Tag Archives: writing advice

Making Alien Languages Alien

Last week I had the privilege of giving a small class as part of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium. The topic was some variation on the title above, and for about an hour’s time I went through just a few of the ways in which a writer could create the feeling of aliens through language (both the one they spoke and the way they managed to utilize ours). While these ideas are still more or less fresh in my head, I thought I’d share a portion of them with you here.

Perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind in your quest to make your aliens sound alien, is that Language (note the capital letter) can be viewed not simply as a set of rules for communicating to one another (that’s what language without the capital letter is for) but rather as the methodology by which we organize reality and determine what is and is not important in our world. Sit with that idea for a moment, really roll it around inside your head. Because if you do, you’ll quickly discover the trick to it all. Namely:

    the key to having your aliens think and act in a truly alien fashion is to tweak their language and change how they understand reality.

I recommend you attack the problem on two fronts. Select a single difference and examine how it alters the way your aliens view the universe (relative to our own organization of it) and by extension how it influences their comprehension of our own view, and the errors in understanding that result. If you’re writing humor, alien language contains everything you need for farce. If you’re writing a more serious tale, you have the seed for interplanetary conflict and annihilation. Fun either way, right?

So, if you only need to change one or two things, where do you start? Well, I’ll give you a couple gross categories (sadly, I don’t have time or space to do more) and a few examples under each of these.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
Let’s start here, because really, once you’ve gone meta, you never go back. Figurative language includes not simply using simile and metaphor (two types which I’m going to assume you already have a passing familiarity with) but other forms of speech including personification, allusion, and puns, to name just three. These are all so commonplace in our language that many of you may not even realize that you’re not speaking literally at all.

Personification effortlessly violates the selection restriction rules of language and so much more. Inanimate objects suddenly possess agency. Abstract concepts acquire base human attributes. But what if your aliens lack this miracle of the nonliteral speech act? Such an alien, presented with a phrase like “opportunity is knocking at your door” would be confused to find no one at the entrance to their space craft and struggle to literally parse these words (and likely go looking for this elusive knocker of doors, who is all the more wondrous if the vessel is in space!).

Likewise, allusion works for native speakers of a language because of common experience, allowing large chunks of knowledge from popular culture to be compacted down into a single word or phrase, evoking more words than a thousand pictures. Alas, none of those words are apt to be contained in the aliens’ literal grammar. While you and I might utilize an allusion like “Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra” to indicate an anticipated success at working with our newly arrived visitors from space, at best they’ll process that reference to mean here are three proper nouns that might as well be X, Y, and Z. Useless.

And don’t get me started on the confusion and error inherent in homophony, ambiguity, and other forms of wordplay that qualify as puns because of multiple interpretations of meaning. You can’t expect your visiting aliens to have mastered all these subtleties, so be wary of the chaos that follows when you unleash even a minor double entendre. The classic example of course involves a book that is less a manual for our enlightenment as a guide to culinary adventure.

FEATURES OF LANGUAGE
Another approach is to take a look at the requirements we have for a system to even qualify as a language. Decades ago, the linguist Charles Hockett put forth a list of likely requirements (mind you, this list was not met with complete agreement by other linguists, but then we can’t get everyone to agree on climate change even as the waters rise around our ankles). It’s a long list but sharing even a few will make the point that any of them can give you a truly alien language; all you have to do is posit that your aliens don’t have that particular feature in their language and don’t see the need for it in ours. Consider just three of them: prevarication, traditional transmission, and displacement.

Prevarication means lying. Languages allow us not only to communicate with one another, but to communicate untruths. A popular conceit for telepathy is that it lacks the ability to prevaricate (though I’ve never really understood why, when self-deception is such a popular thing). Several authors have had a lot of fun with aliens who lack any understanding of lying (C.J. Cherryh’s amazing Faded Sun trilogy immediately comes to mind), and having human beings lie to aliens creates everything from comic scenarios of selling them bridges to propaganda that incites wars. Too easy!

The idea of traditional transmission is just as simple. It refers to the notion that language is passed down from parent to child. That’s all well and good for humans who typically rear children one at a time and have years to teach them about nouns and verbs, but what if your aliens spawn by distributing thousands of fertilized eggs and moving on, leaving their potential young to be born and fend for themselves (and presumably acquire language). What does this do to their world view, or their appreciation of ours?

