiction, and her second novel, Mineral Spirits will be coming out later this year. Although not my typical genre, everything I’ve read from her has been top-notch. The characters and stories really grab your attention, making it unimportant exactly where the book would be in the bookstore.

She’s also started doing a series where her agent, Robert Brown, has agreed to answer questions from aspiring authors. Cool stuff, check it out.

UPDATE: As of fairly recently, Heather’s blog (which had moved anyway) has shut down. She accidentally deleted it, and a spammer hijacked the name. Stink! You can still check out her website, though, http://www.heathersharfeddin.com/

Favorite Authors: Jonathan Carroll

Jonathan Carroll is one of the most superb fantasy authors you’ve probably never heard of. Some of that might come from the difficulty in categorizing his work–it’s all quite fantastic, but never in the typical magical sense. He paints amazingly vivid pictures of the everyday world, and then spices it up with some of the strangest images and juxtapositions I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen his stuff put on the shelf in sci-fi and the literature section, depending who’s running the store.

And his descriptions… oh, he has such a way of capturing those gorgeous details of human interaction. Which brings me to another of my favorite points about him–his blog! He writes regularly, and his posts are as much in his voice as his fiction. He puts up descriptions of odd scenes he’s witnessed in Vienna, strange and interesting people he’s met, questions that cut to the meat of relationships and character. He occasionally jots down thoughts about writing (not too often), and when he does they are always worth reading.

If you love good writing, you owe it to yourself to check it out: http://www.jonathancarroll.com

For all you with RSS aggregators, subscribe at: http://www.jonathancarroll.com/blog1/index.xml

Untouched pages

It’s such a nice feeling when you’re editing away, tearing your “masterpiece” to pieces, dropping whole chapters left and right and suddenly you reach a page that just works. No nasty blue-ink scribbles. No arrows to other parts of the sheet where you’ve got enough room to enact the changes. Just crisp white paper with black letters printed on it.

Haven’t seen too many of those lately, but I found a patch in my most recent chapter that I read through, liked, and left just the way it was.

No such luck on the rest of the chapter, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Word delta: +250 words.

Don’t be so judgmental

In my last post, I mentioned two different scenes that I was working on, and my belief that one of them was likely to get cut. Well, things don’t always turn out the way you expect.

I ran the chapter containing these two scenes by my critique group, and they resoundingly liked all of it–some of the most positive reaction to a chapter that I’ve had in a long time. It had been a week or two since I had been editing the scene, and listening to their comments on it I could see that my concerns over the scenes being too similar weren’t really the case.

It’s an interesting situation, and one that needs to be kept in mind when writing–your opinions of a piece when you are in the middle of writing it aren’t always necessarily accurate. Getting some space, stepping back for a while before making too many sweeping judgements is a good idea. If I had gone just on the basis of what I thought, I might well have chopped a section prematurely that does build yet another layer to the world of the book.

A Tale of Two Scenes

Apologies to Dickens… couldn’t resist.

Recently I’ve written a new chapter, plumbing the history of the antagonist in my novel. It’s been quite a bit of fun, and I’m looking forward to filling in more of the gaps that currently are only spanned in the confines of my mind. (An aside, why is it sometimes that writing the “bad-guys” is easier than the “good-guys?” By and large, I’ve had much stronger positive reaction to just about every antagonist chapter I’ve put the book before… which is why I’m expanding those sections. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m evil or something!)

This most recent chapter includes two main scenes, showing the development of a relationship between the antagonist POV character and his leader. I’m not sure whether either of these scenes will make it into the novel, and frankly I started out a lot more suspicious of whether the first of the two will make the cut.

So last night I sat down to edit the chapter into shape for critique group, and what did I find? The scene that I was already questioning in my mind needed TONS more work. The pages were littered with blue ink, while the later scene came through largely unscathed. I don’t remember whether I had specific doubts about the first scene as I was writing it, but it’s interesting the parallel between them. I did expect at the time that the second would be the stronger scene, but it’s weird how much of that’s reflected in the word-by-word details.

I’m traveling for business the rest of this week (a rare occasion for me) so hopefully I’ll be able to make some good progress while I’m away. I’ve only packed one novel to take with. That should prompt me to pick up my own scattered pages and get stuff done!

Details, details, details

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the major goals in my current rewrite for my novel is to deepen the level of detail in the world. It’s important that the reader be taken to this alternate universe I’m creating, that they can see the texture of it, believe that it’s real.

