Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: lessons

Blog Mash-up

I’ve been a little swamped lately, but I’m still reading blogs and wanted to pass along a couple of wonderful articles for you to read. Please check them out:

From Kirsten Lamb:

What “Finding Nemo” Can Teach Us About Storytelling

Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story. Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction. Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect.

Check out the rest of the blog here.

From Janice Hardy:

Footloose and Not So Fancy Free: Four Ways to Update an Old (and Familiar) Story:

When the hubby and I watched the new Footloosemovie and we had mixed feelings about it. Part if it was easily because the original 1984 version was a big part of our teen years, but part of it was due to the almost too faithful remake. Nothing felt fresh, even though it was new movie. It took what was already out there and just re-made it. It’s a great example of why a book might not grab an agent’s or editor’s eye.

Check out the rest of the blog here.

From Rebecca Berto:

Three Fiction Writing Tips From Famous Authors:

I love these lists. Do you?

I Googled this topic and loved these results so much that I had to share them with you. The best thing is, you can never read enough advice. I mean, who thinks, “Right I know enough. I can’t get any better at writing”?

Check out the rest of the blog here.

Have you come across any fantastic articles that you’d like to share? If so, please post in the comments below – I’d love to see what’s inspiring you these days.

Book Review: The Girl in the Steel Corset

Every now and then, I will be posting book reviews on my blog. I know this can be challenging, as we all have personal tastes. What rings true for me might be in complete opposition to your own experience. This is 100% okay, and I welcome differing opinions.

That being said, I hope to use these reviews as an opportunity to explore where novels did or did not succeed.  These are the lessons I took, and, with a little luck, they might be helpful in your own work.

The Girl in the Steel Corset, by Kady Cross.

This young adult novel is a steampunk adventure. It has received a lot of praise, sales, and even an award or two. It has a sexy cover, its title evokes the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the premise is pretty neat. I was excited to give it a read.

From the back-cover blurb:

“When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch…

Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits: Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.

Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help – and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.

But the Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on – even if it seems no one believes her.”

The novel is published by Harlequin Teen, and I will acknowledge that I am not the target demographic. That’s okay. Good stories can have universal appeal, but sometimes they target a specific group of people. That being said, we should be able to appreciate aspects of the story – characters, plot, atmosphere – regardless of the genre.

A cursory scan of the reviews on-line suggested that a number of readers have thoroughly enjoyed this book, so I acknowledge I may be in the minority in my opinion. But the story didn’t sit as well with me. I’d like to explore the reasons why as an opportunity to learn.

I struggled with the plot. I felt like I was never given a real sense of the antagonist. Right from the get-go, we’re given the impression that perhaps it’s one guy. But after a single scene, he is all but forgotten. We’re given a hint that this other fellow named The Machinist might be the antagonist, but he seems so much on the periphery that it is hard to believe he’s truly important to the story. At the half-way point of the book, I was still at a loss for a clear antagonist, and that’s problematic.

The lesson: It is important to establish the stakes of the antagonist as early as possible. We need someone to be worried about – someone that will pose a threat to the survival and well-being of the protagonists, the characters we’re going to root for. If the protagonists aren’t in jeopardy, how can we become thoroughly invested in the story?

Some novels manage to accomplish a subtle antagonist – someone who doesn’t clearly jump out as “the bad guy.” And please note, an antagonist doesn’t need to be “the bad guy.” They simply need to provide the conflict – the challenge – to the success of the protagonist. And without strong, clear conflict, it becomes difficult to invest.

The story had multiple points-of-view. I found this problematic. The story starts off by introducing us to the protagonist, Finley. But after one scene, we jump into another point of view. And then another. I never really got a true enough sense of the characters to care about them long enough to give their perspective up, and this proved problematic.

The lesson: If we’re going to use multiple point-of-views, it is worth-while to ensure the reader develops an attachment to the character – roots for them, wants them to succeed – before we dive into another. Multiple points-of-view can succeed and be highly effective, but I think it occurs in situations where we’re truly invested in the heart and soul – the ambitions, challenges, and humanity – of the character.

