Tuesday, August 31, 2010
There's something about the changing of seasons that seems to herald new beginnings. A new school year begins of course, but other changes occur too, as we shift from summer casualness to a more productive time. Summer heat encourages relaxed days while Fall's cooler days suggest it's time to get back to business, to take inventory of how we spend our time, to clean our houses, and set or complete goals.
In the writers' world, we tend to suddenly realize how close we are to general conference and to the holiday season and vow to finish our WIPs before we become swamped with pre-holiday book signings and events. We remember there are only a few months left to nominate our favorite books for Whitney awards.
Fall also brings frenzied political posturing before the November elections. There's a lot at stake, so let's get involved early and make certain we're prepared to be informed voters who actually vote.
It won't be long now until we see the turning of colors on the trees and shrubs (the few leaves left after the hail chewed most of them to shreds), gardens will produce their last ears of corn, the zuchinni will be gone, and we'll be marvelling at the beauty of the last roses of the year. It's hard to say farewell to fresh peaches, fat watermelon, sun-ripened tomatos, and the bounties of another summer, but Fall brings its pleasures too and that is my challenge for September's first Wish List contest. What will you miss most about summer and what is your favorite Fall thing? If you list one book (or more) you've nominated for a Whitney, I'll include your name twice in the next drawing.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Just how important are the mechanical aspects of writing? Most of us have gotten so accustomed to the occasional typo, left out word, or misused word, we automatically read what a sentence should have said and gloss over the electronic errors that are so prevalent in today's communications. However, most of us expect something a little better from books, even though they, too, are victims of our modern dependence on electronic devices. But it is not only copy writing errors that plague large numbers of books, there is a serious shortage of meaningful editing as publishers, especially small, shoe-string publishers, and self-publishing services depend on computers instead of educated, knowledgeable people to prepare manuscripts for publication.
Currently I am reading a novel that makes me want to cry, not because the story is sad, but because it is so poorly presented. There are typos, left out words, and wrong words galore--and this isn't even a self-published book. To be perfectly honest, the characters are great and I can relate to the main characters and feel great sympathy for them. The plot is compelling and fascinating. BUT--and this is a big But--I am struggling to follow the point-of view. Every character's thoughts are revealed and I doubt the author ever heard of the scene/sequel sequence. Paragraphs are thrown in here and there, revealing information only God or the author could possibly know in advance. The book is a technical mess. I can understand the publishers acceptance of the novel on the basis of the plot and characters, but I don't understand why a qualified editor didn't help the author clean up point-of view, sequence, or at least correct misused and misspelled words. I won't mention the title, author, or publisher of the book, but I won't review it either. The saddest thing about this book is that the author has considerable talent for inventing a story, but because of the poor presentation and clumsy structure of the book, he/she will probably receive few royalties and will become discouraged and give up on writing and readers will lose a potentially beloved author.
Anyone who is serious about writing needs to prepare the best manuscript possible. Don't depend on an editor to "fix" it. Most editors are spread too thin, have too heavy a work load, and cannot take the time once allowed for working on a given novel. No matter how much talent someone has in any field, to become the best he or she can be, that person must study and practice. That means for a writer, studying books on grammar, style, and novel structure. There are plenty of books on the market and in public libraries that teach the mechanics of novel writing. And if you didn't pay close enough attention in high school and college English or language courses, there are books that teach grammar and word usage, sentence structure, and parts of speech. Every would-be writer should have a really good dictionary, a big fat unabridged dictionary, not one of those little paperback college editions. A thesaurus is also helpful. The internet can be helpful too. There are all kinds of helpful online resources from dictionaries, style helps, and translations to blogs (such as The Lyons Tale by Annette Lyon) that aids in word and grammar usage and overall writing tips and helps on LDS Publisher. Many published authors and others in the publishing field write regular features on their blogs concerning various aspects of writing. Organizations such as Romance Writers of America, League of Utah Writers, American Night Writers Association, and LDStorymakers are among organizations that offer help to their membership on a regular basis and sponsor conventions and workshops to aid writers. Many colleges and universities also sponsor writing workshops.
