Arrows in the River (Giving the Reader Time to Absorb)

I think I might be going too fast in the beginning. There I said it.

I read other short stories in the ‘Improbable Truth’ anthology and compared them to mine. Then I skimmed the old opening of the original StoneDragon draft, the last full version I wrote, and I found fast dialogue and action, but not a lot of setting, backstory, or context, at least in the first few pages. I dropped the reader into a fast moving stream and expected them to start swimming, without help. And maybe with a few arrows falling around their head (my featured image was boring until I added the arrow, which I have to tie in somehow!).

But seriously, I think I need to aim for slightly longer paragraphs early on, of adding something that isn’t fast moving action or dialogue, at least in the first few pages. Setting, mood, detail. Something to allow my reader’s mind to settle in, pick up the point of an individual paragraph and absorb it, before being assaulted by a new and completely different idea, every sentence or two. Or at least not until the pacing is intended to pick up and the reader is comfortably ensconced in the scene.

I should probably note that this flaw is probably better than the reverse: being too slow and predictable, which is the kiss of death, but I still have to write down my flaws when I see them–and I think I see one.

Hopefully, I’m not be as bad as I used to be when I first wrote that early StoneDragon draft, and I definitely don’t want to swing completely to the other side of the pendulum, and have a pedantically boring opening, but I think that I will probably add this question to my checklist of items when I’m editing a story. I’m still going to try having an opening that grabs you, but hopefully not at a speed where you are lost.

A fast moving stream can shock you, wake you up, and get your heart rate racing. All good things for a chapter. But if the water’s too fast and deep, you’re just going to drown…

Especially if you get shot by arrows. 😉

__________________________________

A new sketch for the post. I also have a hockey injury tonight: a slapshot to the little finger. A lot of blood and the nail is mottled black. So not much extra typing going on. 😉 Most of this post was done beforehand. Before ‘hand’, he he. Okay, maybe a bit light headed from blood loss and a single beer. Hope your night went better!

On the WIP front, I’m finally shockingly happy with the outline and am cleaning up my world-building references into organized files in Scrivener before tackling the rewrite. Which will be followed by a paid edit and possibly a copy edit. So still quite a ways from complete. But I’m getting excited by it again, which is a nice change!

PS, I have a guest blog coming soon, which is a first for the blog and pretty exciting, And which will also hopefully give the little finger a chance to recover! :)

I’m not dead, just on vacation

Wow, this is the first time I’ve nearly exceeded my minimum one post a month guideline. Yikes. So instead of a craft post, you’re going to get a personal one. Tune out now if you want. :)

We went to the West Coast to visit some inlaws, and North to take a Disney cruise around Alaska with the kids. Alaska is wonderful, beautiful… and it rains a lot. Beautiful indeed. But rains. A lot. Or at least it did the week we were there. We saw whales, seals, and wild black bears–not caged, and not twelve feet away. I was ready to take that mamma bear on, for the sake of the kids, which I’m sure wouldn’t have ended well for me. :) Luckily we were in good hands on a guided tour with a guide who stated confidently at the beginning that she would protect us. And then admitted quietly to me–no idea why–after the bear had wandered off that she hoped she actually knew how to use the sulphur flare she wore on her belt, which was her last line of defence after assorted puffing up and yelling tactics. Yikes!

The kids thought it was all great fun.

The whale-watching boat tour was fun too (non-Disney related, just to be clear)… Well, it was until the girl threw up in the upper deck anyway, and the smell chased us all downstairs. I know, I know, people keep asking me, why didn’t she throw up over the side? The answer: because the upper deck was glass-enclosed.

Did I mention it rains in Alaska?

Then we visited the mother in law, who has a small dog. Which was entertaining, as my smallest boy has a fear of dogs, despite us having owned one when he was one (he’s three now, and doesn’t remember at all). Lots of tears and clutching at Daddy’s neck when we forgot to manage the situation. But amazingly enough, guess who didn’t want to leave the dog at the end of the week? It was very cute.

Okay, that’s it from the world of my vacation. To repeat my big news, I am not dead.

