Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Building a platform

"Writers need a platform; we need to get our name out there and build an audience for our work for when we do have a book in hand."

From the article, Creating the Breakout Blog: a platform guide for the pre-published writer. Another article on why it's important to start building a platform: Building a framework for your authorial success.

When I started this blog I tried to think of something to do with writing that would be helpful both for myself and for other writers out there. After I finish I really good book, I like to go back and figure what made the book the work - what specific things about the writing hooked me.

So I decided to start analyzing books for regular posts. Not only does it benefit me to take the time to figure out what that author did, but it might also benefit some other readers.

Here's the books I've analyzed so far.

What's your writing platform? Or what is unique about your writing blog?

Leave a comment so I can come visit.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Word counts are making me miserable

A couple weeks ago I was enjoying being back in "writing mode" and working on editing/polishing up my children's fantasy novel, the Valley of the Unicorns.I was enjoying it, that is, until I really seriously started thinking about word counts.

A while back I ran across this article, Word Count for Novels and Children's Books: The Definitive Post, on an agent's website. I vaguely remembered reading that while fantasy and science fiction novels are allowed to be a little longer because of the need for world-building, that for first-time authors (who don't have a record of published successes yet), you basically don't want to exceed 100,000 words, which works out to about 300 pages.

I opened up all the documents I have my chapters stored in and added up all the word counts, and discovered that my novel is about 130,000 words (that's an estimate, because I still have five partial chapters I'm working on).So I needed to take a good look at the "scenes" in the novel and come up with a plan for getting down to 100,000 words or less. I made an outline of all my chapters and scenes, and looked for ones that could go (telling myself I can always save them for a sequel). After much hemming and hawing, I got rid of two chapters - and this only brought the word count down by 5,000 words. I started to realize I was going to have to do some major plot changes to hit that 100,000 mark. Which means another major re-write.

This may have contributed to my relapse into depression last week.

After two days of feeling sorry for myself, I began to resurface. I had already planned on writing a couple sequels to the book, anyway, so I started looking at taking current book and turning it into two books. I fiddled with the chapter outlines for a couple days, re-arranging it from the original 48 chapters to 31 chapters. My average chapter length is about 2650 words, so 31 x 2650 = 82,150 words - BINGO! And I was really starting to warm up to the idea of extending my plot out over several books. I had enough ideas now to maybe even go as far as six or seven books, like Harry Potter!

But just to make sure I was on the right track, I re-read the post mentioned above, and several others that I found. Turns out, I had correctly remembered the 100,000 word count... for ADULT NOVELS. Young adult novels range from 55,000-70,000 words, but my book (which has talking animals in it) actually falls in the middle grade genre. Middle grade books (ages 9-12) range from 32,000 to 40,000 - with the allowance that fantasy/sci-fi may be a little longer.

That's crazy! Children's books are larger print, so they average about 250 words per page. 40,000/250 is only 160 pages! Even Charlotte's Web is 192 pages! The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is 206 pages. Anne of Green Gables is 312 pages.

I just scanned the children's 100 best sellers lists on Amazon, and I only found one chapter book that was less than 200 pages. And there was only one other book that was less than 300 pages! Most books were between 320-400 pages. That's between 80,000-100,000 words.
Okay, those are the best-sellers. The top 0.1% of published books. Nice to dream one of my books would make it there. But on the other hand, it's quite obvious that short books aren't making it to the best seller list like long ones. I think that's because short stories just aren't as satisfying. You don't get to go on a long fulfilling "journey" with the characters. You don't have the same emotional investment. I think it is worth it to keep my book longer.

And yet I am faced with the fact that agents are agreeing on this: "But for a debut novelist who is trying to catch the eye of an agent or editor for the first time? Err on the side of caution with your word count."

Miserable may be a little exaggerated. But I am, most definitely, frustrated.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why I think Avatar is so appealing....

It's so rare to come across a really good SF movie, that I couldn't resist analyzing Avatar the same way I try to analyze the writing craft of books to see what makes them work. Turns out, it's not too different when it comes to analyzing movies. Most of the elements that make a good book also make a good movie - interesting characters, suspenseful plot, good dialogue.

I was startled by how much I loved the movie, so much that after seeing it the first time with a friend, I went right back with my husband and oldest daughter because I loved it so much I wanted them to see it, too. Here are five factors that I think account for its broad appeal (not a complete list, I'm sure).

1. amazing specific effects, and not just effects for the sake of effects, but a really beautiful, well-imagined and well-crafted fantasy world, with a budget that could afford to pay attention to details. James Cameron used cinematography to create something so fantastic that the only comparison at its level I can think of is Tolkien's Middle Earth, created by written fiction (and not equalled in its cinematic version - though it is tempting to think what the movie version of Lord of the Rings might have been like if they'd waited another 8 years for advances in special effects. Still, we have the Hobbit to look forward to)

2.lots of action: bang ‘em up, shoot ‘em up, some monstrous scary creatures, and some mythological-type creatures thrown in for good measure

3. Romeo and Juliet story, where people from two different cultures fall in love and their love triumphs over forces that would try to divide them (James Cameron apparently discovered how well this theme works in his other blockbuster, Titanic)

4. everybody loves an underdog, and it’s really cool to see the Nav’ii triumph against overwhelming odds. (This is also a big factor in the popularity of the Lord of the Rings, too, I believe, where two little hobbits defeat the Dark Lord against all odds).

