This week I read the opening pages of a terrific story by a new-to-me author. Sadly I can’t offer you a recommendation because the pages were a contest entry. I don’t even know the author’s name yet, though I’ll be checking the contest website when the finalists are announced.
I try to judge at least one writing contest per year—mostly because in the past I’ve received super-useful feedback on my own entries, but also because I learn a lot. It typically takes me four to six hours per entry to read the pages, decide on the scores, and write the comments. Many entries are by writers still in the process of learning the basics, but I’ve never read one totally without merit. The challenge is to identify and acknowledge the writer’s strengths, isolate the areas that require work, and make constructive, actionable suggestions without rewriting. It’s hard to do well but even if the pages aren’t my cup of tea it never feels like a thankless task. Whether or not the entrant appreciates my efforts, I get valuable food for thought and most of my insights are applicable to my own writing.
This contest is the first time ever I finished an entry in under an hour. Almost immediately I started reading for pleasure. Then I sipped my coffee and mentally wrote the rest of the book. After that I got to work, which mainly required a heartfelt but most un-judge-like squee. And then I set to thinking about what had made my reading experience so good.
Last year I decided I wouldn’t buy any more writing craft books until I’d made better use of all the ones I already own and have at best cherry-picked my way through. A couple of months ago I broke my self-imposed rule, and I’m so glad I did.
Dreyer’s English is subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” The author is the Copy Chief of Random House, so he should know a thing or two about cleaning up one’s prose. The wonder and the joy of it is that while some of his book is about The Right Way and The Wrong Way to write, as much again is about ignoring the so-called “rules” and making mindful, intelligent choices to optimize your story and amplify your own voice.
He had me at the introduction: Continue reading
I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week judging contest entries.
We’re talking genre fiction, not literary works. I’ve been judging as a reader. Clean, smooth prose is good, but it should be a delivery vehicle for strong storytelling.
Many of the pages I’ve read have been thrilling. The heroine has a strong, active role – she’s a bodyguard, or a firefighter, or sniper, or a PI, or whatever. The world-building has on the whole been convincing and the writing sound.
So it pains me to say I would not have bought any of the stories I read, nor even bothered to read on if the author had given them to me gratis.
The problem, I think, was that not one of these strong, active heroines had a goal. They had expertise, they were parachuted into action-packed scenes, and they responded as they had been trained to do. They saved themselves, children, cute puppies and even hunky heroes. Things happened to them, and they reacted. Boom! Pow! Continue reading
Do you read contemporary stories set in countries other than the USA? What kind of stories are they? What do you especially like about them?
I have a reason for asking.
I’m just back from a most excellent vacation in the States, including an action-packed weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin with fellow 8 Lady Kay, followed by a few days in picturesque Door County (click here to read Kay’s description of our excursions to the Northern Sky Theater Company).
Before I met up with Kay, I spent an afternoon in Chicago talking all things writing with a developmental editor. Mostly we focused on Alexis, but we also talked about my English/Scottish contemporary romance, which I decided to dust off in time for the next (and final) RWA Golden Heart contest.
The editor gave me the same feedback I heard from a very respected agent a couple of years ago when I tried to shop this book: the writing is strong, but a contemporary British setting, with all British characters, is hard to sell outside the UK. She said that the story offered a kind of insider perspective on life in London and Scotland, which is not what the mainstream American romance reader is conditioned to expect.
In her view, when US readers pick up a foreign-set story, they expect the setting to be either
- glamorously urban; or
- small, close-knit communities where the culture is a large part of the appeal.
How well do your favorite authors use local knowledge to give their stories depth and authenticity? What would you use in a story about your hometown?
We just spent a week on Long Island at a birthday celebration for a friend’s mother. It’s a beautiful place, and we had a fantastic time, but thanks to our friends we also learned a thing or two and avoided some obvious pitfalls.
It got me thinking about how many opportunities there must be for a writer to use setting to distinguish locals from outsiders, and to create location-specific plot points or conflicts.
Based on last week’s discussions, here are some tells that marked us out as Long Island rookies.
Our friends chartered a boat and we went fishing in the bay between South Shore and Fire Island. Everyone else aboard was local, and they’d all been fishing since childhood. I had to be shown everything: how to hold the rod, how to let out the line and reel it in again. I didn’t know I should reel in my line when the captain was ready to move on. I didn’t know the difference between a sea robin and a fluke. I had no idea which fish should be thrown back or which were edible. The crew was friendly and helpful, but openly astonished at my ignorance of the most basic fundamentals.