Interestingly, though, working the details into the text hasn’t made it much longer. I’m finding that it’s a lot more about focus, how you can weave the information into the action and dialog that’s already going on. When you can drop those little hints that speak subtly to the reader, that’s satisfying.

Not to say that I’m anywhere near mastering this, but it’s good fun learning. In the first chapter, one of my critique group members pointed out a nice expository paragraph that I had plunked down. Good information, but totally dead on the page, “Why are you telling me this?” type of stuff. Her suggestion for fixing it was excellent as well. For example, if you have a science experiment in scene, and it is actually important that the reader understand it, don’t just describe it. Have something go wrong. Show the scientist struggling with it, having conflict, messing it up. By imbuing the experiment with that additional tension, you’ve got a meaningful structure in the story for explaining the more mundane details you need to get across.

Gut-wrenching stuff

A major goal of my current editing is increasing the tension in the book. Re-reading the first couple chapters, it’s apparent that there isn’t nearly enough fear and suffering in them. It sounds harsh, but without the threat of real pain and difficulty for the characters, there isn’t much reason to continue reading.

It’s funny how you can “know” something from reading about it, but promptly forget it when the page is in front of you!

  • Tension needs to start on the first page. In my case, the world itself presents a lot of dangers–the characters have abilities that they must keep secret from the rest of the “normal” world. A powerful group ruthlessly enforces this secrecy. Prior drafts left a lot of this tension until later, but now it shows up within the first few paragraphs.
  • Showing the desperate loneliness of the main character. He starts off the book rather miserable, and although that was present in earlier drafts, a lot of the reasons were (again!) postponed until later in the book. Now that I’ve started working in bits and pieces sooner, the desire to learn more should be stronger. It’s weird, but sometimes giving more information builds mystery more effectively than withholding details.
  • How the past affects the present is a major aspect of the book. The characters in my novel are extremely long-lived, and that span of time almost guarantees that any present difficulty has echoes in their past. Knowing the details of what’s happened to them and working that information in effectively is crucial to making the reader care about the characters.

I wrote the original drafts of these chapters years ago, and between they’ve been honed, but not substantially changed much. It’s been fun to start really shuffling them around, ripping stuff out and adding in new bits to give it the punch that I want it to have.

Word Delta: ~500, scribbled at the bottom of hand-edited pages

First chapter, revised

In the past week I’ve finally gotten down to doing some revisions on the first major chapter of my novel. It has been gratifying to spot places where I can immediately start making the type of world/character building changes that I’m after in this editing pass.

Specifically, the entire first page is getting a rewrite. I’ve used a couple of sentences from the original, but pretty much dropped and redone it. It’s going to need some fine-tuning, but as I’ve alluded to before, it’s important that the story draw the person into the alternate world that I’m creating. The original draft took the better part of a page to reach the point where a reader would realize that strange things are happening. On reviewing it, a lot of what took up that space was things like setting, character description, the main character walking… you know, riveting stuff. I mean, who isn’t interested in people walking!

A lot of work remains ahead, but the more I dig into it, the more excited I get about what I’m going to end up with.

Word Delta: ~2000 words

Back in the saddle

After nearly two months of not writing (in the sense of drafting new material and/or doing direct editing of something I’ve written) I’m getting back to it. I still have development work to complete for the later stages of hte book, but I’m confident that I’ve got the big rocks scoped out. The first new sections are solid enough in my mind that I thought I’d sit down and just write.

A couple of good friends had us over for dinner last night. He’s an MFA and teaches writing at some local colleges. He’s also just started working on a draft of a new novel. Seeing what he’s done (although I haven’t read it yet… we’re going to swap work later) got me jazzed about churning out some actual new writing. My wife was out with her sister this morning, so I sat down, cracked open a new document and set to work laying down some background for the “bad guys.”

It feels good to finally be back in this part of the process again. There’s going to be a lot of new writing needed for this draft of the novel, so although I’ve been working on it for years, there’s a sense of newness about it that’s exciting.

Word Delta: +1950

CLCL – Your clipboard on steroids

After the last couple times I’ve lost bits of work in progress, I finally decided to bite the bullet and install a clipboard extension. These were brought to my attention via Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror. He had an excellent article about an app called CLCL. I’ve installed it, put it into startup on the different machines I use and haven’t looked back since. Good stuff.