5. “good vs. evil” plot that follows archetypal story structure and includes some spiritual themes that many people relate to, including pantheistic and Christian themes.

A lot of highly successful movies/books have two or maybe even three of these elements, but this movie goes all out and includes all five of them. No wonder I was hooked.

Just a little bit more about the archetypal story structure I mentioned above, also known as the monomyth or the hero's journey or hero's quest. There is an excellent book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler based on the comparative mythology research of Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero With a Thousand Faces.

A quote from Campbell's book:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Sound at all like the plot of Avatar?
I applied the Writer's Journey to the outlines of all three of my novels and it enabled me to really clarify and strengthen my plots.
It's hard not to see the hero's journey as the basis for almost all of the good books and movies I read and see now.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Two sentences is all you get

From one of the writing/editing blogs that I follow, I found a link last week to an author's site called the Bookshelf Muse, where she was offering a "hook" contest. Submit the first two sentences of your manuscript ("the hook"), and her top 3 picks would win free critiques.
I was curious to see what other "hooks" were - there were over 70 people that submitted. Most of them were pretty good, interesting enough that I wanted to read more. There were a few that didn't hook me at all. If one of your story's first two sentences is a description of the weather, that's not a good sign. My idea of a hook is something that raises a question that has to be answered - an interesting question.
So I went ahead and submitted my first two sentences. Well darn it, I wasn't one of the three winners. But, as the author who was holding the contest pointed out: taste is subjective. I was glad to discover I was on the right track as far as raising questions (see below), but I learned that you also have to pack a lot more into those two spare sentences: voice, setting, character and circumstance. Wow!
Keep in mind, taste is subjective, but here were some of the things I looked for when considering each one and the power it had to pull me into the story:--Did the opening prompt questions that I felt compelled to find answers for?--Is Voice present?--Does the hook provide an unusual combination of setting, character and circumstance?

So, here are the three hooks the author picked, along with her comments:

Aria fell. Once, a long time ago, she had dreamed that the sky could catch her. (I liked the lyrical quality of this opener and it made me wonder about the events that lead to this moment as well as the current action.)

Blackstone Farmhouse was the dullest place on earth until about three in the morning, when the screaming started. It had been happening for weeks, but it never failed to surprise Lena. (This one promises something unusual, I think. I liked the clash of the 'routine country lifestyle' and an unexpected disturbing event.)

Three seconds. That's how long it took for my life to end. (short & sweet, a bunch of questions come to mind about the POV character--questions I feel compelled to have the answers to.)

Here's a couple other hooks that didn't win but that I, personally, really liked:

Seasickness, it turned out, wasn't widely tolerated by pirates. Something of a shame, then, that Skully spent most of the past week throwing up.

Let me give you a little piece of advice: never try to eat a snithisser. I've had my share of adventures and they haven't all been catnip and cream.

And finally, here's the two sentences from my novel, Raining Toward Heaven, that I submitted:
Rowen snapped her cell phone shut, annoyed that Pete still wasn’t picking up. Today was their first anniversary, it was already 3:30 pm, and she hadn’t seen him or heard from him yet today.
After reading the winning hooks and some other really good ones, I think mine still needs some work, especially a distinctive voice (e.g. attitude, tone). For me, voice has always been the hardest thing to capture in my writing (in fact I've devoted a few other blogs to this issue).
Here's the first two sentences from my children's fantasy, Valley of the Unicorns:

For the first time in her life, Selty had a reason to be excited about her birthday. Actually, two reasons.

I think that one could still use a little work, too. It asks a question: why is she excited about this particular birthday when her others have given her no reason? It has maybe just a hint of voice, the way she decides she has two reasons instead of just one. But it still lacks something really distinctive that makes it compelling.
Just for fun, here's the first two sentences of my young adult fantasy, A Handful of Scars, which I haven't worked on in years. This first chapter was probably written 7 or 8 years ago.

The gargoyle crouched inside the bucket, snarling. Sidain nearly dropped the bucket back down the well when she saw it.

Now I like to think my writing has improved in the past 7 or 8 years, but I think of all three I probably like this one the best. I think it's the most distinctive, because you don't usually think of finding gargoyles inside of buckets, snarling. Gargoyles are stone sculptures that are fixed to buildings and aren't alive. So that raises a question, too, how can this gargoyle be alive? But yes this one still needs work, too. The question raised isn't what I would call very compelling. Does it make you want to read more?
A simple two-sentence contest, but it makes me realize how much work I have ahead of me to get my writing to a really good, publishable level.On the other hand, a simple two-sentence contest also got me motivated again! After taking the whole month of February off from writing, I am finally back in writing mode again and I've already blazed through edits on chapters 20-27 of the Valley in just a couple days. Yes, I'm backing to working on my first manuscript, even though my plan this year was to get the first draft of Raining Toward Heaven finished first. But I'm starting to think that jumping between two different works is how I am best suited to writing. When I start to lose inspiration on one, I can pick up on the other, and vice versa.
I'm just glad to be writing again.
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