Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coloring Your World

First of all, let me say how nice it has been to get back to blogging and to hear from so many of my good friends. It’s great to have your friendship and support.

Author and previously agent, Nathan Bransford, had a great post yesterday on choosing between first person and third person. His take was one I’ve never heard worded quite that way.

“The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it's clear to the reader that it's not the whole story. You're getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.”

A biased look. Great angle. You color your story by the bias through which it is viewed. This can be especially effective if your main character’s views will change over time.

My first thought was, “Man, that Bransford dude is one smart guy.” I really enjoy his blog.  Followed closely by, “I wonder what other ways we color our worlds in the stories we write.”

By coloring, I’m referring to what sets apart the way I might present a story from the way you might. At first blush this sounds like I am talking about voice. And voice is one way you can color your story. But it’s more than that. Imagine that you and I come up with exactly the same story idea at exactly the same time. If the story was really unique, we might have a problem. But the truth is that what we would end up with would probably be so different that both books could be published and come across completely differently. You can’t copyright an idea, but you can absolutely copyright the end result.

So what colors the way you write your story and I write mine? One is how you use the language. I recently read two books: I Am Number Four and The Book Thief. The word choices each author makes, the sentence structure, the chapter length, are worlds apart. Consider these two samples.

From I am Number Four

“As is the case with most high schools, there are crowds of kids hanging around outside. They’re divided into their clicks, the jocks and the cheer leaders, the band kids carrying  instruments, the  brains in their glasses with their textbooks and Blackberries, the stoners off to one side, oblivious to everyone else.”

From The Book Thief

“Those first few months were definitely the hardest.

Every night Liesel would nightmare.

Her brother’s face.

Staring at the floor.

She would wake up screaming in her bed, screaming and drowning in the flood of sheets.”

There are so many different things going on here. Literary vs. straight forward. Past tense vs. present. First person vs. a combination of first and third. A teen age narrator from another planet compared to the narrator being Death.

Look at how much slang the first section uses, and how much the author assumes we know about high school. You know a lot about the protagonist just from the assumptions he makes.

Then look at the second passage. Nightmare used as a verb. The sentence fragments. The metaphor. It’s almost like reading poetry.

Some of these choices are made because of the story. Book Thief wouldn’t have been the novel it was if it wasn’t written in a very literary, poetic voice. It creates a certain flavor. Number Four required a more contemporary style.

Another possibility is that the authors chose to write the kinds of books they did, because of the style they felt most comfortable writing in.

Before you start writing the story you want to tell, you need to ask yourself.lots of questions.

What will my setting be? Number Four takes place in a small Ohio town. Thief in Nazi Germany.

What time period? Present? The future? The past?

Who will my characters be and what role will they play? I recently helped a friend with his newest novel. One of the things I pointed out to him was that his characters sounded too much the same. Here are lines of text from my latest work, Zombie Kid. See how much you can tell about them just from the way they talk.

“It wouldn’t take me that long to put on my grandma’s underwear, and she’s got pantyhose you could park a Volkswagen inside.”

and

“It is your amulet. But it’s not a gris-gris. According to the author, the necklace you’re wearing is over a thousand years old. It was created for an African bokor.”

The kind of words your character chooses, the way they view the world and react to it all color your story.

What audience am I writing for? Younger readers will typically want shorter chapters, more action, more obvious humor, and less “dense” paragraphs.

What are the expectations of my genre? If you are writing a YA romance, you are going to spend much more time evaluating members of the opposite sex (Is he cute? Is he weird—in a good or bad way? Is he taken?) than you would in action adventure. The very fact that you comment on whether or not the guy is desirable colors your story in a different than if you don’t notice that.   

Think of your story as a room. If you just start buying furniture and flinging it around, you might end up with a good room. But if you decide in advance what you want the room to look and feel like—its personality if you will—before you start shopping your odds of creating something wonderful are much better.

(This person said, “I want my living room to look like Supercuts!” Actually now that I look closer, maybe it is Supercuts.)

