Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tools of the trade

Every career requires a certain amount of learning or training. Writing is no different. While classes in English, literature, and creative writing can help hone a god-given talent, the learning doesn't stop there. And the best place to learn? From other writers, of course. :)

There are some things -- books, in particular -- that I personally feel no serious writer should be without. First, there's the obvious: Strunk & White Elements of Style; and a good dictionary and thesaurus combo. For the latter, shop around a bit to find one with a lot of choices. Some, I've found, are limited.

Now, for the more subjective list.

On Writing, by Stephen King

I've lost count of the number of writers who say they swear by this book -- that to them, it's like the industry bible. Whether or not you enjoy horror, King is one of the greatest writers ever. He has an amazing ability to string words together and draw you deep into the story and the minds of his characters. This book -- which is somewhat an autobigraphy as well as a how-to book -- is full of fantastic guidance.

Now I give fair warning: it is not for the faint of heart. He's honest, forthwright and his language can be extremely... shall we say, earthy? ;) If cursing bothers you, then pass it by -- unless you can overlook it and instead glean the gems from this work. It just might be worth it, but that's a very personal preference.

Writing the Romance Novel for Dummies, by Leslie Wainger

This book is sitting on my own shelf. While you may not be interested in writing romance, Wainger's book still has great advice regarding characters, plotting, etc. If you are writing romance, then this book is a must-have because it comes from the perspective of the editor -- that person you want to please with your final product.

Another great 'how-to' book for romance writers is:

The Art of Romance Writing, by Valerie Parv

Ms Parv is a multi-published romance author -- probably well-known to the Harlequin/Silhouette readers. She's clever, a fantastic story-teller, and a really amazing lady. Any guidance you can receive from an established pro has got to be worth its weight in gold.

Okay, these are just some of the tools I'd like to endorse for anyone wanting to improve their writing style. Next time, some ideas for researching. But until then, would anyone like to add to the list?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A rose by any other name...

Could be a whole different kind of flower. ;)

Today I'm thinking about words. Note that I'm in editing and revision stage with book two -- SHATTERED (previously titled: Broken). My dear, intelligent editor didn't care for the first version. I understood her objections, asked if I could revise and resubmit with them in mind. She agreed. And such is the way you deal with that.

Of course, she could still hate it when I'm done, but that's a chance I'm willing to take. (Typing with crossed fingers is really difficult, btw.) ;)

But I digress... Revisions often mean I'm looking for new ways to say the same thing again and again. I hate repetitious words. Readers do, as well. If you use a word too often in the space of a page or two -- or use a very unfamiliar word -- it can 'bump' them out of the story. As a writer, you need to keep them reading long into the night. You don't want to give them any reason to put that book down. And therefore you need to smooth the bumps wherever possible. Think of yourself as a one-person road crew.

So, out come the handy dandy Thesaurus. Of course you can use the one built into your word program or one on the Internet. It's your call. But it's one of the better tools in a writer's arsenal.

We'll discuss other must-have books in a later post.

However, inside your thesaurus, make a note to yourself. It should say something like this: USE WITH CARE. You see, not all synonyms are created equal. Let's take the word "rose", since I titled this post with it to get your attention. ;) lists possibilities as: flush, blush, pink, red, rosette, rouge.

Could you use any of these in place of the word? Um, probably not...unless you are referring to the color. If you're talking about the flower itself, you're limited. This isn't the best example, really, but the point I'm trying to make is that synonyms don't always have the exact meaning of the word you started with. They are close-to OR similar to. NOT least, not always.

I was talking with a dear friend who line-edits part time. She mentioned a story she was working on (without telling me the title or author's name) in which it was obvious the writer used her handy thesaurus at every turn. Unfortunately, the words she picked didn't always mean what she thought they meant.

Now here's where another important writing tool comes into play: the Dictionary. If you're in doubt, look it up. This is not the editor's job, it's yours. Many editors will just send a polite rejection letter instead of even trying to fix copy with a lot of errors.

Also, remember I said unusual words will bump a reader? There are times when even the best synonym just doesn't work. For example, I have a really hard time writing scenes where a door is involved. Sounds dumb? Think about it.

Here's a very short example from my latest novel, DREAM WALK:

"The bundle of towels held like a shield, she walked the long
yards to her bodyguard’s room. For a moment, she simply
listened before tapping lightly on the door. Silence. She
frowned. Perhaps he had gone back to his car for something?

She knocked louder. Nothing. With a shrug, she opened the
door and stepped inside. It would be better to leave the linens
on the bed and scoot out again. Without pinpointing the reason,
she knew it wasn’t wise to risk another confrontation so soon."

Normally I would cringe at the use of the same noun twice in such a short space. But with 'door', I've found my options are limited. Any other term draws too much attention. Here are some possibilities: aperture, egress, entry, entryway, exit, gate, gateway, hatch, hatchway, ingress, opening, portal, postern, slammer.

Um, yeah. I don't talk like that. Do you? IF you do, great, use the word that sounds natural -- to you and to your characters. But in my world of limited vocabulary skills, a door is a door is a door. ;) Of course, in other instances, the words like "exit; entry; gate; or opening" would work, but not in these two paragraphs.

Now that you've gotten some of your story written, you have permission to go back and edit a bit. ;) Start by making sure your word choices are the best for the story. Do the words flow? Do you have to stop and think about what a word means or how to pronounce it? If so, then maybe you need to consider a change. Of course the real test comes when you get a beta-reader, aka critique partner, to look over your stuff.

But the words you choose are vital: They set the tone of your story. The words you tend to use are also a part of what we call your "voice". Every artist has a style -- and so do writers. The trick is to let yours be heard.

So open your document; grab a thesaurus and carefully... very carefully check for those pesky repetitious words. I will say, however, that it might be better to completely re-write a sentence or paragraph or MORE rather than use an iffy synonym.

Each writer's tool is important... and each should be handled with care.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Now what?

Hopefully you've been writing down your story. I've actually had a really good week in that department -- all but three chapters in SHATTERED are completely revised; wrote over three-thousand new words for book three, AT SECOND SIGHT.

Compared to my recent attempts at working, this is fantastic, trust me.

Now that you've started writing, what's next? Well for most of us there's a point -- sometimes more than one -- when we get stuck. This can be in the "sagging middle" or some other area in the story. The trick is to not let it get you down... and to keep on writing.

My experience as a writer has taught me that there are different levels in my creative process. The one I love happens much too infrequently. It's when words pour like water from my fingertips. I can visualize the scene; the dialogue; the sensual information without a hiccup. It feels as if someone is dictating the story from one word to the next. I love "the zone"...and it's during these times that I'm most productive.

The other extreme is "pulling teeth" writing. That's when it feels like I'm digging every other word from the bottom of some deep pit in my brain. One sentence is a struggle. An entire scene is almost torture! Sometimes this is the point where I give up and close the document. If I can feel it's going to be a "pulling teeth" kind of session, I often won't even try. But that's the worse thing you can do.

The best way to get past the hiccups in your writing is to keep on trucking. ;) Write as much as you can -- even if it's very little. But write something. The only way to finish is to DO IT. The bad days will pass and when those little road blocks come down, it is such a rush!