Monday, March 28, 2011

Top 10 Mistakes a Writer Should Avoid: #10

#10: Query before you're ready

We've all heard of the panic stories: "OMG, the agent requests a full. What do I do now?"  The logical reply is, of course, "Send the thing immediately." Except the writer immediately tells you, "But it's not ready..." Whether the manuscript isn't finished, or it's still a first draft, or there are still many problems and errors to fix. Whatever it is, it's not "ready" yet and the writer knows it.

So why the heck did the writer query? Was it just for fun? Or did the writer have that self-defeating idea that "no one is going to want it, anyway"?

I see that happening a lot, and I wasn't an exception. When I first queried The Pacific Between, it wasn't ready either. It was at least 15,000 words too long, started in the wrong place, and needed at least another pass or two of copyediting. And what happened? I got a request for full. And a nice, plump rejection soon followed.

I learned my lesson, though. I just hope other writers don't have to go through that in order to learn the lesson. Make sure whatever you send out, whether it's a query letter, a synopsis, the first three chapters, or the entire manuscript, it's READY and you won't be embarrassed to let anyone see it. By "ready" I mean publication-ready.

But how can we tell if something is publication-ready? It is indeed difficult to tell because we're all so close to our own work. But if we are willing to spend months, if not years, working on the manuscript, shouldn't we spend at least a few months just to make sure everything is ready? Your beautiful baby deserves the attention before you present it to the world, don't you think? You wouldn't take your sick, naked, cranky baby to your boss's house, would you?

There are many ways to make sure your work is as ready as it can be:

a. Put it away for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two. Put some distance between you and your work, so that new euphoria and "I just wrote a masterpiece" feeling can subside. By then, hopefully you would have started a new project, or life is full of new adventures, and you wouldn't be so obsessed with the book.

b. After a few weeks or a month or two, you can now dust it off and read it again as objectively as you can. Pretend that someone else had written it. Read it from page 1 to the end with a critical eye. Examine every word choice and sentence structure. Plot. Characters. Conflict. Pace. Is it something you would buy and read if it were written by someone else? Can you see the flaws now? Does the story still make sense to you? Are you back in love with the characters as you were a few weeks ago? Can you see the grammatical and spelling errors? Can you rephrase a sentence to make it clearer or more vivid and interesting? Hopefully the little time off would make you see it in a whole new light, instead of being obsessed over how perfect it is. It's kind of like dating, actually.  Cool things down a bit. Take some time off and see if you still miss each other. There's no need to jump into marriage immediately.

c. Get some beta readers. No matter how objective you think you are, you still aren't. It's still your baby. You're still too close to it. You can read between the lines because you know the entire story. You may have missed something because it makes perfect sense in your mind. But does it all translate onto the page? The test isn't what the writer thinks, but what the readers think. At this point, it's about the readers, and you're as far from objective as it can be as a reader. You need fresh eyes. You need someone who is not madly in love with you, or someone who will lie to get you in bed with them, or someone who loves you no matter what... meaning, no Moms or Dads. A good beta readers is one whom the writer can trust, who will give honest, impartial, and objective opinions. Someone who would say, "This doesn't work whether it's written by Stephen King or JK Rowling or you. I just don't buy it." It shouldn't be someone who owes you a favor, or vice versa. It should be someone who enjoys reading a good book, and has no patience for a bad one. It should be someone who would give you "tough love" but you'd still go to dinner with him or her afterwards, because you know he or she is right, is just trying to help and not destroy you.

d. Do another draft/rewrite or two. Yeah, you thought you were done two months ago? Think again. It's not about being anal retentive or self-doubting. These are sanity checks. To go through the manuscript once or twice more with a new perspective is important. It helps you see things more clearly. Read the manuscript aloud. Read it backwards. Anything to distract you from the visuals in your own mind. Keep it real. Keep it fresh, as if you're reading it for the first time, and that you're doing brain surgery on it. Use the feedback your beta readers give you as a guide, but it doesn't mean you have to accept everything they mention. You're still the writer. The final decision is still yours. But it helps to consider EVERYTHING. Do another draft. Proof-read it again. Leave no stones unturned.