The editing posed a problem. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I felt this book could have used a little more massaging. Several scenes felt clunky. There were run-on-sentences – which I acknowledge can be used to drive tension, to up the ante, as it were – but unfortunately it often came across as grammatically flawed. There were also instances where a simple re-ordering of sentences would have done WONDERS for the scene… and other instances where sentences could have been cut to help drive the story – the action, the plot – forward.

The lesson: Be diligent. Challenge sentences every step of the way. Does it further the story? Does it add to the atmosphere? How about the pace? Editing can be tedious, but 99% of the time it’s what makes your story sing. Janice Hardy has numerous excellent articles on editing, and if you choose to invest the time, it will take your novel to the next level. I highly recommend her blog.

The Girl in the Steel Corset was a fairly easy read. It didn’t bore me to tears, and I managed to move through it fairly quickly. I’d actually love to see the film version of this book, and I hope that we’re given the opportunity. For the book, however, I simply felt that with a few little tweaks, it could have gone from an acceptable story to an incredible story.

I encourage you to see for yourself.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with any of my observations? Please share your opinions in the comments below – I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Make Your Writing Groggy – How Spirits Can Add Characterization

I am a bit of a geek. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and one of the things I like to “geek out” on is random (some would argue useless) information. There I’ll be, having a perfectly normal conversation…

Friend: “How goes today?”
Me: “Not bad, and you?”
Friend: “Ahh, I’m feeling a tad bit groggy.”

…and my brain suddenly gets hijacked. Where does the expression “groggy” come from? What’s it all about? What does “groggy” really mean?

And I’ll spend the next twenty minutes futzing around online in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Today, I wanted to share a brief history of GROG. Why? Because it’s neat, and neat stuff rocks.

I spent five years working in the liquor industry, so I’ve got a little bit of knowledge when it comes to spirits. I tend to include spirits in my writing, and I find the inclusion of “adult beverages “can inject a lot into a story.

Three characters walk into a bar.

  • Susette orders a light, fruity white wine.
  • Benson orders an 18-year old oak-cask whisky.
  • Charles orders an ounce of over-proof spirits.

When we read this, our brains conjure up an idea of what these characters are like and what sort of personality they might have. We also get a sense of age, socio-economical status, and perhaps even temperament. Immediately, conclusions are drawn. We’re left with an impression.

It’s a great, simple tool to help flesh out a characterization without overloading the reader with “telling” descriptors. And if you want to add comedy to the mix, you simply go against stereotype. You have the big, battle-hardened warrior order something that’s counter-intuitive, like strawberry wine. It’s instant comedy gold. (Well, maybe not gold… but you get the point.)

Now back to my groggy friend.

Grog is a type of spirit, and it tends to appear in fantasy novels – especially pirate fantasy, or any fantasy tale where the characters find themselves a-sailin’ on the seas..

Back in the days of yore, when sailors went to sea, they needed to bring fresh water as it wasn’t practical to distill fresh water from the salty seas. Water was stored in wooden barrels, which would develop both algae and bacteria. Over months at sea, that water would get pretty vile, and so beer or wine was added in an attempt to make it more palatable. But that involves transporting even more barrels of liquid, and after many months aboard a ship, the risk of spoilage would increase. And since sailors were issued a daily ration of beer, the amount of storage space required to transport the casks – water, beer, wine, brandy, etc. – caused a serious cargo problem.

Rum eventually replace beer and wine/brandy as the drink of choice upon the sea, but it was given to the sailor straight – and as a spirit with a high alcohol content, it caused some undesirable behaviors.  Some sailors would hoard their rations and then go on a bender, resulting in illness – “I’m feeling groggy” – and a severe lack of discipline. And likely a song or two sung off key. But that’s beside the point.

The decision was made to dilute the rum with water, as the final mixture had a shorter shelf-life than the rum alone. This solved the undesirable behavior, and thus became the standard practice. And if you’re curious, the ratio of water to rum was generally 4:1.

