Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prewriting Activities (AKA, what to do when you don’t know what to do)

So I’ve been prewriting. A lot. Like every day for the last two weeks. I’m not a hardcore plotter by any means, but I definitely like to have an idea of where a story is going when I get started. For me, nothing is harder on my writing morale than finishing the first draft of a story only to realize I made a critical error right in the beginning and that I have to essentially rewrite the whole darn thing. Not revise, but rewrite, which is exactly as it sounds.

This is why I prewrite. I ask myself the “big questions” about the story. Things like what is the villain’s motivation for his/her villainy? Where is the story headed? What’s the protag’s arc?

Well for my current WIP, I’ve been stuck on one VITAL question for days now. And by stuck, I mean really stuck; the answer just refuses to present itself. So what have I been doing? Sticking with my prewriting activities. Here’s a list of some of them:

1.       Read
2.       Check email, Twitter, Facebook
3.       Write a crappy blog about prewriting
4.       Check email, Twitter, Facebook
5.       Brainstorm with pen and paper
6.       Research stuff on Wikipedia
7.       Check email, Twitter, Facebook
8.       Clean House
9.       Read
10.   Go for a walk/run/ride
11.   Check email, Twitter, Facebook
12.   Visit a bookstore
13.   Rifle through my pile of research books
14.   Brainstorm on paper
15.   Read
16.   Check email, Twitter, Facebook

You get the picture.

Moral of the story? Prewriting is a vital step of the writing process, but it’s not the only step. When you’ve done all these things a hundred times and then some, it’s time to start writing. Sometimes the answers can only be found within the story.

Self-directed Pep Talk over.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Makes a Good Villain Good?

And by good, I mean bad, right?

Honestly, I have no idea what the answer is to this question. I can only offer observations from my own experiences as a story-consumer (and by consumer I mean that I like stories in all forms — novels, TV, movies, video games, etc).

Hitchcock once said, “The stronger the bad guy, the better the film.” But what does he mean by strong? Does he mean scary? Evil? Repulsive? What makes a villain strong?

For me, the measure of a villain isn’t how many people he kills, how many towns he can level, or how depraved his sense of torture is. Rather, the measure is how strong my emotional response is to him/her. The more I hate/fear/loath a villain, the better villain they are.

Given this criteria, I made a list of some of the villains who have provoked a strong emotional response in me. These are the guys I really wanted to get their comeuppance:

Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter
Commodus, Gladiator
Khan, Star Trek
The Joker, The Dark Knight
Hannibal Lector, The Silence of the Lambs
Voldemort, Harry Potter
This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but what I realized after making it, is that my feelings for these characters tend to be either hatred (Umbridge, Commodus, Kahn) or fear (Joker, Lector), and on the rare occasion, both (Voldemort).

Most of my “fear” reaction has to do with the believability of the villain’s evil. The Joker is arguably the best example of this. He is a man of action. He blows up a hospital! He steals a bunch of money and then burns it! Seriously, I believe in this guy’s evil, and all I want is for him to be stopped as quickly as the Batman can.

My “hatred” reaction to a villain is directly connected to how much I care about the protagonist. My utter and complete loathing of Umbridge comes from how much I care about Harry and his world. Not only is she wickedly horrible to Harry, but she’s also makes Hogwarts an unhappy place to be. This is bad, bad, bad. I love Hogwarts. I want to defend it. I’m filled with righteous indignation that such a pompous, toady old lady thinks she can govern the place and make it as vile as her fluffy pink cardigan and kitty-covered office (Deep breath, Mindee. See how much I hate this woman?).

After thinking about all this badness, I’ve come up with 4 essential  ingredients for creating good (bad) villains:
  1. Sympathetic protagonists whose lives/world is worth caring about it.
  2. Clear motivation. The villain should want something or have some kind of goal, one which must be identified to the reader at some point. Evil for evilness sake is boring. All the villains above have clear motivations in the story. Voldemort wants Harry dead, the Joker wants to watch the world burn, Kahn wants revenge, etc. 
  3. Empower your villain. At some point, the villain should have power over the protagonist or their world. Otherwise, they’re not a viable threat.
  4. Activate the villain. Let them use that power over the world you’ve given them. A villain with no real power, or one who doesn’t use it, is only a caricature and a gimmick. Give your readers an undeniable reason to hate and fear the bad guy.
So there you have it, my take on villain awesomeness. But what about you? Who are some of your favorite (reviled) villains?

Happy writing

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Getting a Book Deal Doesn’t Change Everything

Don’t get me wrong, finding an agent and then selling a book does change your life. For sure. How much? I can’t really say. It’s still too early on my path to publication (waiting on my edit letter, in case you were wondering) for me to know.

But what I can say, for me at least, is that it hasn’t done diddly about decreasing anxiety, fear of failure, and overall writerly neurosis. If anything, it made them worse. Yep, that’s right. This might be because the stakes are higher now than ever before, but I’m not entirely sure.