And last of the three I have time to share here, displacement, is the ability to speak of things that are not in front of you. It allows you to invoke referents that are not at hand. Displacement is what lets us get beyond the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But what if your aliens cannot? What if they require the thing in front of them (or at least a symbol standing in for it) to talk about it? How will we manage to speak to the aliens if at its most basic level, their language strikes us as one big game of ‘peekaboo’?

I could go on and on (and maybe in a future post I will) but my point here is a simple one: you don’t need to be Tolkien or Okrand and create an entire language to make your aliens sound alien. You just need to pick one aspect of language — out of the thousands that exist and which we take for granted every day — and turn it on its head or just turn it off. The results will contradict much of what you know about how language is supposed to work, and just like that the aliens will have arrived.


Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS, and Cóyotl awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Follow him at LawrenceMSchoen.com and on Twitter at @klingonguy.

Ten Tiny Tips to Improve your Fiction

      1. Suddenly, the author removed all occurrences of the word “suddenly.” Why?  Because once you have said it, nothing sudden can happen—the reader already knows it’s coming.

 

      2. “Well,” the author ejaculated, “I think fancy dialog tags are cool!” Er. . .dialog tags are meant to indicate who is speaking, and not to call attention to themselves.  “Said” and “asked” disappear into the text for a smoother read.  I’ll let you get away with a few words per manuscript that express something otherwise non-obvious about how the quote is being said, like “whisper” or “murmur.”  Otherwise, use action tags that show us the character as they speak.

 

      3. Eliminate words that slow the text. Like helping verbs, “seems,” “very,” “really,” and anything “beginning to” or “starting to.”  These rarely add anything to our experience of the scene.

 

      4. Use strong action verbs. Usually, we just say avoid be-verbs, which is still good advice. But what we mean is, look for a verb with a clear, direct impression for the reader of what’s actually happening.

 

      5. Don’t jump POV for no reason, especially to say things like “she never noticed the shadow in the corner of the room.” If she didn’t notice it, who did?  Every time this happens, the reader gets tugged in the wrong direction—away from the character.

 

      6. Begin as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks out. This goes for books, stories, scenes, chapters. Readers don’t need nearly as much scene-setting as we often think—and many of them have little patience for it.

 

      7. When you’re in a deep POV, you don’t need phrases like “she felt,” “they saw,” “we heard,” “he thought,” “I knew.” We are already inside the character’s head, this stuff just gets in the way (see point 3).

 

      8. Don’t dismember your characters.  “Her eyes flew around the room.”  Doesn’t that dry them out?  “He lifted up his hoary head.”  (and threw it across the clearing. . .)

 

      9. “Lay” is a transitive verb which requires an object: The hen lay an egg. It laid one yesterday, it has laid one every day this week.  “Lie” is an in-transitive verb:  I lie on the grass.  I lay there yesterday.  I have lain there every day this week.  Yeah, I know, the past tense forms look alike.  You’ll figure it out.

 

        10. And perhaps this is just for the fantasy writers. . . a rider, literal or metaphorical, takes up the reins. A member of the royal family reigns.  No, it’s not just for fantasy– I’ve seen this confused in a few non-fiction articles lately.

Pacing the Novel, Part IV: Building Intensity

Thanks for joining the final installment of my series on pacing the novel.  This column focuses on Intensity:  the weight given to any specific moment in the book.  If all moments have a similar intensity, the pacing feels off.  It might feel too slow if the character getting out of bed, falling in love, driving to school, and slaying a demon are all given a high degree of intensity.  Getting out of bed and commuting are not interesting–they deserve less of our attention (unless she slays a demon with her commuter vehicle) compared to the more significant moments.  On the other hand, it can feel too fast if the demon-slaying is summarized just as swiftly as that car ride.

As you consider where to focus your Intensity in the story, ask, what are the key moments in the story?  For each character?  For the external plot?  Give these the most weight.  They will be moments of personal conflict or drama.  It might be a big fight–it might also be the emotional impact of a significant decision or action.  Think of intensity as the pause at the top of the roller coaster hill. Everything seems more acute–action may be suspended because the reader wants to really experience this key moment, in all of its detail. These are the moments so powerful, so rich, that we want them to last.

