About My Book

Learn more about my first book, Six Pack: Emergence.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Avoiding Sleepers

Yesterday I attended the November meeting of the Kansas Writers Association, at which the topic, led by author Sara Jenlink, was writing style and how to improve it.

Among the subjects she covered was avoiding sleepers. That means avoiding certain words or forms as much as possible because they tend to not draw readers into your work.

Most authors know to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. That's because the passive voice doesn't draw the reader's attention like the active voice. "He was running from the area" does not command a reader's attention like "he fled the scene."  The writer should not say "she was wide eyed" because "her eyes widened" works better.

Jenlink also discussed the weather report, or what is the real focus of a scene. One shouldn't write that it was hot, but write about a character wiping sweat from his brow or fanning a hand in front of his face.

Other sleepers to avoid are:

* The to + verb combination. To walk, to see, to do. You should not write "she tried to see." Instead, you should write "she strained her gaze."
* "Have to." Unless you are writing dialogue, use a word such as must, essential, or required.
* Limit the usage of verbs ending in -ing. "He started running" can be rewritten as "he quickened his pace" or "he moved faster."
* Avoid ending a sentence with an -ly word, also known as an adverb. That's not just about Tom Swifties, but describing action. Figure out how to show the meaning or action.
* "Got to." Avoid the word "got" as much as possible, except in dialogue.
* "Seems." Either replace the word, use an active word or add a passage to establish when something is vague.
* Avoid starting a sentence with "this is" or "there was" or "these are." Rewrite the sentence and focus on the object. Not effective: This is the car I like to drive. More effective: I like my Chevrolet.
* Don't use "start" or "begin" to describe an action. Get to the action. Do not write "it started to rain" when "raindrops fell" works better.
* Limit prepositional phrases. If you have already described where and when, you need not repeat that.
* "The problem" sentence. Your character, in dialogue, might say "the problem is that we have no money." But if you're describing first-person point of view, write "we had no money" or "we were broke" or you might get creative and write "we stared at our empty wallets."
* Don't start a sentence with a question word such as "what" or "how." Get to the main noun and verb.

You may find you can't eliminate in sleepers -- even the best writers occasionally use them. But your objective is to minimize the sleepers outside of dialogue.

Even when writing dialogue, you can cut down the sleepers. Think about how most people talk -- for example, they don't use the passive voice all the time. On the other hand, "it seems to me" is a phrase people will likely use in conversation, and so is "we have to go." Your dialogue should reflect how your characters talk, so while reducing sleepers may help, you shouldn't do it if it isn't in line with the way your character speaks.

Your narration, however, needs to keep your reader's attention. Sleepers will reduce your story's readability. If you want readers focused on your narrator, make sure your writing style keeps them that way.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Mockingjay Works Better As A Two-Part Film

In just a couple of weeks, Mockingjay Part Two will hit the theaters and conclude The Hunger Games series on film. io9.com has an interview with producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence about how splitting the adaptation of the third book into two movies allowed them more freedom.

Naturally, the comments section followed with multiple people saying that the only reason it got split into two films was so the studios could make more money. Never mind that's the opening line of the io9 article and it's the Captain Obvious statement to end all such statements. So that begs the question: Why couldn't they just do a three-hour movie to get more stuff in from the book?

What, you think every single arc that needs to be completed and characters whose relationship with Katniss Everdeen needs fleshing out could be accomplished just by adding 35 minutes? Oh wait, did everyone forget that the first two Hunger Games film clock in at nearly two-and-a-half hours each? And they had to cut plenty of stuff out, too.

Of course, one can argue (and I would agree) that much of the stuff that got cut out of the first two films wasn't important to include in the films. The entire arc with Madge Undersee and how she was related to the Mockingjay pin was eliminated. Additional background on Katniss' relationship with Prim (most notably the goat story) is gone. The Avoxes are reduced to the background. We never see Gale's family or Peeta's family. Katniss' prep team gets just a couple of cameo appearances in the second film. The District 8 refugees who tried to locate District 13 are never mentioned. Heck, the entire arc that closes the first book, about how the Capitol is mad at Katniss for showing up their spectacle, is reduced to a few quick "let me sum up" scenes in the first film.