To give you an example, I recently completed the second draft of a YA sci-fi novel (not under contract) and sent it to one of my critique partners. Lori read it and sent me her comments just like she did with The Nightmare Affair. Based on some tweets, I had a pretty good idea that she liked the story, but even still I had to force myself to open the document and face her comments.

Seriously. I really did! Even though I knew she liked it, and I knew that what she had to say would be completely invaluable for my next revision, this terrible, paralyzing dread came over me. One so strong, it took me more than 24 hours to work up the nerve to read through it.

WTF, right?

Of course, I’m now completely over it and am delighted by all the great feedback, but that initial dread was so darn hard it was literally painful. Actually, the entire process of writing the book has been hard. I threatened to quit multiple times, and I barely even liked the story when I finished the first draft. I was afraid of it, afraid of the genre, afraid of it being a complete dud, of discovering the book deal was just a fluke and I’m nothing but a hack, and so on.

Fortunately, I have people like Lori and my sister who make facing that fear worth it by being both supportive and helpful. My sister and brother-in-law read the very first draft of the YA sci-fi, and by following their revision suggestions, I ended up really loving my book by the end of it. After Lori’s feedback, I’m a bit over the moon. (Side note, this of course doesn’t mean the book will be successful in a publishing sense, but let’s not stir the neurotic stew too much right now, okay?).

Moral of the story – find good people to give you the right kind of support. One that is honest, tough, and also encouraging. Oh and then be brave enough to read those comments, process them, and incorporate them. And most importantly of all, just keep writing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Hook Writing Game

First off, big welcome to my new followers *waves*. Glad you’re here. Hope you stick around!

So a week or so ago, I shared my query letter with you guys, but as my agent’s super-awesome, could-not-be–better assistant, Sarah Goldberg pointed out, the query is only the beginning. The sample pages have to be pretty rock-on, too.

This got me thinking about opening hooks. Like what makes them good? And how do you write one?

I have no idea what the answers are to these questions. The best I can offer you is an analysis of some of my favorite hooks as a reader and then tell you about the hook game, aka a writing exercise for honing your hooking skills (say THAT 3 times fast, why don’t you?).


“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This one has two things going for it for me as reader. (1) Voice. This is the voice of a storyteller, the kind that makes you want to lean back on your pillow, close your eyes, and get lost inside this world. (2) Surprise. The fact that the Dursleys are proud to be normal surprises me as reader.  I usually expect the opposite.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Stephen King, The Gunslinger

This one is easy. It’s got conflict, right from the beginning.  It also creates an immediate goal for the reader — I want the gunslinger to catch up. Right away, I’m rooting for the hero.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise

This one has conflict and surprise, but it also sets an immediate mood. It warns me this is going to be dark and difficult. It almost dares me to continue reading.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me—not forever, but periodically.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money

Yowzers. This one hooks me in three ways, voice, mood (funny in this case), and conflict.


So from this little analysis, I’ve identified five ways to a hook a reader, through  voice, surprise, conflict, goal, and mood. And I would argue that most successful stories use all of these techniques some way or another in the opening pages.  

Now, I’m not going to claim even for a minute that I’m an expert on writing hooks. I’m really not, but I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time practicing how to write hooks. And no matter where you’re at in your writing career, practice will always help you improve.

So for practice, I recommend a little game that should be played with a writing partner (for the record, I didn’t make up this game but learned it from another writing colleague who’d learned it from someone else, etc).

Here’s how it works:

1.   For the first week, you and a friend decide on the number of hooks you will write as potential starts to stories over the next week. (When I played the game, my writing partner and I chose 10 lines).
2.   At the end of the week, share the lines with one another.  
3.   For the second week and all that follow, continue to write 10 brand new hooks, but also write 3 opening paragraphs, using any of the hooks written the previous week, no matter who wrote them.

Make sense? So every week after the first one, you’ll come up with 10 new hooks and 3 new paragraphs, all of which, if you’re lucky, might turn into genuine stories. And feel free to lower those numbers if it seems intimidating.

Now the game might sound silly, but it works. It’s both fun and challenging at the same time. Your partner will show you things you’ve never thought of before and vice versa. You’ll inspire and challenge each other.

You’ll find yourself wanting to write an opening hook so good that your partner will be unable to resist writing an opening paragraph from it. And if you play it long enough, you’ll begin trying new types of hooks, ones which employ a voice you’ve never used before or which are so strong, an entire novel might spring out from it.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, my current favorite hook is this one from my fabulous critique partner Lori M. Lee’s current WIP: “Death lived in a high-rise penthouse at the center of the South District.”

Yowzers…you got me there, babe.

So what's your favorite hook? And if you're in a sharing mood, feel free to post some opening lines. I'd love to read them.

As always, good luck and happy writing!