Before you write your story ask yourself lots of questions. Decide what kind of feelings you want your readers to experience. Then work on choosing the right POV, setting, pacing, voice, and writing style that will accomplish your goals.

And have fun! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Misc. Stuff

It’s not raining, snowing, or under 60 degrees, which this year in Utah makes it a great day! It’s been awhile since I’ve given you all an update on things, so here goes:

  • A couple of weeks ago, Jen and I were invited up to have dinner with a truly awesome bunch of writers at Writing Snippets. Yummy food and great company. Afterward, I sat down (I guess I was actually sitting down already, but you know what I mean) and recorded three 30 minute podcasts with them. The first on writing thrillers and the second on self promotion can be heard here. On of my favorite questions they asked me was about networking. I told them I think it’s very important, but for a different reason than you might think. Go listen to it. The wonderful ladies were awesome!
  • Last fall I was able to have dinner with an amazing group of kids. Cassie Cox invited me to join what she called “the best high school in Utah.” These were a group of kids who have overcome so incredible obstacles to be where they are. They had to earn the right to meet with a group of authors by reading our books. It was a really wonderful night. You can read about it here.

    What made it even more wonderful was that I received an e-mail a couple of months ago. This is from a follow up story this spring.

    “After meeting Jeff Scott Savage at the first authors’ dinner, student Erik Silsby wrote an essay about him for a state essay contest. He was inspired to write about

    Savage because he appreciated his genuineness.

    Silsby’s essay won the contest and he’s now competing in a national field with thousands of other high school writers. He was thrilled to meet more authors this spring. “

    That’s Erik talking to Sara Zarr.
    image

    People ask what the best part about writing for kids is. There’s your answer. Congratulations Erik!
  • On the writing front, I am just finishing the second Fourth Nephite novel (written as Jeffrey S Savage.) Hopefully shortly after I turn that in, I will know more about the next Farworld book. No news about Demon Spawn a this point, but I do have a new middle grade novel, Zombie Kid, going on submission this week. 

  • Finally, if you are anywhere in the Utah County area, mark your calendars for Saturday Aug 13th. I will be doing an author event with the following authors at Pioneer Books in Orem. Don’t have all the details yet, but rumor is it will involve games, balloons, face painting, and Dutch oven cobbler.

    Nichole Giles   www.nicholegiles.blogspot.com

              Author of “Sharp Edge of the Knife” and “Mormon Mishaps and Mischief”

     

    Cindy Hogan   http://cindymhogan.blogspot.com

              Author of “Watched”


    Heather Justesen  

    www.heatherjustesen.blogspot.com

              Author of “Blank Slate,” “Rebound,” and “The Ball’s in Her Court”

     

    Tristi Pinkston   www.tristipinkston.com

    Author of The Secret Sisters Mysteries, debuting her latest novel “Hang ‘em High,” book three in the series

     

Friday, June 17, 2011

One Piece of Advice

The other night I was trying to add up all the events I’ve done. Well over 400 school visits, over two hundred book signings, probably about fifty writing classes or conferences. Lots of library visits. It’s been a really fun time.

I get asked lots of questions at these types of events: How do you get your ideas? How do you get published? Have you met other authors? How much money do you make? What’s your favorite book, color, ice-cream, football team?

I think the question I get asked the most though, is “What piece of advice would you give beginning authors?” I’m sure my answer to that question has changed over the years. But for at least the last five years, my answer has always been the same.

Are you ready?

Here it is.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

Not what you were expecting? It’s not the popular advice. People want to hear about query letters. They want to know the one secret to get an agent or a publisher. They want to know about character bibles and villains and dialog and plotting.

Don’t get me wrong. those are all important. Unbelievable dialog pulls your readers out of the story. A good character bible can be key in making sure your protagonist’s growth works for the reader. Understanding how to write a good query letter can mean the difference between getting an agent and not getting one. But before all of that, you have to give yourself permission to screw up.