In my opinion, the technical side of writing matters a great deal. Is it asking too much to have a great plot, characters I can care about, and a presentation that flows so smoothly it never intrudes on my enjoyment of the story?
Monday, August 16, 2010
Plot versus characters is a little like the old chicken and the egg question. To many readers It's not a matter of which comes first though, but which is more important. For me, plot might just have a little edge, but no matter how great the plot, I never am satisfied with a book peopled by crummy characters.
Plot is vital to me; I've never really enjoyed the kind of novel where the angst-filled protagonist flirts with insanity, struggles with some kind of mental complex, or grapples with depression if that is the main crux of the story. Many literary novels take a character and build an entire book around the character's inner emotional struggle. These same problems are fine character attributes if there's a plot to the story too. Other writers concentrate so heavily on action and plot twists, the characters are the same at the end as the beginning and the reader has no idea who they are. Many readers and writers seem to think a novel should be all action or all inner character development. The best novels in my opinion are those where the characters become real to the reader and grow and learn through the course or events of the story. One of the nicest compliments I ever received was from a reader who said when she finished reading When Tomorrow Comes she felt she should call up George and Jacey and invite them to dinner.
So how do we create characters that feel real? Some writers, including me, take a sheet of paper, put the character's name at the top, then list eye color, hair color, physical details such as height, weight, where and when the person was born, where went to school, employment record, parents, siblings, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and everything else that identifies that person. One romance writer who spoke at a conference I attended said she goes to a doll-maker who makes a doll from her description of her heroine and she keeps the doll on her desk while writing her story. Another says she hunts through magazines and clips out pictures that fit her idea of each character and tacks them to a board by her desk. The important things is a character must be firmly entrenched in the writer's mind if there is to be any hope of the character being real to the reader.
I commented once in a review that an author's heroine didn't feel real and she sent me an angry email telling me how real the character was because she was actually herself. I suspect she read much more into the actual words she wrote than her readers possibly could. Most writers, unless they're writing an autobiography, don't project themselves well into their novels because our characters seem to take on better or worse attributes than we actually possess. In one of my early books I thought I was using myself as a model for a character and wound up seriously wounding my ego as I got letters from several readers saying how much they loved the book, but they disliked that character.
Another conference speaker once advised the audience not to create "stupid heroines." I've always considered that good advice. She also said our heroines need to be strong in their own right and shouldn't have to be rescued by a "man or a miracle." More good advice. On the other hand, I dislike wimpy heroes who can't get anything right either.
It's possible to have the best characters in the world and still have a poor story. Something has to happen or there's no story. That something needs to place the protagonist or someone he/she cares about in danger, be a changing point in the main character's life, or in some way present a puzzle to be solved. There's a good reason why the major genres appeal to readers. It's because the characters are pitted against a major challenge they must defend against, outwit, or in some way overcome. In a well-written novel the reader identifies with the antagonist and pits her/his own reasoning and skills against the problem, gaining a sense of achievement as the problem is solved whether it's defeating the bad guys, planning a wedding, or moving forward with renewed purpose.
I freely admit I like a book with an intricate plot and strong characters. I read all kinds of books, but I prefer action and a well thought out plots whether the story takes place now or in the historical past. I've read and enjoyed some books in almost every genre, but I quickly become bored with mythical characters, unreal worlds, and magical potions, and the frenzied attempt some writers make to be meaner, bloodier, or more shocking than anyone else. Shock is not a substitute for plot. Whatever genre I pick up I want characters I can like and believe in and a problem with challenging twists and turns.
Okay, I've expressed my feelings about plot and characters, I'd like to know how other writers view these two important components of writing, and more importantly, I'd like to hear from readers about whether you consider plot and characters of equal importance or does one matter more than the other? I'll do two drawings on August 31. One will include only those who make thoughtful comments on this topic and the other will include everyone who comments and those who are followers. Oh, and I think I'll call my contests simply Wish List one or two. That makes this one Wish List Two since it's the second one this month.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
Just a quick roundup of events in my life perhaps, then I'll grab a book and read for an hour or so before going downtown to see my sister. She's doing well and may be able to leave the hospital in about a week--not to go home, but to go to the motel where her husband has been staying for the past three months which is near the hospital should they need to make a quick trip back. Some days she can get out of bed and walk pretty well; others she needs help with everything. She's going through some pretty intense physical therapy right now, but her attitude is great because her last bone marrow test showed no sign of the leukemia. Now she just needs to heal from the cure.