In order to showcase those significant moments, cut or summarize smaller moments to decrease their intensity.  Often, authors spend their descriptive and symbolic power on minor actions, irrelevant details or character interactions that don’t turn out to be important.  Readers are aware of this stuff, and, the more time you spend on something in the text, the more important they assume it to be.

So how do we create that intensity?  Use vivid details to focus the attention of the characters and the reader into the scene.  Bring on the sensory input.  Let us taste the blood in the air, sense the fear that rushes the character’s body, or feel the pure delight of the moment their eyes meet.   Even in a battle scene where you want the action to move quickly, you’ll want to bring out a few details that ground the reader in the scene, like those martial arts films where the characters are briefly frozen in time and you can see their potential energy just before it explodes into action.

This is also a great time to pull out your literary training:  symbols, images, themes.  Choose which details, senses and feelings to focus on based on what will resonate for the character and for the plot.

Focus on character.  Give us something more, something deeper about the character and their relationships and reactions.  Significant moments need to have an impact within the book in order to affect the reader–but be careful about going overboard with character emotions.  A character who seems emotionally overwrought can easily distance your readers. Instead, aim for a restraint in the language of emotion, while instead revealing the character’s state of mind through their actions, reactions and dialog.  In particular, don’t try to create intensity simply by adding lots of direct thoughts and inner monologue.  This can make a character seem self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

Think about the Emma Thompson character in “Sense and Sensibility.”  She seems very reserved, almost cold throughout, but we get hints of the depth of her true feelings, and when she finally cries at the end, the moment has a huge impact.

To increase intensity, dramatize the stakes:  show us why we should care, give us characters worth rooting for, and a relationship to invest in. Why is he right for her?  Why is she right for him?  Use moments where you reveal character depth to draw the reader in even further.

The taste for the balance between movement and intensity changes over time—also varies by genre and by subgenre.  Thrillers tend to be highly scene-focused, with a minimum of sequels where the character process what happens–they will build intensity around moments of discovery or action rather than those of recovery or re-action.  Romance is often the opposite.  Romances are highly sequel-focused, showing character by allowing the protagonists more time to process what just happened and worry about what might happen next.  They build intensity around moments of emotional significance, even if the external action is relatively minor–the touch of a hand could be a key moment in the relationship.

Finally, there are mechanical issues of managing the pace.   Short sentences are often used to convey action and a high level of movement in the work, but long, flowing passages can also carry the reader swiftly through.  Whether you are building intensity or movement, avoid be-verbs or helping verbs that can suck the life out of a scene. Instead, focus on active verbs and specific, concrete nouns that will take the reader on exactly the ride you have in mind–and reveal the richness of your narrative at the same time.

Happy plotting!

Pacing the Novel, Part III: Plotting for Pace

Movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader) is one of the two key aspects I introduced in part one of this series.  In this article, we’ll look a little deeper at how to get the plot in motion and maintain a fast pace.

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

One of the keys to pacing is the plot turn, a moment when the plot changes direction.  Plot turns come in many varieties:  action, discovery, revelation, dialog, reversal.  The most exciting books use all of these types of plot turns to keep the pace high.  So one turn might involve a physical fight that the protagonist loses, then they might find a clue in an ancient manuscript, then have a conversation with someone that heightens the tension between characters and shows that the character lied in an earlier dialog. . .and so on.

The greater the variety of turns you use, the more interesting the plot tends to be.  Books that rely too heavily on one type of turn tend to get predictable.  Oh–this is the part where the detective asks more questions and gets more answers.  Or worse:  this is the part where the character suddenly puts together two pieces of information for a surprising revelation!  Again.  And again.

Take note:  it isn’t a plot turn if the new element *does not* change the trajectory of the plot.  So if the character gets new information, but continues to do and believe exactly the same thing, it’s not a turn.  If the character loses that fight, and it does not change their relationships, force a change in tactics, or escalate the conflict, it’s not a turn.  If you read a book where many things seem to happen, but none of them seem to be important, it may be because the events are not changing the plot or the characters.