The truth is, after you've done all of the above, there would still be errors and mistakes. Nobody is perfect... or else editors and publishers would have nothing to do. But at this point, you should have a manuscript that has gone through bootcamp and intensive training. You've given it the attention it deserves. It's ready to fly.

But now you'll have to write that damn query letter. Oh dear...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Simple Writing

A great writer makes simple look elegant.

A good writer makes simple look efficient.

A bad writer makes simple look ugly.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Questions I Will Not Answer Anymore...

It's not like I'm famous or very talented or anything, but once in a while other writers do ask me questions, because I've been there, done that. I also frequent a writers' board; I believe in paying it forward. I've learned so much since I started my journey as a writer about ten years ago. I think it would be nice to share some of my experiences and what I learned.

But there are questions I won't answer anymore. Not that I think people are stupid. Hey, I've been there; I've asked stupid questions, too. It's just that when something is asked constantly, and when that something could be easily answered by simply reading a lot... it just shows me that the people who ask these questions either don't pay attention, or they're too lazy to look the answers up themselves. They want to be spoon-fed. They want someone to do the work for them. Worse, they don't read. I'm sorry, if you want to be a writer, you've got to read. It'd be like trying to be a chef when you don't eat. Or trying to be a social worker when you hate people. It's part of the trade. If you want to write, you need to read. And if you read, you'd know the answers to these questions.

Here are some of the most annoyingly frequent questions:

- How long should a chapter/sentence/paragraph be?
Really? I know it's a cliche, but it really is like asking, "How long is a string?"  It is as long as it needs to be. Read a book or two, and you'd see that a chapter, etc. could be pages long, or just one word.  It all depends. You're the writer. You know what  you're trying to express. You should know. Don't ask others what you should do.

- How do you punctuate dialogue?
Really? Seriously? Do you ever read fiction?  Quick, pick a novel up. Any one. The one closest to you. On the shelf. On the desk. On the floor. It doesn't matter. Open it up to any page. Is there dialogue? Now read it. How is it punctuated?  Now pick up another book. Repeat. Do you see a pattern? Now, if you don't have any books in your house, then you have a bigger problem than "not knowing how to punctuate dialogue." Start with the basic: READ!

- How long does it take for you to write a novel? Do you write in the morning? Do you write in the evening? How many hours do you devote to writing? How often do you write?....
Seriously, none of your business. My process is mine. You should have your own. My work schedule and process have nothing to do with you. Stop being nosy and just write. I know, I sound harsh here... maybe you're just trying to see what works for me so you can try it. The truth is, it doesn't matter what works for me. You have to try and find out what works for YOU. We all have to do the work and figure it out on our own. No exceptions. No shortcuts.

- Do you outline?
See above.

- ... yeah but...
You can tell if a writer already has an agenda when he or she asks a question. They don't want an honest answer. They want a confirmation. They're already stuck on a concept, an idea, or some kind of conviction. They only ask the question so you can tell them, "You're right!" And when you disagree, here comes the "yeah, but..." That's why I keep my mouth shut and slowly back out of the conversation. Yanno, you don't have to agree. You don't even have to listen. But don't yeah-but me.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Plot Holes

Those nasty things. They are rather like potholes -- irritating things that won't necessarily prevent you from getting where you want to go, but they annoy the hell out of you and seriously impede your ability to enjoy the story.

Small potholes are fine; often you don't even notice them.

The big ones, however, are awful.

In fiction terms, you're allowed only one major plot hole per novel, if you even have one.

Smaller ones are often ignored or undetected.