Think back to when you were first learning to draw. Did you paint a land scape or the Mona Lisa the first time out? Nope. You did stick figures,. Then cows that looked like balloons with toothpicks sticking out of them. (Mine still do, by the way.) Then houses with curly-q smoke coming out of the chimneys.

Wring is a learned process, just like riding a bike or baking a great cake or playing a musical instrument. Of course when you pick up a guitar for the first time, you can barely press the strings against the frets. You don’t stop playing just because you don’t sound like Jimmy Hendrix the first time out. (I know all my readers under twenty are going Jimmy who? Look him up. It’s good for your education.)

But for some reason when you sit down to write, you expect your words to flow just like the last book you read by your favorite author. And when they don’t, you decide you must suck, and you quit writing. Instead, when you sit down to write, give yourself permission to stink. Give yourself permission not to be quite as good as Shakespeare, or Poe, or King, or Meyers, or Rowling, or Riordan, or whoever your favorite author is. Give yourself permission to finish a story even if it’s lame. Or to not finish it and to move on to something else. It’s all good, because the more you practice, the better you will get.

Here are five things to remember when you start to think you can’t write. Print these out and put them right above your desk.

Thing 1--Every single author I’ve ever met, at some point thinks that their current work in progress is crap. Everyone and every book. They just do. What makes them different from everyone else is that they keep writing. If you have a part of your story that isn’t working, stick in a note that says, “Something cool happens here.” Then move on to the part that works. Eventually you will decide what goes there. But do not stop just because it feels like your writing is bad. You can always come back and fix it later.

Thing 2—Did someone tell you they didn’t like what you wrote? Feel like that makes you a bad writer? As of this very moment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has 76 one star reviews on Amazon. Pride and Prejudice has over 10,000 one star reviews on Goodreads—and that poor lady is dead for heaven’s sake! Twilight? Over 50,000 people rated Stephanie Meyers first book worthy of only one star out of five. Here’s a quote from a reader review of the first Percy Jackson book. “Totally disliked it. To me one of the worst books I've ever read.”

So, someone didn’t like your book? Consider yourself in the company of some of the most successful writers in the business and keep writing.

Thing 3—You WILL get better. I promise. The more you write, the better you become. #1 NYT bestselling author, Brandon Sanderson, wrote eight complete—long—novels before trying to publish his first one. A great writer gets better with every book, story, or essay they write.So will you.

Thing 4—When you read a published book, it has typically gone through at very least five complete edits. A story is like a diamond. At first, it’s rough, and bumpy, and kind of ugly. But the more you polish, cut, and shape, the better it becomes. You should never compare your first draft to the final draft of a book you go out and buy. It’s like comparing apples to . . . taxicabs. (Okay, feel free to replace this with your own analogy. What do you want? It’s my first draft.)

Thing 5—And this may be the most inspiring of all. Jeff Savage writes books and gets them published. Trust me, if I can do it, you absolutely, positively can do it.

So right now, I want you to say this out loud. “I hereby, as of this second forward, give myself permission, authority, and complete and total clearance to write unmitigated, uncensored, unimpressive crap.”

Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it freeing to not have the pressure to create something perfect, poignant, and publishable the first time out? And the best thing of all is that once you give yourself that freedom, you’ll discover the most of the stuff you are writing is actually pretty good when you go back and read it.      

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reality Vs. The Illusion of Reality

Hey readers and writers, I know it’s been (quite!) a while since my last post. A combination of the day job flying me all over the country and me writing head-down to make some deadlines got me off track. But I’ve dropped a couple of other projects and hope to focus more exclusively on my own blog. So with that mea culpa out of the way, let’s talk about what makes books appear real to readers and how authors can try to achieve this reality in a way that may seem upside down at first.

Last week I was talking with an author who is writing her first mystery. She’s a good writer, but she was confused by a reader’s comment. The reader told her that having her heroine walk into a dangerous situation (abandoned building, spooky house, etc.) was unbelievable.