The interval between plot turns determines the pace of movement in the book.  Some authors are very deliberate about how they manage plot turns in relation to page count to create a page turner–one suspense author recommends a turn every three pages, for instance. If you have too many turns in a quick succession, it can create a whiplash effect where the character, and thus the reader, can’t absorb the information.   This can be a very useful tool for analyzing plot and pacing. Take a look at your scene or chapter breakdown:  where can you identify plot turns?  How far apart are they, and is that rate of movement appropriate for the story you want to tell?

The other big reason that stuff happening doesn’t add up to a great read or a fast pace is that plot is more than just a series of events—the events must be connected.  They must form part of a pattern the reader is invested in and interested in uncovering.  The most infamous example of this is the difference between:

“The king died and then the queen died.”  Things happened.  They are big, important things–and nobody cares.

“The king died and then the queen died for love.”  The same things happen, but now there is a connection between them, a very human connection that raises the reader’s investment.

If the reader can’t see the connections between the events, the pace of your story will feel slow or jerky.  The first, most important question the writer needs to address about any story is “So What?”  The king died, so what?  Why should the reader care about that event? Revealing or suggesting connections between events (often relating to motivations for characters) takes a bunch of events and transforms them into a compelling narrative.

Here are a few specific things you can do to help increase the movement of your narrative:

During your synopsis, pay attention to the verbs—the strength of verbs often shows the rate of movement.  If your verbs are all state-of-being verbs (is, seems, looks) that’s a red flag that the plot isn’t moving–and more to the point, that your characters aren’t moving it–creating the links between events that will drive the story forward.

Another way to increase movement is to create a sense of urgency:  a ticking clock that establishes a timeline; a crucible, a forced relationship like a cruise ship, a pair of handcuffs, or a tense marriage that keeps the characters close and creating friction; increase tension on all levels—whenever possible raise the stakes instead of lowering them.  You can raise the stakes by involving more people (increasing the scale of the conflict) or by making the conflict more personal.

Finally, make sure the timeline for both protagonists and antagonists keep moving.  The antagonist is not just waiting around for your character to go to school to make their next move, but is, in fact, working toward their own goals with equal (or greater–remember, we want to escalate the conflict) determination.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll turn toward the other pillar of pace:  Intensity.  Because even the fastest, best roller coasters have that concentrated moment at the top of the hill where the reader hangs, breathless, before the next plunge.

Pacing the Novel, part 1: Getting up to Speed

The most important thing about your first novel is finishing it.  The only way to learn to write a book, and that *you* are capable of writing a book, is to actually do the job, from beginning through the middle, to the end.  Short story writing can teach you all kinds of useful skills for crafting the elements of fiction:  character, plot, setting, theme. However, novels have their own special set of considerations.

A book that really takes off!

A book that really takes off!

One of the keys to a great novel is pace.  In a short story, pace is often less critical because the focus of the work is clear and direct.  The story pursues a single goal, and does so whole-heartedly, without digressions, diversions or dithering.  In a novel, you have much more latitude for these things.  Especially with a first novel (and even more so with a book of speculative fiction), there is a tendency to be drawn toward two poles:  exploring everything possible about the world, the characters, the situation,  OR making the plot snap along like the proverbial roller-coaster.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to manage the pace of your novel so that it moves at an appropriate speed for your readership and your material.

Wait a minute–an “appropriate speed”?  Isn’t pace all about speed?  Not necessarily.  Pace is about revealing your plot and characters in the most engaging way for your readers. Sometimes, that will mean moving quickly–bounding from one plot turn to the next to keep them on the edge of their seats.  But sometimes it will also mean drawing them so tightly into a moment of character revelation that they are on the verge of tears, fully experiencing a single instant in the fictional realm.

I describe these two poles as movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader), and intensity (the impact of that plot on the reader).  A book which is entirely focused on movement may be described as fast-paced, but is likely to leave the reader unmoved–yes, lots of things happened, but the reader didn’t get involved in the characters and their problems enough to care.  A book which is entirely focused on intensity may devolve into chapters of navel-gazing and inner monologue, but leave the reader with the sense that nothing is happening and that they are wasting their time.

