Writer’s improvement hell – Is my book any good?

writers improvement

I had a barbecue yesterday. It was a good time, too much food, too much beer and there may have been whiskey near the end. I’m not exactly sure because the bottle’s empty. In any case, there was good conversation, some of which was related to my WIP. One of my friends, not on social media, was not aware of my writing or the progress of my WIP. It’s not surprising, I try hard to not talk too much about writing at get-togethers. Mostly because lots of people like to talk about writing, but never get anywhere with it, and that’s annoying. Plus, when I get going, I can’t stop – and that’s also annoying. Not only that, I only just started talking openly about my writing over the past year.

The friend congratulated me on the achievement of finishing a first draft, and asked a few polite questions. One of which stopped me. I made the comment that the book was pretty good, and if I can’t get it picked up by a traditional publisher, I was going to self publish*. His response was, how do you know it’s good? His tone wasn’t critical. The question wasn’t meant to be antagonistic or snarky. It was a constructive inquiry. For a minute or two I stumbled over saying how some folks have read it and say it’s pretty good, and I’ve put a lot of effort into it.

His question though went straight to the heart of my writer’s ego. I don’t think any damage was done, but I’ve been having a rather introspective go of things today. How DO I know my WIP is any good? – I don’t. It may be that I believe it to be true, but I don’t KNOW it to be true. Just because I think it’s going to be my break-out novel, doesn’t mean that it will be, or anyone will even like it for that matter.

All that being said, why do I believe it’s a good book? I’ve got a bunch of reasons, and it’s not just because I wrote it. Here are my reasons:

1.) The flow of the prose is pretty good. No, it’s not totally polished, and in spite of a few rough chapters near the end, it’s a readable work already.
2.) Each of the characters are unique, having individual goals and traits.
3.) The setting is rich and complicated, a highly desirable feature of fantasy.
4.) Each chapter will be driven by some specific goal of the MC for that chapter, which is relevant to that character’s overall goals as well as the plot of the book and the series. This ensures that the stakes, character responses, events, and action are consistent and readers never stop to wonder ‘what just happened?’
5.) I’ve spent a lot of time layering the plot so that as twists occur, they are believable and, in retrospect, inevitable. Every event has a cause and that cause must make sense in the context of the story. Again, there is still work to be done here, but I think I can identify where weaknesses exist.
6.) I’ve put thought into character arcs, plot arcs, themes, and back-story.
7.) I have spent a lot of time carefully evaluating dialogue to make sure it reads naturally and follows a believable conversation arc. I try to minimize the verbosity and keep the characters moving as much as possible during scenes of extended dialogue so that the action doesn’t hang up.
8.) The first half of the book has been read by more than 1 person, and I’ve gotten some good feedback – and I’m talking about stuff larger than canned things like: “show don’t tell”.
9.) Pacing – I’ve spent a lot of time making sure that the style of the prose agrees with the action.
10.) I’ve listened and responded to all of the feedback I’ve gotten. It’s not necessarily the case that a suggestion on your work should be adopted, but should be considered and the issue addressed by the suggestion resolved.

In short, I believe the book is good, well will be good – still needs work, because I’ve put in the effort to make it so. The story I’m telling may not appeal to many folks, hell might not appeal to anyone, but it will posses all of the elements necessary to tell an entertaining story with compelling characters, plot, have depth, and will not be predictable. Writing, like any craft, is improved with time, patience and a willingness to learn better technique. I’m doing all of these things, and not allowing myself to become too hung up on what I want to say in my book vs. what I need to say to tell a good story.

* I have this whole plan about shopping around book one while working on book two. Once book two is more or less drafted and ready for review and final revisions, and I haven’t sold book one, I’ll put book two on the shelf and self-publish the first one. This way, they’ll be about a year apart or so.

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Fantasy research – creepy in fantasy (Coraline)

One of the lovely things about writing is that often your research involves reading other stories. Not to lift work, of course, but to understand tricks of the trade, analyze what worked, or didn’t, and try to figure out why. One of the key things War of Shadow needs, in certain parts, is an element of creepy. I want the setting to feel slightly uncomfortable as the characters move through the landscape. So, in an effort to understand how other writers do it, and discover tricks to how it might be adapted for my ow purposes, I started by picking up Coraline by Neil Gaiman. There are other books in the queue, but that was the first. It’s a book I should have picked up a long time ago. I did see the movie just after it came out, and thought it was very good and pretty darn creepy.

First off, my opinion of the book – Inside the first couple chapters, I felt as though it was more of a sketch, and left me wanting. However, the story really picks up the second time Coraline goes into the world in the other flat. All throughout, the imagery is very good, and the writing excellent. As I went through, I’m not sure I felt particularly unsettled, or creeped-out. The last few chapters were just suspenseful enough, not overdone, and I was compelled to go on to the next page.

From the perspective of a writer, if I take only one thing away from the book, is the suspense at the end. That said, I did read it for the creepy, and I have to say that I don’t know what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. Perhaps that I’d lose a bit of sleep thinking about a disembodied hand because I’m waiting for it to scrabble out from under the bed? Maybe find my self thinking twice about opening a locked door in case I might find button-eyed mockeries of a loved one? No, I didn’t feel any of that. But was that the point? Probably not.

In verbally ruminating upon the story, my wife reminded me that Coraline was meant to be for younger readers. From that perspective, had I read this when I was a child, it probably would have kept me from sleeping. However, as an adult not so much. The reason, I think, I didn’t find it as creepy as I may have been expecting is because Coraline does not, except for one place, seem to be in any imminent danger of certain death from the Beldam. It sort of feels like this is a possible outcome, at some distant point in the future, not an immediate threat. I sort of wonder if that distinction doesn’t tend to temper the ‘creepy’ for me. I also wonder if this was not by design, to make the story a little less horrifying for young readers.