Despite my adventures with bears. :)

 

Oh, PS, I got lots of writing down on a new short story when I was on the boat. Because, you know, I love writing on boats!! (see here)

Stepping Stones to Greatness. And the Big Splash.

When I was a kid, we had a stream in the field behind our house, where we would creep around when the cows weren’t let out (watching our footsteps!) and occasionally we would cross the stream. What you realize is that rocks just under or over the water, wet and dark, can be slippery. You need to be careful where you step (especially when it comes to avoiding cow deposits, but that’s a different post…)

In writing, the first chapter is your first few steps out into that stream. To get a reader to keep turning the first pages, whether agent or book buyer, you need an intriguing first line, an intriguing scene question that drags them at least a few more paragraphs in, a character doing something interesting, wanting something with some emphasis, and having a conflict to their achieving it. You want to hint at the main character’s personality, you want to promise to the reader the tone and style of your story, you want the reader to keep reading. Desperately.

And it’s not always easy, especially as not every person is really our target audience. Which makes it only that more imperative that we don’t lose those who are.

You are standing on the side of the stream, one foot outstretched, swaying, half-submerged rocks all around. You can wander any direction you want, but not all of those rocks lead to the other side of the stream. Some leave you sitting waist deep in frigid water, wondering how all those darn frogs make it look so easy.

(I think I just called published authors frogs. He he. Done in love…)

_______________________________________________________

Work remains challenging, but slowly inching along on my writing and even (fractionally) my art. I’ve done a fun Sherlock Holmes fantasy short story (3k words-ish) that was for an anthology call. Likely low chance of making it in, but the story got some good feedback on OWW, and I enjoyed it considerably. And I’m trying to keep forward progress on my adult fantasy major edit. I’ve done all the editing, chopping, and reworking. So now I’m at the rewriting stage, which is a a bit daunting, as I know that this will be over 100,000 words with the new POVs I’ve put in. I like this story and want to finish it, but it is not a small task. Oh well. :) I should get it done before the kids get to university. Or if I get laid off, it might go faster! :) Kidding. Kind of. Work is still crazy and some days the life of a writer does beckon. But we all have good days and bad days, so I’m sure things will get better…

Happy Canada Day / Fourth of July weekend! Best.

Oh, nearly forgot, the image here is a close crop of an old image I’ve shown on the site before, and which I think is in the gallery, of a woman near a pool. A mood experiment at the time…

 

The Ocean, the Wind, and—Maybe I’m Just Weird.

Once a year for the last few years, patient more about despite the early complaints of the mighty hooligans (especially Hooligan #2, viagra who was not a fan of any disruption to his routine), my wife and I have taken a Disney cruise to warmer climes*. Since the kids still nap, we have to take shifts. For the last couple of trips, she has taken the sunbaked days, for her alone time, while I take the swirling nights. But you’d be mistaken if you thought I was out partying, hitting the bars and making friends with other frazzled fathers. Nope. Instead, I wind through suger-hyped families and packs of kids up way too late, to find a quiet secluded corner, with a smoky rum at hand, under a cool dark sky, washed over by a smooth warm breeze. As my family sleeps, dark and powerful words and conflict crash together like great waves in my laptop.

In other words, I find a quiet corner and I write.

The experience is powerful, wonderful. Am I introverted? Not really. Not all the time. But I still love it. Maybe I’m weird. But hopefully one day, if my fiction sells, I can claim some credit to those dark and light-dotted nights where my inhibitions were broken down by wind and rum and waves, to produce prose that is more powerful than would otherwise be created.

Full disclosure: the bones of this post were written on a cruise, with the Caribbean wind in my hair and face, and some random girl asking me why on Earth I’m working when I’m on a cruise?

I smile politely. If only she knew.