The balance between movement and intensity is partially determined by the genre in which you write.  Thrillers are known for their fast movement.  Romances and literary fiction often lean toward greater intensity–how the character feels or reacts to what happens is as important (or more so) than the actual events.  This is why the art of pacing is individual to each book.  Even within these genres, individual authors or plots may emphasize a different ratio.  The key for your work is to be able to consider how your book will benefit from careful pace-management.

Over the next segments of this series, I will turn first to general principles of creating movement, then of intensity, then two lists of ways to boost either one to craft the best book you can.  Next up:  the basic building blocks of pace!

A Good Book, Ruined: Reading Like a Writer

I have a couple of writer-friends who cannot critique a manuscript to save their lives, nor can they analyze what they are responding to in a work they admire.  Why?  Because they have not yet learned how to read like a writer.  Instead, they tend to plunge right in and get involved in the story, no matter what (even if the prose is uneven and the work doesn’t hang together).  They often describe this experience as being like watching the movie unfold inside their minds.

In order to hone the craft of writing, it’s important to learn to stop enjoying books. Or perhaps I should say, when to stop merely enjoying the reading experience, and start understanding it, and analyzing why you respond to a work the way that you do.  This will help you improve your own work, deliver better critiques for your writing buddies, and appreciate how the authors you admire craft their prose to best effect.

So, how do you ruin your reading experience?  Don’t worry, I’m here to help.  And I find, ultimately, that reading like a writer provides a different, but no less enjoyable experience.  The goal is to bifurcate your reading brain, so that, as you react to the work, you are also aware of the reasons for that reaction–in essence, you are observing yourself reading.  The approach is similar to techniques used in counseling or meditation, when you make note of your behaviors and responses, so that you can modify them later as needed.

A work of fiction exists on several levels: the one we tend to focus on is the macro level (the story, the characters, the plot overall), but the micro level is where the action really happens (the words, sentences, paragraphs and structures that create the on-going movie of the prose).

In order to understand the macro level of a work, one thing that helps me to break the movie is listening to the audio book, especially while I am engaged in some other activity–driving, house-painting, or what-have-you.  The physical activity means you can’t fully invest in the “reading”, and the fact that you are listening tends to blur the focus on individual scenes or moments, and instead give an overview of the work, the rhythm of scenes and sequels, the structure of the plot.

But when you want to understand what’s really going on, you’ll need to dig deeper–and this is what will also make you a great critique partner.  Reader reaction, especially to character, is often based on small word choices that build into the complete image.  If the wrong word or phrasing choices are made, the impression the reader receives could be completely different from what the author intended.  Placing two ideas close to each other in the text leads the reader to link them, regardless of what the author had in mind.  As the reader in this scenario, you need to be able to articulate what you are responding to in the text, as the writer, you need to act as a sleuth and discover the small details that are triggering your reader’s response.

Sometimes, it can come down to a single word.  The word “sneer” for instance is overwhelmingly negative.  If you intend for a character to be sympathetic, use of that single word could undercut the entire effect.

To hone this kind of close reading, I recommend re-typing passages from published works.  Sit with the book open in front of you, and simply type out what you see.  If you are simply reading the words, you may not pay attention to the sentence structure, word order, or accumulation of detail that creates scene and character.  Typing the words forces you to slow down–to freeze-frame the movie–and look at each comma, each word choice, and think about how they work together.  This can be a great way to learn from the authors you wish you could be.  The idea isn’t to copy them into your own prose, the idea is to understand how they do what they do, and think about how you can better use your own small choices as a result.  Learn from the masters–and also from the not-so-masterful.  If a book isn’t working for you, analyzing *why* it doesn’t work can be just as important.  While re-typing passages, I have found which authors are master of metaphor, and which are making lazy verb choices.

When you return to your own manuscript (or to your friend’s), apply the same kind of macro and micro analysis.  What is the overall effect of the prose?  What small choices add up to create that effect?

Thanks, E. C., for ruining reading for me. . .well, as I said, I find this kind of reading to have its own joys, including the thrill of discovery when you can see the mechanics of the magic–you can be inside the secrets of prose.  And if I do find myself sinking through the words, into the movie, then I know I have found a true master.  What techniques do you use to separate writer’s mind and reader’s?