After having read this book, did I learn anything about writing creepy?

I think so. First off, you need to rely on the principle of “things aren’t what they seem.” I can see this being difficult for the writer to pull off in a fantasy novel because the reader already isn’t familiar with the world. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m having some trouble with it. There are so many things being introduced, this concept can be a bit of a challenge to really highlight. How does the reader know that we’re dealing with something that’s not quite right? In urban fantasy, where the world is generally the same as the one we’re sitting in, you can rely on that familiarity to set the bar for ‘normal.’ In this case, unexpected things are going to seem unusual to the reader, and the character only needs to react in a manner generally consistent with things not being as they should be. I think the same trick can be used when you have an unusual world. The reader will have to rely on cues from the characters. Elements of the world that are mundane to the characters should read that way. When things are supposed to be creepy, they should be contrasted with things that the character takes as normal, as well as what the reader would consider normal.

Another thing that I was reminded of while reading this book is the choice of words used for imagery. In one particular example from Coraline, Neil Gaiman uses the look of a spider to describe the color of the other mother’s skin. What he did there was use something generally regarded as uncomfortable (I mean who likes spiders, really?) in the description when other descriptions would suffice. Of course, this is just how it’s done, although it’s also easy to lose sight of when you’re trying to manage some 100K words of text. Think about any particular story that has a bit of creepy to it. Inevitably there are sentences about slithering snakes and the jerky motions of spiders and the like. However, I also think that this can be overdone.

For now, I’m not quite ready to begin going back and polishing in this particular flavor, I’d like to finish a few other books for research, and I’d rather focus my attention on finishing up the first drafts of the last 2 – 3 chapters of War of Shadows (I really need to start working out a name that I plan to use, or this is going to stick.) and also finish fixing up the bits that need help.

Writer’s improvement hell – tag lines in dialogue

writers improvement

As I steadfastly continue to procrastinate on finishing up the last few chapters of my book, I’m making a mental list of problems I need to sort out when the process of iterative revisions begins. One issue that came to my attention a couple days ago is the use of tag lines. You know, those bits of sentence at the end of dialogue that run ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’.

Usually, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the dialogue tags. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. Anyhow I started thinking about it because I ran across a blog post on the topic -and not the first. The basic take away of these various posts has been to avoid the use of dialogue tags. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting these bits of advice, but I’m not so sure. The favored approach seems to be to simply use the ‘he said’/’she asked’ variety of tags, if you must use any at all. Naturally, this gets me to the question “Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?”

To start off, I’m going to disagree with the advice that one shouldn’t use dialogue tags outside of the plain-jane variety. Not that I don’t think this advice has some merit, because I think it does speak to a problem.

When it comes to disagreeing with folks on topics I don’t consider myself an expert at, I tend to second-guess my opinion, and try to understand why I must be wrong (Note: Once I’ve concluded I’m right, good luck blasting me out of that position.) The first thing I did was walk over to my bookcase and pull off four books to see how they handled dialogue tags. I chose books I enjoyed and that I remember reading fairly well. These were: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Pale Horsemen by Bernard Cornwell, Lord of the Rings, and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. All of them use dialogue tags, though Rendezvous with Rama is virtually all exposition and so examples were harder to find. That set me to Internet searching, which mostly came up with the same advice I’m disagreeing with right now. The next place I went was to a book called Fiction First Aid . This book covers the topic in about 3 pages, and it doesn’t say to avoid dialogue tags, it just provides some very broad guidelines on how to approach them.

I have come to the conclusion that dialogue tags and their use are stylistic. For the purpose of illustration, here’s an example of what I would regard as a bad use of a dialogue tag:

(A) “I don’t remember if I mentioned my plan or not,” she blatantly lied.

But, is it really bad? Well, I think so, but I lifted it from a book my wife loves, and she’s fairly particular about reading material. I think it’s bad because blatantly isn’t necessary – this is true even once you drop the line back into context in the book.

Here is a made-up one that I think is heinous:
(B) “I’ve got something for you young lady,” he intoned smarmily.

Is the use of the tag the thing that’s heinous? No, in my opinion, it’s the word choice. In fact, just because I hate it doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t think it’s a nice bit of descriptive -and maybe it is.

Giving general advice is hard when style is involved. Every writer does it a little differently and, anecdotally, genre plays a role too, although I’m having a tough time seeing even that. It seems that you should use dialogue tags that are appropriate, and necessary. This is KEY – if you have a reason for ‘he said grudgingly’, then use it, if you don’t have a reason, attempt to apply the rule of less is more. I think it’s also appropriate to sprinkle in things like ‘replied’ to break up the ‘she said’ sort of tags, IF that’s your style. Although, I will go a little further to say that if you’re hitting a thesaurus to find new tags, you may need to tone it down a bit.

All this said, I re-examined my writing. Turns out, I make fairly limited use of alternative tags, usually I use stuff like ‘replied’, ‘growled’, ‘shouted’ or ‘called’, but in fairly limited measure, and even less frequently with an adverb (like example B.) More often though, I use action or dialogue beats. Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Lord Feorun smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “What I have in mind for you is far worse than death.”

When it comes to dialogue, I think tags are likely to be the least of your problems. Tags can, of course, be done badly, but if you read enough, you probably already have an intuitive feel for what doesn’t work for the reader you’re trying to engage with. The bigger problem is repetition, if you repeat ‘he said’ too often, or use dialogue beats for every speaking character, or alternate tags with adverbs at the end of every piece of dialogue, it will have the feel of repetition, and that more than the use of tags is likely to read badly. Anyhow, this is one of those instances where giving advice might be pointless, and so here I am, right where I started – Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?

Incidentally – it’s my opinion that this is not one of my weak areas.

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