For writers out there, particularly those who might have distractions, kids, jobs, a rare hard-fought minute that they have to write in, I highly recommend it. If you can afford it, it’s a trip. :)

____________________________________________________

 

*For those wondering why a Disney cruise, one answer: good daycare and/ or babysitting. That became our top vacation criteria as soon as my Lovely Wife and I had kids. We may learn the hard way, but we learn quick… 😉

PS, the Disney cruises look nothing like the image here. :) Although they do come with a costumed pirate or two… This image took me about an hour and a half, mixed media, simply to save time, a bunch of watercolor washes, some ink to pull out the lines, white charcoal (I think) to pull out some highlights, then the background blurred on the laptop afterwards. I’m finding this style seems fairly effective for quick post images, although I’m also tempted to dig up my old acrylic paints and test them too, as I think that they might also be more efficient than watercolor alone, where drying time has to be factored in and it’s just too time-consuming to do a watercolor only image.

Roses are red, violets are blue–Is that an axe that’s stuck in you?

Poetry and fantasy novels. Jim Butcher and Dr. Seuss. Have they got anything in common–other than Tolkien’s rambling poems and songs (which, I admit, I still skip, despite reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ a dozen times)? I claim yes.

Full disclosure: This post is different than others I’ve written so far, in that I’m still figuring out my opinion on it. Not so much on the value of the technique, which I’m convinced has some value, but rather the trade off between the ‘value add’ and the ‘time spent’, which isn’t inconsiderable, and an important consideration for a commercial writer. But I’ve found this topic only marginally explored in my pile of Writing Craft books, so maybe my ramblings are of interest. And if I’m overlooking an authoritative source for this topic, please mention in the comments!

To bring it back to writing, this post is about ‘voice’. And the benefit that basic poetry skills can bring to it. If you haven’t yet recoiled in horror at the topic, from a horrible memory of an ancient English teacher with massive jowls and knuckles like a fifty-year-old boxer, let me backtrack. :)

First, about me. Growing up, I had two creative outlets: a love of art and a love of fantasy and science fiction novels. I read Anne McCaffrey, Orson Scott Card, and David Eddings, along with many lesser known names. And I spent hours in my parent’s basement, drawing and coloring the type of images you see on the site. Some kind of dark. I’m sure my parents were thrilled. :)

When I was older, and looking to get back into the arts, it occurred to me that I could combine my interest in writing and art in the field of picture books. So I joined SCBWI and started writing and illustrating (NOT the same dark style, don’t worry). It was fun, and I learned a lot. And even got an occasional sniff of agent and editor interest. But the picture book market was tough (still is) and my writing skills were still budding. Eventually, I got restless and shifted to longer fantasy novels, my first reading love and the genesis of this site.

Hang with me; I’ve got a point, I promise. :)

In my picture book journey, I went through a period where I wanted to develop my skill at rhyming stories. So I joined an online poetry group, which included some published poets, and put some effort into it. At one SCBWI event, an agent read an anonymous sample of mine (in a ‘first pages’ session) and announced that “the author obviously had a lot of talent”.  I also had a humorous poem published on a reputable poetry site. Not to toot my own horn here, I just want to establish that I have a grounding in rhyme and meter.

Fast forward to a year or so ago, when I finished my first draft of Black Diamonds, a story written much quicker than my two previous books. I’d embraced the idea of an outline and some world and character building before I typed the first sentence, encouraged by the quality of writing that one of my critique partners produced in her first draft, using the same type of approach. Another critique partner noted that she thought some of the line-level writing could be improved, based on the first draft.

At the same time, I happened to read David Coe’s mention on Magical Words about how he reads his words aloud–I think David has exceptional sentence and scene-level technique–as well as a few tangential mentions from other authors. So I decided to give it a try. And when I did?

I realized that it was exactly what I had been doing for my rhyming stories. Spoken out loud, I could hear the meter, the BEATS of emphasis that gave the words rhythm and music. And I could smooth it out, make it sound more pleasing, more musical.

The drawback? It took FOREVER. Doing poetry level polishing on language takes a long time. I estimated that it took me roughly an hour a page, and there were days it was much slower. The first draft took me maybe four months. The sentence level edit took me about eight more.

Ouch. I mean, not all was to do with voice. But still.