Even with all that material reduced or scrapped, the first two films still ran nearly two-and-a-half hours each. So how could one honestly think everything that gets wrapped up in the third book could get addressed in one three-hour film? Wasn't one of the complaints about Mockingjay that the third book seemed rushed, lacked suspense and didn't neatly tie up every loose end? Doesn't it sound like keeping the film adaptation to one three-hour ride cause the same problems?

Hey, I'm aware of how Hollywood operates with these final installments ever since the final Harry Potter film was split into two parts. But setting that aside, there are several good reasons for why Mockingjay's film adaptation works better as a two-parter and, in some ways, improves upon the book.

A warning: Spoilers follow, so don't keep reading if you haven't read Mockingjay.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Flexibility A Key To Good Writing

The talk among writers during November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in which writers are tasked with writing a full-length novel during the month of November. I didn't get into it this year because I'm still trying to perfect my first work.

It's been interesting to see how this journey has unfolded. It started with me going at this on my own, then sharing my work with an old friend, who was gracious to go through it and give me some advice. Then came research on what I could do to make my work better, which led to the second draft. Then I read books about writing and publishing advice and that's when I learned about how getting involved with a writer's group would help.

So that led to a third draft which I brought to the groups to review and got a lot of suggestions on what I could do to make it better. That led to a fourth draft, in which I got additional suggestions, and a fifth draft, which I sent out to a couple of beta readers. And now the book is in the sixth draft and I'm hoping to get to another writer's group so they can see my work. With any luck, the book will hit the stage in which it just needs a polish and I can roll with it.

Meanwhile, I've got ideas for the next part of the trilogy and where I want to go with it. As the next parts take shape, I've envisioned different things about where the story should go, which characters introduced take on important roles and which ones need to fade more into the background. At least one character I thought would take on a major role is turning more into a background character because there wasn't any way I could give him a more expansive role in the story. He has a little importance, but not as much as others do.

The lesson I learned is about flexibility when planning something out for the long term, and that sometimes what you think is going to work out, doesn't go the way you intended. The best thing you can do is adjust so that your vision works better. The worst thing you can do is cling to something too tightly. You can hold firm on a few things, but you can't hold firm on everything.

It's like life. You may have certain ideas you don't want to lose, certain things you intend to do no matter what, but you find you aren't able to make all those ideas work the way you expected and that some things you really want to do just aren't going to happen. It's not for a lack of trying, it's for realizing that life, like writing, demands flexibility and a willingness to adjust. Stay too rigid and it's far less likely things will work out as you expect.

Yeah, that sounds like advice for all our politicians and lobbyists in Washington, doesn't it?

But I'll get off the political tangent and get back to writing. What I've learned is that when you sit down to write, you have to be prepared to adjust if you want the best possible product. You can do this without losing your vision entirely. And you might find that your vision changes somewhat, taking you places you didn't expect to go.

I'd be interested to hear more from others about what they envisioned for their first novels and what changed along the way. I'm betting few writers had final drafts that fit exactly with what they wanted from the start, that they learned that some things had to change, some things had to be eliminated and some things had to go a different direction, because the characters and world they had demanded it.

As for NaNoWriMo, will I ever do it? Perhaps in the future. This trilogy is taking priority, but once that's out of the way, I have a few other book ideas that might lead to a NaNoWriMo project.

But with those ideas, I expect them to be the same as this one, and with life: You've got to be flexible and learn what needs to change with your thinking.

(A brief update on the book: I'm at 61,823 words in 22 chapters, with three more to finish, and those should come this week. With any luck, I can get back to the writer's group in Pratt so they can see what I've got, and maybe a few others with the Kansas Writers Association will be interested in where things are going.)