We got a surprise yesterday. My sister-in-law called to say their new grandson had been born. He arrived a bit too early and too fast and was having problems so he was being air-lifted from Pocatello to Primary here in Salt Lake. We met family at the hospital and were glad to see them, but regretted the circumstances that brought them down here. The baby seems to be doing well and it is reassuring to have him at Primary. They let me go into the NICU to see him, and as little as he is and with lines running from his mouth, nose, and feet, he's still a beautiful baby.
We attended the international Brough Family reunion over the weekend too. It's certainly intersting to meet cousins from four different countries and a dozen different states. It's a good thing our family organization has published a book with our geneology because I'll never remember all of my living relatives, leave alone those we've discovered dating back about seven centuries. We have the distinction of being the largest family organization on record.
And just so you'll know, I've started separating my long historical novel which I had hoped would come out this year into two books. This book started out as Diamond in my
Bracelet series, then when the series was cut short and I took the diamond out of it, I turned it into an epic western historical. Too much material, too long time span, so my publisher asked me to rework it again and make two books out of it.
Now off to do a little reading!
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
I don't get it. I never have. What is the motivation behind petty, mean actions? Sure I understand theft, revenge, and a host of other crimes, but why does anyone do petty, mean things from which they gain nothing, aren't around to gloat over the victim's reaction, and prove nothing but their own moronic mentality?
Several people I know have had their Facebook accounts hacked and an insulting message has gone out to their friends, including young children, along with a link. The message is stupid and the link usually turns out to be a pornographic site. Vandals break out car windows; a nut job fires BB pellets from an overpass, beer cans are tossed on a church lawn, gravestones are overturned, and when we first moved to our present home we planted a thousand dollars worth of trees in the median strip only to have someone run over all those new trees with a truck, destroying them all. Graffiti is a constant, senseless destruction of property all across our country from which no one gains anything and our beautiful country becomes less beautiful.
This problem extends beyond vandalism. Just take a look at the comment trail on news stories. Those comments are riddled with hateful, mean insults. Bloggers often have to remove comments that are crude, mean-spirited, or outright obscene in their comment trails. Few writers have been spared rude, derogatory, unhelpful comments concerning their work. Honest constructive criticism is not the same thing as mean, hurtful insults.
Politics has raised the art of lies, half truths, and insults to a level that has turned off too many citizens from the political arena and destroyed trust in our government. Mean, negative campaigns often deprive citizens of the best representation and wastes millions of dollars. Time is wasted too as candidates and supporters spend their time smearing each other or refuting the other's claims instead of dealing with real issues.
Almost all countries with some form of democratic government are facing immigration problems at the present time. Instead of working out solutions to real problems such as religious freedom, employment, education, upward economic mobility, drugs, security, etc., many people resort to petty name calling, broad racial generalizations, hateful actions, and a lot of shouting that only serves to divide people and delay solutions.
It's easy to blame easy access to electronic media and its faceless nature for much of today's disregard for manners and the feelings of others, but Facebook and other social networks, comment trails, and other electronic media don't deserve all of the blame. Vandals broke into and trashed homes while the owners were away, rioters burned and looted their own neighborhoods, politicians lied about their opponents, and punks shot up traffic signs long before Blackberries, iphones, and computers made relationships impersonal. Today's electronic gizmos merely make being obnoxious easier.
We can blame society, poor parenting, lack of religious training, too much idle time, unsupervised computer access, or even some kind of genetic defect for the insane urge some people seem to have to hurt or destroy. There are probably mental or emotional reasons why some people have an urge to hurt, destroy, or deface. They may all be valid causes. I don't know. I just know I don't get it.