 

“I don’t get it,” the author said. “Isn’t that what always happens in scary movies or mystery novels? The protagonist always goes into the spooky house, even if it’s a bad idea. Why doesn’t my chapter work?”

Here’s where we run into an interesting dilemma I call the illusion of reality. As writers, we sometimes have a reader say, “I don’t believe that last scene. It just wasn’t realistic.” Often we become defensive and respond with, “Not only is it realistic, it actually happened to me/my mom/my best friend/the squirrel that keeps stealing my dogs food.” The problem is that what we are hearing and what the reader is really saying are two different things.

Let me try and illustrate this with an example from a different media. Dave Cebrowski, a friend of mine who actually makes a cameo appearance in a couple of my Shandra books, has a recording studio in the basement of his house. One day as we were carpooling to work, he was telling me about creating sound effects for a new video game. Part of the job included recording the sound of a gun being shot.

This would seem like a pretty basic job. get one of those cool water tanks you see in all the CSI TV shows, fire a gun into it, and collect the round for ballistics. Sorry, that was my inner David Caruso coming out. (Not a pretty sight!) What I meant to say was record the sound. Unfortunately that doesn’t work. because when most people hear the recorded sound of gun shot, it doesn’t sound real to them. In order to create a “believable” sound Dave combines things like breaking wood, a melon being smashed, etc. That is he creates a sound people believe is real.

It is true people do dumb stuff all the time. Just watch a few hundred stupid people YouTube clips. Or better yet, don’t and take my word for it. They try to jump over moving cars, they play with poisonous reptiles, and yes, they walk into abandoned warehouses late at night. So what your reader is really saying is not “this couldn’t happen,” but “You didn’t find a way to make me believe this would happen. Especially with a character you want me to like.”

Writers almost always find themselves in a situation where they must get one of their characters to do something that is a bad idea, or at least out of character. Our job is to create enough justification in the mind of the character to keep the reader from being pulled out of the story.

For example, in one of my recent works in progress I needed to get the main character—a eleven year old boy—to go into a swampy woods filled with alligators behind his great aunt’s house. Earlier in the book, he had a scare standing near the woods, and his parents made him promise not to go in. Now anyone who’s done much reading knows that an eleven year old and a creepy woods must come together at some point in the book. It’s like a law of nature or something. But how do we make the reader believe it?

There are lots of different tricks an author can use. Put something in the woods the character really needs. Have something else drive him, or lead him, into the woods, Have him go into the woods as a way or proving something, getting back at someone, etc. These are all motivations. Readers want to believe in the story. You just need to give them a way to. They want the character to go into the woods. What they don’t want is to feel like they are being manipulated by the author. They can’t be made to feel like the character is only going into the woods because you needed them to.

Another great tool is to have the character think exactly what the reader is. Just as the reader is thinking, “You better not go into those woods. It’s too dangerous,” you have your hero think, “I better not go into the woods. It’s too dangerous.” That is believable to the reader and true to your character, because it’s what most people would really do before trying something dangerous. If your character doesn’t at least consider the dangers, you must have a great reason why not.

In the case of the boy in the woods, I combined a note telling him to trust the cat, the cat leading him into the woods, and his anger about not being able to go trick-or-treating with his friends into motivating factors. I also had him hesitate and think better of it before going in and decide he’d back if heard anything at all.

Delayed gratification is another great tool. In real life, things often work right on the first try. In a book that can feel too convenient. In my first Farworld book, Kyja looks into the aptura discerna and sees Marcus for the first time. The key to using this tool is clearing your mind of any angry or unhappy thoughts. At the urging of one of my critique members, I had Kyja get close but fail on the first attempt. It was a great way to get some insight into the character and also made it that much more believable when the tool finally worked for my heroine.

Remember a tool is just a tool. Not every tool works in every situation. Sometimes things can work on the first try and sometimes characters do dumb things because they just aren’t thinking things through. But remember that as long as you are writing fiction your job isn’t to record a gunshot, it’s to produce a sound that everyone will believe is a gunshot.

Good luck and good writing!