In the meantime, you’re welcome.

A Writer’s Greatest Tool: Your Pitch Line

Things I Hate (part 107-A):  when I ask a writer what they write at a science fiction convention, and they answer “Science fiction”. That’s the *one thing* I already guessed.

Things I Hate (part 107-B):  when I ask a writer what their book is about, and they answer “about 90,000 words” Because blowing off a potential customer’s question with a joke is so very polite.

Yeah, okay, it makes me cranky.  So what can you, the writer, do to avoid making E.C., and many other potential readers cranky?

Find an answer to these questions!  Fortunately for you, they are usually related.  The first one is typically more general, the second more specific–but in both cases, the more specific you can be, the stronger a response you are likely to get.

I write dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery.  Simple, easy to remember.  This is a positioning statement–sometimes called an author brand–that packs a bunch of information into a compact form.  It gives the genre (fantasy), further placing my work into a sub-genre that people understand and respond to (historical fantasy).  It then includes two details that drill down deeper. It defines what period I write about (medieval–not uncommon in either historical or fantasy fiction), and finally, it delivers the intrigue of what makes my work different from other medieval historical or fantasy novels, it’s about surgery.

Then the conversation really begins.  Very handy in person.  Also handy on my business cards, email tag-lines, convention badge, or 30-second networking intro.  It gets results–including an interview on my local NPR affiliate timed to the release of the first book.

Agents and editors and readers are all looking for something “the same, but different.”  A new work or author who will expand an area they are already interested in, so if you can establish immediately where your work fits in the marketplace (what makes it the same) and also what makes it stand out, you’re on the right path.

Let’s take a look at the second question, “What is your book about?”

A great elevator pitch captures the essence of the work in one or two sentences.  The best advice I’ve found came from super-agent Donald Maass’s book The Career Novelist, which says that, in order to get interested in a book, the first things he needs to know are, who is this about? what’s the setting? and what conflict will the character face?  I boil this down to Person, Place, and Problem.

So, for my novel Elisha Barber:  In fourteenth century England, a barber-surgeon learns diabolical magic to confront an unjust king (but the cost may be more than his soul).

Setting (both place and time), character, conflict.  It also incorporates the genre by implication, and suggests the high stakes of the work.  I’m  not crazy about the verbs, but I think the specific phrases around them help to alleviate their relatively lower impact.

You don’t need to name the character, and I highly recommend that you don’t.  Why?  This is a tight summary, and you don’t want to waste any words.  The name is meaningless to an unfamiliar audience. Instead, use a phrase that reveals more about that person.  A vindictive sorcerer, a drunk astronaut, a rebel unicorn.  You get the idea.

Setting is often one of the keys that sets a book apart from others (hence the frequent pitching of films or re-working of Shakespeare by setting the work in a different place).

Take the first line of The Hobbit.  “In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

But if you wanted to make it a contemporary, you might try, “In a walk-up, in the Bronx, there lived a hobbit.”  It’s already a completely different book.

And conflict, well, conflict is the heart of fiction.  You want tension, worry, you want the reader to get excited about what might happen, and to fear what happens next.  For purposes of your pitch, you want to encapsulate the major conflict that will drive this work.

Aside from appeasing me when we meet at an upcoming convention, there are all kinds of things you can do with your pitch.  you might use it to actually pitch to an editor or agent–even casually.  I often have a line like this at the top of my synopsis or query letter:  a succinct handle for the complete work.  A pitch line can help you to refine the work in your own mind, either before you write it, or before you revise it. What’s the heart of this work?  And how can I focus my effort to revealing that heart more fully in the text?

You can tweet your book.  If you are an indie author, you can use it in those “brief summary” slots on all of the publishing websites, not to mention on bookmarks, business cards and postcards.

If you scout around, you can find some great advice on how to craft your own pitch. I hope this gets you started!  Feel free to pitch me at my next convention (Boskone, anyone?) I am always happy to help refine those magic words that will help you get your foot in the door–and, more importantly, your book in the hand of the right reader.