The problem was, and still is, that the exercise undoubtedly improves my writing. Aside from improving the ‘musicality’ of the words, reading a story that slowly makes you realize when the meanings aren’t quite right. When a description or reference doesn’t tie into later chapters. It does a lot of things to make the story better.

But it doesn’t touch story. Plot. Character development. Or premise. The bones of the story. Polishing for sound is the most superficial of skills. I would recommend, if you do it all, to do it last, even after you send it to a developmental editor. It’s a final draft skill. And it still begs the question: is it worth the time invested?

I don’t know.

And that is the crux of it. I polished Black Diamonds (my current work in progress) this way, for 75% of the story. Then a good critique and major edit came around, and I changed a lot of those words. Did that time invested make any lasting change? Was the time spent worth it? I don’t know. And honestly, how would you even know? You can’t send out two different versions of a story to the same audience. How do you disentangle a reader’s liking of word-level polish from their view on the bones of a story? Ahh.

I should clarify a bit on why the time spent was so disproportionate. Another issue with this type of edit? You’re reading it out loud. While I let the utter obviousness of that statement wash over you, :) let me clarify. I can’t do it riding on the train (or at least don’t want to). I can’t do it in a coffee shop. I can’t do it in my backyard as people walk their dogs on the other side of the fence. This last winter, I would drive to a coffee shop, buy a coffee, and sit in the passenger seat of my car, window fogged up, so that no-one would look at me strangely as I muttered to myself. A couple of times, I forgot to turn off the headlights and drained the battery. CAA loved me. :)

But don’t take that slow timeline as set in stone. For one, I just discovered a partial solution to the obstacles above. Only last week, and it may be because of my own lack of tech savvy, I read an author’s post about how she used the Apple text to speech option* to hear her own words. That comment hit me like a smack of bricks to the forehead. I could make my laptop read to ME? Using HEADPHONES? ARGH!

And it works. Mostly. The tone is a bit flat, it doesn’t read things as naturally as you would yourself. But it also doesn’t get tired, distracted, or bored, ending up watching a squirrel nibble on an old muffin instead of actually working on the manuscript.

Did I mention: Argh! Oh well.

In any event, there you go. It’s worth thinking about: Meter. Rhythm. Reading your words out loud. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes. Of course, polish is nothing without solid story structure and the other writing skills that you need, most mentioned in this post. Reading out loud is not a first draft tool, but a last draft one.

But if you want to improve your voice. If you have a solid story and sentence level problems are holding you back, it might be worth a try.

Your big-jowled English teacher be damned**.  :)

____________________________________________ 

A book that I found a helpful resource is The Ode Less Traveled. Even better were SCBWI’s discussion boards—or at least they were a few years ago when I frequented them, as they had real poets willing to guide you in the basics, although I can’t weigh in on whether that’s still the case…

*If you have a Mac laptop like me, it’s the Speech and Diction option in Preferences, and has a default Option Esc key combo to make it work, once you’ve selected the text you want it to read.

** My apologies to English teachers everywhere. I’m just kidding, of course. My English teacher was a lovely lady and actually spurred me on to writing, with her encouragement and enthusiasm. I still remember and appreciate it.

Other random thoughts:

  • Shakespeare had a great command of plot and scene. But isn’t it interesting that one of the most enduring writers of history wrote in a structured and proven meter pattern (iambic pentameter)?
  • The first time that this concept was even partially introduced to me was in a writing craft book–I believe Bird by Bird, although I could be wrong–where the concept of ending a sentence with a hard beat was discussed, to add power and emphasis. I was rocked by the thought that a successful author cared about the SOUND of the word and not just its meaning.

The image for this post is actually not a finished one, but rather a few snapshots of the current piece that I am working on. I thought it looked kind of cool to show the progression, rough to more finished, and I didn’t have it completely done for today. Instead of waiting for the final piece, I thought I would include the roughs instead. It’ll save me rushing and potentially ruining the artwork through haste, or holding up the post until it’s done. I will probably post the final piece later, unless it takes a turn for the worse…