My friend’s mum said that Fire Island supposedly got its name for the poison ivy that’s ubiquitous over there. Cue reminiscences from the family about how painful a poison ivy allergic reaction can be. Also poison oak. Eek. We don’t have either plant over here, and I have no clue what either one looks like.
We had to be warned that there are deer ticks in the long grass and dunes. They carry Lyme disease, so it’s an important thing to know. I have no idea what a tick looks like. They’re present in the UK, but it’s a relatively new problem for us, and right now seems to be a bigger problem for pets than humans. I have never seen one, nor do I know anyone who has. I have no idea how to check myself for ticks, how to remove one if I should find it, or what a tick bite would look like. Just writing this is making me itch. Continue reading
We all know what sort of man an alpha male is…strong, usually buff, definitely tough, and the one who gives orders, not takes them. He typically gets what he wants when he wants it, and if he’s threatened, he’ll go up against that threat, even if it means getting physical.
The trope of the alpha male is alive and well in many romances these days. But is that what nature intended when she created alpha males? Continue reading
What have you been reading lately? What did you like or dislike? Did you learn anything?
Over the last few weeks I’ve sampled a number of new-to-me authors and had the same problem with several of them. I always read the blurb, Look Inside excerpt and a few sample reviews before buying, so none of my purchases was a disaster. They all had interesting characters, an intriguing premise, and quality writing, but either I didn’t finish them, or I skimmed to the end to see how the author wrapped up the plot.
I gave up on these books because I got overloaded. It seemed clear that all the information stuffed into the opening chapters would be used at some point in the story, but the pacing was lightning-fast and data was thrown at me until I wanted to beg for mercy. I was too busy trying to remember everything to care about the main characters. In the end, the read became too much like hard work and I quit, which was a shame.
In one book, we learned Continue reading
Good writing craft workshops are like London buses—you wait for ages, and then three come along at once. Today I’ll be finishing up my second workshop in as many weeks: the fourth and final day of Robert McKee’s legendary Story. It’s an add-on dedicated to Love Story.
All being well, I’ll report back on my Four Days of McKee next weekend. Today I promised to report on my takeaways from Gollanczfest (click here for my previous post about the event.)
Firstly, and most importantly, I had a fantastic time. I made a note to self that it’s worth attending some kind of writing-related event at least once or twice per year, simply because it’s inspiring and energizing to spend time with other writers.
Last weekend the writers were all about sci-fi and fantasy, so the talk was of worldbuilding, dragons, AI, dystopia and space opera. The discussions around process were entirely familiar, likewise the challenges of plot structure and character building. It felt strange that nobody made much mention of community or relationships. Continue reading
Do you repeat yourself, waffle on, or over-use pet words and phrases? Do your favorite authors?
This week I’ve been cleaning up my WIP, which is due to my editor tomorrow (yikes). I’ve spent way more time than I would have liked down in the weeds, examining individual words.
I know some writers use editing software like AutoCrit to iron out their tics and foibles. I’m tempted to try it some time. For now, my chosen method is to teach myself better writing habits by working systematically through a checklist of problem categories and likely offenders.
Based on this week’s findings, I have work to do.
What recipes or dishes are entrenched deep in the history of your hometown or family or country? Like it or hate it, food that would transport you to a particular place or time before you could say Beam me up, Scotty?
After our adventures in Highgate Cemetery and at Shakespeare’s Globe, last week Kay and I spent a few days visiting Derbyshire. I wanted our trip to be a uniquely English experience, and I think I succeeded. I knew the pretty stone-built towns, gorgeous countryside and historic houses would be a safe bet, but I hadn’t thought about how much of what we eat is particular to our land and culture.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how the judicious use of dialect, slang and cant can add richness and depth to a story world. Now I’m thinking I should pay more attention to my characters’ meals. I’ve given them food that’s appropriate to their time period, but I need to double check whether I missed an opportunity to make their meals local, distinctive or significant in some way.
For example, the Yorkshire Pudding, which Kay sampled for the first time last Sunday at a country pub on the edge of the Chatsworth estate, is history on a plate. Continue reading