6 Ways to Stay Motivated to Write

Whew–that was a great NANOWRIMO, wasn’t it?  And now you’re all done writing for a while–time to relax and get caught up on Game of Thrones. . .well, not if you plan to make writing more than a once-a-year binge.  As with diet and exercise, and pretty much all things you want to stick with and get better at, regular practice with writing will make you a better writer. It will give you more material to offer to a wider variety of readers (whether through traditional publishing, indie publishing, or your personal site).  I’ve found that, the more I stay in the zone, the more I want to be there, and the faster I can get back when I have to leave to say. . . go to the day job, feed the pets, or make another PB&J for my next session.

  1.  The easiest thing to do is to maintain a habit. If you’ve been doing NANO, even if you didn’t complete the full 50K, you have established a habit of writing on a regular basis.  Keep doing it!!
  2.  Pick a chunk of time that works for you.  If you’re not already in the habit, find a space to make it easy.  perhaps this is first thing in the morning, when you are fresh.  Get up early and give yourself that half hour to write.  Commit to it!
  3.  Or. . .pick a word count you know you can meet.  250 words a day. That’s only a page–you can do that, easy!  And if you do it every day, you’ll have a book by the end of the year.  But some days, you’ll write more.  Don’t let yourself slack off.
  4.   Find a partner and agree to keep each other focused. Report in on a regular basis via whatever means works best for you. Also check out the #1K1H challenges on Twitter, where writers around the world look for some online buddies to write a thousand words in an hour.  #1K1H at the top of the hour–go!
  5.  Focus on the fun parts.  Sometimes you get to a part of the book that frustrates or disappoints you. Instead of letting that be an excuse to go play video games, think about the next part that will excite you.  Let that cool scene or thrilling twist be the carrot you’re working toward as you write through the tough sections.
  6.  Stuff happens.  You get sick, you lose power, you miss a few days of writing for one reason or another.  Don’t let a day or two, or even a week or a month signal the end of your commitment.  Even if you feel bad about the time you were *not* writing, the only way to get back to it is to sit down with the empty page.  Avoidance doesn’t make it any better.  Take a deep breath and get moving.  Half an hour.  250 words.  You can do this. You know you want to.

5 Mistakes New Writers Don’t Know They’re Making

Hey–it’s NANOWRIMO!  For those of you taking part in the annual National Novel Writers’ Month, you should already be at least 1667 words into your new project. And you probably shouldn’t be browsing the blogs.  But if, like me, you are close to your word goal for the day, and you’re kind of hung up on how to write the next scene, then feel free to browse away.  Otherwise–get back to work.

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I read a lot of manuscripts by new authors, either because they seek me out for blurbs, agent advice, or marketing ideas, or through events like the WorldCon Writers’ Workshop.  I see the same kinds of mistakes over and over, so I’d like to give you a run-down on five of them.

  1.  They don’t know where to begin.  This usually means they start weeks, months, even years before anything actually happens in the story.  Begin as close as possible to the moment when all hell breaks loose.  That’s when it gets exciting–when the character is about to encounter the conflict.

2.  They include too much back-story up front.  This can be a subset of mistake #1, by starting in the pre-history of the story, but often it manifests as the author trying to squeeze all kinds of character commentary or inner monologue in the first few pages.  Let the reader get to know the characters first by seeing them in action, then when they want to know more, give it to them.

3.  They write in summary rather than in scenes.  Scenes include action taking place surrounded by details that bring the reader into a particular moment in space and time.  All five senses, forward momentum, dialog and revelation.  Let the reader be a witness to the scene, not merely an accessory after the fact.

4.  They write scenes that don’t add to the work.  These scenes are often transitional:  scenes where someone has to go somewhere, or wait for something, or listen to a version of something that already happened.  This is what summary is for–when we need to know something happened, but we don’t need any details or investment in the process.  Unless something happens on that long ride through the forest, you can just say, “Four days later, they arrived at the castle.”

5.  They lose track of characters in dialog.  The dialog consists entirely of the quotations, without any sense of characters being present in a place.  Instead, use your dialog tags judiciously to show how characters react to what’s being said, and reveal themselves through small actions, expressions, and interactions with the scene around them.

Hope this helps as you dive into or revise your project–happy writing!