Seeing as the stored water wasn’t very tasty, a little bit of citrus – lemon or lime juice, typically – was added. So now we’ve got a tasty blend of foul water, rum, with a dash of citrus… and a ship full of satisfied – and lightly buzzed – sailors. As an added bonus: no more scurvy! And so, grog was officially invented and became common practice until the 1970’s.

And for those who care about etymology, “grog” is said to have taken its name from the nickname of “Old Grog” given to British Admiral Vernon because of his sense of style. It seems Old Vernon enjoyed the stylings of a kind of heavy coat of grogram – a coarse, weather-proof fabric. Vernon was stingy and had mandated the dilution of rum rations with water in 1740, and the term “grog” was used in a derisive way.

Personally, I’m not a fan of grog. I’ve tried it, and I find it tastes too much like Pinesol™. Or at least, it tastes what I imagine Pinesol™ to taste like, as I’ve never tried it. Honestly. Stop judging me. (No, seriously: don’t drink Pinesol™.)

Have you ever used spirits in your writing as a characterization aid? Do you notice it in the books you read? What sort of impression does it give? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Jumping the Gun – 3 Tips for New Writers

One of the biggest mistakes we make as new authors is jumping the gun and querying agents before the manuscript is ready. I wish I wasn’t guilty of this crime. I started querying agents back in September, and my manuscript has since gone through many additional revisions – including a dramatic 30% reduction in word count. I have no regrets, though, for I’ve learned many valuable lessons along the way.

Sometimes, It’s Okay To Be Ignorant

When I first started querying agents, I hadn’t spent enough time learning about how the querying process worked, what a query looked like, and what agents were looking for and why. The result? A 650-word rambling query letter that likely got automated rejections after the first sentence. Despite my blunder, it somehow caught an agent’s eye, and he offered up some wonderful advice and it’s dramatically improved my manuscript. I am incredibly grateful for that.

Some advice:  Do your research. There are incredible resources out there, like Query Shark, The Other Side of the Story, and others where query letters are examined, critiqued, taken a part and put back together again. Take advantage of these resources, apply what you learn, revise, and revisit. Share with friends. Get feedback. Ask for input. Agents are swamped with 100-300 queries per day. They want you to succeed, but it’s up to you to present yourself in the best possible light.

Three versions and 20 revisions later and I think I’ve finally thrown together a decent query letter.

We All Need Space

I am always amazed at the difference a day makes. What you miss on Tuesday, you might catch on Wednesday. It’s important to let your brain rest so you can approach your work with a fresh set of eyes. Even after you’ve read your manuscript 10 times, and have shared it with 3 beta readers, mistakes still pop up.

Some advice: Shelve the project and work on something else. Give it at least two weeks before you crack open the page again. Other tips I’ve found useful are to change the line spacing and font. It’ll trick your brain and you’ll see your work in a new light. Plus, a hard-copy edit is crucial. Our brains are lazy (efficient?) and they’ll fill in the gaps. When we force them to view things in a different way, we catch mistakes we (and others) missed. Apply this technique to your query letter as well as your manuscript.

Publishing Isn’t Going Anywhere

There is no expiration date on our talent, nor is the publishing industry going anywhere. It’s changing, sure, but the world is always going to need good stories. If you want to be published – whether traditional, self, or digitally – know that your reputation and longevity will only benefit from putting forth a quality product.

Some advice: Don’t rush it. Breathe, relax, and take the time the book needs. If it takes 3 more months, it takes 3 more months. And when you think it’s done, give it one more read. Does the story sing? Are there any parts you still doubt? Trust your intuition. Chances are, your intuition is right. Don’t ever assume your gut feelings about potential problems won’t be shared by others. In my experience, it’s the first thing they’ll bring up.

Have you ever jumped the gun and submitted before your work was ready? What lessons did you learn, and how have they changed the way you approach your work and the submission process? Do you have any lessons that you’d like to share?