And the more fancy and out of this world your story is, the more your readers would suspend their disbelief and accept more plot holes. But even they have limits. Men who could get pregnant and deliver babies may work in science fiction, but you still have to explain that enough to make it plausible. Then you'd need to add all the complications (for example, men are not going to be able to give birth naturally, no matter what science says).

Take a classic movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example.  I love that movie, and it's a rollicking good time. Much of it makes sense, in the context of its fantasy. After all, we're talking about the Ark of the Covenant and the power of God. Still, if you must, you have find plenty of plot holes or illogicalities:

- Indiana Jones is a professor, but it doesn't seem like he teaches much. He was shown to teach one class, but then suddenly he's on a globe-trotting trip to find the ark
- Why does everyone call him Indy if his real name is Henry Jones Jr.? At least his employer would call him by his real name
- Indy hasn't seen Marion for over 10 years and she's hiding in the Himalayas and lo' and behold, he finds her
- They are pushed into a pit down 30 or 40 feet... neither hurt themselves; not even a sprained ankle
- And so many snakes in that pit... what do they eat? I'm sure not every day there is a person being dropped into that pit... are they cannibals? And where did all those skeleton come from?
- Oh right, Indy swims to the submarine (undetected) which is about to go under... and he survives the trip all the way to the island!
- The car chases are great, but let's face it, they are un-effing-believable

And that's just some of the plot holes and inconsistencies. Wait until you see The Temple of Doom.

But, do they matter?

Not to me. That's the thing. The characters and the story are so engaging that I hardly noticed the plot holes. And when I did, I didn't really care, because the movie was so well done.

EXECUTION matters.

I remember a friend of mine read the shooting script of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he thought it was crap. The worst thing he ever read. And I could imagine why. It probably did sound cheesy on paper, like one of those bad B-movies.  But when he saw the movie, he was blown away and thought it was one of the best movies ever.

EXECUTION matters.

You can have the best idea in the world, and if your execution isn't up to par, it'd fall apart.

You can have the worst idea in the world, but if your execution is Spielberg-esque, you may be able to make gold out of dirt.

EXECUTION matters.

What Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates is that given a preposterous story and larger-than-life cliches, it could work, and work beautifully. Everything worked in execution, from the perfect casting (can you even think of anyone else playing Indiana Jones? Didn't Indy and Marion have great chemistry together?) to the location shots and action scenes, and of course the bone-chilling finale. Everything works together, even if the script sounds cheesy and outrageous.

Oh, right, and there is not ONE major plot hole. All the holes I mentioned were minor. Over all, the plot makes sense. Going from point A to point B makes sense.

Spielberg passed the "one major plot hole per story" test.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Everyone Loves Bargains

Or is it Everybody Loves Raymond?

But anyway, if you have a Kindle, or Kindle-capable devices such as iPad or iPhone, you're in luck. My books are now selling at 99 cents each. Yup, including my novel, The Pacific Between.

So buy one now. Buy many. Gift them. :)

Get them here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Combining Story Ideas

Now that I'm done with the current WIP (I'm still tweaking, but I'm getting better at leaving it alone), I need to get the next book going.

I did the NaNo thing in November and got 8000+ words down, but it turns out not the story I want to write. So I'm abandoning it for the time being, and may never come back to it.

However, I currently have two story ideas that I think may work very well together as ONE single book.

The first is kind of a road trip story that I've been thinking about for the last few years. It's also based on a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. But it alone isn't enough for a feature novel.

My second idea is set in Hollywood in the 1940s. It has intrigue, glamor, and larger-than-life characters. Yet again it alone isn't enough for a feature novel.

So my idea now is to combine the two, using the road-trip as a frame story (or the outer story, since it's not really just a frame). I think it may work. But I'm not sure.

Should I go ahead and write it? I'm afraid I'll be 8000 words in and find out it's not something I want to write.  I hate to waste time and words. On the other hand, I probably won't know until I actually start writing.

Decision. Decision.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Twitter Pitch Context

Here it is. It's limited to the first 75 entries. So enter early.